Two hours before the New York Knickerbockers were to play the Los Angeles Lakers, Dick Barnett began dressing slowly, meticulously for the four-block walk from his hotel to Madison Square Garden. "Clothes," he said, "must be had in quality, not in quantity. No plain pipe racks, darlin'." He began to sing, "We ain't doin' our Christmas shopping at Robert Hall's this year." When he examined himself in the mirror he seemed pleased. The white shirt had the block initials RB on the left breast, the midnight-blue blazer was freshly pressed and lintless, the French cuffs protruded just the right length and, as always, a silk foulard spilled from the jacket pocket. He put on his leather overcoat with the fluffy gray fur collar and went off to work.
This season, at the age of 29 and after five years as the excellent sixth man for the Syracuse Nationals and Los Angeles Lakers, Dick Barnett has become the first Knick in years with a knack. He is a genuine star, and he is going to have a tremendous influence on the closest divisional races that pro basketball has generated in a long time. At the end of last week he was the fourth leading scorer with a 28.6-point-per-game average, right there behind Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. His team, of course, was fourth, too, right there where they usually are, behind Boston, Cincinnati and Philadelphia in the four-team Eastern Division. But in recent weeks, since they acquired Barnett and Coach Dick McGuire, the Knicks have gained sudden respectability around the league with a running style that is beginning to win games.
New York's In crowd, from Andy Warhol and Joey Heatherton to The Gang at Arthur, has yet to discover Barnett the way Hollywood's Group has fallen for Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, but there already are signs that this kind of pop hero worship is coming. Fans and nonfans alike in the metropolitan area have waited a long time for someone to come along with verve and skill and humor—someone who could transform Madison Square Garden, the Pompeii of sport, into a place of excitement and hope once again. Barnett should be their man. He is a marvelously graceful athlete and, far more important, he has inimitable style, wit and the indefinable magnetism that in the theater is called "star quality."
Since early in November crowds have been gathering at the edge of the Garden court to watch Barnett warm up, to holler salutes of praise, to see in person the name that looks so good in the box scores. Out on the court Barnett is a strange-looking man and, when surrounded by taller players, seems much smaller than his 6 feet 4. When the bright lights hit the sharp angles of his face he looks homely and lonely and cold. The method he uses in warmups is totally different from that of the majority of pro players. He takes the ball and dribbles it to a position, pretending that there is a defender alongside trying to frisk him. He practices fakes with his head and shoulders, and then he goes into his jump shot—the shot that Coach Paul Seymour of the Baltimore Bullets calls "the best in the league."
Barnett's jumper is an intriguing thing to behold, for it seems to attack all the basic laws of basketball, human coordination and aerodynamics. He leaves the floor with the ball cradled in his left hand directly below his ear. As he lets the ball go, he throws both feet violently backward. At the release he resembles a shotputter, but the result is a high trajectory flight with an extremely soft touch. Often when the ball heads toward the basket Barnett tries to steer it home with body English and delicate flicks of his wrists. Altogether it is a compelling performance.
The shot is so accurate and controlled that Barnett can score with it from almost anyplace on court. "Within 18 to 22 feet of the basket," he says, "once it goes up, those other cats can forget it. I work on it for 50 weeks a year, go round and play with anyone anywhere to keep workin' on it." When Barnett's jumper is especially sharp the defender is helpless. Five weeks ago John Barnhill of the St. Louis Hawks held Barnett scoreless in the first half of a game played in Boston, and Hawk Owner Ben Kerner promptly gave Barnhill a $1,000 raise, despite the fact that Dick got 22 points in the second half. Two nights later Barnett scored 36 points against Barnhill.
Barnett came to the Knickerbockers from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Bob Boozer and cash early in the season. There are some, however, who feel that he was destined to come to New York a long time ago. His former teammate on the Lakers, Hot Rod Hundley, remembers a morning in a motel near the airport in Pittsburgh when he first recognized evidence of this. The Lakers had played in Pittsburgh the night before, and Barnett and Hundley, who were roommates, left a message to be called at 6 a.m. in order to catch a flight back to Los Angeles. When the wake-up call came, Barnett bounced out of bed and went into the bathroom as Hundley rolled back for a little more sleep. Moments later Hundley awoke to find Barnett standing in front of a full-length mirror. "He was dressed in spats," Hundley recalls, "and he had on a Chesterfield topcoat, matching tie and vest, a bright-red handkerchief in his pocket. He wore gloves and carried an umbrella and was carefully admiring himself. Finally, he could stand it no longer. 'Go on, go on,' he cried. 'You got it, darlin'. Nothing going to stop you—all the way to Wall Street!' Then he turned and strolled out of the room."
Barnett's play and personality are not only bringing people into the Garden, but also are fetching after-game throngs back to the 49th Street side of the Garden, where many of the Knicks leave by the employees' entrance. These street crowds resemble those that used to gather for Harry Gallatin and Carl Braun during their early years, and Barnett knows how to handle the idolaters.
Small Negro boy: Dick, if I could learn to shoot that jump shot like you I could make it big in the NBA.
Barnett: When you do, darlin', I hope you make more money with it than I do.
Middle-aged man: Dick, I came in tonight from Bayonne over in Jersey just to see you play. I love basketball, Dick. Where was it you went to college?
Barnett: Tennessee State. I was three times Little All-America there—whatever that means.
Bayonne man: How d'ya like bein' in New York?
Barnett: Man, I understand that lately winners get pretty lonesome around here.
Bayonne man: Thanks, Dick!
Barnett: No, no. Thank yoo-oo.
The Syracuse Nationals selected Barnett as their first draft choice back in 1959 after he had led Tennessee State to three national small-college championships. At State (enrollment 5,200) he had averaged nearly 25 points a game during a 36-game winning streak. His ability to dribble behind his back and hit with his weird jump shot helped fill Kean's Little Garden, the school gymnasium, to its 4,500 capacity for every game. During the time Barnett was at State the school began to produce athletes like Wilma Rudolph and the Tiger Belles and Ralph Boston, and within a three-season period it sent five players to the NBA. Barnett was signed by the Nationals for $7,500.
His two years at Syracuse were filled with frustrations for Barnett. When he got there the Nats already had two excellent guards, Larry Costello and Hal Greer. Playing only part time that first season, he scored 12.4 points per game; the next year, again used as the sixth man, he averaged 16.9, seventh among the league's backcourt men.
("Ever been to Syracuse, darlin'?" Barnett asked one afternoon recently, while lying on his hotel bed in a magnificent red lounging robe. "It's out to lunch. As soon as I got there I took a little walk around town to see what it was like. When I found that I could go from one end of the town to the other and back again without ever having to raise my arm for a taxi I said, 'Oh, oh, Dick darlin', forget it.' ")
During the 1961-62 season Barnett jumped the NBA to play for the Cleveland Pipers in the short-lived American Basketball League, and when that folded he was involved in what was then the highest player-for-money transaction in the league's history. The Lakers bought his contract from Danny Biasone, the Syracuse owner, for $35,000, thus giving Biasone a profit of $27,500 on Barnett.
In Los Angeles, Barnett was an immediate hit with the Lakers and their fans. Used again as a sixth man, he still scored 18 points a game on a team that already had the best one-two punch in the pros in Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. That season the Lakers were on their way to setting a Western Division record for victories when West injured his ankle. Barnett took over for him as an occasional starter during the last third of the season. "One of the chief factors in our late-season slump that year," says Laker Coach Fred Schaus, "was not that we couldn't replace Jerry's output, because Dick started to contribute about 25 points a game during the time when West was out. It was because we couldn't replace Barnett. There was no sub able to supply Dick's 15 points a game coming off the bench."
Barnett developed a trademark in Los Angeles that still follows him around. Whenever he popped a jump shot that he felt was sure to go in or saw a teammate take a shot that looked good, he would yell, "Let's go back!" urging the Lakers to fall back on defense. Soon all the Lakers got in the habit of calling this, even at practice. When Baylor told the Laker announcer, Chick Hearn, about it Hearn began to holler over the radio with each of Barnett's jump shots, "Fall back, Baby," and now fans everywhere have taken it up.
Whatever Barnett did in Los Angeles seemed to fascinate the Lakers.
In a game against Cincinnati, Hundley was coaching the team after Schaus had been expelled for arguing with the referees, and the Lakers were two points behind with four seconds to go. Los Angeles had the ball and called time-out. Hundley said to Barnett, "Dick, you're going to take the ball out." Barnett looked at Hundley. "Oh no, man," he protested. "Don't worry," said Hundley, "you're going to get the shot." Everyone anticipated that either Baylor or West would get that last shot, but Hundley's theory was that if both West and Baylor went to one side of the court most of the Cincy players would follow them. Then Rudy LaRusso could set up a pick on Oscar Robertson and hand the ball back to Barnett, cutting by for a layup or an easy 8-footer. LaRusso did set the pick, he gave the ball back to Barnett and, with the way open for a simple drive-in, Barnett suddenly stopped and threw up a 35-footer from near the Laker bench. The ball was still in the air when he turned to Hundley and said, "We're in overtime, darlin'!" It went through the basket, and the Lakers won in overtime.
On the road Barnett became known as the "expert" on cards, particularly poker. He would arrive in a hotel, grab the phone and call up several teammates. The call was always the same. He would riffle a deck of cards into the phone and announce, "Darlin', they are playing the National Anthem." Most of the time he lost, but he always managed to stay in the game until the last card was drawn. When he was reduced to nickels and dimes he would say, "I'm down to children's money, but count me in," and he was always headed for "Tap City." Often he would find his baggage in the lobby already tagged by Laker players, "Richard Barnett, Tap City, U.S.A."
Baylor, generally regarded as the best dresser in the NBA, enjoyed needling the upstart Barnett about his clothes. Once, when Barnett finally broke Baylor in a poker game, he waited for Elgin to enter the team bus. "When Baylor got on," recalls Darrall Imhoff, "Barnett made like a trumpet and blew taps for him."
Part of Barnett's contribution to the happy-go-lucky Laker atmosphere was his "Falcon Flyer," a car that was forever giving him trouble. Leaving the Los Angeles Sports Arena one night, Barnett was quickly surrounded by youngsters begging for his autograph. He finished with them, leaped with a flourish into the Falcon as his fans cheered and, according to West, "the Flyer went about 10 feet, gave one big bark like a dying dog and quit. Right then one of the kids yelled, "Fall back, Baby.' "
West also recalls the night that the horn on the Flyer got stuck, and Barnett woke up and ran outside to stop it. "He beat on it, kicked it and jumped on it," West says, "but it still wouldn't quit, so he finally gave the steering wheel a real rap. The horn stopped, but the windshield fell out."
With the Knicks, Barnett is making "somewhere around $20,000," but he has a promise from General Manager Eddie Donovan that if he performs well his contract will be torn up and a new one drawn. For the last eight weeks he has been the leading scorer in 15 of the Knicks' 22 games, despite playing with a split left hand that required nine stitches to close. "I've got to make some cash here," Barnett said recently. "That sixth man stuff doesn't mean much money. When I was a kid back in Gary, Ind. I lifted crates and pushed carriages of steel in a mill. I carried things and moved heavy stuff and ran lots of errands. I learned one thing, and that is that I didn't want to be a steelworker. I ought to make it here, but I guess it's hard to get a following when you're new in a town as big as this."
The crowds are forming, Dick Darlin'. They may soon be following you all the way down to Wall Street.