The waitress, a gnarled Maria Ouspenskaya sort, faithfully delivered Rick Barry his hamburger. It was an hour after practice and 16 hours after Barry and the Golden State Warriors had defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 114-103 in Oakland to even the NBA Western Conference playoffs at two games apiece. Barry, who had scored 26 points and played a brilliant all-round game, was physically and emotionally drained. The two-hour practice had left him feeling no better. He was so hungry that even as unprepossessing a repast as a Hyatt House hamburger was anticipated, one might say, with relish.
But something was wrong. Barry stared at his plate as if it were an NBA official. He has one of the most expressive faces in all of professional sports, but on the basketball court, at least, he pretty well confines himself to three basic facial attitudes—hysterical rage, the studied innocence of a shoplifter departing a jewelry counter and a look best described as the one that comes over a violin teacher hearing his pupil mangle Humoresque for the fifth straight time. The waitress seemed startled by the reaction to her house burger.
"The onions," said violin teacher Barry, fortissimo, "are too thick. I like my onions sliced thinly."
When, moments later, the poor woman returned with thinner slices, Barry remained unmollified.
May 8, 1977
"Someone back there," he said to a companion, "does not know how to slice onions."
Be it slicing onions or hitting the open man, Barry detests mediocrity with an artist's passion. It is a trait, often confused with snobbery, that has made him one of the least understood and least popular of superstar athletes. In fact, he is harder on himself than he is on officials, opponents or teammates. Superlative player that he is, he has yet to satisfy himself. The "perfect game" he seeks as if it were the Grail lies beyond his reach. He accepts with melancholy resignation that it will always escape him.
But Barry has come closer than most to perfection. Like all players of his caliber, he is at his best under pressure—and the current playoffs have been no exception. Twice against the Lakers—in the 115-106 first-game loss and the 109-105 third-game win—he scored 40 points. In the losing fifth game last Friday he scored 28 and played a furious, all-or-nothing defense that had him gambling, sometimes successfully, for steals and interceptions. And in the sixth game, which Golden State won 115-106 to tie the series at 3-all in Oakland on Sunday, he led the Warriors with 27 points, including four baskets at a critical point in the third quarter when the Lakers had closed to just four points.
But to Barry, his best game was the fourth. In 40 minutes he had nine rebounds, seven assists and a steal. Most of the assists came on passes so hard and accurate they seemed not so much thrown as shot. In the opinion of most basketball scholars, Barry is the finest passing forward ever to play the game. But it was not his scoring, passing or rebounding that pleased Barry most about that game. It was his defense. Coach Al Attles assigned him to guard 6'9" Don Ford, a capable rebounder, particularly on the offensive boards. In the previous game, Ford had 14 rebounds, nine on offense. In Game Four, Barry held him to exactly zero offensive rebounds.
"That was the best thing I did all night—keep Ford off the offensive boards," Barry said, setting aside the detestable onions. "But who gives a damn about that? People have this thing about scoring points. I was taught to play the game from a total concept, to be able to do everything reasonably well, some things extraordinarily well. If a guy is simply a great shooter and he has a bad night, he's a liability. If I'm not shooting well, I'll try to be an asset in other ways. So many players are limited in what they can do—and some of them are called superstars. A lot of players don't know what it is to make a pass. It's not that they don't know how; it's just that they're not looking for anybody."
For all of the accusations that he is a prima donna, Barry is among the most unselfish men ever to play his position. Last Nov. 30, against Chicago, he set an NBA record for a forward with 19 assists, and he almost invariably leads his team in that category. Ironically, his selflessness seemed to do the Warriors more harm than good in the early part of the season. Barry would get the ball to his teammates, but they couldn't get it in the basket, and a team that had led the league in regular-season victories in 1975-76 was struggling to play .500 basketball. Attles felt it necessary to ask his star to shoot more.
"Rick was playing the game the way it should be played," he says. "It was textbook basketball. But we were off to a slow start, so I had to talk to him about being too unselfish. We were winning games when he scored more."
Indeed, in the regular-season games in which Barry scored 30 or more points, the Warriors were 13-2. In games in which he scored fewer than 20, they were 13-20. During the season, Barry averaged 21.8 points, 13th in the league, but he was sixth in assists, ninth in steals and second in free-throw percentage. Early in the season he set a record by canning his 60th consecutive free throw and for the fourth season he made better than 90% of his foul shots.
Still, when the Warriors were not winning, it was Barry, the 33-year-old team captain, who bore an unequal portion of the blame. It was said he was not getting along with his teammates, all of whom are black and from five to 10 years younger than he. And, so the story went, he was particularly jealous of the high-scoring third-year guard, Phil Smith, an emerging star rising as Barry's vast skills inevitably faded.
"There is no truth to the story that Phil and Rick don't get along," says Attles. "They have no problems. There is nothing to this business of Rick being jealous of Phil. Rick is not a petty person. This may have gotten started because they have such different styles. Rick goes his own way. Superstars always do. They all think differently. If Rick has a drawback—and it's not really a drawback, it's just Rick—it's that he is not very patient. He can't understand why a guy can't play the game the way he does. That is a fault of all superstars. You may say of these people that they aren't regular guys. Well...they aren't."
"Phil and I have talked about this thing," says Barry. "We laugh about it. I told him that we should really give people something to talk about. I told him that on jump balls in the playoffs, I'd come up and punch him. That ought to satisfy them. But I want to put this stuff to rest once and for all. I'm not really buddy-buddy with anyone on the team except Clifford [Ray]. That's not to say I don't like them. Phil, for example, has shown me an enormous amount in this series. They've been overplaying him, so he hasn't been forcing his shots. He's been moving the ball around. It's the sign of a good team player."
The rumors of dissension may have started earlier in the year when Barry complained that the Warriors were not playing "intelligently." Could this remark be interpreted as a white man looking down on blacks? Nonsense. Barry says that about everyone, including himself. "Look, I'm a perfectionist," he acknowledges. "I know I can never be satisfied."
Barry's deportment on court can be disconcerting. At first glance, he appears to be someone everyone should instantly adore—tall (6'8"), with light brown locks (abetted by a hair weave) and a pleasant, handsome, all-American face. But once the game begins, those expressions of his—anger, disgust, disdain—take over, so that if you are not, by chance, a Warrior fan, you may find yourself despising him by game's end. "The manner in which I play provokes a reaction, either positive or negative," Barry admits. "But I don't want people to hate me."
Among those who seem to have little affection for him are the opponents he has humiliated on the court. When Barry had his finest season two years ago, averaging 30.6 points and leading the Warriors to the championship, he finished fourth in the voting by the players for the league's Most Valuable Player. The slight still rankles him. But what bothers him more is the assumption by the fans that the raging, pouting Rick Barry whom they see on the court is the same person off. The off-court Barry is an intelligent, reflective, considerably more subdued soul. It is the old image and reality game.
"I know that people judge me as a person by what I do on the floor," he says. "But I'm just not the same. No one sees me the other way. When you first get an image, you can never completely change it. I know a lot of players the fans think are wonderful guys who are the biggest jerks you'll ever meet. Off the floor, I'm a pretty easygoing, honest person."
The sort of fellow you'd enjoy inviting home for lunch. But watch how you slice those onions.