At 15 minutes past midnight last Friday, after 152 days on the inside, Marvin Barnes, 25, walked out of the Adult Correctional Institute at Cranston, R.I., climbed into his lawyer's Rolls-Royce and was driven off to resume his job as a $300,000-a-year forward for the Detroit Pistons. Hardly any event in Barnes' life has been ordinary. His nickname says as much: "Bad News," or, simply, "News."
After spending a few hours with his mother, sister and friends in West Providence, the 6'9", 225-pound Barnes flew to Buffalo, where he rejoined the Pistons for a preseason game against the Braves. It was his first pro basketball game since March 27, when a fractured hand ended his initial—and wholly unfulfilled—season in the NBA after two brilliant years with the ABA Spirits of St. Louis.
Since his days as an All-America at Providence, News has been noted for his cockiness but, like a young Muhammad Ali, he seemed to live up to almost every boast. He has never been known for tact. "News didn't come here to sit on no wood," he announced on joining the Pistons last year. Fresh out of college in 1974 and negotiating with both the Philadelphia 76ers and the Spirits, he proclaimed that he "would rather work in a factory" than sign for less than a million dollars. After he signed with St. Louis for $2.5 million, he showed up at the press conference wearing a construction worker's hard hat.
But around that time, Barnes made a critical and perhaps unwise decision. He pleaded guilty to a two-year-old charge that he had attacked Providence teammate Larry Ketvirtis with a tire iron. The judge gave him three years' probation. Then, on Oct. 9, 1976, a metal detector at Detroit Metropolitan Airport picked up something suspicious in his luggage. It turned out to be an unloaded pistol—a clear violation of probation. On May 16 News began serving a one-year sentence that was shortened to five months, and last Friday he was free again, on parole.
At a press conference in Buffalo, flanked by Pistons General Manager Bob Kauffman and Coach Herb Brown, Barnes was ever so cautious, aware that he would be judged on whatever he said and did. So he said things like, "I paid my debt to society. I want to come out, be a basketball player again, do what's right." Kauffman prompted him to tell of the time he had spent studying while in prison. "Oh, yeah," said Barnes. "I couldn't cut no classes."
But that was not the real Marvin. Not the Marvin who once said, "I sell more newspapers than a lot of people. I helped build the Providence Civic Center." Not the Marvin who once missed a St. Louis team plane to Virginia, chartered one himself, arrived after the game had started and scored 53 points. Not the Marvin who once took 20 playground kids shopping and bought them all $30 sneakers and ice cream. People who know Barnes smile at stories like these, add a few more and say, "That's Marvin."
They would say the same sort of thing whenever Barnes got into trouble, which was often. The first time was during his senior year at Central High School. He was with a group of boys who decided to rob a Providence city bus. Aside from being 6'5" and a local celebrity, Barnes had the bad judgment to be wearing a jacket that had "State Champions" and "Marvin" written in script across the front. "Marvin could always be talked into doing a lot of things," says Jim Adams, his coach in high school and an assistant at Providence. "He never had a mind of his own. That's why he botched the Ketvirtis thing."
The Ketvirtis case was still pending while Barnes was in the process of negotiating his first contract. Barnes had hired and fired a parade of lawyers in the spring of 1974 before he eventually became convinced that a lengthy trial, no matter what its result, would jeopardize his bargaining position. He pleaded guilty and settled with Ketvirtis for $10,000, though he has maintained since that he hit Ketvirtis with his fist and then only in self-defense.
Barnes was not at ease when he rejoined his teammates. A TV crew filmed him as he put on his uniform, and the harsh lights thickened the locker-room tension. "Come on, Pistons, be happy!" shouted a cameraman. Guard Ralph Simpson broke the silence, beginning a mock interview with Forward M. L. Carr.
"Tell me, M. L., have you ever been in jail?"
"No, Ralph, but I think I'll go. It's a great way to get national publicity."
Barnes played 12 minutes against Buffalo, scoring four points. Afterward he seemed a bit more like himself. "Man, I been locked up five months," he said. "Flew all day, press conference this afternoon. Twenty-four hours ago I was in jail. Oh, my goodness, what a difference from jail. Those inmates play rough. We didn't have no indoor court. Plus, the baskets there are 12 feet high almost."
"Twelve feet high?" A teammate did not believe it.
"Well...about 11 feet high. It's a prison yard, you know—what you want?...Surrounded by prison walls...."
He stopped. Looked around. Maybe for the first time in five months he realized just how lucky he was. "It wasn't nothin' like this.... Nothin' like this."
Reporters had more questions: "Will you ever be a player again?" "Will you stay out of trouble now, Marvin?"
News looked like a child who had felt the paddle and was trying as hard as he could to be good. "I'm not sayin' nothin'. I'm not doin' nothin'.... Not for a while.... Then I'm gonna explode."