Daddy Dearest

As a pro star Rick Barry was a shooter, but with his four basketball-playing sons he usually passes
December 02, 1991

I've told people that if my boys were racehorses, they'd be worth millions," Rick Barry says, his body glistening with perspiration from 45 minutes on an exercise machine. "Great bloodlines. Their grandfather was Bruce Hale, at one time one of the top five basketball players in the world. And at one time I was one of the top players in the world. On breeding alone, you'd have to figure these guys would be pretty decent."

If Barry sounds as if he doesn't know whether to hug his four sons or syndicate them, it is only because he sometimes gets carried away with trying to relive—and perhaps revive—the glories of his own Hall of Fame career through his filial foursome of guards: 6'3" Scooter, who is now playing professionally in Germany; Jon, a 6'5" senior at Georgia Tech; Brent, a 6'6" sophomore at Oregon State; and Drew, a 6'4" freshman who will redshirt this season at Georgia Tech.

Though his whine, once so familiar to NBA referees, has softened somewhat, on a StairMaster, Rick, at 47, still has that lean and hungry look of Cassius. The intensity, however, has shifted to helping his boys to become better basketball players, whether they like it or not. "He gets so involved," says Jon. "I think he's still trying to compete through his sons."

This involvement tends to be fleeting and full of criticism. "He'll ask you after the game if you want to hear his comments," Brent says, "but there's no answer you can give to avoid it." Then Rick is on a plane and gone again, for how long no one can ever be sure. "If I was to see him a lot," says Drew, "it would be a shock. Sometimes I won't see him for three months, or talk to him for a month." Says Brent: "I wish he could set some time aside just to spend with us. If he's here, it's because of his schedule."

Rick was 21 when he married Pam Hale, the daughter of his coach at the University of Miami, where he was the nation's leading scorer and an All-America as a senior. During the 1965—66 season, when Rick was a rookie with the San Francisco Warriors, Pam gave birth to their first child, Richard Francis Barry IV, called Scooter for the way he could cover ground on all fours.

It all seemed so effortless then. In his second pro season, Rick led the NBA in scoring with 35.6 points a game, then became the first NBA star to jump to the fledgling ABA. The Warriors brought a lawsuit that forced him to sit out the 1967-68 season. Jon was born a year later. Brent came along two years after that, and Drew two years later. Pam and Rick later adopted a daughter, Shannon.

Rick held to a system of child rearing that could probably best be characterized as pre-Copernican, which is to say the sons revolved around his world. All four of his sons became ball boys for the Warriors, and it was not uncommon for them to challenge players like Phil Smith or Sonny Parker to one-on-one skirmishes after practice. "That kind of stuff was just part of our everyday life," Brent says.

Jon was barely walking when Rick began taking him to summer basketball camps, where he had Jon put on ball-handling demonstrations by dribbling two balls at a time in front of mortified campers twice his age. Rick often used his sons to help demonstrate proper technique at his camps, performances that must have left a resonant impression of the all-American family at play. In fact, Rick rarely made time to teach the game to his sons. "We never sat down and worked on it together," says Jon. "We really learned the game from our grandfather."

It was as if Rick had used his genetic marker to sketch the outline of an idealized family and left it to the boys to fill in the blanks themselves. "My dad has nothing to do with the kind of player I am," Drew says flatly.

In August 1979, after 14 years of marriage to Pam, Rick walked out of the house one day and did not come back. "He had been traveling and playing basketball all those years," says Scooter, who was 13 when Rick left, "and I think he could see his career was coming to an end and suddenly realized that all the future held for him was being stuck with five kids. His freedom was the most important thing in the world to him, and by leaving he was able to maintain it. But we paid a big price for that. My father's number one priority was his own career, what he was going through."

Rick didn't offer that explanation to his sons until years later, because, he says now, he thought they were too young to understand. "Scooter resented my leaving their mother, and he stayed mad at me for a while, but I don't think he ever stopped loving me," Rick says. "I told him it killed me not to be there to see him grow up." Says Scooter, "I won't forget the times I didn't hear from him more than once or twice a year. I had to act as if I didn't have a father, because basically I didn't."

Rick views the years during which he was a mostly absent father as a period of self-denial, a time of grievous loss for him. His occasional visits almost always coincided with the boys' high school basketball games, and then he would be gone again. "I feel very fortunate to have as good a relationship with my kids as I do," he says. "I may not have been the best husband in the world, but nobody can say I was a bad father."

When you are a 19-year-old whose adolescence was treated as a series of away games, it becomes difficult to swallow that. "I've basically come to the understanding that that time is lost," Brent says. "I'm never going to be 10 years old again, I'm never going to play Little League baseball again, and he can't be there for that now. When I decided to make a commitment to play basketball, my dad wasn't there. Having him take credit for what we do now just isn't right. He wasn't there when we were making the decisions that got us here. That was the tough part to swallow, that the credit was never given directly to us, it was given to the name."

The hardest part of the divorce was that it forced the boys to choose sides—Mom or Dad, shirts or skins—and Jon, who was 12, chose his father. "When you're that age and your father is famous, you tend to feel he can do no wrong," Jon says. "When he left, it really crushed me. I thought when I went to live with him it would be a bed of roses, but it was tough. I had to leave my family, my mom."

Jon moved to Seattle to live with Rick and his second wife, also named Pam, but after two years Rick decided he wanted to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles. "I didn't want to go there," Jon says, "and he and my mother couldn't work it out so I could go back and live with her." So, Jon spent the next year living at the home of the vice-principal of his junior high. By the time he went back to live with his mother the following year, his relationship with Rick had cooled considerably.

In addition to the other responsibilities that fell to Scooter as the oldest, he had to contend with being the first of the sons to play basketball competitively. Rick went to a few games and then chose, once again, to stay away. "I didn't go see Scooter a lot," he says. "It seemed to make him nervous, like it was a burden on him." When Scooter got a basketball scholarship to Kansas and then hardly played for two seasons, Rick thought it would embarrass Scooter if he came to the games. "I'm sure he didn't want me seeing him play only in scrub time," he says. "I'm sure he felt like he was letting me down, which he wasn't."

"To this day my father will say that's why he didn't come to games," Scooter says, "but I was anxious to have him coach me. I think saying that I would be nervous created an excuse for him not to come."

Rick warned all the boys what lay in store for them if they chose to play the game at which he had excelled. "I told Jon when he was still small that if he was going to play basketball, I was always going to be a giant shadow cast across his career," Rick says. "He just looked up at me and said he wasn't worried, he was going to be better than me anyway."

But the better the boys got, the more the shadow lengthened. "It's hard when for every good thing you do, you're getting compared to your dad," Drew says. "Rick Barry is Rick Barry, and Drew Barry is a freshman at Georgia Tech, and you can't compare the two. Every time Jon was playing on TV last year, the announcers would say, 'Kind of looks like Rick in the old days,' stuff like that. It gets repetitive, and it's really irrelevant."

Just as Scooter was never able to fully overcome rumors that tied his Kansas scholarship to cronyism between his father and Larry Brown, the then Jayhawk coach, who had been Rick's teammate in the pros, Jon has had to live with an oft-repeated anecdote of a chance meeting Rick had with Tech coach Bobby Cremins that led to Jon's being offered a scholarship—sight unseen.

Jon had played for a year at University of the Pacific before purposely flunking out. He then went to Paris (Texas) Junior College for two years to regain his eligibility. When he finally got his opportunity in the big time last season, he averaged 15.9 points a game and was impressive enough in all aspects of the game that North Carolina coach Dean Smith called him "the find of the year" in the ACC. "I'm trying to be my own person, to get out of that shadow of being Rick Barry's son," Jon says.

Only one of the brothers seems to find it comfortable in the shadows. "Brent loves the NBA limelight and wants to be famous himself," says Drew. "He's really different than the rest of us. Brent likes being Rick Barry's son. He shoots his free throws underhand like my dad, once wore number 24 like my dad, the wristbands, everything. He's got a horrible attitude. You can't tell him anything. I'm sure he and my dad are the closest."

Perhaps in hope of reducing the level of fraternal scorn, Brent decided to wear number 31 when he was in high school, but it still infuriates his brothers that he has maintained the most visible link possible to the player his father was—the underhand shot Rick used to set the NBA's career record for free throw percentage, .900. "Scooter could do it great, but he didn't want to take the abuse," Rick says. "And Jon and Drew don't want to have anything to do with it."

Brent shot his free throws overhanded until his senior year of high school, when Rick persuaded him to change. The following year his shooting percentage at the line jumped from 69% to 82%. "Brent doing everything just like my father, I know my dad loves it," Jon says. "But I think Brent should have more respect for my mom's feelings."

Rick's first wife remarried four years ago—she's now Pam Connolly—and in most ways has gotten on with her life. But she has never let go of the hurt and the anger she felt when Rick walked out, leaving her alone with five children. She refuses to speak to him and as a rule won't go to the boys' games if Rick is going to be there. "They both came to my last game at Kansas," Scooter says, "and they had to sit on different sides of the arena. You can't just seat them anywhere."

When both his parents showed up at the Sugar Bowl tournament in New Orleans last year, Jon played one of his worst games of the season, shooting three for seven against Tulane. "I was supposed to be concentrating on the game, and instead I was worrying about who I was going out to dinner with after the game," he says. "I don't think that's fair." When Rick left the next day, Jon went 11 for 18 against Villanova and was named to the all-tournament team.

Few things frustrate the boys more than the implication that they are somehow the products of history's second virgin birth, not to mention the first ever by a man. "It makes me mad when everything is about how we're Rick Barry's sons," Drew says. "She deserves the credit. People think my dad's the perfect guy...." His voice trails off. "I don't want to make my father sound like a jerk, but he wasn't the kind of normal father figure you need when you're growing up. My mom's whole thing is that he wasn't around when we were younger, but now that we're playing and getting some attention, suddenly he comes around."

When the Kansas team made it to the Final Four in 1988, Rick told Scooter he wasn't coming to the semifinal game on Friday because he didn't want to make Scooter nervous. Instead he went with Lynn Norenberg, then his girlfriend and now his third wife, to the women's Final Four in Tacoma, Wash., where Norenberg was representing USA Basketball. A friend of Rick's from a sports-equipment company made up an exact replica of Scooter's uniform, and Rick wore it while he and Norenberg watched the game on TV with a large group of people. "He wore the whole thing," she says. "He had on a jock and wristbands and two pairs of socks."

Rick did show up in Kansas City for the Jayhawks' championship game against Oklahoma, Scooter's nerves notwithstanding, and throughout its telecast of the game, CBS cut away to him bouncing around in his seat. "Scooter had to make a big free throw near the end of the game to clinch the championship," says Drew, "and as soon as he made it, they cut to Dad in the stands."

Scooter kicked around in the CBA and the World Basketball League for two years, before finally going to play in Braunschweig, Germany, this season. He is averaging 16 points a game, trying to reach the NBA, a path he feels has been blocked by his father's legacy. "There are a lot of NBA people who didn't like my father," Scooter says. "Maybe he beat them, or maybe they just didn't like him personally, but people don't forget. I'm a product of that anger and frustration." He does not say victim, but he doesn't have to. It hangs from his words by a thin, unspoken filament of meaning, like the unmistakable tail of a Y chromosome.

PHOTOACEY HARPERIn August, Rick (shades) hosted an episode of My Three (of Four) Sons: Jon, Drew and Brent. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHWhen their dad was in the stands, Scooter (above) and Jon often struggled on the floor, because they knew their performances would soon be critiqued. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO[See caption above.] PHOTOFRED KAPLANThat vintage whine was about the only one of Rick's on-court traits not emulated by a dunkin' Brent (right) during a recent visit with his mom. PHOTORICH FRISHMAN[See caption above.]
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