Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Misunderstood Majesty of Rick Barry



"...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." 
--Al Attles, former Golden State Warrior head coach and teammate of Rick Barry.
My first exposure to NBA Hall of Fame legend Rick Barry was about 1967.  As a 12-year old boy in the far-away, West Texas desert wasteland of El Paso, Texas, I received a Christmas present from my family. The gift was the sports simulation board game, the Big League Manager (BLM) Pro Basketball Game.  As many sports fanatics born around the same time know, this game was the equally nerdy, primitive pre-cursor to the video games of today as well as computerized sports fantasy leagues.  I became addicted to the board game while playing with my brothers and friends. My addiction to the game included a fascination with my new favorite team:   the San Francisco Warriors (This 1967 team edition was based on the 1965-1966 season).

Up to that time, I had been a fan of Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers team.  I regularly watched the televised NBA Game of the Week which often highlighted the big three:  the Celtics, Lakers and 76ers.  But this crazy board game changed everything.  

Though I was extremely fortunate to have Rick Barry on this team as a rookie, in my mind, the Most Valuable Player of BLM was Guy Rodgers, the Warriors' point guard.  His assist rating was through the roof and was the obvious catalyst for the hot shooting of Rick Barry and Jeff Mullins. My Warriors accumulated assists and points at an astounding rate, often routing such powerhouses as the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers and the 76ers.  Afficionados of the game might be reminded that these players were limited in the amount of time that they could play in each game (which, of course, was correlated to the average amount of time they each played in each real game during the regular season).  I don't remember if I stuck to that limit, especially if I played solitaire.  

Needless to say, as some children did (and, I suspect, others did not) I quickly grew up and left the Big League Manager game behind to gather dust or be ruined by the flash flood waters of the desert thunderstorms in our leaky basement.  Though I continued to be an NBA fan throughout my adult life, I rarely thought much of my 1965-1966 San Francisco Warriors, much less Rick Barry.   However, Mr. Barry continued to star in the real world of the NBA.

Ironically, it wasn't until I began my career as a psychologist and focused on my specialty of sports and performance psychology that Barry began to re-emerge as a major influence.  In fact, it wasn't until I started seriously researching the mindset of a champion that Barry's career looked so impressive and instructive.      

Rick Barry's basketball career is well documented for how disliked he was.  He is as much an NBA legend for how he was shunned and hated as much as for his Hall of Fame accomplishments.  But this article is not about the more well-known aspects of his personality.  This article is about excellence and perhaps that is where Rick Barry's career is most important and interesting.  Despite the scandalous aspects of Barry's career, Rick Barry is what excellence is all about; warts and all.  I leave the scrutiny of the warts to others.  

As most fans and detractors know, Barry is the only player to lead the NBA, ABA and NCAA in scoring. The ABA merged with the NBA in 1976 and now ceases to exist. Among many other accolades, between the two professional leagues, Barry was a 12-time All-Star, nine-time all-league first teamer, and scored more than 25,000 points during his career. Averaging 30.6 points per game, he led the Golden State Warriors to the franchise's only championship, in the 1974-75 NBA season, garnering the Finals MVP award, and has since been named to the list of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all time.

But, what was really behind his success?

A Desire for Greatness

“It’s really upsetting to me, because I love greatness.  I love to watch greatness in anything. And that’s the part that bothers me, coaches are supposed to be able to make people better. By making your player better, you make your team better. And that’s your goal as a coach, to have the best possible team.”

--Rick Barry, discussing his high standards, his view about coaching and many players' inability to take coaching well.

"He was a great artist. A Mozart. A Picasso. A Caruso," said Lou Carnesecca, who coached Barry for two seasons on the New York Nets. "I'd diagram a play, and Rick would instinctively see four or five options that I'd never even imagined. In 35 years of coaching I've never had another guy like that."

In 1965-66, as a rookie, under Coach Alex Hannum in San Francisco, Barry averaged 25.7 points per game, In his second season, Barry took his talents to another level. He averaged 35.6 points and scored 38 in the All-Star Game. 

"His intensity was unbelievable," says Mullins, a guard on that team. "Night after night he was brilliant. No one could stop him. He was a threat to get 50 every time he stepped onto the court." 

The Warriors took a Philadelphia 76ers team that had been voted the best in NBA history (prior to the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan-led dynasty in the 1990s) to six games in the playoff finals before losing, and Barry's 40.8-point average is still the highest in a championship series.

The Price of Perfectionism

"He was such a perfectionist," says Butch Beard, who played with and against Barry. "He wanted the game to be perfect. And when it wasn't, he would jump all over you. He didn't mean it maliciously, but it could be very intimidating."

This persistent pursuit of greatness, excellence and, perhaps, perfection was both a blessing and a curse.

“It has its good qualities,” says Barry, “but it also makes you frustrated sometimes with things. But it probably was a bonus in that I would never be satisfied with what I did, and so that meant I kept working at it to get better, which is a good thing.”

Billy Paultz, a friend and former teammate of Barry’s, told Sports Illustrated in 1983, “If you got to know Rick you’d have realized what a good guy he was. But around the league they thought of him as the most arrogant guy ever. Half the players disliked Rick. The other half hated him.” 

Even Barry once admitted, “I didn't have a lot of tact.” He notes that a part of trying to be the best means being unrelenting and not accepting mediocrity.

Despite his maddening nature, during his post-NBA playing days, Barry was considered to be one of the best color commentators in the history of television sports.


Free-Throw Mastery

One of the many skills that made Barry unique and so effective was his incredible free throw shooting.

“It's the only part of the game that’s a constant,” says Barry, who memorably used an underhand method to shoot 90 percent from the line during his 14-year professional career. “It’s always the same distance, it’s always the same ball, and it’s always the same size basket. It’s the only part of the game you can be selfish and still help your team.”

“Why in the world can anybody —” says Barry, the perfectionist, pausing a moment to gather himself. He restarts. “How can you live with yourself if you can't make four out of every five free throws you shoot? I just don't understand how guys can do that — how they can possibly go to sleep at night without having nightmares about the fact that they can't shoot 80 percent from the free-throw line?”

A Sign of the Times

“I was the best free-throw shooter in the game for a long, long time,” he says, “and nobody ever copied the technique. It's hard to believe, especially in today’s world, in basketball, everybody copies everything that’s successful. But yet, when it comes to shooting free throws, nobody’s trying to copy it.”

Barry is astounded by the mentality of modern-day NBA players.  

“It's all about the ego.  It’s … all … about … the … ego. They don’t think it’s macho enough for them, and that’s fine. If you’re shooting 80 percent or better, great. If you’re not shooting 80 percent or better, then you better think about making some kind of change.”

“If anybody used that as a reason not to do it, then they’re stupid,” he responds. “That’s ridiculous. Just look at my record. That’s a ridiculous reason not to go ahead and do something that enables you to be better at what you're doing. That would be a stupid decision on somebody’s part. What affect does my personality and the fact that when I went out there I rubbed some people the wrong way because I went out there to kick people’s asses instead of going out to make friends, what would that do with the fact that I made 90-something percent of my free throws? I mean, that’s crazy.”

Execution of the Perfect Free Throw:  A Lesson

"Every shot that you take, you have to take it exactly the same way every single time the ball is placed into your hands," he says. "I don't care if it's bounce the ball off your head three times, bounce it off your stomach, kick it with your knee, I don't care what your routine is, you have to do it every single time."

Barry thinks the mental game is a large and under-appreciated aspect of free throws. He says having a set routine is important because in a critical moment, you won't think about making them, but rather simply go through a consistent and familiar progression.

"The last thing you want to be worried about is, 'Oh, God, I've got to make these to tie the game, or win the game,'" he says. "Go into your routine, like you've practiced thousands and thousands and thousands of times. So your entire being is focused on what? Your routine, not the situation."

With his trademark underhand technique, Barry says the shooter has to be old enough or big enough to hold the ball properly. As he explains it, the shooter's palms should not go underneath the ball with what may come to mind with the typical "granny shot."

"Your hands have to be big enough to get over the top of the ball properly," says Barry. "And your thumbs should be even."

"Everything you do in the game, at least if you're playing it properly, your arms are up in an unnatural position," he explains. "You've got your arms up playing defense, you're shooting the ball up there, you're rebounding up there, and during the course of a game, you're going to get a little tired. When I get to the free-throw line, my arms are hanging down in a totally, completely relaxed, natural position. So I'm not going to get tense and tighten up or anything, because I'm in a totally natural position."

Rather than shooting the free throw with just one hand like every other shot in the game, with his method Barry emphasizes the benefits of using both.

"I control the flight of the ball with two hands, not one," he says. "The technique itself is a soft shot, and it's feel, so much feel, and control.

"The way I teach it is you open up the basket -- the ball has a chance to go in the entire circumference of the basket ... almost two balls can fit in the basket. When you shoot flat, the first-third of the basket is taken out of play, and in essence, you're shooting at a smaller target. And, it's not as soft a shot. [It's] not necessarily a higher arc, but the way that the ball comes, it's coming from such an angle that as it goes up there, the arc is pretty good on it, so you still have a good portion of it that it can go in, but it's a much softer shot. If I shoot a free throw and I missed it a little bit and it hits the rim, the ball hits very softly. If you take a shot and shoot it from up high and go to the basket, it's going to hit much harder than it would going underhand, much, much softer."

After taking a comfortable base, feet spread comfortably apart about shoulder-width, Barry continues his routine by taking a deep breath and positioning his wrists correctly. Then he dips down and prepares to release the shot.

"Just before I'm ready to shoot, I would just make a little cock of the wrist, which puts it into a total natural position, and it was kind of like my trigger to go," he says. "When I bend, there's no motion. There's no movement of my arms, there's no movement of my hands – nothing happens. As I come up, I start to take my arms and swing my arms toward the basket, and that's where you get the feel, to how much effort do I have to put into that arm swing. That's where you have to practice."

"Then it's a matter of the feel of when I actually take my hands and, when I get to about chest level -- parallel to the floor -- I just roll my hands together, and finish," he says. "It's that simple."

Finally, Barry, concludes with a few last pieces of advice about his signature shot.

"It's like anything else," he says. "If you're going to try to do it, you've got to go out, come and learn the technique and then you have to go out and practice it over, and over, and over again. Just make sure you're practicing it properly. But it's repetition. The more you shoot it, the better you're going to get. It's like riding a bike, you never forget how to do it. The whole thing to doing it, as I said earlier, you have to have the proper technique, then you have to practice it enough to get the feel, and you have to continue to practice until you gain confidence in yourself that you're going to make it. And once you get that, it just keeps getting easier and easier and easier. You have to believe in yourself that you're going to make every one that you take. I never, ever thought I was going to miss a free throw.

"Anybody -- anybody -- can become a good free-throw shooter. If you have somebody working with you on the proper technique and you practiced it enough and get confident in yourself, you can be a good free-throw shooter. Your size means nothing. It's your technique."

Seeking to Improve and Perfect Every Aspect of His Game

During his playing days, Barry was also considered the best passing non-guard in the NBA.  He recorded 19 assists in one game in a game in 1976, then a record for a forward.

"...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," said Barry in 1977, two years after leading his Golden State Warriors team to the NBA championship."

The Source of His Perfectionism

“He was a perfectionist,” Barry says of his father Dick. “But it’s probably a better quality to have. I strive for perfection. I also realize I’ll never be perfect, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to try to be perfect. I mean, you’ve got to have pride in the things you do in life. That's one of the things my father instilled in me, was a great sense of pride.”

He adds, “Every sport is a game of mistakes. The team or the person who makes the fewest mistakes in their sport usually is the one who wins.”

Provoking Dislike

"The manner in which I play provokes a reaction, either positive or negative," Barry admitted in 1977. "But I don't want people to hate me. I know that people judge me as a person by what I do on the floor," he said. "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."

"He's an extraordinary guy. There's nothing he wouldn't do for you," says Mike Dunleavy, who, along with Paultz, was Barry's best friend on the Rockets, with whom Rick ended his career. "But he lacks diplomacy. If they sent him to the U.N. he'd end up starting World War III."



The Championship

With Barry at his best and leading the way, the Golden State Warriors won their only NBA championship when they swept the Washington Bullets in 1975.  Barry scored 118 points, still the record for a four-game championship series, and was named playoff MVP.
"To this day I can't find adequate words to describe the feeling I was overcome with when we won," Barry says. "I went into the locker room and cried. I cried and cried. It was terrific. It was absolutely terrific."
An Intense Will to Win

Unfortunately, Barry and the Warriors could not recapture the magic.  The next season the Warriors lost 94-86 to Phoenix in the seventh game of the Western Conference playoff final at home. Barry's 20 point performance was criticized soundly, but without merit.

It was suggested that Barry was so disgusted by his teammates' play that he deliberately quit on offense, as if to say, "Go ahead, win it without me." Barry now says, "Anybody who knows me knows that there's no way in the world I'd intentionally do something that would jeopardize an opportunity to win a ball game, especially when we had a chance to win a championship. There's no way in the world I'd do that." He's angry now, banging his fist on the table. "I didn't pout. I didn't try to prove a point. It means too much to me to win."

Despite his failings, his personality, and others' view of him, Rick Barry has been to the mountain top.  Perhaps, it has been worth it all.  Perhaps, he wouldn't trade it for anything.  Nevertheless, Barry knows how to excel and how to win. 

"...I do know this is what basketball is supposed to be all about. We made reality out of fantasy. This is the type of season you only dream about. It just doesn't happen. I guess that makes us the lotus. I have a friend, a priest," he said. "When things look bad, he always says that from the mud grows the lotus."

--Rick Barry, Golden State Warriors, October 1975.
Somehow, and only in retrospect, I feel like I was on-board for the ride.  Thanks Rick, and Congratulations!

Excerpts from forbes.com (December 11, 2012), sbnation.com (December 13, 2012), thepostgame.com (January 30, 2013), "A Voice Crying in the Wilderness" by Tony Kornheiser, Sports Illustrated, April 25, 1983 and "A Spendid Warrior Who Know His Onions" by Ron Fimrite, Sports Illustrated, May 9, 1977, and "When Golden State Glittered" by Pat Putnam, Sports Illustrated (October 27, 1975).   
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