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Just two years ago, Michael Jordan boasted that he’d never play for a college coach. Last week, Jordan announced from the 19th hole of some Chicagoland golf course that for the second time in a month, his Wizards were pursuing a guy with no pro experience whatsoever: the University of Miami’s Leonard Hamilton.
Rick Barry thinks Jordan chased after the wrong Hurricane.
In April, long before Hamilton’s name came up, Barry phoned the Wizards offices and left messages for Jordan declaring his desire to be hired. Barry’s resume boasts things like: his Hall of Fame playing career, his being the son of a basketball coach and the only NBA veteran to sire three NBA players (Jon, Brent, and Drew Barry), his ties to D.C. basketball, and—the icing—eight years of head-coaching stints in various minor professional leagues.
Barry, now 56, shaped the pro game, for better and for worse, as much as anybody who ever played it. Yet to hear Barry tell it, the Wizards’ absentee president, a guy who often claims to respect his NBA elders, treated him as he would a telemarketer who’d phoned too close to tee time.
“I thought Michael would appreciate my approach to basketball, because I think it’s similar to his,” Barry tells me from Fort Myers, Fla., where he coaches the USBL’s Florida Sea Dragons. “I think we would make a great team. But I got nothing. No contact at all.”
On the court, Barry put up numbers that not even Jordan would sneer at. He was named an all-star seven times and won six season MVP awards. He is the only player to ever take scoring titles in the NCAA (’64-’65 as a Miami senior), ABA (’68-’69), and NBA (’66-’67). He retired in 1980 as the sixth leading scorer and best free-throw shooter (90 percent, via an underhanded, “granny-style” technique) of all time.
Barry played biggest in big games: He hit for 55 in a game in the 1967 NBA finals and averaged 40.8 points over that series, a record that stood until Jordan notched an even 41 per game during the 1993 championship round. He still holds the record for field goals in a finals game, with 22. And his teams won: He earned championship rings with the ABA’s Oakland Oaks in 1969 and the NBA’s Golden State Warriors in 1975. In 1987, Barry was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and in 1996 he was named, alongside Jordan, to the NBA’s “All-Time” squad.
Barry’s playing style was way ahead of its time—he was an unrepentant gunner, and surly before surly was cool. Opponents, refs, and even teammates were targets for his wrath on losing nights. “You could send [Barry] to the U.N.,” former teammate Mike Dunleavy told Chicago Tribune writer Sam Smith in 1993, “and he’d start World War III.” (And Dunleavy counts himself as a friend.) When former ABA players gathered for a reunion in Denver in 1997, Barry was recognized, in absentia, as the “Biggest Whiner of All Time.”
His conduct off the court was equally avant. Barry was a free-agency pioneer. After leading the NBA in scoring in just his second year, with a 35.6 average, Barry decided he wanted to jump from the then-San Francisco Warriors to the Oakland Oaks of the rival ABA, a team owned by lite-rock icon Pat Boone and coached by Bruce Hale, Barry’s then-father-in-law and his coach back at Miami. But the Warriors got an injunction preventing Barry’s migration across the Bay.
So Barry took a stand: He sat out the entire ’67-’68 season.
During the hiatus from pro ball, Barry played in charity games, for no salary, for the KYA Radio Oneders, a team organized by Johnny Holliday, then a San Francisco rock disc jockey and the Warriors PA announcer.
“Rick was great,” recalls Holliday, best known to D.C. residents as the longtime radio voice of University of Maryland sports. “We played a 60-game schedule, and Rick missed just one game all year. We won 59 games. Guess which one we lost?”
The courts allowed Barry to suit up for the Oaks the following season. He gave the upstart league its first NBA refugee and instant credibility, but the move also saddled him with a national reputation as a spoiled, greedy, “modern” pro athlete. He never shed that rep.
Barry put the red-white-and-blue ABA ball in the net often enough to get the Oaks a championship in his first year. Boone sold out to a D.C. group headed by Bethesda lawyer Earl Foreman, who brought the reigning champions here as the Washington Capitols for one season. Barry roomed with teammate Larry Brown, now the 76ers coach, in a Chevy Chase apartment building, while his Caps called Uline Arena, also known as the Washington Coliseum, their home.
Barry doesn’t have the fondest memories of the ’69-’70 season.
“Even after the move, the league made us play a Western Conference schedule, so we were on the road all the time,” he says. “And at home, Uline Arena had to be the worst building I ever played in. Just godawful.” (Told that the Northeast building—best known as the site of the first U.S. concert by the Beatles—is now a trash dump, Barry responds, “What do you mean ‘is’?”)
After another court fight, Barry jumped back to the NBA in 1972. He came back to the area three years later as leader of the Golden State squad that spanked Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, and the Washington Bullets in the NBA finals in just four games. Barry calls that sweep “the biggest upset in major professional sports history in this country” and counts the championship as his top accomplishment.
He took up coaching in 1992, with the Cedar Rapids Sharpshooters of the Global Basketball Association. “Nothing will ever compare to that experience,” Barry says. “We had one game on the road where we had to go 22 hours in a motor home where the accelerator pedal stuck and the brakes and defroster didn’t work, so players had to stay up front and wipe fog off the windshield while we drove.”
Barry’s Sharpshooters were in first place halfway through the season when the GBA folded. By then, he says, he was hooked on coaching. He’s since had stints with the Fort Wayne Fury of the CBA, and two USBL teams—the New Jersey Shorecats and Florida Sea Dragons—during which he’s shown his commitment to get back to the NBA.
He put together a self-promotional kit, with a videotape and various letters of recommendation, so he’d be ready when a desirable NBA coaching job opened up. He didn’t mail one to Jordan after hearing about the Wizards’ slot. With Jordan in charge, he figured phone calls would be enough.
“The Wizards were stupid for not calling Rick,” says Holliday. Hoping to increase pressure on Jordan to contact his old friend, Holliday leaked word of Barry’s desires to local media outlets and even mentioned the situation in his daily ABC radio dispatches. Still, nothing.
Barry held out hope as Darrell Walker, Lenny Wilkens, and Mike Jarvis were interviewed but didn’t get the Wizards job. Finally, when Hamilton’s name came up, Barry gave up the ghost. He says he has no reason to think that his age, or, as many sports radio callers and Internet message posters claim, his race deterred Jordan from phoning him.
“Michael’s not required to talk to me, and it’s not my place to demand that he talk to me,” he says. “I can’t make him call. There’s a perception about me that’s a wrong perception. I want to change that, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do for years. But what happens, happens. I’ve still got a team to coach.”
On Sunday, with his Sea Dragons playing in Dodge City, Kan., Barry was escorted off the court by police after getting thrown out of the game near the end of the first half. He’d gotten carried away arguing another call he didn’t get. —Dave McKenna