In the summer of 2018, shortly after the Golden State Warriors won their second straight NBA championship, I had a chance to talk with member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, 1975 NBA Finals MVP, 8-time NBA All-Star, Warriors legend, Rick Barry.
During your last year at the Miami University you averaged over 37 points and 18 rebounds per game. How does a 6’7” forward get so many rebounds per game?
Well, it was because of my great jumping ability, like my sons Brent and Canyon have and my son Scooter was a jumper as well. The big thing was that I understood the game, I understood where the rebounds may go, but I was also very, very quick. In fact, I was usually faster than the guards on our team and so I was able to get the ball that way. I learned the game fundamentally from my father, who was a semi-pro player and coach. I was also very aggressive, trying to get rebounds, because our team averaged 99 PPG in college, without the three-point shot! It was like pro basketball. Our coach was a former NBA player and we played pro-styled basketball. For me, it was like four years of being in a minor league, getting ready and training for the NBA. I think that’s one of the reasons why I came in the league and made the All-NBA First Team as a rookie.
What were your expectations when you entered the NBA in 1965?
My main goal was to become one of only a few players, who were making $100,000 per year. Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor… There weren’t many guys making $100,000, so my goal was to become one of them. Nowadays, you need to add three more zeroes and even a bigger number.
After fantastic rookie season you won the Rookie of the Year award. You received 84 of 86 possible points. What did it mean to you?
It was a nice honor, but the thing more important to me was that I made the All-NBA First Team. That’s way more impressive than making the All-Rookie First Team. I was Rookie of the Year, but I was also a member of the All-NBA Team. That’s a much higher and prestigious award than the Rookie of the Year and the thing is that I didn’t play for awards. I won some steal awards, free throw shooting, scoring, All-Star Team… all those things were really nice, but if you take all of these awards, it’s kinda like a cake. When you put the icing, cherries and candles, it doesn’t look good without the cake. So, the cake is the championship and if you are lucky enough, you have a lot of things to put on that cake. I have Hall of Fame ring, TOP50 ring, but the only ring that I ever wear is my championship ring.
In just your second NBA season you averaged 35.6 PPG. What helped you become such efficient scorer in just your second NBA season?
Because during the first season I played with a great point guard who passed the ball exceptionally well in Guy Rodgers. And then Guy Rodgers left the team, so the next season I played, I was more of a focal point of the team, we had a different coach – Bill Sharman. But I think what happened is I worked very hard to be better with my outside shooting. I was always a scorer, not a shooter. There is a big difference between those two. I hear people say, “lockdown defender”. Well, that doesn’t exist. You can only lockdown a shooter, you can’t lockdown a scorer. I was able to run, get fast break points, I was a great driver to the basket, great free throw shooter.
What happened is I knew that people realized that they had to play off me, don’t let me drive, watch me on the fast break. I don’t think they had a lot of respect for my outside shooting, so I knew I was going to get a lot of opportunities to do that. I think that earlier in the season, I might have been averaging forty-something points per game, because they were backing off of me. All of a sudden, I started making all those shots, so they had to come up on me. When they came up on me, I just had to go by them. I just had a well-rounded game and I was a very aggressive player, I was always finding ways to attack. My father told me: “you always get the ball, try to find a way to score, try to see if you can put the ball in the basket. If you have a teammate in better position, he gets the ball.”.
In 1967 you reached the playoffs for the first time, and you already went to the NBA Finals. Despite your average of 40.8 PPG during this series, Warriors lost to the 76ers. What do you remember from those Finals? Was it much bigger pressure than during the regular season games?
First of all, I don’t believe pressure exists. That word is used so often in sports. Pressure doesn’t exist unless you allow it to exist. Pressure isn’t out there in the real world. The only time that happens is when you lack confidence, sometimes in very important, crucial situations. Then, if you lack confidence in your abilities, only then, can pressure actually become a reality. Otherwise, it doesn’t exist. I wish I could have played every game with the ball in my hands with ten seconds to go and the game on the line. That’s what you play for. That’s not pressure, that’s awesome. I loved that situations. Did I always succeed? No. But I thought I was going to succeed, because I had big confidence in my abilities. You eliminate pressure when you have it.
Most people don’t know that I played that series after having my ankle injured. Today, they probably wouldn’t let me play. I am lucky that I didn’t ruin my career and do some serious damage to myself, because I was playing, and I was numb. I couldn’t feel my ankle. I didn’t shoot the ball well, but I still managed to average over 40 points per game. It came down to two pick-and-roll plays with Nate Thurmond and me against Wilt Chamberlain and if those plays had gone our way instead of their way, we very likely could have beat one of the greatest teams in history of the NBA. And I played the entire series nowhere near being healthy. In one of those games I scored 55 points and could have scored more but I missed a lot of free throws, probably seven or eight, which was ridiculous for me. I hardly ever missed free throws. I missed eight in one game, and during my last year I missed ten during the entire season.
Coming back to the NBA and the Warriors
Let’s move to 1972, when you came back to the Warriors. During 1972-73 season you averaged over 90.0% from the free throw line for the first time in your career. Was the underhanded free throw something that you used always, or at some point of your career you decided to change the form of shooting free throws?
In high school – my father shot that way. He was the one who got me to change it, because I was only a mid-seventy shooter and he thought I could do better. I didn’t want to do it, because girls shot that way. I just did it, so he stopped bothering me; I made the switch and I shot over 80% and kept getting better and better. I actually wish I had been smart enough to do what I did late in my career – a refinement to the technique that my dad showed me. I took the wrist out of it and when I did that, I averaged over 90% from the free throw line. I was a better free throw shooter at the end of my career than the beginning.
The 1974-75 season, when you and the Warriors won NBA championship. Did you think that you really have a chance for a title, especially after finishing the regular season with a record of 48-34?
No, not at the start of the season. But I thought we were better than what people said, everybody picked us to not even make the playoffs. That’s the biggest upset in the history of the NBA Finals, without a question. There is nothing even remotely close to it. A team that wasn’t even supposed to be a playoff team winning their division, winning their conference and was supposed to be the biggest mismatch in the history of the NBA Finals, we were supposed to get swept. There was no chance for us to beat Washington and we swept them. When we got down to the end of the season, I thought we definitely had a chance to win the championship – at the beginning of the season, no. We had a great group of guys, everybody willing to do whatever they had to do to help the team win and it was the greatest year of my life in basketball. It was an amazing journey.
Was the Game 1 of the 1975 NBA Finals the moment, when you realized that “Hey, we really can beat those guys, not only once, but in four games”?
When we won Game 1 and came back to California, because Bullets chose to play one game at home and then two at our place, I said: “Boy, these guys are in trouble”. First of all, we are going home and we already won Game 1 on road, which we had to do to win the championship. And now we are going back to our place and we are playing in the Cow Palace instead of our normal building, but what people didn’t understand is that I loved the baskets at Cow Palace. The rims were very forgiving. I had to big games and I was very, very confident that we had a chance to win.
Then we won Game 2 – I knew they were in really big trouble. When we won Game 3, I knew that we are going to win the series, it was just a matter of when. I knew they were desperate, because at the start of Game 4, Mike Riordan threw an elbow at me. He was trying to get me into a fight. I knew they were trying to get me thrown out of the game and I wasn’t about to fall for that. I didn’t expect the sweep, but that’s how it turned out.
Game 4 ended. Warriors won the NBA title and you received the NBA Finals MVP. Was it your most important goal?
Well, winning the championship. Getting the MVP was like an extra bonus, but I always played to win, I played for the championships. We should have won the title next year, but we let that slip through our fingers – we lost to Phoenix in seven games. I remember it like it was yesterday, because you remember the bad things just as much as you remember the good things. I was extremely disappointed, but yeah, that was the highlight of my career, because we were the best team in the world at that time. That’s remarkable achievement and I was so proud of my teammates. I love it when we have an opportunity to get together, unfortunately, some of them are no longer with us. It was an amazing experience.
You still hold the Golden State Warriors record for most points in a half with 45 [Wilt Chamberlain holds the franchise record with 59; but at that time Warriors played in Philadelphia]. Four years ago, Klay Thompson was five points away from tying your result. Do you think that this record might be broken soon?
I didn’t even know I still have that record. I don’t pay attention to such things. You are telling me that, but I never knew that, seriously! I had no idea that I hold such record for the Golden State Warriors. Records are made to be broken. The only scoring record that’s never going to be broken? 100 points in one game and 50 points for an entire season – those will never be broken.
What means more to you: selection to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987, or to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary Team 10 years later?
The thing that means most to me is being on a championship team. The other one’s are the little special things that you put on the cake. Those are nice things, I appreciate them very much. I am very honored to be in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and NBA 50th Anniversary Team. But I would give all of that up. If I had those and I could have the championships, I would take the championships. That’s why you play! You play to win the titles
Who was the nightmare matchup for you? Did you have some serious troubles with defending any particular player?
My biggest problem was guarding a bigger player who was posting me up. I wasn’t the biggest and strongest guy in the world, so when I had to guard a big guy and post him up, I had some troubles with that. But then again, it’s not about individual defense. Teams win championships because of team defense. We were one of the best teams defensively and so you have help. You can double team, if you see there is a mismatch, you are going to help your teammates. You don’t win championships by being great individual defender. You win it by having team defense.
The three-point line was adopted by the NBA in June 1979, so you didn’t have much time to use it, but do you think that you could have scored much more points in the NBA, if the three-point line was already in the 1960s?
Yeah, I would have practiced it. ABA had it earlier and the highest percentage that I ever got was around 33%, which is no big deal. That’s an equivalent of 50% from mid-range, which is good. But great three-point shooters are shooting 40% or better. I would have learned to do it, but I wouldn’t be happy if I hadn’t got myself to be at least a 40% three-point shooter.