The basketball world according to Barnett
The basketball world according to Jim Barnett is round, but edgy.
For more than three decades, Barnett has been entertaining fans of the Golden State Warriors with his precise and witty analysis on television.
The former Oregon Ducks standout and original Trail Blazer taps on an irreverent disposition and more than a half-century of NBA experience to make every Warriors broadcast a happening.
Ask Barnett for a paragraph on any subject and he'll give you a chapter — one filled with opinion, and facts to back it.
Barnett, who turns 75 in July, was a springy-legged 6-4 guard who averaged 11.7 points during his 11-year NBA career (1966-77). He is a member of the Pac-12 Basketball Hall of Honor, the University of Oregon Sports Hall of Fame and the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.
And he was the inspiration for Bill Schonely's "Rip City" call during the Blazers' inaugural 1970-71 campaign.
The Riverside, California, native has gone on to become an icon in the Bay Area as TV analyst for the Warriors for 34 years — the longest such run among current NBA analysts.
Through an hour of interviews — 40 minutes of it in an accompanying podcast — Barnett waxed effusive on such subjects as Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, Stephen Curry, Rick Adelman, the "Rip City" moment and strip clubs in Juarez, Mexico.
Tribune: You had scholarship offers from the likes of UCLA, Southern Cal, Oregon State, Washington, Stanford and California out of high school. Why did you choose Oregon?
Barnett: (Coach) Steve Belko recruited me early on. That impressed me. I got out of high school in 1962. Kids today think about playing in the NBA when they're in high school. I never thought about that until I was a junior in college.
I was just hoping I could play in college. My goal was to start as a sophomore. (The Ducks) needed help.
I was a little afraid to go to UCLA. I had a scholarship offer. John Wooden was the coach. (The Bruins) won their first two NCAA titles in 1964 and '65, which would have been my sophomore and junior years. I wouldn't have started for them, at least at that point.
I got recruited by Don Haskins at Texas Western (now UTEP). I went on a recruiting visit to El Paso. They took me across the border in Juarez, Mexico. I was a pretty naive kid. I never drank a beer until I was 19. They took me to a strip club. I'd never even seen a woman's breasts. I knew right then I didn't want to go to that school. But (the Miners) won the NCAA championship in 1966, an all-black team beating (all-white) Kentucky. I would have been the token white on that team, and it would have ruined the movie "Glory Road."
Tribune: You became one of the finest players ever at Oregon, earning first-team all-Pac-8 honors as a senior in 1965-66. What do you remember about your time playing for Belko and the Ducks?
Barnett: He was a great fundamental coach. He taught me a lot. We weren't very good. We never had a center. We were an average team. I learned to pass more as a senior. I was a little insecure. I didn't know how good I was going to be. But I had incredible drive, a passion, and I was very competitive. I was diligent, and I kept getting better. I had gifts that I didn't realize. I was very quick, but I didn't know until I got there.
Tribune: How seriously did you consider Oregon State?
Barnett: I got recruited by (coach) Slats Gill. He was the last one to recruit me. (The Beavers) already had several (recruits) on scholarship. I figured they didn't think I was that important. I went up there (for a visit) way late. After I came back, Slats and I had a two-hour conversation via telephone, and he almost changed my mind. I think I would have been miserable because of the style of play he used — it was so structured and focused on defense. I felt I had a lot more freedom at Oregon.
Tribune: You were drafted in the first round by the eight-time defending NBA champion Boston Celtics in 1966. That team won 60 games under player-coach Bill Russell, and your teammates included such luminaries as John Havlicek, Sam and K.C. Jones, Don Nelson, Satch Sanders, Larry Siegfried and Bailey Howell. What was it like breaking into the NBA with that team?
Barnett: Pretty intimidating. We didn't have guaranteed contracts in those days. My first contract was for $11,000 with a $500 bonus, and you had to make the team to keep the money. We played eight intrasquad games, then we played 15 exhibition games — 12 games in 12 nights in 10 states, traveling with the opposition. It was a 10-team league with an 81-game regular-season schedule. We played everybody nine times. We had a lot of older players. I had great tutelage. My roommate was Howell. He was 31, which seemed like an old man to me — I was 22. It seemed funny seeing grown men playing basketball.
Tribune: Auerbach was the general manager of that team. What was he like?
Barnett: Red had stepped down as coach the previous year, thank goodness. He was a cheap SOB. He was a bully. He tried to intimidate you. He threatened you all the time. If he saw you eating pancakes on the day of a game, he'd threaten to fine you. He wasn't real well-liked. My coach in New York, Red Holzman — he was another Hall-of-Famer — couldn't stand him. (Auerbach) was cocky. He'd light up that cigar (to signal a victory near the end of a game). He won all those championships because of Russell and all the other great players. They had all the chips, but he took a lot of credit for it. He was pretty full of himself. And he drafted me, which shows he didn't know that much about talent after all.
Tribune: Your season with the Celtics was one of only two in which they didn't win the NBA title from 1956-69. The Philadelphia 76ers — led by Wilt Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Wali Jones and Luke Jackson — went 68-13 and eliminated the Celtics in five games in the Eastern Conference finals on the way to Wilt's first NBA title. What do you remember about that series with the 76ers?
Barnett: They were tough — at that point, the greatest team of all time. We were so desperate, I got to play about 20 minutes (actually nine) in Game 2. I was scared to death. It was on national television, a big game. I went 2 for 9 from the field. They left me open for a good reason. It was pretty good strategy, wasn't it?
We were behind 103-102 late in the game. I'd stolen the ball in the backcourt from Greer, and I was near the free-throw line, but I didn't want to shoot it. I threw it over to K.C., and he threw it back to me and said, "Shoot the damn ball.' I did, and it rolled around and out. I was never so scared in my life. I felt a lot of pressure, and we lost the game (107-102).
Tribune: Chamberlain had 15 points, 29 rebounds and five assists in that game. Russell finished with 14 points, 24 rebounds and five assists. In the deciding Game 5, Wilt ended with a triple-double — 29 points, 36 rebounds and 13 assists. Russell won 11 championships to only two for Chamberlain in their careers, and many consider Russell the better player because of it. How do you compare the two?
Barnett: Wilt was the most dominant player in the history of the game. He was as good as he wanted to be, and it was in an era of dominant centers, greats like Nate Thurmond, Walt Bellamy, Zelmo Beaty and Willis Reed. He dominated all of them.
Russell was not nearly the offensive player that Wilt was. Wilt never wanted to be the great defensive player that Russell was. He didn't concentrate on that. Wilt played when he wanted to. He challenged people when he wanted to. Russell played and challenged people every game he played. Wilt was the offensive player; Russell was more of a team player than Wilt was. Wilt was about four inches taller than Russell and bigger. It's hard to compare them, but they were both among the all-time greats.
Tribune: How was it to play for Russell?
Barnett: Fantastic. He was very fair. A great teacher. He taught by example. Didn't say a lot. He expected you to get the job done. We didn't have pregame talks. Everybody knew what to do. He rarely took part in practice. He'd read the paper, drink coffee and watch the little guys scrimmage against the big men. He'd sit over there and cackle like he does, and once in a while tell us do to something. One night in the locker room before a game, he said, "Who we playing tonight? Baltimore? No. Chicago? No. Detroit — that's right, we're playing the Pistons. Let's go out there and get this over with."
Tribune: After one year in Boston, you were selected by the San Diego Rockets in the 1967 expansion draft, and played three seasons for them. Were you disappointed to leave the Celtics?
Barnett: No, because it would have been years before I got to play for them. Going back to the West Coast was great. That first year, we had 20 veterans trying out, plus the draft picks. It was dog eat dog. Pat Riley was their first draft pick. We later became friends, but I don't think we said two words to each other that year. He was trying to take my job. He had a four-year, $100,000 contract. Mine was for one year and $14,000. I went to his house one time and he had a closet full of suits. I'd never seen so many — he was always a dresser. I eventually got a starting guard job there and did pretty well.
Tribune: In 1970, you came to Portland via trade when the Blazers entered the league as an expansion team. You had what would be the best year of your career, averaging 18.5 points, second on the team behind Geoff Petrie's 24.8. Your teammates included Rick Adelman, LeRoy Ellis and Stan McKenzie. What was that season like?
Barnett: That was my fifth year in the league. It was the season that made me into an NBA player. I was averaging more than 22 points at the All-Star break, but Rolland Todd was the one coach who never appreciated me for who I was. He thought I was too emotional. I often wonder what he'd think about the guys today. He was "Mod" Todd, who wore the fancy sports coats and tried to be cool. I didn't play as much the second half of the year.
Our last game was in Cleveland. I went straight from there to Aspen, Colorado, to visit a good friend of mine. The Blazers had traded me the day after the season ended to Golden State for three draft picks. They were really upset, because they weren't able to get ahold of me for three or four days. They wanted to issue the press release and make the trade official.
Tribune: You played with Adelman with three organizations — San Diego, Portland and New Orleans. He went on to be a great head coach in the NBA and ranks ninth on the career list with 1,042 regular-season wins. Did you see anything in him as a player that would make him a great coach?
Barnett: Rick came into the league with San Diego as a seventh-round draft pick out of Loyola Marymount. The only reason he made it as a rookie was he got hurt early in the exhibition season and couldn't play for several weeks. By the time he got back, several guards had played themselves off the team. Our coach, Jack McMahon, liked him. Rick had trouble scoring. He couldn't create his own shot. But he could run a team. He was unselfish. He wasn't quick at all, but he was the best I've ever seen at picking off passes at halfcourt.
His coaching success didn't surprise me. He always wanted to be a coach. I don't think I could have ever been a head coach. I didn't see the game like coaches saw the game. But as a player, Rick was a thinker. He was always planning ahead, looking at matchups that would work and what wouldn't. I just played. Rick became a great coach, and he should be in the Hall of Fame.
Tribune: In a game against the Los Angeles Lakers that year, the Blazers made a comeback from a big deficit, and you hit a howitzer that went through the net, inspiring Schonely to exclaim on the radio, "Rip City, all right!" As the years have gone on, that has become an iconic phrase and a secondary nickname for Portland to go with the "City of Roses." When did you become aware of the significance of all this, and what are your thoughts about it?
Barnett: It's gotten bigger through the years. At the time, we didn't think a thing about it. I don't know when it became an iconic slogan. I had a good NBA career. I played pretty well in big games, but I could not do it consistently. Petrie was one of the all-time great shooters, but he lasted only six years because of his knees. He would have been a Hall-of-Famer. He was so much better than I was. I was a solid player, and I managed to last. I'm not going to be in any NBA Hall of Fame, so it's nice to have that "Rip City" moniker be something that I inspired. That's the pinnacle for me in Portland, and I cherish that.
Tribune: You played in a legendary time in the NBA in the '60's and '70's with some of the true greats of the game. You played on teams with 11 Hall-of-Famers — Russell, Havlicek, Sam and K.C. Jones, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Julius Erving, Elvin Hayes, Pete Maravich, Nate Thurmond and Rick Barry. What are your memories of playing with those guys?
Barnett: It's pretty remarkable when you think about it. Sam Jones could shoot just as well as Stephen Curry from both midrange and from long range. I also played against some of the all-time greats. Jerry West was the toughest guy I ever had to guard. I had to guard quick guys like Calvin Murphy and Nate Archibald. Those great players of that era would be great players today.
Tribune: Your playing career ended in 1977. By that time, you were already involved in broadcasting, and you joined the Warriors' broadcast team in 1985.
Barnett: That was the first year the Warriors televised their games. I started out that first season at $400 a game. Fortunately, I'm making a little more than that now.
Tribune: Your current broadcasting partner, Bob Fitzgerald, told me a couple of years ago that you were "the age of my father, with the maturity level of my two sons." You were always considered a "character" as a player, and that has carried over to your career behind a microphone.
Barnett: I have a lot of free spirit in me. People associate that with being a hippie and smoking marijuana, which I never do. I enjoy life, and I enjoy people. I'm very sociable, and I like to laugh a lot. I'm very spontaneous. That's my personality. I don't mind making fun of myself. I think I have a lot of humility, but I still have confidence. I had confidence when I played in the NBA. I always thought I could stop Jerry West, but I couldn't. I don't take myself too seriously, though I take my job seriously. I know how to prepare myself for a game, and I know how to be on television, which is very natural. I'm just myself. A lot of people think I'm talking like I'm sitting next to them in bar, having a beer while watching the game.
Tribune: You've gotten to watch what has approached a dynasty with the Warriors, who are now chasing their fourth title in five years. What's it been like calling games for Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant?
Barnett: It's pretty unreal. We had 13 years where we weren't in the playoffs.
Tribune: Yes, and from 1994 to 2013, the Warriors made the postseason just once.
Barnett: People say that must have been miserable. I liked it when we were bad, also, because I got to talk about basketball. That's where I created my brand, if you will. I could use the telestrater and talk about X's and O's. Now, we always have a promotion. I hardly talk about basketball anymore. I get in and out, because we have some kind of drop-in promotion to take care of our sponsors.
Tribune: The Warriors are chasing a "Three-Peat," and have reached the NBA Finals five straight years, something that hasn't been done since the 1960 Celtics.
Barnett: This team never ceases to amaze me. You never lose faith. They can always go on a run. You never know when Curry is going to explode for a 22-point quarter, which is totally amazing. And you know what? They're good guys. A lot of people don't like Draymond Green, but I love that man. And he plays like we did when we didn't have guaranteed contracts. He changes offenses with his defensive abilities. He sees the plays. He's proactive. I love sitting back and watching him.
Stephen is one of the most impressive people I've ever met. I don't know how he handles everything. He has a great reputation, but he's probably better than you even think. Steve Kerr is the most incredible coach I've ever been around. He knows how to communicate with every personality. The whole organization — from the ownership, (general manager) Bob Myers — I'm so grateful I get to work for them.
Tribune: Where does Curry rank among the great guards in history?
Barnett: He's on his own plateau. You cannot compare him to anyone who's ever played. There has never been anyone like him. His presence on the court is more than just his production. He is the greatest long-distance shooter of all time. What he brings with his leadership is incredible, but he has transformed the game, and also transformed the audience. There aren't many kids who think they can be the next LeBron James, but millions out there think they could be Stephen Curry. His influence on the game is different than anyone, ever. Is he better than West or Oscar Robertson or Kobe (Bryant) or Pistol Pete? He's different than those guys. I'd want him on my team as much anybody in the history of the game at the guard position.
Tribune: Where do you place Durant among the greats of the game?
Barnett: He's among the five best scorers ever. He can get a good shot whenever he wants it. If he wants to get a 15- to-16 footer at the elbow, he can do it every time. Defenders cannot stop him. He's too long, too crafty. If I were to start a team, I might take Kevin over LeBron.
Tribune: Where do these Warriors rank among the great teams in NBA history? How would they do against the Celtics team you were on?
Barnett: Those Celtics would give these Warriors a hell of a run in a series, and I'm not sure Boston wouldn't win. But it's harder to win consistently in today's NBA. There are so many more teams, more rounds to go through. The greatest dynasties are the Celtics of the '60s, the Lakers of the '80s, Jordan's Bulls of the '90s. They'd have won eight in a row if Michael hadn't gone to baseball for two years.
Tribune: How do Portland's Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum compare to Curry and Klay Thompson and the other great backcourt duos in the league?
Barnett: Next to Curry and Thompson, they're the best backcourt in the league. I like the way they play the game. I like the way they compete every second on the floor. CJ and Kevin Durant are the best two-point shooters in the league. That's saying a lot. For CJ's size, to get that shot off — the accuracy is almost automatic from 16, 17 feet away. Lillard gets better every year. Now his 3-point range is Steph Curry-worthy. I have great respect for Lillard. They both could be a little better defensively, but they carry the Blazers. The Blazers would not be where they are without those two. They're the leaders on that team in so many ways.
Tribune: How does today's NBA compare with that when you were playing in the '60s and '70s?
Barnett: I love the NBA game today. These guys are much better athletes than we were. They're faster, they jump higher and quicker. Sometimes the young players aren't as fundamentally sound. You have to live with the 3-point line nowadays. Every year, they're attempting more 3's. I'm not sure I like that.
Tribune: You show no signs of slowing down. How much longer do you want to serve as the Warriors' TV analyst?
Barnett: I don't have any plans to retire at all. I don't know what else I would do. I don't want to sit around. I can't play basketball anymore. I like my job, and I'm very grateful for it. It keeps me young. I like to think young. Fortunately, my brain is still functioning nicely. My health is good.
I've been working on one-year contracts the last few years. I don't worry about it. I wait until June 30, and if they deposit a check in my bank account, I realize I'm hired for the next year. But you know what? This team is so good, anybody could walk in and do it. The team carries you.
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