I’ve known Jim Barnett for 15 years, and he’s yelling at me for the first time. We’re in the media cafeteria at Oracle Arena about an hour before the Warriors tip off, discussing a playoff game in which he competed sometime during the 20th century. One of Jim’s former opponents—the one who hit the winning shot—had been asked about the game for a magazine article but couldn’t remember it, and I mention how much this surprises me.
“After all these years you still don’t get it, do you?” Even when he’s mad, his voice still sounds perfect for TV. “It’s what the journalists don’t understand. This is a job. We (the players) love it, but we go home to our families and go back to work the next day. We don’t remember every game and every statistic like you do.”
Jim is normally easygoing and loves talking about the old times, but he’s been prickly lately and I can’t blame him. It’s been a tough season. Through no fault of his own, he’s being pushed out of his role as color commentator on Warriors television broadcasts after 29 years.
Barnett isn’t just the team’s color commentator; he’s basically the only one the franchise has known. In 1985 the Warriors signed their first television contract after several years of not being broadcast locally, and Jim has held the job ever since. He comes across like an old friend watching the game with you, breezy and likable, except he stuffs each broadcast with the observations of a world-class player. When the Warriors were bad—and they have been remarkably bad, posting a losing record in 20 of his 29 seasons—he turned games into instructional clinics. As former Warriors coach Don Nelson once said, Jim is “good at pointing things out without pointing a finger.”
Regardless of his performance, Jim turns 70 this year and is going to be replaced by someone younger, someone less likely to reach his dotage in front of the cameras. Professionally speaking, 70 is a vulnerable age. Even Casey Stengel, who won seven World Series in 12 years as manager of the Yankees—a record that remains unmatched—was let go when he turned 70. “I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again,” he said at his last press conference with the team.
Much as the Yankees did with Stengel, the Warriors tried to soft-sell Barnett’s firing by announcing he was retiring—as though it was his idea all along—and giving him a season-long victory lap of tributes. But despite the team’s best efforts, thousands of fans have voiced their unhappiness over Jim’s departure.
They created social media campaigns, online petitions, hashtags and even t-shirts imploring the Warriors to retain him. Some of the most popular t-shirt designs feature figurative renderings of Barnett’s thick glasses and bushy moustache with his trademark phrase, “quite frankly.” He’s enough of an icon to Warriors Nation that no further explanation is needed. He’s also enough of a company man to avoid commenting publicly on it, though he’s aware of the groundswell taking place on his behalf.
A few nights later, before another Warriors home game, Jim is his usual easygoing self again. We sit over paper plates of media room food, chicken the consistency of stale chewing gum, while Jim talks about the early days of Warriors broadcasts.
“I was paid $100 per game, and we only did 11 or 12 games that season,” Barnett says. “The next year new owners came in and we did 15 or 20 games. I got a raise to $400 per game, but it wasn’t enough money to quit my day job. It took years to get to that point.”
By day Barnett sold customizable promotional items, hawking mugs, pens, t-shirts and stationery to local companies, a job he held for 20 years after his retirement as a player in 1977. “I made more money in my first 11 years doing that than I did in my 11 years playing in the NBA,” he says. “Players didn’t get paid as much in those days.”
The first time I met Jim was at a pickup game. A smooth 6-4 guard, he drained jumper after jumper over longer, younger opponents. When defenders got too close, he’d go to the basket—he could no longer dunk, but his crafty finishes were difficult to stop. Though slowed by foot and knee issues in recent years, he looks almost the same as he did then. I ask Jim his secret but he demurs, saying he’s not the athlete he once was.
“It’s hard to get in shape when you get older and you travel so much,” he says. “And I need more sleep.”
I offer a sympathetic comment about the food and the difficulty of sleeping after working late in such an electric atmosphere. “That’s not it,” he sighs. “Quite frankly, I have to get up to pee four or five times a night.”
A few days later my car chugs up the impossibly steep driveway of Jim’s modest 2×2 in the wooded hills of Orinda, an old-money suburb of Oakland. It’s the classic Nick Carraway home, a cozy, lived-in bachelor pad nestled blithely between multi-million-dollar villas.
I find him outside, sweeping leaves away from his two old Mercedes. One is 25 years old, the other nearly 15. Jim always says to buy nice used cars and drive them ’til they don’t run anymore.
He seems restless but I know not to ask why, at least not right away. Earlier in the afternoon Jim had a formal meeting with the Warriors to discuss his role for next season. He hadn’t been looking forward to this conversation.
Publicly, the team said he would be offered an ambassadorial role, entailing promotional appearances and speaking engagements at Rotary Club-type events. Jim loves meeting fans, but isn’t ready to become a full-time schmoozer. He has too much energy left for that, still enjoys his job, is still at the top of his game.
Months of consolation have only worn him down, and he hears it everywhere. “It will be great for you at this stage of your life… You’ve had a great run … I saw you shooting threes before the game—you must have been awesome back in the day…”
I avoid the subject by asking if I can look around at his memorabilia collection, which is scattered throughout the house. While I browse the photos and mementos he goes to the kitchen to mix Arnold Palmers, which are usually the strongest drink he’ll make. Even though Jim came up in an era when beer was served in the locker room and cocaine was only slightly less available, his only vice was what they used to call womanizing. After decades of moderation his Arnold Palmers are perfect.
Jim’s distaste for excess altered the course of sports—if not American—history. As a highly touted recruit out of Riverside, CA, he drew interest from several top basketball programs, including John Wooden’s powerhouse UCLA Bruins. One of the other schools chasing him was Texas Western, which in 1966 won the NCAA Championship with an all-black starting lineup against an all-white Kentucky squad that did not recruit black players. (The game was later immortalized in the film Glory Road.)
Had Jim accepted Texas Western’s scholarship offer he would have been a senior on that 1966 team, which would likely have meant only four black starters and the best player on the team being white—still historic though not quite as huge a landmark. It didn’t happen that way because his would-be teammates tried to show him a good time when he visited campus.
“They took me to a strip joint in Juarez,” he recalls. “I’d never seen a girl’s breasts before. I thought they were a little too wild.”
His visit to the University of Oregon included smoking and drinking but no bare breasts. That combined with the likelihood of more playing time than his other choices was enough to convince him to become a Duck.
Most of Jim’s memorabilia is from his playing career. Team portraits, knick knacks including a doll in his likeness, complete with a prominent moustache, from his stint with the Sixers, an action shot of him driving to the basket against a menacing Wilt Chamberlain, and most noticeably a needlepoint sewn by his ex-wife, Sandy, with the logos of the many teams he played for, starting at the upper left with the Boston Celtics.
Barnett was a journeyman in an era that saw the NBA grow from 10 to 22 teams. His rookie year with the Celtics, entering the League as the eighth overall pick in the 1966 Draft, was one of only two during the Russell era in which Boston failed to win the Championship. But the Celtics’ roster still overflowed with talent, and after the season Barnett was left unprotected in the expansion draft and went to the San Diego Rockets. Three years later he was acquired by the newly established Portland Trail Blazers, who were eager to bring the Ducks’ all-time leading scorer back to Oregon, then three years in Golden State, and finally stints with the New Orleans Jazz, the Knicks, and the Sixers.
It was in Portland that Barnett came of age as a pro, inspiring the motto associated with the Blazers to this day.
“I know you can’t possibly remember every game you played in,” I begin delicately, his outburst still fresh on my mind. “But do you remember the Rip City game?”
Jim is more than happy to tell the story. The Blazers were down 20, he explains, to the defending Western Conference champion Lakers. But he was hot that night, red hot. In fact, he couldn’t be stopped for about half that season. He brought the Blazers storming back, and with the Lakers’ lead cut to only a basket he launched a 29-foot heat check.
Bear in mind that the NBA didn’t have three-pointers then, so there was no advantage in shooting from so far away. Twenty-nine feet is more than five feet beyond today’s three-point line.
“I knew it was going in,” he says. “So I turned my back and ran the other way. I never saw it go in.”
The announcer was getting ready to criticize Jim’s shot selection, but when the ball plummeted through the net he shouted, “Rip city!”
I try not to show it, but Jim can tell I’m a little jaded to what he’s saying. His association with Rip City is well known, but it’s also known that with old ballplayers 24-foot shots become 29-foot shots and every dunk could have been measured on a seismograph. Was he really so hot that he needed to try a shot from 29-feet?
“Hold on a second,” he says, walking away.
I hear Jim rifling around his second bedroom, which he’s converted into an office, before he emerges carrying a thick stack of white printer paper. It lands with a thud on the coffee table in front of us. Printed on the top sheet is the box score from the Blazers’ season opener from that year, the team’s first game ever. Jim scored 31 points that night in a win over Cleveland. He flips the paper over and reveals the box score for the next game, a loss to the Celtics in which he scored 26 points.
With a hint of a smile turning up the corner of his moustache, Jim continues walking me through the box scores of the 1970-71 Portland Trail Blazers, which he keeps stashed away in his office.
It turns out Jim really did begin that season on a tear before being reined in by his coach—the kind of tear that for players with a high level of confidence results in 29-foot heat checks.
“I usually got along with my coaches, but I didn’t get along with Roland Todd,” he says. “He didn’t like emotional players, and I was emotional. I was tame compared to today’s players, but I got up for games and it showed.”
Jim’s default setting is old-school understatement, but his emotional side is well documented both on and off the court.
In 1966, two years after he married his wife Sandy and shortly before the Celtics were set to break camp in Boston, Sandy called from their home in Portland and said she was filing for divorce. Jim had just enough time to fly there to see her before reporting, except for one catch: Airline workers were on strike, and with a limited number of flights there was no way for him to get a last-minute ticket to the West Coast. So Jim snuck onto a flight to L.A. and hid in the restroom until the plane took off. When he emerged, unable to find a seat on the sold-out flight, he was caught and forced to wait in the back of the plane to be arrested upon landing.
As the passengers got off in Los Angeles a hatch opened in the back to move equipment—a 15-foot drop—and Barnett leaped out.
“I knew the security guys wouldn’t want to make that jump,” he says. “My feet hurt like hell but it worked. I sprinted to the street—they didn’t put fences around airports back then—jumped into a cab, and I was gone. It ended up being a 30-year marriage.”
On the court he was known for the occasional fumarole, whether a fist pump after a big play or a charged reaction in a moment of frustration. Once, after a call he didn’t like, Jim punted the ball high into the stands instead of handing it to the referee.
A few hours after Portland’s last game of the 1970-71 season, Todd shipped him to Golden State for three draft picks.
Jim and Sandy felt at home in the Bay Area and bought a house in Orinda, a couple miles from Jim’s current pad. He enjoyed his best years as a pro, playing a key role on a pair of Warriors playoff teams.
When Golden State made Jim available in the expansion draft after the 1974 season they decided Sandy would remain in Orinda, where not long afterward she gave birth to their daughter, Jenny. Jim lasted only three more seasons.
“I didn’t want to play anymore. I could’ve gone back to Philadelphia for another year but we’d just had a baby and I didn’t care. I wanted to be here in Orinda,” Barnett says.
At the close of his playing days Jim was fast-tracked for a career as an announcer—CBS hired him to call NBA playoff games and he also worked a few college games. But he didn’t want to live in another city and the Warriors didn’t have a TV contract, so he began selling mugs and pens.
The most prominent feature of Jim’s living room is the record player. It sits at the altar of a temple of analog, flanked by a pair of four-foot speakers. In a nearby hallway Jim pulls aside a pair of folding doors to reveal a mountain of vinyl: Nearly every album he’s bought for the last 50 years, hundreds and hundreds of them, including original Beatles and Stones LPs.
Amid the stacks, he knows exactly where his favorite is.
“It’s ‘Louie Louie,’ but not the version you’re familiar with,” he says, carefully placing it on the turntable. “When I was a freshman at Oregon, the version we listened to was by Rockin’ Robin Roberts, not the Kingsmen. In the Robin Roberts version you can understand all the words. Personally, I like it better.”
As the familiar groove crackles through the speakers—not as propulsive as the Kingsmen’s but with a swinging vocal—I realize this might be a good moment to ask Jim about his meeting with the Warriors.
To Jim’s surprise, the social media protests made an impact, and the team recognized how many fans it had alienated. Though he wasn’t reinstated completely, Jim was invited to call 10 to 15 games next season and produce some feature segments. It will be announced at the next home game. The fan’s loyalty has left him both grateful and embarrassed.
“I knew people liked me, but I’m having a hard time with all this,” he says. “There are people who hate me too, but this year you’re hearing all the good comments.”
He’d still rather broadcast a full season, but won’t seek work anywhere else.
“I have a 4-year-old granddaughter,” he explains. “I won’t move away from her. Here, I have to show you something.”
Jim pulls up a video on his iPhone. His granddaughter doesn’t want to get changed for bed, so he makes a game of it: They’re on a ship, and he is the captain. She emerges a couple minutes later in her pajamas, and gives Jim a full-throated military salute: “Aye-aye, captain!”
“I’ll be able to spend more time with her now,” he says, still smiling at the video. “And besides, who’s going to hire a 70-year-old?”
As the weeks went by it became clear the Warriors didn’t have a replacement lined up when they pushed Jim out. One by one, every candidate on their short list, including local favorites Tom Tolbert and Brent Barry, turned them down, citing the hectic travel schedule. This sort of work isn’t for everyone.
After the Finals the Warriors sheepishly announced Jim would return on a full-time basis, at least for one more season. They did not discuss the status of their search for his replacement.
When I call Jim a couple weeks later, on the afternoon of his 70th birthday, he sounds a little groggy at first. It turns out he’s on vacation with his new girlfriend in Brussels, Belgium, where it’s well past 2 a.m. I apologize profusely, but Jim says it’s OK. He’s excited to talk about next season—he can’t help himself.
We discuss his relationship with the team’s management (“They think I do a good job, that was never the issue,”) how grateful he is for the fan support, and how much he loves his job.
“Quite frankly, I don’t see why I shouldn’t keep going for another year, another after that, and another after that,” he enthuses. “I feel like I did 10 years ago.”
News and Notes
- Former Warriors and Magic center Adonal Foyle is hosting a celebrity golf tourney August 11 at the Moraga Country Club. Guests will include A’s Cy Young winner Vida Blue, former 49ers JJ Stokes and Eric Wright, former Warriors coach Keith Smart, and Jim Barnett’s former broadcast partner, Tim Roye. Proceeds benefit Foyle’s Kerosene Lamp Foundation, which helps impoverished youth in the Bay Area, Florida, and Foyle’s native West Indies.
- Speaking of notables from the West Indies, no discussion of “Louie Louie” would be complete without Toots and the Maytals.