The Ballad of Joe Barry Carroll
Carroll, former Warriors GM discuss one of the most notorious trades in NBA history.
Carroll’s joy at being the top pick was short-lived. From 1977 through the end of the Mieuli’s tenure as owner a decade later, every Warriors first-round pick missed the beginning of training camp in a futile hold-out for more money, and Carroll was no exception. Attles says he stayed away from big-ticket negotiations, usually preferring agents to work directly with the owner.
Woolf, who later authored a book called Friendly Persuasion: How to Negotiate and Win, prided himself on collegiality but publicly threatened that Carroll might sign with Olimpia Milano of the Italian League for a year and re-enter the Draft in 1981. But Carroll had a weak hand. That year the Warriors also drafted future All-Star center Jeff Ruland with one of their two-second round picks, and if Carroll wasn’t going to be the No. 1 pick in 1981—a high probability—he would have made less money anyway. With no other options he reluctantly signed. (With less to lose than Carroll, Ruland went to Europe for a year.)
The Warriors presented Carroll as a savior, and ticket sales finally rose.
As a rookie, he averaged 18.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, and for a while it didn’t seem far-fetched to think he might turn the Warriors around. He was joined by second-round pick Larry Smith, a power forward who became one of the League’s top rebounding specialists, and small forward Bernard King, an unstoppable scorer acquired in a trade after his arrest on five counts of felony sexual assault (and subsequent plea deal) turned the Jazz into eager sellers. The three carried the Warriors to the brink of the Playoffs for the next two seasons with little other talent.
At first the media lauded the Warriors for making The Joe Barry Carroll Trade, even as Parish and McHale thrived. “Happy Warriors a Rebuilt Wonder,” read one Washington Post headline.
But the Warriors couldn’t afford to keep their core together, let alone build on it. King, a 2013 Hall of Fame inductee, signed with the Knicks when his rookie contract expired. Even Attles, a Warriors lifer, had seen enough; after King’s departure he handed his coaching role to former assistant (and future Phil Jackson sideman) Johnny Bach.
Changes in NBA ownership culture were simply too much: “Franklin Mieuli was one of the last old kind of chitlin circuit team owners,” says Carroll. “It was kind of like the caricatures that they do of the ABA days, having chicken salad giveaways and things like that.”
Regardless, Carroll continued to play well. In his third year, he averaged more than 24 points per game on 51 percent shooting with 2 blocked shots. On a better team, those would have been All-Star numbers. Entering the fourth year of his rookie contract, Carroll found himself in the same position once held by Parish.
Seeking an edge at the bargaining table, he replaced the gregarious Woolf with a human bulldog named Howard Slusher, whom Sports Illustrated once called “the agent teams love to hate.” Slusher was known for having his clients hold out when their demands weren’t met, and when Golden State didn’t offer a contract extension, the next step seemed obvious.
Carroll, however, wasn’t willing to take a year away from the game. That summer, as Parish and McHale celebrated their second Championship together, Carroll made an unprecedented move for a top-shelf NBA player in his prime: He took Olimpia Milano up on their long-standing bid.
“I didn’t want to sit out that year and get fat,” Carroll says. “So I went to Europe.” After leading Milan to the Italian League title, he returned to the US in the spring of 1985 a restricted free agent.
It didn’t take long for the Milwaukee Bucks to make their move. Every year the Bucks lost in the Playoffs to Philadelphia or Boston teams who were stronger in the paint, but their roster was loaded everywhere else. They were led by Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson and Hall of Fame point guard Sidney Moncrief; their frontcourt featured All-Star forward Terry Cummings and do-everything point-forward Paul Pressey; off the bench, sharpshooters Craig Hodges and Rickey Pierce stretched defenses. Carroll was the final piece of the puzzle.
Slusher frontloaded Carroll’s $9.5 million offer sheet from Milwaukee with a massive $2 million signing bonus, ensuring Mieuli couldn’t possibly match it. Finally, it seemed, Carroll would have a bit of good fortune: he would vault the Bucks to contender status, and in a bit of poetic justice would have a chance to prove himself toe-to-toe against Parish in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
But in a bitter twist of fate, it never came to be.
Incredibly, the Warriors matched the Bucks’ offer and chose not to work out a sign and trade with Milwaukee. Instead they made Joe Barry Carroll the highest paid player in team history, after decades of cutting ties with Hall of Famers including Wilt Chamberlain, Wilkes, Parish and King over money. The media was stunned, but at the press conference to announce they were keeping Carroll, the Warriors offered little explanation. Attles only said that Mieuli had informed him of the decision, but Mieuli didn’t show up to explain. Carroll doesn’t remember being invited to attend.
“I’m not sure why they chose to match the deal,” says Carroll. “I was hopeful they would allow me to go to Milwaukee. It was an opportunity to do what many talented players before me had done upon leaving Golden State.”
Behind the scenes there were larger forces in play, and once again someone else’s serendipity was Joe Barry Carroll’s misfortune. Though at the time he denied it, Mieuli had finally realized he lacked the cash to compete in the NBA, and midwestern businessman Jim Fitzgerald was negotiating to buy the team—a move that would significantly improve the Warriors’ fortunes. But before buying the Warriors, Fitzgerald first had to sell his majority stake in another NBA team: wait for it…the Bucks.
Only a few weeks before Carroll signed the Bucks’ offer sheet, Fitzgerald sold them to Wisconsin retail magnate Herb Kohl, paving the way for his eventual purchase of the larger-market Warriors. It’s unlikely Mieuli would have added so much cost to the team’s payroll without consulting his prospective buyer.
Maybe Fitzgerald wanted to prevent Kohl from winning a Championship, or maybe he didn’t want his new team to be completely bereft of proven talent. Nobody will ever know. Regardless of the reasons, Joe Barry Carroll was returning to a place he didn’t want to play—a place where, without a doubt, he was not wanted.
Carroll’s decision to play in Italy rather than finish his Warriors contract had made him persona non grata to the team’s fans, a situation worsened by his becoming the top-paid player in team history—and aggravated exponentially by daily reminders of the trade that brought him to the Warriors, as the Celtics cruised to another NBA title with a rotation featuring five future Hall-of-Famers.
Carroll became a symbol for everything wrong with the team. Though Warriors fans were not as vicious as their East Coast counterparts, they made their feelings known.
“He got booed relentlessly,” recalls Shirk, who covered the team for the San Jose Mercury News and later for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Through it all, the ever-quiet Carroll didn’t plead his case to the media, even as Joe Barely Cares—an epithet coined by New York sportswriter Peter Vecsey—became synonymous with Joe Barry Carroll.
“I never personally had a bad experience with him,” remembers Shirk. “The thing was that he very rarely had anything to say so I very rarely strolled over to his locker to ask him anything. He wasn’t giving me what I wanted, and what I wanted was a story.”
Despite all this, Carroll wasn’t done. The next season, new owner Fitzgerald brought in a smart young coach named George Karl, and Carroll, now joined by future Hall of Famer Chris Mullin on the wing, had his best year yet. He made the 1987 All-Star team—as a reserve, voted in by the League’s coaches—and led the Warriors to the Playoffs for the first time in a decade.
Down two games to none in a best-of-five first-round series against Utah, the Warriors staged an historic comeback, and in the deciding fifth game in Salt Lake City, Carroll led the team with 24 points, 8 blocked shots, and 8 rebounds. In the next round he played well against the aging Jabbar, but the Warriors were no match for a Championship Lakers squad.
The upset against Utah would be the last major highlight of Joe Barry Carroll’s career. When the next season opened a few months later, his treatment by the fans remained the same, despite the team’s Playoff run.
“The expectation level with the Warriors back then was not like any other team in the NBA, possibly except for the Clippers,” says Shirk. “It was so low for so many years that I don’t think there was a single person who stood up after the Utah series and said, ‘Oh boy, we’re on the rebuilding path now.’ If they say they did I’d question their truthfulness.”
Don Nelson, who Fitzgerald had brought in from Milwaukee as the Warriors’ top front office executive, saw there was no chance of the Warriors’ fan base ever accepting Carroll and went to work on trading him. His shooting percentage was under 37 percent when he was finally dealt to Houston in December 1987 for a hobbled Ralph Sampson.
“I actually thought that it was important that we make a move of any kind to get rid of Joe Barry Carroll,” Nelson later told Grantland.com. “He had outlived his usefulness in Golden State. He had become an unpopular player. He had the nickname of ‘Joe Barely Cares.’ I knew Ralph was hurt, had been struggling, and probably was never going to return to what he was. I still pulled the trigger because I thought it was important to make that move.”
Carroll never fully regained his form. Beset by age, injuries and quite possibly burnout, he bounced around for a few years before being waived by Phoenix at the end of training camp in 1991. Little fuss was made when he exited the League at age 33.
In his 2006 bio, Let Me Tell You A Story: A Lifetime in the Game, Auerbach and co-author John Feinstein wrote that Carroll “went on to a mediocre NBA career” after the big 1980 trade. The numbers don’t support their assertion: Carroll averaged 20.4 points and 1.7 blocks per game over seven seasons with the Warriors—not perfection, but far from mediocre. His Warriors record for career blocked shots stood nearly 20 years before being broken by Adonal Foyle in 2004.
Of course, none of this could ever compensate for fans’ expectations that he should be as dominant as other top-drafted centers—or be as valuable to the Warriors as Parish and McHale were to the Celtics.
“If you look at his numbers, Joe Barry Carroll was a good player,” says Attles. “He was so maligned because a lot of people thought as a center (drafted No. 1) he should be able to just take over a team. He was good, but didn’t have that.”
Attles adds that the Warriors “didn’t have the talent around Carroll to allow him to flourish.”
Carroll was not in attendance when his blocked shots record was broken, nor has he attended any Warriors games since his retirement as a player.
He now admits his reticence to craft his image in the press permanently damaged his NBA legacy. “Had I done better (with the media),” he says, “perhaps it would be ‘too bad Joe did not have a better situation’ instead of ‘he was the situation.’”
Today Carroll is more comfortable in the spotlight, and has become a visible figure in his adopted hometown of Atlanta, where the former economics major works as a financial advisor to well-to-do families and occasionally talks sports on local radio. He has also developed a not-insignificant talent for painting (check out the Facebook page for Joe Barry Carroll Artwork) and will promote a new coffee table book this fall.
“Well, keep in mind I’m a 55-year-old man now,” he says with a laugh. “I would be disappointed in myself if I couldn’t speak to you with some type of ease after having lived a public life for over 30 years.”
There is only one thing missing for Joe Barry Carroll: A wider acceptance that despite the twisted path of his career, despite playing in a chaotic environment, he was a quality NBA player. Maybe not a Hall of Famer, but a player who was successful in his own right.
But after so many years of his basketball career being defined by the good fortune of others, Carroll is not waiting for an act of serendipity to free him from the shadow of Joe Barely Cares. “I doubt anything will change,” he says. “The truth is not very interesting. Since that ship has sailed, I will accept my role as it is and get on with it.”