Original Old School: The Year of Living Dangerously

He was known as “Bad News Barnes,” and throughout the 1970’s, Marvin Barnes lived up to his nickname. The kid from Rhode Island was a viciously talented offensive machine, for one year, while playing in the ABA. Unfortunately, drugs, among a laundry list of shortcomings, derailed what could have been a brilliant career. Recently, Barnes has spoken with AOL Fanhouse about his involvement with drugs during his playing days. In 2007 he was arrested on cocaine charges, but says he’s been sober ever since. Barnes now talks to youth about avoiding drugs and staying out of trouble. It’s been a long road for a man who Scoop, who he profiled back in September 1999, referred to as, “the original negro with an ego.”–Matt Lawyue

SLAM 36 Old School; Marvin Barnes.

by Scoop Jackson

For one year of Marvin Barnes life it could be said that the 6-9, 220-pound forward was the best basketball player in the world. For one year it could be argued that there was no one better in either the NBA or ABA. For one year there was no denying that Marvin Barnes, and everything that came with him, was worth it. For one year.

That year was ’74. The Carolina Cougars of the American Basketball Association had just been sold to a collection of New York business types, transferred to St. Louis and renamed the Spirits. Before the ink dried on the sale, an All-American out of Providence College was already signed to a seven-year, $2.1 million rookie deal.

Marvin Barnes, who had left Providence after leading the nation in rebounding at 18.8 per game (he also averaged 22 points), was also the second overall pick in the NBA draft, selected by the Philadelphia 76ers. But he immediately made his choice clear: “I made the ABA my preference over the NBA,” he told the UPI wire service, “because of its dedication in getting the best of all the college players.” That and the presence of one Julius Erving. “I want to pattern myself after Dr. J. I’m one of his biggest fans. Man, isn’t it something the way he flies through the air and sinks those shots.”

This is where it all began. The legend known as Marvin Barnes came into pro basketball as the “beyond keepin’ it real” version of Muhammad Ali. Poppin’ shit, takin’ names, trippin’, serving opponents like a restaurateur. For Marvin Barnes, basketball was a necessity. He was expensive. And basketball paid his bills. Something was going to enable him to earn his worth, and at the expense of the game itself, Marvin Barnes was about getting paid—and everything that came along with it.

“I don’t want him around!” the coach screamed. “I don’t want him in uniform. This is a job and the way we make our living…But you’ve got to abide by the rules. And if you have to depend on Barnes for your livelihood, you have a problem.” Those were the words of Dave Cowens, reported by the AP in ’78. Cowens, then player-coach for the Boston Celtics, had the luxury of working with Marvin Barnes for less than one year. By the time Barnes got to Boston, he had already worn out his welcome at two other NBA teams, the Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks.

In a series of misadventures-everything from missed practices to charges of pimping to assault convictions to possession of marijuana charges to being jailed for carrying a unloaded pistol in an airport-Marvin Barnes did his thing royally. The very definition of ghetto fabulousness. He became famous for saying that he would “work in a factory” rather than play for less than a million dollars (his moms set the price at $3 million), and then going out and blowing his original $100,000 signing bonus in less than five months. According to folklore/legend, Barnes purchased a $15,000 Cadillac, which his girlfriend wrecked; Marvin got the news during the warm-ups of his first exhibition game as a pro, against the San Antonio Spurs. He was “bummed out” by the news, according to Martzke, scoring only six points. He then traded it in for an upgrade on a $35,000 Rolls-Royce.

SLAM 36 Old School; Marvin Barnes. The true definition of Marvin Barnes came on October 31, 1974 in San Diego. Costas, in Loose Balls: “After the game, I saw [Marvin] in the dressing room and he started giving me his state of the Spirits speech. He told me, ‘Bro, you know what’s wrong with this team? We don’t have any team play. We don’t care about each other…Let me give you an example. Tonight, I had 48 points with two minutes to go. Did anybody pass me the ball so I could get 50? Huh? No, they just kept the ball to themselves and I got stuck on 48.’”

He was the original negro with an ego, “that sort of negro” as Barnes used to say. He was that negro America was not ready for. The kind of brotha that would honestly and openly admit, “I want all I can get,” and score 35 and grab 15 whenever the hell he wanted, while at the same time disregarding every rule set out for the concept of building a team.

Marvin Barnes’s pro career lasted about eight years. He finished on a 10-day contract with the San Diego Clippers in ’81 after playing in Trieste, Italy for a minute. His dreams of being the next Dr. J. only held true for one season—his first, when, if not for the drama, he might have been able to add an MVP trophy to his Rookie-of-the-Year hardware. In retrospect, it may have been the most twisted yet phenomenal season of any professional player ever. It was the year that a 22-year-old kid from North Kingston, RI, shook up the world.

November 20, ’74. Seventeen games into his rookie season—after he had already served notice with a 48-point, 30-rebound game—and Marvin Barnes was ghost. As Woodrow Paige for the Rocky Mountain News wrote: “Marvin Barnes is a free spirit. In fact, the Spirits of St. Louis center is so free, no one knows where he is.” Claiming to be a “penniless millionaire,” Barnes, on the advice of teammate Joe Caldwell, left the Spirits’ organization to fire his agent (Bob Woolf) and hire a new one (Marshall Boyer). Barnes discovered that he had been “hoodwinked” on his contract and, following a suggestion, refused to play ball until his money was straightened out. (According to Harry Weltman, then president of the Spirits, the $2.1 million for seven years was actually to be paid over 14 years, meaning Barnes was only getting $150,000 per year.) Barnes stayed with Boyer apparently for a total of six days before he switched again, hiring Walt Frazier’s and Billy Cunningham’s agent, Irwin Weiner to handle his business. He returned to the squad one week later.

With the money situation under some type of control, Barnes seemed to be working on getting himself under control also. His return to the courts was nothing short of prodigal. Although the Spirits’ continued to lose (despite their nice line-up of Maurice Lucas, Freddie Lewis, Steve Jones, Gus Gerard and Fly Williams coming off the bench), “BNB” put on clinics.

“Once,” Jones remembers in Loose Balls, a book chronicling the misadventures of the ABA. “[Barnes] spent the entire pre-game lay-up drill in full uniform, sitting in the stands, talking to this girl. MacKinnon ripped into Marvin for that and didn’t start him. Then he brought Marvin off the bench and Marvin went for 40 points and 20-some rebounds.

“[Marvin] thought he was Superman, and for a while he was.” On April 9, ’75, in Game 2 of the first-round of the playoffs, on the night Marvin received the Rookie-of-the-Year award over Bobby Jones and a 20-year-old high school refugee named Moses Malone, he had to face his idol, Erving. In straight Greek mythillogical (sic) fashion, after scoring 41 in the first game (a loss), Marvin dropped a 37-point, 17-rebound night on Erving, while defensively holding Doc (with the help of Gerard) to only six points. The Spirits beat the defending ABA champion Nets 115-97. It was one of those nights that people’s grandkids would hear about for years to come. Of the 10,621 that attended that game, all got a glimpse of Barnes true ability.

If anything, that game and that series put Marvin Barnes on the map.

At 22, he was fifth in the ABA in scoring (24.1) and third in rebounding (15.6), and he knew he had to take his career in a different direction. “I may have been a little disoriented in the beginning of the year,” he said. “I have to adopt a professional attitude. I’ve realized that I’m not just playing for myself anymore, I’m playing for my teammates, my coach, my mother, the fans, and all the people who believe in me.” Those were the right words, the right idea. Unfortunately, this would be where Barnes’ career ended and his life took over.

“I’m a basketball player, not a monk.” Marvin once said, “I play the women, I play the clothes, I play the cars, I play everything I can. There’s players and there’s playees. The playees are the ones that get played on by the players. I’m a player.

SLAM 36 Old School; Marvin Barnes. “They keep telling me, ‘You can’t make any more mistakes. Don’t miss any more practices. Don’t miss any more planes. Be on time, Marvin. Drink your milk, Marvin.’ Man, I’m 22, and a 22-year-old kid ain’t no genius. I’m tired of being ‘the franchise.’” By the beginning of his second year the ABA wanted BNB to conform. Sell out to some extent. “It’s a situation of going from boyhood to manhood,” Weltman said in the Rocky Mountain News. “And the adjustment has been extremely difficult for Marvin.” The NBA was looking at a buy-out of the league or a merger, and the ABA had to clean up its image for the NBA’s corporate structure. Despite his talent, Barnes’ tactics and actions had become too much for the white owners and coaches who ran the League, and for the Black ballplayers he played with—although most of them understood him.

Barnes’s problems didn’t start in the pros. On October 10th, ’72, while still a member of the Providence Friars, Marvin Barnes attacked teammate Larry Ketviritis with a tire iron. Charges were filed, and Barnes was in and out of court for close to five years. Although Barnes claimed self-defense, he eventually pleaded guilty to assault with a dangerous weapon.

In ’73 he received a suspended one-year jail term for the incident, with a three-year probation tag hinging on his every move. Then on May 16, ’77, almost to the day when his probation was about to be lifted, he was arrested in Metropolitan Airport in Detroit for carrying a handgun. The leagues had merged by then, and Marvin was playing for the Detroit Pistons, averaging around 10 ppg and seven rpg while trying to adjust to the NBA style of play and coaching. He served five months in prison during the off-season; the Pistons traded him one month into the next season.

“After the gun incident in Detroit, Marvin was never the same,” Martzke says over the phone. “It was like he was trying very hard to do the right thing for a while, and then that happened and it shattered him.” The downward spiral continued in January of ’81, when Barnes was arrested for eluding police and marijuana possession, and again in August of the same year on procuring for prostitution, a.k.a. pimping. The latter charge was later dropped by his accuser, who said she had fabricated the whole story. According to Barnes, who at the time was trying out for the New Jersey Nets, told the UPI, bad news had turned into bad luck. “I go to camp, I try to do good and then they arrest me.” Sometimes a brotha just can’t win.

His nickname to the world was Bad News Barnes. It’s the type of moniker that seems humorous at the time, but then comes the responsibility to live up to it. In Elevating The Game, author Nelson George describes Barnes like this: “Marvin Barnes entered the ABA in 1974, establishing himself as one of basketball’s great talents and one of its most obstinate head cases…[W]ith his appetite for one-upmanship and self-destruction, [he] epitomized some of the worst aspects of the Black urban ethos.”

In truth, Marvin Barnes was not as bad as the news that was printed about him. But in doing research for this story, I was hard-pressed to find any news clippings or stories that focused on what he did on the court. No one wrote about how in ’78 before signing a near-$1 million, three-year contract with the Celtics, Barnes requested they remove the “guarantee” from his contract, since he “didn’t deserve it based on my last two seasons in the NBA.” He elaborated: “Last year I didn’t deserve the money. I was overpaid. I want to earn my money. I’d rather be remembered as a guy who succeeds than one who got something for nothing.” Instead, everything on Barnes reads like a police record. In the eyes of many in America, Marvin Barnes was a criminal; in reality all he was was the original baller, the first true big willie of professional basketball, the 70’s version of Jack Johnson.

For one year Barnes was the torchbearer of whatever Julius Erving was going to leave on the floor, then he grew to became Erving’s antithesis.

Another story: Someone told Marvin that he was going to play against this cat named Caldwell Jones in one particular game. Defensively, the 6-11 Jones was supposed to be something special, someone who could stop Marvin. Barnes took the challenge personally and blazed Jones for 51 points and 30 rebounds in a game that is still talked about among old ABA diehards.

That one ABA year was Marvin Barnes’s legacy.

“On the court he could guard any power forward, most small forwards and most guys who were playing center in the ABA,” NBA Senior VP of basketball Operations Rod Thorn said in Loose Balls. “He could score inside, outside—the whole package. He could do everything but pass. I never saw any passing skills from him.” But BNB proving he could pass is like Roy Jones, Jr. proving he can take a punch: unnecessary.

Barnes simply shook up the structure, upset the set-up, had fun (rumors float around that Barnes once had 13-14 phones in a three-bedroom apartment), got paid, spent more than he made, got his “head messed up” by several agents and—when he wanted to—outplayed every single player in the American Basketball Association. For one year.

“He came to us with a reputation of being a loose cannon,” says Martzke, finalizing Barnes’s story. “But for one brief period he was a very reliable player. He bailed out on the team once, missed a couple of practices, a flight or two, but for one year—on the court—he was great. No one was better.”