Against the Grain

Ever wonder what happened to former St. John’s standout Erick Barkley? We certainly do. We’ll have a longer report on where our chase to get up with the NYC native led us tomorrow, but in the meantime take a look back on this feature from SLAM 38, in which this magazine’s current Editor-in-Chief caught up with the then-college star and broke down his story.—Ed.

by Ben Osborne / @bosborne17

When St. John’s point guard Erick Barkley started his long trek to basketball stardom, he did it—logically enough—by trying to perfect his bounce. A skinny five-year-old kid making his first trip to the court at Brooklyn’s Farragut Housing Projects, Barkley boldly told coach Joe Francis that he wanted to make the NBA.

“He was a righty, so the first thing I told him was that he needed to be able to dribble with his left hand,” Francis recalls. “So he went off to the side and started dribbling. Four hours later when I was locking up the gym, I noticed that he hadn’t stopped.”

Cute story, no? Well, that only helps to explain how Barkley, who led the Big East last season (as a freshman) in assist-to-turnover ratio, started to learn how to handle things on offense. Barkley’s non-stop dribbling practice was the beginning of a childhood filled with ball played throughout the New York area, as he learned all the nuances of point guard play while playing for the Riverside Church AAU team and Christ the King High. The offensive part was easy, though. I mean, this  is New York. Home of Mark Jackson, Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury and countless others who get paid to make an offense hum. The Land of the Playmaker. And yet, rare is the All-Defensive Team Selection among NY PG’s.

This is where Erick Barkley’s story gets interesting. “Defense is Erick’s trademark,” says St. John’s head coach Mike Jarvis. “He is a special player in a lot of ways, but it’s his defense that really makes him special. When he plays with that 94-foot tenacity, it is a huge part of our identity.”

The St. John’s identity is one that went over a full-fledged makeover a year ago. After nearly a decade of mostly-mediocre teams that rarely elicited more than a raised eyebrow from New York’s over-saturated sports fans, last season’s outfit was a team to watch. The Red Storm went 28-9 and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, coming a rare Barkley mistake (more on that later) from advancing to the Final Four for the first time since ‘85.

There were a few changes that took place after the ‘97-98 season—Felipe Lopez’s and Zendon Hamilton’s graduations allowed junior Ron Artest to take a bigger role, and solid-but-shady head coach Fran Fraschilla was fired and replaced by the unflappable Jarvis. But the unimposing Barkley, who’s listed at 6-1, 185 pounds, was the biggest addition.

“I think I had a good season,” Barkley says modestly, downplaying stats (13.5 ppg, 4.7 apg, 3.2 rpg, 2.2 spg) and a presence that earned him one of the 25 spots on this year’s John Wooden preseason All-American Team. “I knew I could run the team as a freshman—I didn’t expect to play 38 minutes like I did sometimes—but I knew I could do it.”

The reason Jarvis had Barkley on the floor so much is because of what EB can do to a game. He has to be the most resolute defender in the country, picking up the opposing point guard the second the ball gets inbounded, then hounding his opposite number like a dog after a postman the entire way up the court. The results are manifold.

“I’ve never seen a college point play like him,” says teammate Lavor Postell. “He’ll get the other team’s point guard all messed up, and that screws up their offense, makes them lose time and then rush shots.”

Jarvis adds: “I mean, I can want to try and pressure our opponents, both offensively and defensively, with a relentless, attacking style, but Erick’s effort makes it possible.

Indeed, if fans thought that the ‘98-99 Johnnies, who led the Big East in scoring (79 ppg) while finishing second in margin of victory (13.6) and turnover margin (3.3), looked a little fast and furious compared to some older SJU teams, Barkley’s bunch must have seemed like Martians to anyone who had watched Jarvis’s George Washington teams pod up and down the court as if they’d learned the game in Belarus.

For his part, Barkley does see a little something special in his play at the defensive end. “I think I just take defense more seriously than other people do,” he says. “Defense sets the tone for my game, sets the tone for me offensively, and I think my teammates last year fed off of that. It was an exciting way to play, and we had an exciting season.”

It was a season Barkley had been working towards for a long time. The lesson on ambidextrous dribbling was just the first of many that young Erick worked on with Francis. “What I saw in him was somebody that was totally focused on a dream,” says Francis, whose St. Ann’s Catholic Youth Organization program stressed defense and practice. “I think he’ll reach that dream of the NBA, but he’s already a success. He got to see people in the neighborhood like Jermaine ‘Sunshine’ Smith succeed [at Christ the King and then UNLV], and people like [playground point] ‘Booger’ Smith not always do things the right way. Erick knew who to follow, and now he’s a player and person that people in the neighborhood look up to.”

The youngest of nine children, Barkley was the one who did most of the looking up at first. “I have five sisters and three brothers, and my brothers used to always take me out on the court and rough me up, just work on me,” he says. “You know, my brothers did that because they saw something special in me. They always told me that.”

With the help of family and coaches, Barkley’s on-court play and off-court demeanor may have shone like stars, but his classroom performance was all Isaiah Rider. By the end of his junior year at Christ the King, it was obvious that he had the skills to play D1 and the grades to be told to sit out. Enter the family of Craig “Speedy” Claxton. Claxton (who now plays for Hofstra) had played in the same backcourt as Barkley at Christ the King for a few years, and when he moved to college as Barkley entered his senior year, the Claxtons offered to help Barkley with his studies in a way that his mother often didn’t. “My mother moved to Georgia for a while, but Speedy’s parents took me in as one of their own,” Barkley says. “They stressed academics and helped me get my grades up.”

His senior year academic improvement got Erick back on track in school, but he still needed some better test scores before he could choose which top-20 college to attend, so he spent one post-graduate year at Maine Central Institute, making himself fully eligible and further honing his skills. And if Barkley’s game ever got stagnant amid the scholastic ranks, he had his summertime Riverside teams to boost him.

“AAU is such tough competition, and I played with and against so many good players,” Barkley adds. “The summer when I played with Elton [Brand] and Ron [Artest] and them, we went 69-1.”

Besides Artest, the “them” also included current St. John’s teammates Reggie Jessie, Anthony Glover and Chudney Gray, giving Barkley advance experience on running with those fellas. The combination of Riverside experience and a post-graduate year of high school left Erick a 20-year-old freshman who had no bones about running the team. “He did well,” says Jarvis. “My first though about putting him out on the floor is ‘not to worry.’ It’s like, I know I have a guy who will run my team, and that’s a great feeling.”