Q+A: Barry Larkin

by Alex Shultz

On Saturday, March 15 at 8 p.m. EST, CBS will air Summer Dreams, a two-hour documentary giving an inside look at the lives of rookie hopefuls and their basketball journeys, culminating in the 2013 Summer League in Las Vegas.barry_larkin_shane_larkin

“I’ve done a lot of work with the NBA but never quite this close in terms of really being partners,” said Jon Weinbach, the co-executive producer for the film. “I used to be a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and an old expression is that you always want a story to jump from the sports page to the front page. These stories are really universal—they take place in the basketball context, but we hope people find them really relatable no matter if you know nothing about basketball or if you’re a hardcore fan.”

One of the stories in the film revolves around the father-son relationship of Barry and Shane Larkin. Barry is a Hall of Fame baseball player who suited up for the Cincinnati Reds for 19 seasons. Shane is a rookie point guard for the Dallas Mavericks trying to find his way in the League. We spoke to Barry about his participation in Summer Dreams and what it’s been like to root for his son in the NBA. Check back next week for a follow-up Q+A with Shane Larkin as well.

SLAM: Did you play basketball growing up?

Barry Larkin: I played. I got recruited to play in college—the University of Maryland was my biggest recruiter. I was a point guard as well.

SLAM: When did you realize Shane had NBA potential? When he was at Miami he was obviously a top-flight college player, but his last year is when he blossomed into an NBA prospect.

BL: The NBA was so far-fetched for me. I always knew Shane was competitive, and when he told me he wanted to go to the NBA, that’s when I believed he was an NBA player. Shane is kind of a quiet kid, he doesn’t really share, and I guess he gets that from me. He doesn’t say what he’s feeling inside. Maybe he told his mom, but he never said, ‘Hey dad, do you think I have a chance to play in the NBA?’

For me, there were two things that really stood out to me when Shane was at Miami. The first was his freshman year, he was the spokesperson for the team. They had five seniors on that team and he was the mouthpiece his freshman year. So from that, I told his mom that’s really interesting to me, because you don’t ask freshmen to represent your club. You don’t talk to freshmen, freshmen don’t speak on behalf of the team. However, Shane was the guy that they were going to and I thought that was awfully impressive. That’s when I started thinking that he understands the media. If he decides to go and play at any level, he gets it. I’m assuming the fact that he grew up in the clubhouse with me after the games and heard whatever I said, and that kind of helped form his way of dealing with the media. I told him stories—my rookie season, I booted a ball, let a ball go between my legs. I came into the locker room and took a shower and I was getting ready to leave the clubhouse because I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Buddy Bell stopped me and said, ‘Listen, you sit right there and you address every single question they ask you and you’ll be better off for it.’ And I’ll be dag if he wasn’t right. The press that I got after that was, ‘He booted a ball, but he fielded every single question after that. At 22 years old, this kid is a pro already.’ That’s what I got out of that. So those are the types of things that I share with Shane.

And then his sophomore year, it became more physical and he became more of a leader on the court. It became his team. I saw him barking out signals and pointing and telling people where to go, so he really, truly became the quarterback. I saw him grow up. So his freshman year was how he dealt with things from a media standpoint, and then his sophomore year is when I thought, Wow, he is really good. It was so exciting to watch him. At that point, I thought, Maybe this kid can play at the next level. However, it was hard for me to say that because I don’t know what that next level is. I don’t have anyone close to me in the NBA. It’s hard for me as a realist and professional athlete myself—it’s easy for me to say he could play Major League Baseball. It would be very easy for me to look at a guy and say, He can compete at that level. But I don’t have any reference point for basketball. So I thought just based on what he was doing his sophomore year and how he would take over some games and how he would beat guys, I thought, Hmm, maybe he can play at the next level.

SLAM: Watching as a fan, I know Shane’s playing time has been up and down because he’s a rookie with a lot of point guards on the roster, but what has that been like for you to see your son playing professional basketball?

BL: Oh man, it’s been outstanding, fantastic. We sit and watch every single game. We have to watch all the games because we don’t know if or when he’s going to get in the games. It’s interesting because, once again, coming from baseball, I’ll see stuff but I won’t share what I see. I see stuff that happens on the field and I go, OK, I can think along with the coach. When I see stuff that happens on the basketball court, my thoughts—and I know I’m biased—are a little different than what’s happening out there as far as personnel on the court if you know what I mean [laughs]. So you know, I want to see him out there playing more but I understand he’s a rookie. I can’t wait for the day that he gets more opportunities to go out there and they really challenge him. Every level that Shane has been to, he kind of lets the game come to him and then once he feels comfortable he really starts to turn it on. He did that as a kid playing basketball and football, and then he decided to dominate. He did it from middle school to high school, he did it when he went from high school to college, and I’m assuming he’s going to be able to do it—and I don’t know how much dominating, but certainly have the Ty Lawson effect at that level. The kid is fast, that’s one thing I do know about him. He’s fast with the ball. It’s a little bit different style with the Mavericks. It’s all about matchups and I analyze this stuff because that’s my job, I’m an analyst and I see things. As a parent, it’s exciting but also frustrating because I know my son wants to be out there playing. But being in a clubhouse and being part of a major league franchise, I know that rookies have to put in their time and that’s what he’s doing. So I have a lot of emotions going into it.

SLAM: Going back to the documentary, Shane got injured pretty badly while they were filming him. I just thought that whole thing was fascinating because it’s unusual to catch an athlete on the precipice of starting their professional career and then something like that happens. I thought the advice you gave him just really helped him calm down and accept it. Just to be able to impart that wisdom about injuries, that in a way must’ve been therapeutic for you too to be able to talk him through it and give him a perspective that you know he should be confident in.

BL: Absolutely. We were getting ready to get on a plane to Vegas to go watch his first game, and he called his mom and told her, ‘Don’t get on the plane.’ She had this look on her face like why? He said, ‘I broke my ankle.’ We were crushed, we were devastated. It was because of that anticipation, it was a blow. We took some time, we sat and we talked about it, and we shed a few tears for him. Eventually I had a conversation with him and I told him, Hey man, this is reality. What I told him was, Be mad, cry, cuss, break things—just don’t break your hand—and let it all out. Ask why me and all that kind of stuff today. And then after today, you start your healing process tomorrow. He told me, ‘Dad, that really helped me.’

Once again, he saw me when I tore a ligament in my elbow and I was rehabbing. He saw me when I tore up my Achilles, he saw me when I had emergency neck surgery. He saw that it was a part of being a professional athlete. He hasn’t had many major injuries in his life. He broke his ankle in high school on the football field and then he had this one. But he’s a strong little kid and a strong guy and he’s a tough kid. So just understanding that, and understanding where he came from, and the fact that he saw me go through all the stuff that I went through, I thought that he could handle this. I remember he broke his wrist when he was playing AAU basketball when he was 12 years old. First of all, after the game he goes and he bowls with the broken wrist.

SLAM: That’s like the worst activity you can do after that.

BL: Unbelievable. The next day it swells up so we go get it looked at and it’s broken. So he’s got a high tolerance for pain, he’s a tough kid, he’s been through it and he’s seen me go through it. I remember being upset about my injuries for many, many days and lingering and thinking, Why me? And then a week later after I’m doing why me’s, I’m still injured. I’m closer to getting back on the field but I’m a week away from being injured. So I know some of the mental turmoil I’ve been through and things that I would’ve done differently if I knew then what I know now. That’s obviously one of the advantages of having someone in your corner that has had that kind of experience where they can impart that wisdom on you. It’s really interesting because of the personality that he has. If he didn’t have that personality, I may not have said that to him. He’s got a very workmanlike personality, he wants to get down to business, he doesn’t want to sit around and feel sorry for himself. That’s part of it as well.

SLAM: Has he told you any rookie hazing stories? I was wondering if you had to impart any wisdom on him, because I’m sure that’s something you had to deal with your rookie season as a right of passage.

BL: I just got off the phone with him, and he has not said a word to me about any rookie hazing. He told me that he had to do a few things as a rookie. I think he had to buy some chicken and water for the players. Oh, he’s got to wear a backpack that has a cartoon character or something on it.

SLAM: That’s not too bad.

BL: No, that’s not bad at all. I told him, man, when we left Chicago at Wrigley Field, and this is the day we had to walk through the terminal—the boys took all my clothes and had me dress up like a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader one time, and the other time was a Hooters girl with a Hooters outfit on. I told him he didn’t have it bad. I had to make a late-night run to Burger King for the team at 1 o’clock in the morning, I had to do a little bit of everything.