By Jeff Freier on February 17th, 2010 12:59 PM
We all know about the great athletes in New York sports history – Babe Ruth, Tom Seaver, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Namath, Mark Messier, Walt Frazier – and even the busts – Ed Whitson, Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Stephon Marbury, Scott Gomez. But what about the slightly-to-highly-above-average athlete? The kind-of-great but not all-timer? They may not have been Hall-of-Famers, but they were All-Stars, fan favorites, cogs on a championship team or maybe even just pretty darn good. They’re the little brother that didn’t hog all the attention. But they’re certainly worth talking about and remembering. So when do they get their due? Well, now they will. Here is a series of the not-quite-legendary in New York sports history.
With the Knicks celebrating their 1970 World Champion team this coming Monday, let’s take a look at the forgotten man on that squad – Dick Barnett. Everybody knows about Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley, and even the additions to the early-’70s powerhouse team, Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas, but not a lot of fans may know much about Barnett. What he is most remembered for, though, is his signature move: His left-handed jump shot, with his feet kicking up behind him. He earned his nickname Fall Back Baby because of that style of shooting by Laker announcing legend Chick Hearn (Barnett was also known as the Skull).
After leading Tennessee State to three NAIA championships in a row (he was voted tournament MVP twice) and making the Little College All-America team three consecutive seasons, Barnett was chosen in the first round (fourth overall) by the Syracuse Nationals (now the 76ers) in the 1959 draft. He played two seasons for the Nationals and then jumped to the Cleveland Pipers of the ABL (who were owned by George Steinbrenner), where he led them to the league championship. The sleepy-eyed shooting guard jumped back to the NBA when he was sold to the LA Lakers. Three seasons later, he was traded to the Knicks for Bob Boozer. Barnett led New York in scoring in the first of his nine seasons with the club, with a 23.1 average, and he made his only All-Star appearance in the NBA in 1968 (though I don’t believe he wore his shirt backwards, as he did in the picture on the right for some unknown reason).
By the 1969-’70 season, all the pieces were in place for the Knicks’ first-ever championship. Teamed up in the backcourt with rising-star Frazier, Barnett was the “old man” of the team at 34 years old. But that didn’t stop him from playing in every game that season, including the playoffs, where he averaged 16.9 points per game. He also was a big piece of the defensive puzzle, helping to guard Jerry West throughout the finals. The Knicks, of course, won the whole shebang, led by Reed’s heroics. The finals victory marked Barnett’s fifth championship in three different college and pro leagues. And he would add one more in 1973. Barnett retired after the 1973-’74 season, along with Reed and DeBusschere, which marked the end of the most successful era in Knicks history.
Besides being a talented player on the court, Barnett was an avid chess player with savvy basketball smarts. The Knick GM who traded for Barnett, Eddie Donovan, said of his guard: “He’s got one of the best basketball minds of any player I’ve ever known. Everything he does is for a purpose.” And he was also known for his wit and droll sense of humor. While playing for the Lakers, Barnett responded to his coach, who was reminding the players about a bed check, “Don’t worry coach, you just come and check my room. There will be a bed there.”
The Gary, Indiana, native finished his NBA career with 15,358 points, good for 15.8 points per game, and had a 15.1 per-game average in the playoffs. He was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. And his numbers were retired by Tennessee State and the Knicks (#12). Dick Barnett may have been overshadowed by Hall of Famers in his career, but he won championships everywhere he played. To put it in a nutshell – he was a winner.