Rick Barry is shooting to get a new image Former NBA great wants a fresh look

February 28, 1993|By Newsday

FORT WAYNE,IND — FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- The thing about Rick Barry's legacy is that it doesn't just live, it grows. The Hall of Fame player who wouldn't tolerate imperfection, who chewed out officials and teammates, became the broadcaster who ripped players and then the father who didn't love his kids. It's like a smoldering fire that won't be extinguished, this reputation.

Like last fall, when he was trying to assemble a team for his first coaching job, in the doomed Global Basketball Association, when one of his players approached him and said: "My agent asked me, 'Why would you want to play for Rick Barry? He's an ass.' "

Or his oldest son, Scooter, who said just last week, "My father was a son of a bitch when he played the game." The father retired when the son was 13, which is not to say the characterization is inaccurate.

Even son No. 3, a 6-foot-6 Oregon State sophomore named Brent, who recalled a year-old magazine article that described -- his father as an uncaring deserter and said, ". . . I'm not going to say that the whole article was a lot of lies. There was some truth."

The wounds lie open. "I've spent the last 20 years of my life trying to live down my reputation as a player," Barry said. "People have a perception of Rick Barry the person based on Rick Barry the player."

So he finds himself, at the age of 48, coaching the Fort Wayne Fury of the Continental Basketball Association. And if men do penance for the sins of an earlier basketball life, perhaps they do it in a place like this, where the players make $15,000 for five months and dream of sneaker contracts.

Where, at 7:12 on a blustery, sub-zero Midwestern winter night, roughly 5,400 souls are scattered throughout the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, listening to rock music played during the game, as if the sound system is broken. You have not seen a pick-and-roll until it is accompanied by a Van Halen riff.

Where the game often seems an interlude between contests, such as three guys trying be the first to wolf down a Wendy's single and mediumfries.

"Tiring, very tiring," said Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who coached four years in the CBA. "You go down there to show people you're willing to work hard and pay a price."

"Sheesh. . ."

Barry sat last week in a booth at a restaurant across the street from the arena and moved glasses like chess pieces. The iced tea is on offense, the Diet Coke on defense. "You have to step up and challenge, right here," he said, angrily clinking the iced tea with the Diet Coke. "Sheesh . . ."

He still is a perfectionist, tinkering with the foibles of the 'tweeners and not-quites who inhabit the CBA. "I understand the nature of the animal here," he said. "I just won't stand for anybody outhustling us." Former Indiana guard Jamal Meeks was a Diet Coke. Barry released him.

The decision to become a coach was made in the fall, after he was relieved of his broadcasting duties by WTBS. He was contacted by Cedar Rapids of the fledgling GBA and signed on. His team was 12-4 when the league folded in December, after two months of desperation. It was late January when general manager Rich Coffey called from Fort Wayne.

He was interviewed on Sunday, Jan. 24, the same day coach Morris McHone was asked to resign, and Barry coached the Fury the next night. He had only packed for one day, so he spent game day traipsing about in 6-4 owner Denny Sutton's sweat clothes. "My shoes, my undershorts, everything," Sutton said.

Barry imagined imparting all the wisdom of a coach's son, a college All-America and an NBA (and ABA) All-Star on the CBA youth of Fort Wayne, but instead has been appalled by their lack of fundamental grounding and by their laziness. He has made seven roster moves, including the acquisition of son Scooter, and still lost nine of 12 games.

But for the coach, there is much more involved than winning and losing minor-league games. There are questions to answer, chapters to rewrite.

His world was shaken in December 1991, when Sports Illustrated published a lengthy piece on Barry and his four sons, all of whom were playing, or had played, Division I basketball. It was a powerful story, quoting all of Barry's sons as criticizing him for leaving the family 13 years ago.

"It was horrible," he said. "They made it seem like the boys hated me. It added fuel to the fire that was already burning."

His sons agree, to a point. Said Scooter: "The article took the way I felt about my father when I was 13, and he left the family, and made it seem like I felt that way now. I was very upset at my father then, and for a very long time. But I'm not upset at my father now."

Brent Barry, the most independent of the sons, put another spin on the experience:

"I think that article coming out was a wake-up call for my father. It was harsh, too harsh, because those were all things in the past. But maybe my father found out some things that he didn't know and maybe that's why he's giving of himself a little more now."

And besides . . .

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