Today, 72 years ago, Richard Francis Dennis Barry III was born. 72 years later, Rick Barry is withstanding the test of time and remains one of the best players ever to play basketball. But how many people notice that? The 6’7 small forward from Elizabeth, New Jersey is rarely brought up in conversation among basketball fans. And when he is, it’s because he shot his free throws underhanded.
Sure, he played during a time that is relatively unknown to the casual fan, but he did battle with Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, and other all-time greats. So why does he get overlooked?
Just to quickly overview his career, Barry played a total of 14 professional seasons — ten in the NBA, and four in the ABA. Eight of his NBA seasons (1965-67, 1972-78) were spent with the San Francisco/Golden State Warriors, where he won a championship in 1975, and two (1978-80) with the Houston Rockets at the end of his career.
In the ABA, Barry played for the Oakland Oaks (1968-69), Washington Capitols (1969-70), and New York Nets (1970-72). For the 1967-68 season, Rick Barry was barred from playing in the ABA and sat that year out. He made the all-star team every year except his last two and recorded 38 points in the 1966-67 all-star game.
During his playing years, Rick Barry was a premier scorer in both leagues, but for the sake of mathematics, all the numbers presented here will be from both the NBA and ABA combined.
Over his 14-year career, Barry registered 25,279 career points which ties him with Reggie Miller for 22nd on the all-time list. At the time of his retirement, however, Barry was the fourth-leading scorer of all-time, trailing John Havlicek (26,395), Oscar Robertson (26,710), and Wilt Chamberlain (31,419). The gentlemen above him all entered the league before Barry and retired before he did. If you look at the scoring leaders during Barry’s seasons as a pro (1966-1980), his 25,279 points put him at the top of that list. He was ahead of Hall of Famers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Gail Goodrich, and Julius Erving.
His dynamic scoring ability was powered by his deceptive quickness, mid-range shooting ability, and remarkable efficiency from the free throw line. (He earned the nickname “The Miami Greyhound” because of how quick and slender he was). He has a case for being the best free throw shooter of all time. Across all NBA, ABA, or BAA seasons, Rick Barry is the only player to shoot 89% from the line while attempting more than 6,000 career free throws.
Those offensive skills would propel him to a scoring title in 1967 when he averaged 36.5 points per game and led the NBA with 1,011 field goals made and 738 free throws made. For such a volume shooter — 28.7 FGA that year — Barry shot amazingly well. From the field, he was at 45% and from the line he was at 88%. Michael Jordan would join him in 1986-87 as the only other player to average 35 PPG with a field goal percentage of 45% and a free throw percentage of 85%.
That same year, on top of the all the scoring, Barry managed to average 9.2 rebounds per game and is one of three players to average 35 PPG/9 RPG for a season.
In the subsequent years, Barry took a minor step back but was still averaging anywhere from 21-34 points per game, and he was able to maintain his shooting percentages; consistently shooting in the mid-40s from the field and the low-90s from the foul line. He was so proficient from the line, in fact, he led the league six times, finishing just one season shy of Bill Sharman’s record.
March 26, 1974, was a big day for Rick Barry. Just two days before his 30th birthday, he went for an astounding 64 points against the Portland Trail Blazers. Golden State won 143-120 behind Barry’s 30 made field goals, and he became the sixth player in history to score 60 points in a game (Joe Fulks, George Mikan, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jerry West).
The following year was, unfortunately, Barry’s last truly dominant year. He appeared in 80 games that year, averaged 30.6 points and led the league in steals per game (2.9) and free throw percentage (90.4%). Coincidently, 1975 would be the year he captured his first and only NBA championship. Golden State swept the Washington Bullets in the Finals and Rick Barry was presented with the Finals MVP after averaging 29.5 points on 44% shooting and 3.5 steals per game.
The 1975 Finals would be the last of Barry’s career. However, to this day, he still has the record for highest points per game average for a Finals career, 36.3.
After retiring in 1980, Rick Barry has a bevy of accolades to look back on. He sits at number four in all-time 50 point games with 14, trailing Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, and Michael Jordan. He’s a five-time all-NBA First Team member, and a four-time all-ABA First Team member. The 1966 Rookie of the Year award and 1967 All-Star Game MVP award accompany the 1975 Finals MVP in his trophy case.
The question then arises: where does Rick Barry rank among the all-time small forwards?
Top-five easily. It just comes down to where.
LeBron James and Larry Bird are interchangeable at one and two. I think LeBron is the best small forward ever, but I could also easily make a case for Larry Bird. My next three are split between Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, and Rick Barry.
Baylor had some outrageous statistical seasons and was one of the first players to dominate in the low-post, but never won a championship, so that hurts. Julius Erving was the first of the super-athletic wing players and altered the course of the NBA.
For me, Rick Barry is the fourth best small forward of all-time. Championships talk, but skill talks, too. LeBron James is my number one because the NBA has never seen a player like him before; Larry Bird is tied at number one because he showed you don’t need supreme athleticism to dominate.
Julius Erving comes in behind Larry Legend. He alone spawned a new generation of ball players — Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler are all cut from the same cloth as Dr. J; he just came first.
Behind Barry at number five is Elgin Baylor. Baylor was a force on offense; unfortunately, his time came at the wrong time. He was a part of the Laker teams in the 60s who couldn’t get past the Celtics’ dynasty.
In short, Rick Barry was, truly, one of the first small forwards to ever dominate in the NBA.