Jim Barnett has been a staple on Golden State Warriors broadcasts for 35 years. But before that, he logged 11 NBA seasons as a player for seven teams (1966-1977).
From guarding Oscar Robertson and Jerry West to being coached by teammate Bill Russell, to being strong-armed by Red Auerbach and playing a supporting role alongside some of the league’s most illustrious Hall-of-Famers, Barnett’s got some stories to tell…
He sat down with Ray LeBov to share some memories in our two-part interview that has been edited for clarity and length. Part 1 details his days as a player, with the upcoming Part 2 outlining his three-and-a-half decades as a broadcaster…
RAY: Let’s start with your pre-NBA playing career. Tell me about your experience as a high school player in Riverside, California.
JIM: Growing up, I loved sports. My dad was in the Air Force, so I lived in a lot of different places as a kid. We moved to California when I was in fifth grade. Then things got a little more stable, and I eventually attended Ramona High School in Riverside.
When I got in high school, I gave up football because I broke my foot. And so I started playing basketball. I was on the “B” team as a sophomore. There’s was no way I could have made the JV team, much less the varsity.
A lot of guys today play varsity when they’re ninth graders or 10th graders, but that wasn’t the case then. My goals were very simple: I wanted to go to college and I had the drive to do that. My goal as a high school sophomore was to play on the JV team as a junior and hopefully make the varsity team as a senior and sit on the bench. Nothing more than that.
As luck would have it, Tom Williams (the varsity coach who was the best mentor I ever had) took me aside in the springtime and asked me if I was going to be first string on the varsity next year.
I had averaged just six points per game on the “B” team as a part-time starter.
The varsity wasn’t very good that year, but they would have everybody back. And so I said, “Coach Williams, I didn’t even think I was going to be asked out for the team.”
And he said, “Let me tell you something, if you don’t ever get any confidence in yourself, you’re never going to go anywhere in life.”
He said, “It’s 75 percent desire and 25 percent ability, and I’m expecting you to be first string varsity next year.”
I can’t tell you whether I believed him. But he lit a fire under me, and I started practicing and practicing because I knew I would have an opportunity to try out for the team.
I was only 5’9″ and weighed 124 pounds. Over the summer I played in an adult league. I played with all the varsity guys, and I got better and better. I played everywhere I could. I became a gym rat. I started sleeping with my basketball. That was the only thing that mattered to me.
I was still skinny and not real strong and I didn’t date girls or anything, but basketball became my whole life. By the time I was a junior, I was 6’1″, 138 pounds.
Coach Williams had a system where if you scored you got plus four, but if the man you were guarding scored on you, that was a minus four. An assist was plus two, and a turnover was minus two. And so on. He put a chart up with the results each day.
After a couple of weeks, I was about ninth on the list.
Right then I knew that I was going to make the team. I didn’t know how good I was or how good I was going to be. After three weeks, I was number six on the list.
We had another week to go before cuts would be made and Coach Williams said that the top five point leaders would be his starters, regardless of what positions they played. It was really a healthy system.
I ended up fourth on the list, and we had a really good team. We were 21-2 in a strong league.
I was a defensive player. I didn’t know how quick I was but Coach did. He saw speed and quickness. And so I always guarded the other team’s top scorer. I was a junior and everybody else was a senior. I would guard somebody who averaged 18 a game, and I would hold him to four or six.
I just never let him catch the ball. I figured out very early that if you don’t have the ball, it’s hard to score. And so I just denied people, I beat them to the spot. I was the best defensive player in the league.
And when the season was over, I was hoping to make honorable mention all-league. I made the first team—one of the top five players in the league—which blew me away. The next year I grew and was 6’3″. I became an offensive threat because everybody left and I got better.
I got scholarship offers from almost all of the Pac-8 teams: Washington, Oregon, Oregon State Stanford, Cal, UCLA and USC.
I even got an offer from Kansas. And here’s the real funny one. I got a call from Don Haskins, the head coach at Texas Western. It was his second year as coach there.
This is 1962. I went to visit there and realized right away that I didn’t want to go there. They took me across the border into Juarez. We went to a strip club, and I’d never been to one before.
I didn’t like the atmosphere there. It turned out that when I was a senior at Oregon, Texas Western beat the all-white Kentucky team and won the NCAA championship. Had I gone there, I would have been the token white guy. They might not have made the movie Glory Road!
I could have been a Texas Western Miner, but I went to Oregon.
RAY: At Oregon, you played well enough to become the Celtics’ first-round draft choice. What about your experience at Oregon led you to get to that level of prominence?
JIM: I chose Oregon, and I still wasn’t sure of myself. I was afraid to go to UCLA. I would have been a sophomore and a junior at UCLA the years that they won their first two championships with teams that featured Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich. At Oregon, we were just an average team.
But I got better and better. When I decided on Oregon, I thought I could play, but not start as a sophomore. As it turned out, I started all three years.
I never thought about playing in the NBA until I was a junior and averaging about 20 points a game. I had tremendous quickness. I could get to the basket. I could score inside. I broke the school scoring record.
What put me on the map was the East-West College All-Star game. I played against Cazzie Russell and Dave Bing, who were the first two picks in the draft that year. I was the leading scorer on the West squad. I think I had 19 points.
Richie Guerin was coaching the St. Louis Hawks and showed a lot of interest in me. They had the fourth overall pick and took Lou Hudson, which was a much wiser choice than taking Jim Barnett!
But I was picked eighth by Boston out of the blue. I had never talked to Red Auerbach at all, so I was pleasantly surprised that they picked me
RAY: You were an early pick as one of the most prominent players in the country, but you went to a team that had been winning year after year and was loaded with future Hall of Fame players. What was it like to show up to the Celtics?
JIM: It was very intimidating, and I didn’t have a guaranteed contract. Very rarely did people have them in those days.
I played 11 years in the NBA and I never had one. I never even asked for it. I could have been cut any year before the trade deadline and not gotten paid for the rest of the season.
Red Auerbach was an egotistical bully. He had stepped down as the Celtics coach, and Bill Russell was the new player-coach. Thank goodness for that because Auerbach was insufferable.
He flew me to Boston right after I graduated and said, “Before we talk about your contract, I want to read you a letter from our second-round draft pick’s attorney.”
Their second-round draft pick was a guy named Leon Clark from Wyoming. There were only 10 teams back then, so a second-rounder was one of the first 20 picks.
The letter from Clark’s representative said that they would like a two-year contract guaranteed at $20,000 a year. And my mind is racing, I’m thinking that maybe as a number one I can get 18 or 20 or something like that.
I had no advice whatsoever from anyone. It wasn’t a player’s league then. It was an owners’ league and a GM’s league and a coach’s league.
And Red said, “You know what I’m gonna do with this letter?”
He tore it up right in front of me, and I guarantee you there was no second copy. Leon Clark never came to training camp. Leon Clark never played in the NBA. If you crossed Red Auerbach, you could get blackballed.
Red said, “What we had in mind for you, son, was $11,000 and a $500 signing bonus.”
I had to make the team to get that money. It was dog eat dog. The draft had 12 rounds in those days. They also had free agents trying out. At times I felt like crying.
I hustled my ass off in training camp; I was in shape. Any time they had us run from one end of the court to the other, I was the number one person across that line. I played well in training camp.
We had eight intra-squad games in the New England area in high school gyms in front of around 1,000 fans who each paid $1. Camp lasted for a month.
In addition to the intra-squad games, we had 15 exhibition games against the St. Louis Hawks and the Philadelphia Warriors (with Wilt Chamberlain). They traveled with us on the same bus!
By the time the season started, we had played 23 full 48-minute games and nobody had made a dime because the season hadn’t started yet. You got your meal money of $10 a day while you were on the road. Again, this is trying out for the 8-time champion Celtics under those conditions…
I was scared, intimidated and unsure.
I got my nickname when I made the team and John Havlicek came over to me one day and said, “Rookie, you have no idea what you’re doing out here. You’re running full speed all the time. You don’t change it up. You don’t stop and go. You’re running around like a wild man. I’m going to nickname you ‘Crazy Horse’.”
That nickname stuck for a long time, and people think I got it for being crazy or something. I made the team and I played a little bit that year. I could go in and take a foul. I played much better in the exhibition season than I did during the regular season.
It was pretty intimidating being with Bill Russell and those guys. I was in awe of the whole thing.
RAY: You played 11 years for multiple teams. Was there a particular team that provided you the best context or environment for improving your game to become the very solid player that you were for all those years?
JIM: In your third year, you figure out how to play. I probably would have gotten the chance in Boston because the Celtics were aging. Sam Jones was 34. KC was 35 that year. Havlicek was in his fifth year but wasn’t even starting. The NBA expanded to Seattle and San Diego in 1967. And I went in the Expansion Draft.
One thing that Auerbach actually did for me was to get me into the Massachusetts National Guard. It was 1966, so I didn’t get drafted and sent to Vietnam. When the season ended, I went to basic training at Fort Dix for four months. After that, I had about two weeks before I had to report to San Diego for training camp.
Talk about dog eat dog: They picked two veterans from each team, so you had veterans who’ve been around the league trying out who were going to get cut. I didn’t have a very good training camp in San Diego. It was almost like the first training camp that I attended after the college draft.
San Diego was headed by Jack McMahon, who had coached Oscar Robertson in Cincinnati for five years. He was now the coach and GM of the Rockets. He drafted Toby Kimball who had played with me on the Celtics first. He wanted a rebounder.
Toby had led the nation in rebounding at the University of Connecticut, and then he played in Italy. He made $35,000 over there, and Auerbach wanted him to come play in the NBA. Toby informed him that he had another year on his $35,000 per year contract.
And Auerbach said, “if you don’t come back and play for the Celtics this year, I’ll make sure you never play for anybody in the NBA.”
He came back, and they paid him the league minimum salary of $8,500, which was $1,000 over the league minimum.
I got a phone call while I was in an army uniform in Fort Dix. Somehow, Jack McMahon had found me. And he said, “Let’s sign your contract.”
Once again, I had no idea again what to ask for.
He said, “You made $11,000 last year, so we have $13,000 in mind.”
And I said, “Well, I had in mind a little bit more.”
And I was going to say 15,000, but then I got afraid. So I said, “How about 14 five?”
And he said, “Well, how about 14?”
30 seconds to do the contract. I made 14,000 the next year. That starting base of 11,000 really hurt me down the line.
I made the team even though I didn’t play well. I had been in the Army all summer. I couldn’t shoot very well but I made it because I could play defense.
It was the sixth or seventh game of the season. I was the fifth guard on the team, but Jack threw me in to guard Oscar. I was extremely quick, and Oscar was very deliberate. And so when he picked up his dribble, I went to the side. He put the ball right above his head, and I was kind of behind him. And I took it right out of his hands. I blocked about four or five of his shots.
I became a starter, but I hurt my knee and I had to have surgery. So I missed a couple of months and ended up averaging about nine points a game. But I was a starter. And then I started the next year, (which was my third year in the league and second in San Diego). I averaged 14.5 points. The next year it was 15.
Then I got traded to Portland, who wanted me because I had played at Oregon. That was my fifth year, and I averaged 18.5. I knew by then I was going to stick in the NBA, so I didn’t worry about getting cut anymore.
I knew they wanted me: They traded three draft picks to get me, and I was solid from then on. I knew I was going to have a 10-year career.
RAY: I want to mention one of the things about your time in Portland that’s quite amazing. The Blazer’s Edge blog is running a feature counting down the top 100 most important Blazers. You made the list despite only have been there for one season.
JIM: It’s nice to be remembered.
I had a really good year there. I was averaging 22 points a game at the All-Star break. I ended up averaging 18.5 because I played a whole lot less in the second half of the season.
Why was that? The best player on the team was Geoff Petrie. He was unbelievable as a rookie, averaging 24.5 points a game.
But Coach Rolland Todd and I did not get along. He thought I was too emotional, and they couldn’t wait to trade me. They dealt me as soon as the season was over, but they couldn’t find me because I was in Aspen, Colorado visiting a friend.
RAY: And then just a few days after that Blazers’ story, there was a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle about your role in winning the 1973 Western Conference semifinals for the Warriors against the Bucks when you scored 26 points in the closeout game.
JIM: We played the Bucks two years in a row. They had the best record in the West, and they’d won the championship in ’71.
Game 6: They had the homecourt advantage. We were up three games to two because Clyde Lee had been an incredible force on the boards and Nate Thurmond got in foul trouble during Game 5. Clyde came in and tied up Abdul-Jabbar.
Rick Barry had an off game in Game 6. I think he only scored 15 points. And I did have 26, but what I did better than that came out on defense.
I guarded Lucius Allen, who was a very quick guard out of UCLA. I made him go left every time. Lucius Allen had one point in the game—a free throw. He went 0-9 from the field.
So I had 26. That’s fine and dandy, but the defensive job that I did against Allen in that game goes under the radar.
RAY: That was an amazing performance at both ends, especially in a close-out game.
JIM: I was that way, Ray. I was a good player, but I was erratic. As the years went on, I got more stable. But early on, I was up and down.
I was not capable of going out and giving you 20 points every night. I did not have a consistent jump shot. That’s why I went to the basket so much. I was quick, and I could score inside. I never worried about getting my shot blocked. I didn’t get a lot of my shots blocked, even against Kareem Abdul-Jabaar.
By the way, the Bucks beat us in five the year before. I had 30 points when we beat Milwaukee in Game 1. And then the next night, I had like 10 or 12. And then we came home, and I had 29. And I averaged 21.5 in that series.
During that ’72 playoffs, when they beat us in five games, I shot 41 free throws. Nobody else on either team came close to that.
That’s the kind of player I was: I could be really good. I could get you points, but you couldn’t count on me to hit outside shots every night.
RAY: If there were to be a hypothetical team featuring your best teammates from any time during your career against your best opponents, who do you pick on each side?
JIM: For my teammates, I would go with Bill Russell as my center. I would go with Rick Barry and Julius Erving at forwards, and Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe as the guards.
For the opponents, the center is Wilt—who was the most dominant player ever in the NBA. My forwards would be Elgin Baylor and John Havlicek, and the guards would be Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.
Rick Barry doesn’t get his due. Rick could do everything: He could block shots. He led the league in steals. He was a great passer. He was unbelievable. But he doesn’t get his due because nobody liked him. It’s truly unfortunate. One of the greatest players I’ve ever seen.
His second year in the league, he averaged 35.6 while still being a great passer.
RAY: Let me ask you to name the players for another hypothetical game: “Under-the-radar players” that people might not remember quite as well because they weren’t up there with the superstars that you already named. Who makes your Teammates team, and who would be on the Opponents team?
JIM: I’ll start with Nate Thurmond at center although he certainly shouldn’t be “under the radar”. At forward, I have Bailey Howell and Bill Bradley. At the guard spots, Geoff Petrie and Sam Jones.
Before his knee injury, Geoff was destined to be a Hall of Famer. As for Sam, if you went to the 20-foot area, Sam Jones would shoot just as well as Stephen Curry. He loved the bank shot. He, Rudy Tomjanovich and Super John Williamson were some of the best bank shooters in league history.
For my opponents: Willis Reed at center; Chet Walker and Lou Hudson at forwards; and the guards (who might have some trouble defending because of their size) would be Gail Goodrich and Calvin Murphy.
RAY: That game is also an All-Star game. What a great list.
JIM: I could have put Nate Archibald in there. He’s the only player ever to lead the league in scoring and assists during the same year. He averaged 34.5 points a game and 11.5 assists.
My all-time favorite player is Jerry West. I grew up in Southern California and started going to Lakers games in 1960. He was everything to me.
RAY: I was in law school in L.A. the year that they won 33 straight and the NBA title. So I went to a lot of their games and watched the rest of them on TV. Goodrich and West each averaged 25.9 points per game. Hairston and MacMillian upfront with Wilt dominating defensively, on the boards and with incredible passing. And with Coach Sharman orchestrating the offense, the fastbreak that they ran was remarkable.
JIM: I remember that year! I’ll tell you a funny story: After we beat the Bucks in the ’73 Conference semi-finals, we played the Lakers for the Western Conference Championship.
I was starting. We went down to LA. In Game 1, we were confident and led the entire game. Near the end, we threw the ball away three times out of five possessions. We let them back in the game, and it was 99-99.
I’m guarding Jerry West, and there are only a few seconds left and I’m making him go left. He doesn’t pull up for the jump shot. I’m right with him. I’m making him go from the top of the key all the way down to the left baseline, and I’m making him terminate his dribble.
He did not get a jump shot off. And I’m right there. And just like I used to guard Oscar, I went to the side and I could have taken that ball right out of his hand, or at least blocked a shot with my left hand on the right side. I had it down to a science, and it seemed like everything was in slow motion.
He was on the baseline out about 20 feet. And I’m thinking, “I can block this shot!”
But then I’m thinking, “They will probably call a foul on me, no matter what I do.”
So I go up and bother him. And I’m thinking, “He’s not gonna hit this because I’m all over him. He might hit the side of the backboard.”
Well, he hit it and they beat us 101-99.
RAY: And that’s why he’s Jerry West.
JIM: That’s why he’s Mr. Clutch.
Years later, I was talking to Nate Thurmond about what always bugged me about that Laker series. We had beaten the Bucks. They had the best record in the West. We go down to L.A. and play the Lakers. We control the game. They never led until West hit that shot.
I had always figured that if we had won that first game, we could have won that series and gone on to the league finals.
And Nate said, “Tell me who they had.”
And I said, “Well, they had Wilt of course, and they had West and Goodrich…”
And he said, “Stop, stop, stop. They were better than we were!”
Because he had to go against Wilt and I had to go against West and Goodrich. That’s all I needed to know.
RAY: That was the same team that had won in ’72 except that Bill Bridges had replaced Happy Hairston
JIM: You’re right. And by the way, Bridges made the play of the game. This is interesting because it was 99-99, and we had the ball with about 35 seconds to go after a timeout.
I was taking the ball out of bounds at half court and Bridges was guarding Rick Barry. I was supposed to get the ball into Rick, and he’s being covered by Bridges, who was very strong.
Nate breaks up from baseline up to the top of the circle. Goodrich was guarding me and gave me an angle because he didn’t want me to throw it to Rick. So I had a perfect angle to throw it to Nate. He could have given me a shovel pass underhand, and then with one dribble I could have laid it in.
But I was afraid. That’s what I should have done. I was afraid that if it didn’t work out, it’s gonna kill me.
I throw it into Rick. Bridges knocks Rick down. The ball dribbles away. They got possession and called timeout. (And you already know what happened to their last possession where Jerry West scored on me.)
They beat us the next game by 11. We go up to Oakland for Game 3. You won’t believe what the score was… They beat us by 56 points, 126-70 on our home court! The first game was a two-point game and they beat us in Game 3 by 56…
Ray is a co-Founder of TBW and frequent contributor. He has a B.A. from Yale University and J.D. from the University of Southern California and is the owner of Ray LeBov and Associates lobbying and consulting firm as well as Capitol Seminars. He is currently Executive Director of the Association for Professional Basketball Research (i.e. the world’s’ pre-eminent professional basketball historians organization) since 2010. He is the founder, publisher, curator and editor of Basketball Intelligence (BI), including a daily email of the best 20-25 NBA-related internet stories as well as original content and podcasts.