Meet Jim Barnett: Across Six Decades as an NBA Player & Broadcaster – Part 2

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 filling in for Bill Russell, to figuring out broadcasting on the fly, to calling the Dubs’ darkest days and their finest hours, Barnett’s got some stories to tell…

He sat down with Ray LeBov to share some more memories in our two-part interview that has been edited for clarity and length. Part 1 detailed his days as a player.

RAY: What was your path from playing to broadcasting?

JIM: It was completely fortuitous.

I was playing for the Knicks late in my career. I had been traded from the New Orleans Jazz to the Knicks. We were eliminated by Cleveland in the first round. So I came back home to the Bay Area, and the Warriors were playing. It was 1975, the year they won the championship. (My last season with them was 1973-74.)

I was home. There was a game that night. Bill Russell was supposed to do the color commentary for HBO, but he couldn’t get out of Seattle because of fog.

I got a call from the Warriors’ assistant GM Hal Childs. He had been our PR guy in college. He knew I was back home since the Knicks had been eliminated. So he asked me to fill in for Russell. I had never done any broadcasting!

I did the game with Dick Stockton, and it went well and the Warriors won. I went back and played for the Knicks for another year, and then I got a call from HBO.

They asked me to do the Chicago-Portland playoff series with Stockton, which I did. And that went well. I never thought much about it.

I played another year with the 76ers. Then I started doing PAC-10 college games for a few years into the 1980s.

At that time, I had a straight commission job as an advertising salesman. If I didn’t sell anything, I didn’t get any money. I worked long hours. But the first 10 years of doing that, I made more money than I ever did playing basketball!

On weekends, I would fly to Los Angeles and do a UCLA game on Friday night, and then go and do a USC game on Saturday. On Sunday, I’d go to Arizona and work their game. I did that for about five or six years.

The Warriors weren’t even on local TV at that time.

A local network wanted to televise 12 regular-season games, and so GM Hal Childs called to ask if I would like to do those games. I said yes and worked with Wayne Hagan. They paid me $100 a game.

They were all home games so I just did my regular job during the day and then I would come over to do the game. I hadn’t been out of the league very long.

I remember when Philadelphia came in and Dr. J was playing for them. The producer wanted me to do a halftime interview.

I said, ” How about Dr. J?”

They couldn’t believe it. I asked Doc for a little two or three-minute interview that would air at halftime. And he says, “sure” and comes right over. Of course, they loved it.

The Warriors’ first Bay Area owner Franklin Mieuli sold the team in 1985 for about $18 million to Jim Fitzgerald and Dan Finnane who became president of the Warriors. The new ownership group wanted to do 20 games on local television and needed an announcer.

It was the first time I ever applied for a job.

I gave a tape to Roger Blaemire. He had been around broadcasting all his life. He said that “anybody could put together a good tape.” He thought I was going to just show all my best stuff. What I had instead was a single game tape that I had never even seen. I showed it to him and he liked it well enough to give me the job.

I got paid $400 a game. So I made $8,000 doing these games, half of which were on the road. The next year they wanted me back, and I made $500 a game. It turned out that I did 34 straight years! I’ve gone through multiple ownership groups.

By the way, that first year when we did 20 games, I worked with Greg Papa who was 24 years old.  He taught me all about broadcasting. He had studied it at Syracuse University and knew everything.

He was brash, young, confident, a little overbearing, but he knew how to do everything. He taught me how to work on camera. For example, you look at the camera first, then you look here for a few seconds and you go back to the camera.

RAY: How did your experience as a player inform and affect the way that you broadcast?

JIM: The way I played and the way I understood the game have been essential to my success. Obviously, you have to have a vocabulary, you have to have speaking skills and you have to be able to think on your feet.

What I learned as a player started with the fundamentals that I learned from my high school coach. Then at Oregon, I played for a coach who ran a slow down game. It was all about fundamentals.

So I know the game. And it’s essential to understand both ends of the floor, at the offensive and defensive end.

There are certain rules that you apply: You always want to see the ball and your man. It’s all about angles. It’s all about geometry.  I understand the angles. Good footwork is essential. I knew how to fight through a screen. It is just about fundamentals, (which, by the way, a lot of today’s players lack).

I’ll observe the way a player came to a screen because he got an early start. And he got his hips by the screener. Once you get your hips by, you can go either way.  Now the opponent with the ball has a more difficult time making a decision.

Of course, I also talk about their skills and abilities, their strengths and weaknesses.

When I started broadcasting, I knew everybody—a lot of them had been my teammates or opponents. I also knew coaches in the league, whether it be Pat Riley or other players who had become coaches like Rick Adelman or Doug Collins. So I could go to them before a game and they’d tell me everything because they knew that I was going to be judicious in what I would say.

So I had a great advantage. Everything fell into place in the early years.

RAY:  I appreciate the ability that you have to present the complexity and nuances of what is happening in a way that’s understandable and edifying for the average fan while also being informative for the more sophisticated viewer. 

JIM: I feel that a key to my being successful is that I have never had a big ego. I’m not trying to look good or sound good. I’m looking to inform and entertain.

But I’m very low key and very honest. And I try not to talk too much. It’s kind of embarrassing to talk about it because I don’t take myself that seriously. I just try to do my job, which is to see what’s going on and why something happens and tell how and why it happens.

It just goes back to talking about fundamentals and also being able to speak the King’s English. I knew how to play the game. I knew where I should be. I knew where the pass should be, whether it should be a bounce pass or a straight pass, or whether it should be a lob over the top—all the little things.

I wish I had been as good a player as I had been at understanding the game. I wasn’t. But if I had been, then maybe I could have been another Jerry West!

Optimism plays a part in it too. People ask me about the nine straight years where we (Golden State) didn’t make the playoffs. There are always positive things to talk about.

As Don Nelson once told me: “Jim, you have a good way of pointing things out without pointing a finger at someone and saying that was a really bad play.”

I try to point things out because it really is a simple game. There’s a time when you shouldn’t throw the pass and there’s a time where you should.

For example, it’s a law that when you come down on a 3-on-1, get rid of the ball to the player on the angle and make it a 2-on-1 because you’re going to score a lot more. That is an absolute. If the ball is in the middle, that lone defender can make you shoot jump shots.

RAY: Our goal at Basketball Intelligence and TBW is to enhance our readers’ appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of the game. Your approach seems quite similar in that it isn’t about you, it is about the viewer.

JIM: I love the word you said: appreciate. That is exactly right. We want fans to be excited and enthused.

And we want them to appreciate how the players are playing and what they are doing on the court. And the more you know about the game, the more you can appreciate the game and its nuances. That’s where I come in: helping people understand the game. When you understand the game, it is much more enjoyable.

RAY: You mentioned during the long period that you’ve been covering the Dubs, there has an amazing cycle of ups and downs. Did those swings affect your style of presentation in any way?

JIM: Not in the least.

I’ve always tried to maintain a level head about things. There’s always something good to talk about.

In fact, I embraced the bad years because I got to talk a little more. We didn’t have all the sponsors that we have now. So I could get all the replays I wanted. We had time to show replays between free throws!

For the past seven years, we haven’t had a chance to do that because we’ve got so many more sponsors and we have drop-in ads between free throws and promotions all the time.

The team wants to make money, and the TV rights go higher and higher. Sponsors want to be part of the winning team. The game has evolved. The business aspect is always growing, and as an announcer, I have to evolve as well.

We did create a brand and a following in the 90s when the Warriors weren’t very good as well as in the early 2000s when they struggled all the time. That’s because we had all the time in the world to explain the game and the kids who grew up watching us are now adults.

I’ve been doing it for 34 years. I love it when someone comes up to me at the arena and says, “Jim, I’ve been watching you since I was eight years old.”

You know, they’re now 24 years old. And I just I love that. It’s all the recognition and applause that I need.

RAY: There have been a lot of changes and trends in the game during your playing and announcing careers. What stands out? And do you think it’s cyclical or more of a straight trend line? When one aspect has become too dominant, we’ve seen rule changes to push the game in a different direction. So do you see that happening again with the way things are now?

JIM: I played in an era where players did not have any power. The players today own the league. They have all the rights.

I’d venture to say that at least half the players on any given team make more money than the coach. They have more power than the coach in a lot of instances, and you can’t talk to the players the way that coaches talked to us. Today, players are more sensitive and more ego-centered than they used to be.

Also, the game has changed because the athletes are stronger and faster. Now I see guys running full speed, and they fly through the air like a gazelle and dunk the ball. We couldn’t do that. So these athletes are faster. They’re quicker. They’re better.

But also, sometimes they’re in too much of a hurry.

One thing that bothers me is when a guard has the ball and the center comes out to set a screen. The first thing you want to do is go away from the screen with one or two dribbles and then come back. That’s how you set your man up.

Today, everybody’s so anxious, they start moving toward the screen, and they cause offensive fouls because the screener isn’t set or they don’t lose the defender even if a foul isn’t called. They don’t lose their man because they’ve already shown their opponent the direction in which they’re going. And so they make it too easy for the opponent.

And another change, of course, started with Steph Curry shooting from unprecedented distance. And now we see Trae Young and Damian Lillard doing the same thing.

RAY: He’s now known as Logo Lillard.

JIM: I didn’t even know that! Three years ago, Damian didn’t shoot those shots with any regularity. And now he does.

RAY: He said recently that one of these days he is going to take a shot in rhythm from half-court.

JIM: Those logo shots are becoming routine. How many last-second shots at the end of a quarter does Curry take from half-court and beyond? Some of them go in. Some hit the rim. There’s no limit to his range.

That’s the biggest difference obviously from the game of the 60s and 70s. The three-point line came in in 1979 and changed the game.

In the 50s, 60s, 70s and into the 80s, you needed a center—a guy who could play with his back to the basket. You don’t need that anymore.

You need someone that can block shots and defensively play down low but not offensively. You don’t want them down there to clog things up.

The next thing is that they have gotten more liberal with calling traveling. They’ve kind of changed the rule. They say that they haven’t changed it, that they never did count the gather. But we couldn’t do what they do today: namely to take the gather and then take two steps.

RAY: Of all the years that you’ve been involved in the Association, do you have a favorite era? Also, is there an era that you wish you had played in?

JIM:  I love the 80s.

I loved the rivalries. It was generally the Lakers with Magic and the Celtics with Bird. In 1980, Magic’s first year, the Lakers won the championship. In ’81, the Celtics; in ’82, the Lakers win. ’83 was Philadelphia, 84 the Celtics, ’85  the Lakers, ’86 the Celtics. ’87 and ’88, it was the Lakers and then it went to Detroit in ’89 and ’90. I can watch those games all day long.

I wish I could have played in the 80s with those groups, with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The Lakers and the Celtics saved the NBA. Some bad things had been happening right before that, but the Lakers and the Celtics saved the league and put it on the map.

RAY: After last season, you switched over to radio from TV. How did that different assignment come about?

JIM: It coincided with moving to a new arena. It was time for a change, and it’s a big change. Kelenna Azabuike was emerging from NBC Sports Bay Area. It was his time.

I had done it for 34 years. And I was turning 75. They thought it was time to make a change. And of course, they tried to make this change five years previous to that but the audience wouldn’t stand for it. This time, it seemed kind of natural.

I didn’t disagree with it. It was a good time to make a change and get a 35-year-old who had played for the team in there.

RAY:  When changing your assignment was proposed five years ago, Dubs fans refused to accept that as a possibility. That was a demonstration of the admiration, respect and love that the fans had for you and your work. They said, “No, this is not going to happen.”

JIM: I was very flattered by that. I really appreciated that support. I appreciate that I had five more years and that we went to the Finals in each of them. I would have missed all of that, and that would have been very, very tough. So that was great.

RAY: Obviously, radio is a different medium. How has that affected the way that you do your job?

JIM:  My job is very different now than it was on television.

On radio, because we have listeners, not viewers, the play-by-play announcer has to paint a picture. On television, the most important person in the broadcast booth might be the analyst rather than the play-by-play guy because he has to explain why something happens.

But on the radio, the most important person is the play-by-play man, because he’s got to do 95 percent of the talking. He’s got to create excitement with his voice and his words. He’s the main star.

So I do the game accordingly. I get in little things quickly, but I cannot expound on them because the ball is up past half court right away and my broadcast partner (Tim Roye) has a responsibility to the audience because nobody is seeing it. He has to describe the action, and I’ve got to get out of his way.

RAY: Listening to you all those years, one of the things that stood out was just how well prepared you were. Preparation is so crucial to doing the job the right way. What do you do to prepare? Has that changed very much when you prepare for a game on the radio as opposed to TV?

JIM: My preparation doesn’t change much whether it’s on radio or television. I have to study the league daily to be aware of any changes.

It’s essential for me to know how that night’s opponent has been playing. I have to understand who’s been playing well and understand their system. Most importantly, I have to know the players’ strengths and weaknesses on the court.

RAY: We’ve talked before about your hectic city-to-city travel schedule. Contrasted to that, how are you adjusting during the hiatus?

JIM: I feel healthy emotionally, physically and psychologically, so I’m loving it. I hate the reason, of course.

My life is comforting and secure. I’m in a positive attitude all the time. My girlfriend and I have dinner together every night. We walk together, talk, watch movies; we just do a lot of things together.

Hopefully, the NBA finds a way to play the Playoffs. But I’m not sure it will be positive to finish the regular season. We are living in a strange world right now!

RAY: If the season resumes, games are likely to be played without fans in attendance. Have you ever broadcast in that context?

JIM: No, but sometimes I played in arenas where there were less than 2,000 fans. With no fans, it would be very difficult to create any excitement via the microphones, whether it’s TV or radio. The fans are such a big part of it.

A lot of times, they don’t need your voice.

I’m looking forward to things getting back to normal and we can once again have NBA basketball. I love my job with the Warriors!


Want more great NBA broadcaster profiles? Don’t miss Ray’s previous interview with ESPN’s Mark Jones.