Marvin “Bad News” Barnes

Marvin “Bad News” Barnes

Manchild in the Wasteland
The Village Voice
Fall 1979

If you’re driving to Boston, Rhode Island is little more than a quaint inconvenience—unless you meditate on the game.

Rhode Islanders invented the first iron hoop a few years before the turn, and in the late ‘30s, Frank Keaney introduced the fast-break, or race horse Rhode-running style at the state university. The idea caught on. Of course there is also little Providence College: from Lenny Wilkins to Ernie D, small was beautiful. And the drive up I-95 will, upon sight of the first Providence road sign, provoke thoughts of a larger man and a larger issue: as in, Marvin Barnes, as in, what happened to him, as in, remember when he…

Got thrown in the slammer for carrying a gun while on probation. The slammer in this case happens to be the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute, whose perversely colonial façade is displayed as some sort of disgusting deterrent. Continue toward Providence and you’ll pass by the south side neighborhood where Barnes grew up to lead his high school team to two state championships. Then, through downtown, you’ll slice by the antiseptic Civic Center, where a gleaming college career—disrupted only by a nearly justifiable attack on a frustrated, less talented and racist teammate, hence the probation—ended with Barnes leading the nation in rebounding (ahead of Bill Walton), a first team all-American, a top NBA pick and future all-pro, and perhaps the in-the-flesh archetype of the “strong” forward.

If you push on for another hour the highway will rise above Boston’s North End and curve around the last eastern outpost of Marvin Barnes: the Boston Garden, where he occasionally played last year. He missed six early games with what was officially reported as “persistent gastrointestinal problems,” and his flashes of brilliance on the court were tempered by an inability to get to it for practices. Red Auerbach suspended him twice for missing the daily moil and toil for which Barnes cares little, and then he waived Barnes good-bye last February. In this last NBA game he played nine minutes, had four points and two boards. No one picked him up.

Lest we forget: Marvin turned down Gene Shue’s Philly contract offer in ’74 to sign for $2.1 million with ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis, which at that time was the most ragtag, high-steppin’, funked-up, out-to-lunch bunch in all of ball. He bought a Caddy, a Benz, a Rolls, and a home for his mother. He took his woman and two high school buddies to Hawaii. He was rookie of the year. He went into the slums to play with the kids and bought them sneakers. He kept Maurice Lucas on the bench. He contributed to his high school athletic fund. He averaged 24 points and 13 rebounds a game over two years. He lent a lot of money to a lot of people. He went to Detroit when the ABA folded. He did five months in prison. He was traded to Buffalo for John Shumate. Then he finally shuffled off to Boston with owner, friend and current governor of Kentucky, John Y. Brown, in the franchise swap. In Boston he rented a grand-a-month pad for himself, his newlywed Debbie, and his baby girl Tiffany, until Auerbach—so as not to disrupt the flow of history—gave Marvin the opportunity to continue his desultory and peripatetic ways.

What Marvin’s addling career then needed, according to basic Hollywood formula was, one, a pernicious rumor; two, connubial conflicts; and three, a savior, preferably secular, since Elvin Hayes’ rebirth from “bad guy” to “forward of faith” had quite sufficiently taken care of the spiritual realm. These things came in the following order. First, a Providence friend says he’s never known Marvin to have drug problems. His wife calls these rumors “lies.” And when a lawyer friend—on the basis of such talk—suggested a doctor, Marvin said he didn’t need one. The problem with such a rumor—even if it’s purely an imaginative act by some to easily explain away Marvin’s failures—is that it does little him get back into basketball. Second, there was a (probably) temporary split with his wife and child. And third, Bill Kunstler, who met Marvin in prison while visiting a Rhode Island client in the summer of ’77. Barnes, thinking himself above it all and yet the baddest dude in bad land was having his troubles in jail; only a few sympathetic inmates who controlled the prison, says Kunstler, stopped Marvin from being cut down to size.

Kunstler agreed to represent Barnes in his effort to get back in the NBA. This Marvin attempted in San Diego where coach Shue, the NBA’s leading humanist and a believer in pure talent, offered him another chance. Which Marvin then threw away in prototypical fashion by failing to report with the rookies and free agents, turning up completely out of shape a week after the veterans reported and then , given time to work his way into shape, failing another try-out a month ago. The Clippers,in Marvin’s stead, signed someone named Steve Mallevick. “I was foolish enough to think that my being involved would help him. I overestimated my impact. Marvin fucked-up a perfect chance,” quoth Kunstler, the savior.

After last week’s deadline, clubs releasing a player must pay his entire years salary. This rule discourages clubs from pink-slipping marginal players in midyear and, on the flip side, means that outsiders have little chance of signing unless a club puts one if its players—legitimately or suspiciously—on the injured list. All of which means that Marvin Barnes, an outsider now if there ever was one, probably will not play a minute in the NBA this year. Marvin refuses to discuss his not so mellow drama, whose plot uncomfortably resembles the tragic burn-outs of other shooting stars such as Fly Williams and Raymond Lewis (both of whom, not incidentally, have been given try-outs by Shue the past two years). Though he no longer has a working relationship with the club, Barnes still calls Gene Shue.

He also still calls home. People at home—his old friends, coaches, and wife—insist Marvin is not the truculent troublemaker the newspapers have fabricated, but is a kind, good-hearted man whose generosity has been taken advantage of and whose weakness has been exploited by “the wrong people.” Except Marvin no longer just runs with the wrong crowd, the wrong crowd apparently runs Marvin.

Barnes’ choice of the “wrong” outside influences surprises only those who think that someone who is paid $2 million for bouncing a red, white and blue ball should just not have a sister serving seven-and-a-half for armed robbery. Which Barnes does. The out-of-joint status enjoyed by professional athletes convinces them that athletes should think and act like the upper class, with whom they share only a tax bracket.

Debbie Barnes never talks to her husband about what she calls “his job—he’s always known what he’s wanted to do and how he’s wanted to do it.” So she stayed behind in Providence when Marvin went to San Diego since “there was no sense me going out there until he has a job and a home for us.” And having neither, Marvin Barnes—hostage only to himself—is coming home for Christmas.