'Bad News' Always Made Headlines
That was his second highest-paying job.
In several interviews this fall with FanHouse, the talented big man, who would become an NBA washout, talked about how drugs wrecked his career. But he also revealed how he was heavily involved in the trafficking of them.
"I was making 40 to 50 grand a week with the drugs,'' said Barnes, who is working on a book with New England writer Mike Carey and offered some details on his life. "I was making so much money (in the selling of marijuana) it was hard to stay focused (on basketball).''
Barnes said he served as an investor with drug kingpin Paul Edward Hindelang Jr., who would later cooperate with the government and forfeit $50 million in drug-trafficking proceeds. Barnes said Hindelang's right-hand man was Roosevelt Becton, a friend of the basketball player whom he describes as the "godfather'' who "ran St. Louis.''
"Hindelang was the guy who started the 'mother ship,' which would park five miles away and boats would shoot for the (Colombia) shore,'' Barnes said. "He got a two-ton freighter a bunch of us (contributed for financially). Then it would go down and buy two tons of Colombian marijuana.
"It was the best marijuana. We bought it from the Colombian government for a dollar a pound ... I was investing money (in the operation).''
Barnes said he only trafficked in marijuana. He said a sample investment would be providing $25,000 and getting $25,000 of marijuana at the wholesale price.
Barnes said the marijuana sold for $500 a pound on the street, but "$300 if we like you.'' Barnes didn't sell the drugs himself. He said he had people he knew sell it.
Barnes was doing plenty of drugs himself. He said his non-stop partying, fueled by cocaine and alcohol, destroyed his career. After the ABA folded in 1976, he averaged a mere 9.2 points in four NBA seasons and was out of the league in 1980 at age 27.
"I was one of the five best players on the planet, period"
"I would have been one of the 50 greatest players of all time,'' said Barnes, 57, who now works with at-risk teenagers in his Men to Men program in his hometown of Providence, R.I., telling them the pitfalls of drugs. "I was one of the five best players on the planet period (with St. Louis). Just ask anybody (from) back then ... I was kicking some butt. ... But I was going on a downhill spiral. I met drug traffickers in St. Louis and they showed me another way of life. And that was detrimental to my basketball career.''
Ask Larry Brown, now Charlotte's coach, who went against Barnes in the ABA while leading the Denver Nuggets. Did Barnes have the potential to be top 50, referring to the all-time NBA list revealed in 1996-97 on the NBA's 50th anniversary?
"Oh, no doubt,'' Brown said. "He was as good as anybody in the ABA.''
For years, the 6-foot-9 power forward and center, nicknamed "Bad News,'' was able to overcome many troubles and his general zaniness and put up big numbers.
Barnes was an All-American at Providence College, where he got into trouble for allegedly hitting teammate Larry Ketvirtis with a tire iron. Barnes claims the story isn't true, that he punched Ketvirtis after practice in response to an earlier elbow from his teammate. He said he later returned with a tire iron to prevent further trouble.
Nevertheless, Barnes, who said he paid Ketvirtis $10,000 for medical damages, eventually pleaded guilty. He said he did it to avoid the possibility of jail time, which cleared him to become a pro. He got three years probation.
Barnes was taken by Philadelphia with the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, behind only Bill Walton. But he elected to sign with the ABA's Spirits.
Barnes averaged 24.0 points and 15.6 rebounds and was named ABA Rookie of the Year, then put up 24.1 points and 10.8 rebounds his second season. As dominant as Barnes was on the court, he was as quirky off it.
"Never fear, Marvin's here."
There is the legendary story about the Spirits getting ready to depart on a flight that left Louisville, Ky., at 8 p.m. and would get into St. Louis at 7:56 p.m. due to a time-zone change. Upon looking at the schedule, Barnes said, "I ain't getting on no time machine,'' and rented a car for the trip.
The happy-go-lucky Barnes said the tale is true. But he has said another one is his favorite.
"I was in New York once and I didn't want to leave with the team in the morning,'' Barnes said. "I had two girls with me and I partied all night. So I rented me a Lear jet to fly down to Virginia (where the Spirits were playing). I put on my uniform underneath a cashmere coat.
"I came into the arena right before the game with a hamburger and french fries. I took my jacket off and said, 'Never fear. Marvin's here.' I got benched for the first quarter, but in the final three quarters I scored like 48 points (actually 53). Then I made the owner and the general manager pay the pilot, who had come with me in the cab to the game, $1,500 for fuel.''
Barnes wasn't always indestructible.
Joe Caldwell, a Spirits teammate in 1974-75, remembers Barnes once gulping down fried chicken, red beans and rice and a soda right before tipoff. Caldwell said by the second quarter Barnes was in "slow motion'' and ineffective the rest of the game.
Caldwell recalls another of Barnes' quirks.
"He had 13 phones in his house,'' Caldwell said of Barnes always wanting to be able to answer the phone with as little movement as possible.
Barnes apparently had plenty of people to talk with outside basketball. While in St. Louis, he was continuing to fall in deeper with the group headed by Hindelang.
A 2002 Wall Street Journal story discussed how Hindelang, once an East St. Louis public-school teacher, helped pioneer the "mother ship'' smuggling technique. After the freighter was full of Colombian dope, it was transferred on the ocean to a handful of medium-sized boats and eventually to smaller craft that blended in with recreation boaters for the trip to American soil.
After a 1981 arrest, Hindelang cooperated with authorities and was sentenced to 10 years, although he served just 30 months. His $50 million payment to the government didn't come to light until 2001 after Hindelang had started Pacific Coin, a lucrative Los Angles pay phone company.
Drug charges landed Becton a 25-year sentence, with Barnes saying he served 19 years and that he has visited Becton in St. Louis since his release. As for Barnes, who was in and out of prison four times for drug, theft and assault charges, he never was charged with involvement in Hindelang's group.
That doesn't mean he never was questioned.
"One day I was playing for the Boston Celtics, and there's a knock on my door and it's the IRS and FBI and Treasury Department,'' said Barnes, who played with the Celtics in 1978-79. "They ask me to sit down and asked me questions. Of course, I lied and said I didn't remember. They opened up this briefcase and this guy who looked like Clark Kent and had glasses pulled out a big thick book. He had phone conversations, hotel receipts and he proceeded to show where I had lied.''
With Barnes saying authorities wanted him to testify against Becton, he said he "disappeared" from the Celtics. He was waived by Boston on Feb. 7, 1979 but returned to the NBA with the San Diego Clippers the following season for a 20-game stint.
In the ABA, Barnes was able to star despite all his problems. But everything started to catch up with him after the ABA folded and he joined the NBA's Detroit Pistons in 1976.
"We went and got him out of prison"
"There's no question he would have been one of the best (NBA players ever), but he just didn't understand all of the stuff that went (with being an NBA player),'' said Herb Brown, Larry's brother who coached Barnes with the Pistons in 1976-77 and for the first part of 1977-78. "If he'd been playing now, the way the NBA takes care of the players, making sure they handle everything, it would have really helped him.''
Herb Brown, now a Bobcats assistant under his brother, said Barnes was "very generous but probably to a fault.'' He described how 20 to 25 kids would follow Barnes around when he came to the arena for games and he would buy them food.
Although Barnes said during his Detroit years he "would stay up all night getting high on cocaine,'' his coach doesn't recall any specific instances in which he knew Barnes was doing drugs. Herb Brown also doesn't recall Barnes or any other players bringing guns to games, but Barnes said that was a regular occurrence.
"I would carry a .38 in one arm and a .45 in another,'' Barnes said. "Guys would hang their pistols up in the locker room. They called us the Detroit Hoodlums. (A lot of the players) carried guns. It was a normal thing.''
An Oct. 24, 1977 Sports Illustrated article detailed how Barnes was caught Oct. 9, 1976 at the airport with an unloaded pistol in his luggage, a probation violation that would land him in prison for five months between the 1976-77 and 1977-78 seasons. Fittingly, after his release, he departed in a Rolls Royce.
Herb Brown does remember some of Barnes' visits to jail.
"I went to prisons and actually, with (star center) Bob Lanier and (Pistons executive) Oscar Feldman, we went and got him out of prison,'' he said. "I don't know what the offense was. I think he got caught breaking the terms of his probation. So he was in jail and he had to spend some time. He even lived with me for five days (once).
"I went back to jail after a game (after) his girl and he were driving somewhere. And his girl was driving his car and they hit a brick wall and did some damage to the car and the wall. When the police came, he said he was driving the car even though he wasn't. And that's why he went to jail. That's the kind of guy he was.''
Herb Brown said all Barnes' "distractions'' resulted in him often being out of shape, contributing to his downward spiral. After averaging 9.6 points in 1976-77 and 10.0 points in Detroit's first 10 games of 1977-78, Barnes was dealt to Buffalo.
"We traded Marvin and he hadn't yet reported,'' said Herb Brown. "At the end of the first quarter, he walked around (Detroit's) Cobo Arena with a black hat, a cape and dressed in black waving to the fans because he loved them.''
Barnes would not have many highlights in Buffalo, Boston and San Diego, his stops in his final three seasons. Barnes' drug problems continued, he suffered a leg injury, and he was a shell of his former self.
"When a guy is playing that well and then all of sudden his performance drops and that dude is suffering, you know there's a reason behind it,'' guard Fatty Taylor, who played against Barnes in the ABA before facing him in the NBA, said of rumors of Barnes' drug problems. "All of a sudden you know something is wrong.''
It got so bad for Barnes he was snorting cocaine at the arena on game nights. He said he even did it once on the Celtics' bench.
"When I was playing in the NBA, I would do it at halftime,'' Barnes said. "(Only one) time it was done on the bench. I had a towel over my head and (Celtics guard) Don Chaney and other guys kept looking away as I snorted.''
Soon, it was all over for Barnes. He was out of the NBA after a sad stint with the Clippers in which he averaged 3.2 points.
Barnes did get a final NBA feeler from Larry Brown, when he was coaching the Nets from 1981-83. But he kicked away that chance,
"He's one of my favorites,'' said Larry Brown, who was said by Herb Brown to have sent money to Barnes at times over the years. "He was the only guy (defensive star) Bobby Jones couldn't guard in the ABA. I wanted Marvin to come back with New Jersey after he had some problems. I begged my owner, Mr. (Joe) Taub, to let Marvin play. We were going to sign him and then a big bill (run up by Barnes) came in at the hotel and my owner got a little bent out of joint.''
Barnes had stints in the minor-league Continental Basketball Association with Detroit, Ohio and Evansville from 1982-85. But, with his skills continuing to erode, he was mostly a novelty act who never averaged better than 7.8 points in a season.
"I look back with regret,'' Barnes said of his career. "I think I could have been one of the best ever. I was Rookie of the Year and I made the All-Star team (in both his ABA seasons). Everything had come so easy for me. I was destroying 7-footers like Artis Gilmore and (6-9) Dan Issel. I was destroying those guys, and I was beating Moses Malone too. And Bobby Jones.''
All of the above players went on to star in the NBA. But not Barnes.
"I'm thankful to be alive''
He eventually was homeless, broke, was in and out of prison for stints totaling about seven years and made countless visits to drug rehabilitation clinics. But Barnes said he's now sober and a changed man.
"I'm thankful to be alive,'' he said. "I don't smoke. I don't drink. I don't go to nightclubs.''
For much of this decade, Barnes has worked with the Rebound Foundation, which helps at-risk youths in his hometown of Providence. And Providence College, which he helped lead to the Final Four in 1973, paid him the ultimate tribune by retiring his uniform No. 24 in 2008.
Barnes did have a slip-up in May 2007 when he was arrested on a cocaine charge. Barnes claims he took the rap for a woman who had a "$10 bag of coke'' in his car that police found parked alongside the highway after it ran out of gas. Barnes, who did admit to some relapses around that time but said he's been fully sober since, said he completed a one-year probation period, which included a drug program, with no difficulties.
Now, Barnes, in the Men to Men program that is part of the Rebound Foundation, preaches to ninth graders to avoid trouble. Meeting from 3:30-5 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, a group of about a dozen hears stories of Barnes' life and he brings in guests.
"We had three guys from drug rehab,'' Barnes said of one session this fall. "There was a black guy who had done 18 years in prison who was like 35. There was (a Hispanic), 45, who had a bullet wound in his head and this (19-year-old) black guy who had been shot four or five times in his torso.
"They talked about prison life and how they were wrong. One of the guys had real bad hepatitis C from shooting dope. One guy was a member of a gang. ... They scared my boys. They talked about rape in prison and homosexuality. They kept it raw. We want to be real with these kids.''
But Barnes said he makes a point of emphasizing the positive as much as the negative. He said he has friends "on the other side of the spectrum,'' and has brought in a doctor, lawyer, dentist, businessman and a mortician to talk about success.
Barnes once had plenty of success on the hardwood. It's been more than three decades since he was a star, but those associated with the ABA never will forget him.
"He had the capability of being a top-10 to top-five player (in the NBA during the 1970s),'' said Nuggets coach George Karl, who faced Barnes as an ABA and NBA player. "He was one of those 6-9 athletes that could do most anything. He could run and post up and he was also good on the perimeter. He was incredibly good, but I don't know if 82 games was his forte.''
Barnes doesn't deny it often was hard to stay motivated. After all, while he was starring for the Spirits, he was making a lot more with his side job.