Rick Barry is an unusual person. He’s not known less for being a 12-time all-star and a lethal scorer than for his painfully accurate “granny-style” free-throws. His play was graceful as a swan, but he still managed to come across as a stiff. Even ensconced in the glorious, garish 1970s basketball dress code of short-shorts, knee socks, and wristbands, he looked blander than his free-throws. Rick Barry is equal parts basketball superhero and condescending computer guy (the one who makes you feel bad for not remembering how to log in to your computer, or rolls his eyes when you don’t know which printer to send a document to). Rick Barry is not a hall of famer; he’s a contradiction.
In a 1983 Sports Illustrated interview, a former teammate said about him: “If you got to know Rick, you’d have realized what a good guy he was. But around the league they thought of him as the most arrogant guy ever. Half the players disliked Rick. The other half hated him.”
Rick Barry’s skill conflicted with his personality to such a degree that it caused the coolest/saddest event ever to unfold during a playoff game. Barry’s Golden State Warriors were taking on the Phoenix Suns during a decisive game seven of the 1976 NBA semifinals.
Early in the first quarter, Barry got into a scuffle with Ricky Sobers of the Suns. Punches were thrown, words were exchanged, but play resumed and all seemed forgotten. Then, after half time, Barry took to the court looking lost and almost uninterested in the crucial game he was playing. According to legend, Barry saw a replay of the fight on a monitor at halftime and what he saw infuriated him. He felt that his teammates barely attempted to help during the fight, choosing instead to kind of just watch him get punched in the face for a while before weakly intervening. Barry felt so wronged by his teammates that he decided to make a statement.
Despite being the team’s best scorer, despite playing in an elimination game and despite being a grown man, team conflict had boiled over to the degree that Rick Barry had to take a stand. Barry came out for the second half but decided to do something so odd, so divisive, so passive-aggressive, that only Jake Cutler could understand. Rick Barry refused to shoot the ball for the entire third quarter and into the fourth. A 48-42 lead rotted into a 94-86 loss.
I hope the story isn’t true. I hope what really happened was that Barry had a cramp or a sprain and he was playing harder than we realize. Maybe he was concussed by a blow to the head. Maybe he had a premonition that if they won and had to play Boston in the finals, a terrible accident would happen to his team. Maybe it was all of the above.
If the story is true, a 32-year-old man acted out like a hurt child (like the coach’s kid at the end of Bad News Bears). Why? Maybe Rick Barry was just a mean, unstable guy, or perhaps there was pre-existing context of savage mistrust and toxic team chemistry. Before we blame Rick Barry, we have to ask: Was it right for his team to abandon him the way they did?
Before we blame Rick Barry, we have to ask:
Was it right for his team to abandon him
the way they did?
Last week in Parshas Matos, Moshe Rabbeinu allowed Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe to claim land just outside Eretz Yisrael on condition that they fought to settle Eretz Yisrael for the rest of klal Yisrael first. Our values are such that we cannot abandon someone else’s cause in favor of personal interest or convenience. Sometimes we have to go to battle for a brother, a friend, or a teammate.
The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is well known, but what gets overlooked is how so many bystanders at the party looked on as Bar Kamtza desperately tried to coax his way out of being publicly humiliated. A fellow Jew was being cruelly cast off and nobody thought to speak up. It’s not just a tale of a nasty host and a vindictive enemy; it’s a societal tipping point where we clearly no longer felt obligated to look out for one another. When people are made to feel unwanted, they can end up doing terrible things. To this day, we’re on the wrong side of that tipping point, keeping too many brothers and friends on the outside rather than bringing them close.
Did the Warriors understand the depths of the animosity they felt towards their star teammate? Did they try to make things right? Every relationship has a breaking point, and that night in front of 20,000 fans at The Oracle Arena, the Warriors as a team found it; one of their own players was attacked and, for a full minute, they did almost nothing to stop it. Sometimes when things break down, the fallout can be ugly. The pain of a spurned person can be enormous. This is not a basketball story; it’s a life story that happened to unfold while playing basketball. Rick Barry is a contradiction and so are we.
The Gemara in Yoma teaches that the Second Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of baseless hatred. The Nesivos Shalom explains that the Beis HaMikdash only exists when there is love, peace, and friendship in klal Yisrael, only when we are as one can we experience Hashem’s presence in His Temple. The prolonged wait for Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash is not a matter of crime and punishment; it’s just Hashem waiting for us to unite. Hashem is our father; we have to be his children and, to do that, we have to see each other as brothers and sisters, indispensible, vital members of a family. Until we do that, no Beis HaMikdash. This is why each generation that does not rebuild the Beis HaMikdash shares the blame for destroying it. It’s on us. It’s time for everyone to start playing for the same team.
Simcha Loiterman is a resident of Kew Gardens Hills. He is available for speaking engagements and presentations or a cup of coffee and a good talk. He would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels very strongly that you can learn from everyone because we all have stories to tell, lessons to teach, and can kindle a spark of goodness inside. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in “Life.” Visit his blog at thisisloit.wordpress.com to learn more of his ideas and opinions about our beautiful world.