RIP Marvin “Bad News” Barnes – Basketball Great Ruined by Drugs


I began this blog post to praise ESPN’s 30 for 30 Documentary “Free Spirits” which focuses on the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis.  The documentary captures the excitement and craziness of the ABA, which the Spirits’ star Marvin “Bad News” Barnes personified.

Sadly, before I finished it, its star and one of the greatest basketball players in Rhode Island history died today in his home in Providence at the age of 62.

Marvin was part of the greatest team in Providence College history that many die-hard fans still believe could have beaten Bill Walton led UCLA in 1973 had Barnes not fallen injured in the semifinals.  To this day, that is the most thrilling season of basketball I ever watched.  See Related Post – Champions: 1973 Providence College Friars

But his career and his life were shortened by drug use.  From Pro Hoops History: The Fall of Marvin Barnes:  Yeah, I was doing it on the bench,” Barnes said. “I was playing for the [Boston] Celtics, and I was sitting next to Nate Archibald and somebody else, and I was snorting cocaine right there on the bench while the game was going on.

“They all moved away from me. I had it under a towel. I guess I don’t need to say that my career didn’t last much longer after that.”

A Brief Flash of Brilliance

BarnesLayupMarvin Barnes is certainly one of the greatest players I have seen.  Bob Costas, who was hired as the Spirits play-by-play man fresh out of college, believes Barnes was one of the all time greats, explaining: there’s no doubt in my mind that had he not screwed himself up, he would have been one of the best 50 players ever in the NBA.

In the clip below, Costas calls the game as Barnes scores 33 against 7-1 Artis Gilmore and the Kentucky Colonels in 1976.

From Slam Magazine: Original Old School: The Year of Living Dangerously:  For one year of Marvin Barnes life it could be said that the 6-9, 220-pound forward was the best basketball player in the world. For one year it could be argued that there was no one better in either the NBA or ABA. For one year there was no denying that Marvin Barnes, and everything that came with him, was worth it. For one year.

“I don’t want him around!” the coach screamed. “I don’t want him in uniform. This is a job and the way we make our living…But you’ve got to abide by the rules. And if you have to depend on Barnes for your livelihood, you have a problem.” Those were the words of Dave Cowens, reported by the AP in ’78. Cowens, then player-coach for the Boston Celtics, had the luxury of working with Marvin Barnes for less than one year. By the time Barnes got to Boston, he had already worn out his welcome at two other NBA teams, the Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks.

. . . .Marvin Barnes’s pro career lasted about eight years. He finished on a 10-day contract with the San Diego Clippers in ’81 after playing in Trieste, Italy for a minute. His dreams of being the next Dr. J. only held true for one season—his first, when, if not for the drama, he might have been able to add an MVP trophy to his Rookie-of-the-Year hardware. 

. . .“Once,” Jones remembers in Loose Balls, a book chronicling the misadventures of the ABA. “[Barnes] spent the entire pre-game lay-up drill in full uniform, sitting in the stands, talking to this girl. MacKinnon ripped into Marvin for that and didn’t start him. Then he brought Marvin off the bench and Marvin went for 40 points and 20-some rebounds.

“[Marvin] thought he was Superman, and for a while he was.” On April 9, ’75, in Game 2 of the first-round of the playoffs, on the night Marvin received the Rookie-of-the-Year award over Bobby Jones and a 20-year-old high school refugee named Moses Malone, he had to face his idol, Erving. In straight Greek mythillogical (sic) fashion, after scoring 41 in the first game (a loss), Marvin dropped a 37-point, 17-rebound night on Erving, while defensively holding Doc (with the help of Gerard) to only six points. The Spirits beat the defending ABA champion Nets 115-97. It was one of those nights that people’s grandkids would hear about for years to come. Of the 10,621 that attended that game, all got a glimpse of Barnes true ability.

If anything, that game and that series put Marvin Barnes on the map.

. . . Another story: Someone told Marvin that he was going to play against this cat named Caldwell Jones in one particular game. Defensively, the 6-11 Jones was supposed to be something special, someone who could stop Marvin. Barnes took the challenge personally and blazed Jones for 51 points and 30 rebounds in a game that is still talked about among old ABA diehards.

That one ABA year was Marvin Barnes’s legacy.

Gavitt3-lgMarvin Barnes

As a 6’8″ forward, Barnes played at Providence College. In 1973, he was the first player to score 10 times on 10 field goal attempts in the NCAA playoffs, and remains tied for second behind Kenny Walker, who went 11-for-11 in 1986.He led the nation in rebounding in 1973-74. On December 15, 1973, Barnes scored 52 points againstAustin Peay, breaking the single-game school record.

Barnes was part of the 1973 Providence College team that went to the Final Four.  In the semi-final game against Memphis State, Providence’s fast break offense sprinted to a double digit lead in what was beginning to look like a potential blow out when disaster struck.  Barnes, who averaged 18.3 points and 19 rebounds (compared to 20.4 points and 16.9 rebounds for Bill Walton) and who scored 12 points in the first 11 minutes of the game, injured his knee and would not be able to play the rest of the tournament.

He was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers with the second overall pick in the first round of the 1974 NBA Draft and by the Spirits of St. Louis in the 1974 ABA Draft. Barnes opted for the ABA and played for the Spirits in the American Basketball Association from 1974 to 1976 before playing in the National Basketball Association from 1976 to 1980. He had his greatest success in the ABA, where he starred for the Spirits and was named Rookie of the Year for the 1974–75 season. He also shares the ABA record for most two-point field goals in a game, with 27. In 2005, the ABA 2000, the second incarnation of the ABA, named one of their divisions after him.

His nickname, “Bad News,” came from his frequent off-court problems, which began when he was a senior at Central High School. He was part of a gang that attempted to rob a bus. He was quickly identified as he was wearing his state championship jacket with his name embroidered on it. His case was handled by the juvenile justice system. In 1972, while playing center for Providence College, he attacked a teammate with a tire iron. He later pled guilty to assault, paid the victim $10,000 and was placed on probation. He violated probation in October 1976 when an unloaded gun was found in his bag at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and served 152 days in Rhode Island state prison.Upon release he returned to the Detroit Pistons. He has been arrested for burglary, drug possession, and trespassing. Because of his drug use, his NBA career was cut short and he wound up homeless in San Diego, California in the early 1980s. After multiple rehab programs, he started reaching out to youth in South Providence, where he grew up, urging them not to make the same mistakes he had.

In March 2008, Providence College retired his jersey, honoring him along with Ernie DiGregorio and Jimmy Walker. He still co-holds (since tied by Marshon Brooks) the school single-game scoring record of 52 points.

The Spirits of St. Louis

From:  Wikipedia:

spiritstlouisThe Spirits (who took their name from the Atlantic Ocean-crossing plane flown by Charles Lindbergh) were the third incarnation of a franchise that was once known as the Houston Mavericks and later the Carolina Cougars. Despite their history, they essentially were an expansion team, as there was just one holdover from the Cougars.

The Spirits were a colorful team featuring a number of players, both on and off the court, who were fairly successful in their basketball careers. Among them were Moses Malone, acquired during their second season, who went on to a long and successful career in the NBA, culminating in enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Maurice Lucas spent most of his time in the ABA as a Spirit, then later became an all-star in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers. Other well-known players that played for the team included former Boston Celtics sixth man Don Chaney, future Celtics head coach M.L. Carr, and Ron Boone, who held the record for consecutive games played in pro basketball for many years. One of the most colorful players on the team was forward Marvin Barnes, famous for stories about his off-court behavior and lack of understanding of time zones.

A couple of off-court personalities from the team became well known as well. One of the coaches in 1975 was former NBA player Rod Thorn, who became the NBA’s vice president of basketball operations (or, in essence, the No. 2 man behind commissioner David Stern) for a number of years. On radio, the team featured Bob Costas as an announcer. Costas would go on to a highly successful career working for NBC television and radio.

After a slow start in their inaugural season, 1974–75, the Spirits reached the playoffs with a late rush, then upset the defending ABA champion New York Nets in the first round of the playoffs. But the team squandered this good start the following year. Despite inheriting several players (including Malone) from the Utah Stars after that franchise failed in the middle of the season, the Spirits finished well out of playoff contention in 1975-76 as attendance in St. Louis dwindled. At season’s end, negotiations were under way to move the franchise to Salt Lake City, Utah, and rename the team the Utah Rockies.

In the summer of 1976, with the ABA at the point of financial collapse after nine years, the six surviving franchises (the Virginia Squires went bankrupt immediately after the final season) began negotiating a merger with the NBA. But the senior circuit decided to accept only four teams from the rival league: the Nets (the last ABA champion), Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs.

The NBA placated John Y. Brown, owner of the Kentucky Colonels, by giving him a $3.3 million settlement in exchange for shutting his team down. (Brown later used much of that money to buy the Buffalo Braves of the NBA.) But the owners of the Spirits, the brothers Ozzie and Dan Silna, struck a prescient deal to acquire future television money from the teams that joined the NBA, a one-seventh share from each franchise, in perpetuity. With network TV deals becoming more and more lucrative, the deal has made the Silnas wealthy, earning them $186 million as of 2008, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and $255 million as of 2012 according to the New York Times. (The NBA nearly succeeded in buying out the Silnas in 1982 by offering $5 million over eight years, but negotiations stalled when the siblings demanded $8 million over five.) On June 27, 2007, it was extended for another eight years, ensuring another $100 million-plus windfall for the Silnas. In 2014, the Silnas reached agreement with the NBA to end the perpetual payments and take a lump sum of $500 million instead. In the last few years of the deal, the Silnas were receiving $14.57 million a year, despite being owners of a team that hadn’t played one minute of basketball in more than 35 years.


2 thoughts on “RIP Marvin “Bad News” Barnes – Basketball Great Ruined by Drugs

  1. Excellent book about Barnes and his struggles with drug addiction. It’s title is Bad News: The Turbulent Life of Marvin Barnes, Pro Basketball’s Original Renegade, Well worth reading.

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