On this day 37 years ago, the San Diego Clippers signed Marvin Barnes. It was a decision that raised more than a few eyebrows around the league.
By Mick Minas
At the time when the Clippers signed Marvin Barnes for the remainder of the 1979-80 season, he had been out of the NBA for over 12 months. This extended period on the sidelines should have set alarm bells ringing in the minds of head coach Gene Shue and the rest of the Clippers’ brains trust. Here was an extremely talented player who was just 27 years of age, yet no one was interested in having him on their roster. “Everyone thought I was crazy for taking a chance on him,” Shue said. The reason every other NBA team elected to steer clear of Barnes was that he was a well-known drug user with a long history of erratic behavior.
During his time at Providence, it was alleged that Barnes hit a teammate, Larry Ketvirtis, with a tire iron. This resulted in him pleading guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and receiving a suspended one year jail sentence. Although, Barnes claimed that he actually punched Ketvirtis and said the tire iron, which he had stashed in some nearby bushes, was only brandished to prevent the fight from escalating further. “All I wanted to do was keep the guy from charging at me,” Barnes said. “Just like an animal trainer uses a chair and a whip to hold off a lion from mauling him.”
In his first professional season playing for the Spirits of St. Louis, Barnes got into a dispute with management over the terms of his contract and walked out on the team. For two weeks, no one knew where he was or if he would ever play for the Spirits again. Barnes was eventually located in a pool hall in Dayton, Ohio and he re-joined the Spirits after receiving an assurance that his contract would be re-written.
After the NBA-ABA merger, Barnes’ rights were picked up by the Detroit Pistons. During his brief stay in Michigan, he was arrested for carrying a handgun through a metal detector at Detroit’s Metro Airport. This resulted in him spending four months in jail, although the judge allowed him to finish the 1976-77 season before serving his time.
His final stop before arriving in San Diego was with the Celtics. By this time, his drug use had become so brazen that he even snorted cocaine on the bench during a game, with nothing but a towel draped over his head for the purposes of concealment. Thus it came as no surprise when Barnes was cut by the Celtics in the middle of the 1978-79 season.
However, my favorite Marvin Barnes story came from the opening weeks of the 1974-75 ABA season. Barnes had just scored 48 points, yet despite this individual brilliance, the Spirits still lost to the San Diego Conquistadors. In the locker room after the game, Barnes was lamenting the Spirits’ lack of team unity whilst chatting with Bob Costas, who had just started his career in sports broadcasting. Costas initially thought that this may represent some sort of turning point for Barnes, who was widely regarded as a selfish player at the time. But as Barnes continued, Costas realized just how far off the mark he was. “We don’t care about each other,” said Barnes. “Let me give you an example- Tonight, I had 48 points with two minutes to go. Did anybody pass me the ball so I could get 50? No, they just kept the ball to themselves and I got stuck at 48. Stuff like that, that’s what’s wrong with these guys.”
Marvin Barnes passed away in 2014 from acute cocaine and heroin intoxication. He was 62 years old.
To read more about Marvin Barnes' time with the Clippers in THE CURSE: The Colorful & Chaotic History of the LA Clippers, click here.
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