The STORY of MARVIN “BAD NEWS” BARNES
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on, our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
From now on, our troubles will be miles away
Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow …”
— Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane (orig.) but updated for Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra
A book review by TERRY LYONS
PROVIDENCE – As Christmas fast approaches, this column offers an idea for a great gift for any basketball fan, whether it be a grizzled purist from NBA and ABA days of yore, like me, or for a young, impressionable adult just embracing the game through the eyes of Lebron James or Steph Curry. The recommendation today is to buy the book – “Bad News,” the turbulent life of Marvin Barnes, Pro Basketball’s Original Renegade, by Mike Carey, but be forewarned, not every real life story ends happily.
I met Mike Carey in the early 1980s when he was covering the very beginning of the “Bird, McHale and Parish” era of the Celtics for the Boston Herald. Mike and I shared a love for ice hockey and the old American Basketball Association, as I was schooled on the Julius “Dr. J” Erving days of the Virginia Squires and the New York Nets (Hempstead, Commack and Uniondale – not Piscataway, East Rutherford) and Mike was fixated on the career of one, Marvin “Bad News” Barnes, he of Providence College, the Spirits of St. Louis and an NBA career gone bad.
These are Mike’s stories.
Carey first “became acquainted” (his words, not mine) with Marvin Barnes in 1977 when he was playing for the Detroit Pistons and Carey was the night news editor for the Boston Herald American. Carey had written a lengthy article for the Sunday edition of the paper delving into the many run-ins with the law of the former Providence College all-American player who had refused a request for an interview for that story, stating, “I don’t talk to reporters no more, you’re all scumbags.”
My view of the book can best be described as follows, noting that when I chat with Carey next, I’ll be sure to say, “You had me at scumbags,” but I was left wondering if the term was one word or two? For my readers’ benefit, I won’t spoil what came immediately after Carey’s first exchange with Barnes, a day or so after the Herald story was published.
Here’s what I will say!
Amidst an introduction that is astonishing but certainly not surprising, Carey is sure to catch your attention with a small dose of Marvin’s “Bad News” side of life, navigating his mob associations, fraternizing with pimps, drug-dealing and dosing but Carey is quick to establish the fact Barnes played three years at PC with all three resulting in NCAA Tournament bids and one trip to the NCAA Final Four, in 1973. when only 25 (not sixty-something) teams qualified for the right to play for a national championship. Only the great Bill Walton of UCLA was a better pro prospect at the time.
Barnes shocked the basketball world when, in 1974, he decided to sign a seven-year, $2.2 million dollar contract with the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis, formerly the Carolina Cougars, shunning the more secure, established NBA and its Philadelphia 76ers franchise that drafted him with the second overall pick. Barnes was the first top-three draft pick to go to the ABA.
Now for those unaware, the ABA has a great renegade reputation which seems to be increasingly embellished over the years. It was known for a more “up-tempo,” less defense, more finger-roll (see George Iceman Gervin) style of play than its NBA rival. As an everyday fan of the league, I can’t say I buy-into all the mythical stories from ABA days gone by. I enjoyed hundreds of games and saw a very competitive Nets team play damn near every night. But then again, I wasn’t traveling the beat with Marvin “Bad News” Barnes.
A Hall of Fame coach in the great Larry Brown, who will forget more basketball in five minutes this evening than I’ve learned in a lifetime of dedication and hard work behind the scenes of the game, described Barnes thusly; “Right from the start of his career, Marvin was special, one of my favorites,” said Brown, channeling his usual phrase to describe a player before coming through with the juice. “Besides having all the skils, he had unbelievable natural instincts. I had always thought Bobby Jones, who, in my opinion was the greatest defensive forward of the ‘70s and ‘80s, could stop anyone. But, he couldn’t handle Marvin.”
That statement, sends shivers down my spine. That statement to basketball aficionados provokes a HOLY S%*T reaction. As does the rest of this book, by the way.
Carey captures it all. Barnes’ floppy hats, his leather bells, his parading around town with the most gorgeous women in his silver, glistening Rolls-Royce with a red mobile phone long before ANYONE had a mobile phone (and it cost him $2,700 a month to buy it). He goes back to the beginning and takes you through a ride in that Rolls. It’s a ride that is exciting and astonishing but incredibly predictable and ultimately sad. He takes you through the college recruiting, past a never-considered look (by coach John Wooden) to the only college hoops dynasty of UCLA, to the U of Cincinnati to PC.
He brings you to Barnes’ pro basketball career, explained in perfect detail, noting Barnes’ infatuation with the lifestyle of hardened criminals which led Bad News to carry not one but two guns at all times. Now, these are not stereotypes and they aren’t tall tales. They are the truth, from multiple sources, including Barnes himself. In fact, Carey passes along insights from the time of Barnes’ imprisonment when he would call collect “three or four times a week,” to talk sports and of his experiences behind bars. That relationship, which continued after Marvin’s release, endured through a time when Carey was asked to be godfather of Barnes’ infant daughter, as they remained close, “through one incredible crisis after another,” said Carey, “through self-destructiveness that (Carey) would discover, was the essence of Marvin, a perpetually misguided soul who would never secure a firm grip on life.”
Get the book, my friends, and have yourself a Merry little Christmas, now.
Please see this site for more information and to purchase the book: https://www.amazon.com/Bad-News-Turbulent-Basketball%C2%92s-Original/dp/1613219636