Before the Knicks had Clyde and the Pearl in the “Rolls Royce Backcourt,” they had Dick Barnett.
Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe may rank as the best guard tandem in NBA history, but Barnett and his “Fall Back, Baby” jump shot, below left, brought the Knicks back to respectability and pointed them towards a pair of the NBA championships.
The Gary, Indiana native, a three-time All-America player at Tennessee State, was the first draft pick of the Syracuse Nationals in 1959. He played two years with the Nats and three with the Lakers.
In between was a one-year stint with the Cleveland Pipers, who Barnett led to the ABL Championship in 1962. (The owner of the Cleveland team was former Yankee owner George Steinbrenner.)
Barnett came to New York in October of 1965 in a trade that sent forward Bob Boozer to the Lakers.
It was during his nine years in New York that Barnett made his mark. He joined a Knicks team that featured center Walt Bellamy, top draft pick Jim “Bad News” Barnes, and a second-round pick out of Grambling named Willis Reed.
Knicks on The Rise
The Knicks would finish last in the Eastern Conference for the seventh straight year in 1965-66, but they were getting better. And Barnett was a big part of the story. He averaged a career-high 23.1 points that year, and two seasons later made the NBA All-Star team.
The Knicks would win their first NBA Championship in 1970. Barnett, starting in the backcourt with Clyde Frazier, averaged 14.9 points per game in the regular season, 16.9 points in the playoffs.
In the clinching Game Seven against the Lakers, the game where Reed walked on the Madison Square Garden court to inspire his teammates and fans, Barnett scored 21 points as the Knicks won the NBA title.
Barnett remained a starter until the Knicks acquired the Pearl in 1972. He finished his career with another Knickerbocker championship in 1973. In all, Barnett played in five NBA Finals, three with the Knicks and two with the Lakers.
Barnett never averaged less than 12 points per game in his first dozen years, and finished his NBA career with a 15.8 scoring average and 15,358 total points. He was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame, along with his coach John McClendon, on the strength of their three successive NAIA national championships at Tennessee State.
After his career, Barnett received a PhD in education at Fordham, and retired from teaching sports management at St. John’s in 2007. He was recently feted at Knicks Legends night at Madison Square Garden.
Dick Barnett’s number #12 hangs from the Garden rafters.