First in a two-part series
Jim Barnett will be the first to tell you that he’s “seen it all” during his long association with the NBA, first as a player for seven franchises (1966-77) and since the 1985-86 campaign as a popular color commentator on the Golden State Warriors’ TV broadcasts.
Maybe that’s why some folks’ nonstop analysis or daily breakdown of the Warriors’ pursuit of another title or single-season win record is as stale as day-old bread to him.
Barnett, a University of Oregon alum, teams up with play-by-play man Bob Fitzgerald for Warriors games on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and considers him a terrific partner.
“You’ve got to work together as a team and you’ve got to be on the same frequency, if you will,” Barnett said by phone from California about his longtime partner. “The strength of Bob Fitzgerald, he is excellent in front of the camera. He’s excellent with his word usage. He’s excellent with his delivery, his enthusiasm, his knowledge not only of basketball or all sports — when you’re a broadcaster, a lot of things come into play; you have to know what’s going on in the world, you have to know history, you have to know politics, you have to know everything, because all of this stuff comes into play.
“You’ve got to be versatile, and Bob Fitzgerald is about the most versatile guy that could ever be behind the microphone, and essentially he makes it easy for me. He sets everything up.”
Barnett, who broke into the NBA with the Boston Celtics the year player-coach Bill Russell had taken over for legendary mentor Red Auerbach on the bench, is an astute observer. He’s earned praise from experts who pay attention to the NBA, such as Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle, who in a 2013 column described Barnett’s work as “first rate from the beginning.”
“I consider myself to be a teacher and inform people of what is really going on and why something worked or why something failed to work, because I’m a student of the game,” Barnett, a former shooting guard/small forward noted. “I had great coaching throughout my high school and college career in those formative years, and I understand how to play the game.
“I understand how to play both ends of the floor, and I understand very specifically and all the nuances of the game and where you are talking about spacing, where you are and where you should be, offensively, defensively, when you should move, how you should move, what foot should be forward.”
Barnett’s broadcasting career had modest beginnings. He first worked on college hoop telecasts, including Pac-10 Conference games.
In 1986, Barnett submitted a tape of a college game he had done (“I had never viewed the tape”) to Roger Blaemire, who was in charge of broadcasting for the Warriors, who had just gone through an ownership change.
The rest is history. At the start, broadcasting supplemented Barnett’s income. He was paid $400 a game for 20 games’ work in ’86. When he started serving on Warriors telecasts, he still worked in specialty advertising, selling a wide range of merchandise that gets imprinted, such as coffee mugs, pens, programs and brochures, before the TV job became his full-time gig.
It’s been a remarkable run for Barnett, who witnessed the team’s magical 2014-15 championship season from courtside and the 73-win record campaign that ended a victory short of a title last June.
And it almost came to an end in 2014, when his broadcasting career appeared finished due to an expiring contract. But Barnett, who was born in Greenville, South Carolina, and attended high school in Riverside, California, had built up a reservoir of goodwill within the Bay Area community.
His work mattered to people, his insights about the game and impressive knowledge of the Warriors and the league still resonated with the general public.
The plan for Barnett to retire never materialized.
So when I asked what’s been the biggest compliment he’s received about his work over the years, Barnett looked back on this chapter of his career with appreciation.
“I guess the biggest compliment would have to be three years ago when I was going to retire, and there was an outcry on social media and we’ve got such a great ownership group that they listened, and they brought me back and I did not have to retire,” he said without hesitation.
“I was convinced that the majority of people like what I do, and they understand that I have a passion for basketball, that I’ve done this for 30-something years as a broadcaster and a lot of our young fans grew up with me. They’d never had a choice.”
He went on: “Here I am and I don’t know when I’m going to retire. I’m 72 years old and I thoroughly enjoy my job, I thoroughly enjoy this team, and I enjoy every aspect about the NBA.”
Believe it or not, when the Warriors failed to make the playoffs from the 1994-95 season through 2005-06 (they had a 17-65 season, went 19-63 twice and 21-61 once), Barnett took an optimist’s view of his work,
“It didn’t bother me at all,” he stated, “because every game is different, every time you’ve got different players and so forth.
“Here’s the thing: In all the lean years, I was able to talk about basketball more and more because we didn’t have all the sponsors, we didn’t have all the promotions, and I had more time to explain the game,” he said. “I could do more replays.”
“Those were lean years, but I was able to talk about basketball and it created ‘my brand,’ if you will, and my brand was created in those days,” he recalled. “But I was exposed to the airwaves a lot more because I was able to talk a lot more. . . . So those weren’t the dark days for me. They actually helped make me a more well-known broadcaster.”
Since he was hired to provide expert commentary, Barnett has watched the ups and downs of the Warriors under (in succession) bench bosses Johnny Bach, George Karl, Ed Gregory, Don Nelson, Bob Lanier, Rick Adelman, P.J. Carlesimo, Garry St. Jean, Dave Cowens, Brian Winters, Eric Musselman, Mike Montgomery, Nelson (again), Keith Smart, Mark Jackson and, finally, Steve Kerr.
Clearly, in 2014, Golden State made the right decision in handing the reins to Kerr, a five-time title winner as a player with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, and a former Phoenix Suns GM and TNT analyst. The team has thrived.
But Barnett refuses to obsess over statistics. He simply knows the team’s got a really good thing going.
“Steve Kerr is one of the most incredible human beings that I’ve met in my life,” he said. “Steve Kerr could be the governor of California, and now after our presidential election, I’m convinced he would be a better president of the United States right now than Donald Trump. That’s how I feel about Steve Kerr.
“So I’m never even going to question what he’s doing coaching at all, and I don’t need to. Other people can do it and they can write about it and they can do all of those things, and maybe you say, ‘You’re not doing your job.’ Bull s——, OK?
“Steve Kerr, first of all, he’s learning on the job still, but he’s been extremely successful already because he has the character, he has the communication skills that it takes in today’s NBA. You can get strong coaches who know the game, know the X’s and O’s, but there’s a difference of communicating it to your players, and I’m not going to name anybody, but I could name some guys that played in this league that coached for a couple different teams, several different teams maybe, and they are not successful as a coach because they don’t have the ‘it’ that Steve Kerr has.”
The “it,” Barnett declared, “encompasses him as a person, his values, his integrity, his communication skills, his transparency, his honesty, and all those things there are great gifts that he has learned through his life. . . .”
The best example of Kerr’s leadership occurred when he missed the first 24 games of the 2015-16 season while recovering from back surgery, and then-assistant Luke Walton, now the Lakers’ rookie head coach, filled in on the bench. The Warriors went 24-0.
“He’s a great leader and a leader forms the team and a group of people that can go on even without their presence. Just like last year,” Barnett said, “because Steve Kerr’s leadership had influence on all of that.”
Nothing’s changed. Through Wednesday, the Warriors (39-7) had the NBA’s best record, and Kerr will lead the Western Conference squad at the upcoming All-Star Game.