Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review: Bad News (2016)

By Mike Carey

The original "Bad News" basketball player was a guy named Jim Barnes, a pretty good college forward out of Texas Western who didn't do much in the pros.

And when it came to bad news, the original couldn't come close to the actions of Marvin "Bad News" Barnes."

Marvin was bad news to his opponents, because he had so many skills - a 6-foot-9 filled-out body with speed, strength and agility. He was also bad news to his own team, because Marvin wasn't the most dependable teammate in the world. You never knew if was going to show up at practice, or do something odd at a game.

Most important, though, was the fact that Marvin Barnes was bad news to himself. He was, as the saying goes, his own worst enemy.

Mike Carey, a former NBA reporter out of Boston, is well qualified to writes Barnes' story. He knows the game and encountered Barnes when he was at his best and at his worst. That makes his book "Bad News" quite a dramatic read.

Barnes is a classic story of poor circumstances leading to missed potential - and there's nothing sadder than the latter. He grew up in a dysfunctional family, but had a gift to play basketball. Barnes was one of the best prospects in the country coming out of high school, and flooded with scholarship offers. He ended up staying close to home at Providence College, and this tall African American quickly bonded with a short white point guard by the name of Ernie DiGregorio - on the court and off. The story of Ernie D inviting Barnes over to the family house for dinner - and watching Barnes react to all of the food that was put on the table - is a memorable one.

The two helped the Friars become a basketball powerhouse. They missed a chance at a national title in 1973, when Barnes hurt his knee in the NCAA tournament. UCLA won that year, and in 1974 Barnes couldn't lead the team back to glory without Ernie D.  Trouble occasionally followed Barnes in college, but he got through it.

From there, it was on to the pros. Barnes signed with the Spirits of St. Louis is the American Basketball Association; his contract negotiation with Philadelphia of the NBA somehow got botched. Barnes had some good moments in the ABA in the early days, including a playoff upset of Julius Erving and the New York Nets, but it was also the time that Barnes first became caught up in the drug culture. He became friends with one of the biggest dealers in the country, who was stationed out of St. Louis. Barnes was paid to host late-night parties for high rollers, and the amount of drugs and money said to be involved is staggering.

By the time Barnes reached the NBA after the ABA merger in 1976, he was a addict. Sometimes he'd show flashes of ability, but at others he gave in temptation. That started him well down the road of erratic behavior, and Barnes bounced around the NBA. There was usually someone who would take a chance on his talent, but sooner or later that person would look patience and give up. Eventually, Barnes ran out of chances.

The last third of the book details Barnes' life after basketball. If you've read other stories about addicts, you know the drill well - the patient means well, but after a while something goes wrong and he gives in to temptation again ... and has to start over. Wash, rinse, repeat. Barnes was by all accounts a fun person when he was straight; sportscaster Bob Costas writes about his friend in the foreward - "my unlikely and unforgettable friend."

Carey somehow became acquainted with Barnes once again later in life, and actually gave him a room to live for quite a while. Here Barnes no doubt told the stories of his life, which are still pretty amazing. Carey went to the trouble of checking them out, and they seem to be true.

This is written in a comfortable style, as the pages go by pretty quickly - even if we know what's coming. Finally, Barnes ran out of chances and died. Costas said he epitaph should be "Squandered Talent," and he's right.

"Bad News" isn't a pretty story, but it's an instructive one. You'll come away wondering if Marvin ever really had a chance to make it, in spite of some gifts. And you'll ask who might be the next Marvin Barnes out there, someone who threw a lot away, and how we can stop another similar story from being written.

Four stars

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