He was a crucial cog in the Knicks' championship run 50 years ago, and his number deservedly hangs in the rafters at Madison Square Garden.
But for Dick Barnett, the moment that resonates with him most is the one that came three years earlier - the one that turned his life in a different direction, putting him on a path to becoming Dr. Richard Barnett.
Long before he put up 21 points in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals to help the Knicks clinch the first championship in their history, Barnett had been a star in a segregated society. After growing up in Gary, Indiana, he played for Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State). He was a basketball star, leading the team to three NAIA titles and winning tournament Most Valuable Player honors twice. But he admittedly wasn’t interested in class, leaving school without a degree when the Syracuse Nationals made him the fourth overall selection in the 1959 NBA Draft.
“We used to have all these jokes about him, asking him, ‘Barnett, what’s your average,’ ” Walt Frazier recalled, referring to grade-point average. “He’d say, ‘25 [points] a game.’ His whole thing was basketball.”
Barnett moved on through his career and didn’t think much about that until 1967, when he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon.
“I do a lot of public speaking,” Barnett said. “I often tell my audience that in my basketball career, the best thing that happened to me was having a ruptured Achilles tendon. That was a wake-up call to get prepared for the future. I wasn’t Dr. Barnett at that time. I wasn’t even a college graduate. I made a transformative decision at that time when the doctor walked in, when the chickens came home to roost at Madison Square Garden in 1967 and said, “Mr. Barnett, you might not play any more professional basketball.
“That was a wake-up call. Whether I could play professional basketball or not, I’ve got to go back to school.”
Barnett had begun taking classes at California Polytechnic State University while playing with the Lakers and he got his undergraduate degree in physical education. Then, while still playing for the Knicks, he began to study at New York University, eventually earning a master's degree in public administration. He continued on after his career ended and got his doctorate in education and communications from Fordham University.
“Here’s what I want to tell you,” Barnett said. “I’ve been able to turn my dream into a lifelong adventure. It’s been a lifelong adventure I’ve appreciated. The topping on this has been being able to be a professor at St. John's. I’ve published about 20 books and I’m writing during this downtime with this virus. Everybody is laying low and I’m finishing up another book I’ve written. It’s been a tremendous transition, so probably the best thing that happened to me was that ruptured Achilles.”
The honors have come for his playing career. His college team had petitioned for a chance to play for the NCAA title and was rejected in the midst of racial strife. But he was inducted, along with his coach, John McLendon, into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. His number has been retired by the Knicks.
Barnett has been a professor at St. John’s University and most recently served as a guest lecturer at Monroe College, putting together panel discussions for sports management majors. He has a residence in New York and a home in California and established a foundation, the Dr. Richard Barnett Center for Sports Education, Business and Technology, that will provide scholarships and help with internship opportunities for sports management majors.