Dick Barnett

Gary native Dick Barnett was honored by the National Basketball Retired Players Association in February with a painting by Gary native PeQue Brown. 

Two construction workers who were standing ahead of me in line at a fast-food restaurant were becoming louder.

"Michael has no equals," one said.

"The King is a better all-around player and more explosive," countered his partner.

And so it went, back and forth, like a rally at Wimbledon.

I cleared my throat, both turned around, and I told them nobody wins this argument.

Don't get caught up in that Michael Jordan versus LeBron James debate. Different eras. Different rules.

Why not throw in Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain?

You can argue yourself hoarse.

Just sit back and enjoy the moment. That's Dick Barnett's advice to fans.

Who's he? Suddenly drawing a blank?

"Most of them think history began when they were born," said Barnett, a Gary native. "That's why you have Google. I tell young people: 'You're walking around with my story in your pocket. Just type in my name.'"

The fearless shooting guard played 14 seasons in the NBA, the final nine with the New York Knicks, and helped lead them to championships in 1970 and 1973. 

Among his teammates — many of whom are in the Hall of Fame — were Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Chicago native Cazzie Russell, Phil Jackson, Jerry Lucas and Earl "The Pearl" Monroe.

That was long before ESPN, TNT, sports talk radio and the invention of man caves.

Nicknamed "Fall Back, Baby," Barnett kicked both legs back as he took his jump shot. The steady Barnett averaged 15.8 points per game during his career and 15.1 in the playoffs.

They didn't have the 3-point shot then, but the cunning lefty was a threat anywhere on the court.

His No. 12 jersey is retired at Madison Square Garden.

During the NBA All-Star weekend in February, Barnett was honored in Los Angeles by the National Basketball Retired Players Association as friends and former stars, including Chicago Bulls great Bob Love, cheered him on.

Barnett, who earned his doctorate in education after his playing career, received a painting depicting his stellar career as an athlete and renowned educator. It was large, impactful, and served as a commentary on his 81 years. It even featured his high school in the lower left corner of the canvas.

"It took me a week to paint that school," artist PeQue Brown said at the ceremony. "How do you honor a legend? I grew up in Gary, just loving the game of basketball and knowing about Dick Barnett who went to Gary Roosevelt."

When he left the game at age 37, Barnett used his education as a springboard to greater things.

He was a well-respected sports management professor at St. John's University in New York until he retired from teaching in 2007, but continues as a motivational speaker for young people.

He currently is reconstructing his web site: www.drdickbarnett.com.

He will hold his first youth basketball clinic in Cuba from July 3-8, focusing on personal development through higher education and responsible behavior.

That weekend in L.A. confirmed his life's work.

"It's always good to be remembered, particularly after all these years, and corresponding not only with my play in the NBA but also what I've done in education afterwards and my continued involvement with young people," Barnett told me.

Do kids really listen to his message with all their other distractions?

"I think they want to hear it because most of them have a passion for what their futures are and where they want to go," Barnett said.

"That's what life is all about — hope and reaching their dreams. That's what America was built on."

With the NBA conference finals starting Sunday, Barnett may watch a few minutes here and there. But today's youth remain his top priority and receive much of his free time.

"It ain't going to be easy," he said of roadblocks and obstacles many kids are facing. "We know what they are — aberrant behavior, drugs, sex. But you have to make the choice and try to find the right path.

"No one is immune to that challenge."

Barnett offers a five-point plan to young audiences and swears it worked for him: Conscience, commitment, conviction, courage and control.

Staying true to the road he chose to travel is what makes him most proud, he said, even more than his pro basketball career.

Barnett's two NBA championship rings, by the way, aren't hidden in a wall safe or displayed prominently in a trophy case at his home.

"They're buried with my mother, Etta, who passed away 10 years ago," he said.

After all, it was good parenting that kept this Gary icon on the straight and narrow.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.