I kinda, you know, jive to a different drummer,” says Marvin Barnes, thus qualifying for the all-star understatement team. The 6’9″ Detroit Pistons forward can flash a prodigious talent for scoring and rebounding but too often obscures it with a talent for living up to his nickname, “Bad News.”
Even before he broke his hand in a game near the end of the regular season, Barnes, 24, was threatening to boycott the NBA playoffs in one of his periodic quarrels with Pistons management. And on May 16 he is scheduled to begin serving a year in a Rhode Island jail.
Barnes’s problems with the law date back to 1972 when he was a Providence College All-America. Accused of smacking a 6’10”, 240-pound teammate with a tire iron, Barnes insisted he was acting in self-defense but pleaded guilty at a 1974 trial “so that all this will end here.” Ordered to pay his victim $10,000, he also drew three years probation. Then, last October 9, he was arrested in Detroit’s Metro Airport with a handgun in his carry-on luggage. (He said a ticket agent told him to take the gun to a security officer who would check it onto the plane.) A Providence judge sentenced Barnes to a year for violating probation and refused to allow him to substitute youth work, saying, “He is not a model to be emulated by the young and impressionable.”
Barnes tends to agree. “I’m not your apple pie and ice cream guy like Doc [Philadelphia star Julius Erving],” he says. “I’m the baddest. I’m a for-real black.” He lives with the hungers of the Providence ghetto where he grew up. When he first signed as a pro with the Spirits of St. Louis in 1974 for $2.1 million, he leased an apartment with 13 phones and bought a silver Rolls-Royce, a diamond initial ring for each hand and a ruby necklace spelling “News.”
“Money is the root of all my evils,” Barnes acknowledges. During his career, he has often missed team flights and once, chartering his own plane, he arrived at a Norfolk, Va. arena moments before the game—and then scored 43 points.
Such performances help people overlook his lapses. “How could you not like Marvin?” asks his college coach Dave Gavitt in all seriousness. “If you get to know him, he’s a warm, wonderful human being.” Barnes’s lawyer, Neil Fink, admits, “I’ve almost quit on him five times, but the guy always charms me into staying on.” Even Pistons coach Herb Brown hasn’t given up on Barnes despite his mediocre year. “Marvin is ready to take the consequences of his actions,” Brown says. “He’s a Damon Runyon sort of guy.”
The most patient and understanding of those who put up with Barnes’s erratic behavior is his high school sweetheart Debbe Santos, with whom he lives in suburban Detroit. Their daughter, Tiffani, was born last September (two weeks before Marvin was arrested at the airport with the pistol—and another woman). Tiffani, he boasts, “is the only child I acknowledge, but there’s got to be others out there.” His eye never stops roving. “When Marvin first got to Detroit,” says an acquaintance, “he hired six rooms at a hotel—one for him, one for his mom and four for various women.”
Will he go to jail? “I want to appeal,” he says. Then adds, “Lots of guys I know in that Rhode Island prison. My buddies from high school who ain’t dead or gone nuts will all be waiting for me.” Pistons officials hope he’ll serve four months at most—but when asked if they really believe he’ll get time off for good behavior, they just wince.