The following story appears is in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal
By Chris Cocoles
Basketball Hall of Famer Rick Barry famously – and damn successfully – shot his free throws underhanded. He’s spoken out about the frequent misses of noted NBA stars but dreadful foul shooters such as now retired Shaquille O’Neal and current stars Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan. He’s wondered aloud why those who clank free throws so frequently don’t follow his unconventional form that connected on about 90 percent of his attempts, fourth best in league history.
Shooting free throws is nothing, Barry says; he would love to get those guys to try casting flies on an Alaskan river.
“It’s much more difficult,” Barry interrupts when asked to compare the two artforms. One was one of the trademarks in a brilliant basketball career that saw Barry named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players when the league celebrated its silver anniversary in 1996. The other has become a passion for the 71-year-old, who hosts fishing adventures to Alaska through his website, rickbarry24.com.
“In basketball, shooting free throws is the same distance every time (15 feet from the foul line to the hoop). It’s the same-sized ball, the same-sized rim every time,” Barry says. “And I don’t have to deal with any freakin’ wind. Casting is much, much more (hard), having to cast in different wind conditions. But it’s fun.”
And it’s a pastime Barry has only recently discovered and became smitten with.
DON’T LET THE age fool you: Rick Barry is active and fit, despite being on the north side of 70 years old. His playing career ended in 1980, but he stayed busy with various business ventures, found a successful niche broadcasting and as an opinionated sports talk radio host, and reveled in the role of proud papa watching his children play basketball at both the major college and professional levels.
Until eight years ago, he mostly spent his free time on the golf course and as a road and mountain bike rider. The latter passion is one he rarely partakes in these days after suffering a serious injury accident last year near his Colorado home.
“I’ll never go fast on a bicycle again,” he says of the crash that fractured his pelvis in five places.
But fly fishing keeps him busy enough anyway. A friend’s offer almost a decade ago was a game-changing moment.
“Scott Minnich is a good buddy of mine in Colorado Springs (where Barry and his wife, Lynn, now reside); his son and my son (Canyon, who is playing basketball at the College of Charleston) grew up together,” Barry says. “(Minnich’s) been a fly fisherman for 35 years, and one day he asked me if I wanted to go fishing.”
Barry’s previous fishing experiences were minimal and unremarkable, so it wasn’t like he was in a rush to get back out onto the water. Still, he accepted Minnich’s invitation. And something seemed to click; perhaps it was his competitive streak as a former jock still fueled by something actionable. Despite the degree of difficulty casting flies, Barry was hooked.
“I realized that there was so much more to it than you realize. It’s not like the fishing where you just sit there and hold the stupid rod in your hands and pray that something bites it; it’s an actual art form, and so I was very impressed with that,” Barry says. “If somebody had told me 10 years ago that my passion in life would be fly fishing, I would have said they were on drugs with my type A personality. But I really loved it.”
Minnich proved to be a fine mentor in terms of Barry getting the hang of a fly rod. Over the years, he’s picked the brains of guides who’ve hosted fishing trips. The basketball player in him sees the coaching side of the experts who have fished a lot longer than he has. So whenever he meets a new fisherman, he lets them know to not be bashful when they see him doing something wrong on the river. Pointers are always welcome.
“You have to always be welcome to criticism, and it’s all constructive criticism. It’s no coincidence that the better I’ve become with my casting, the more fish I’ve hooked,” he says. “I’m getting better at it, and I’m up to the point now where my casting is good enough I’ll be able to go and do some bonefishing (in the Atlantic), where you have to be really accurate with your casting – otherwise, you’ll never catch any.”
Still, Alaska is where this fly fisherman feels most at peace.
BARRY’S FIRST TRIP to Alaska was not for fishing but golf. He played in a charity tournament in the Anchorage area. One day he went fishing and managed to catch a king salmon, but had to be told by the floatplane pilot it was landed out of season.
“What the hell did I know? I didn’t know anything,” he recalls. “I said, ‘(Shoot), you didn’t tell me the rules.’”
But fishing with his friend Minnich convinced Barry he wanted more and to experience fishing in Alaska more often. He looked around for a lodge that offered what he wanted. He ultimately began regularly visiting Rainbow River Lodge at Bristol Bay’s Lake Iliamna. Barry also set up a salt- and freshwater trip to Boardwalk Lodge on Prince of Wales Island.
“I go up there every year and try to put trips together for businesses or individual groups,” Barry says. “I had a guy who wants to go next year with about six people, and he asked me, ‘What kind of salmon should I go for?’ I said, ‘Do you really enjoy catching fish?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ And I told him he wants to get silvers. Of all the fish you’re going to get in the salmon family, the ones that are most fun for me are silvers. Those suckers will jump and fight.”
Barry knows he’s in heaven for an angler when he’ll head out with his group to fish and the only other fellow visitors that day is the wildlife sharing the river. He’s seen more bears than other people in all his years fishing Alaska’s rivers.
Once, Barry was filming an Alaskan outdoors TV show with his friend, former Major League Baseball pitcher Randy Jones. Between shoots they decided to join in the combat fishing chaos of the Kenai River during a salmon run. It was blatantly obvious which scene Barry preferred.
“Holy crap. I looked from one bend to the other on the river and there were 60 freaking (anglers). And another boat pulls up to us and was 10 feet away. This what not my idea of fun fishing,” he says. “Thank God I got to experience it once because I’m so happy I never did that on a trip to spend five, six, seven days doing that; I would have hated it.”
About the only negative he has to say about Alaska is he wishes the Wi-Fi were stronger so he could better enjoy another pastime: watching movies and his favorite TV shows on Netflix. But then Barry remembers he’s “in the middle of nowhere,” but also in a place where he can make cast after cast and bring in fish after fish.
Lynn hasn’t caught the bug, but she did accompany her husband on a three-night trip they bid successfully on during a charity auction. They had to hike for an hour on Alaska tundra before finally reaching a stream. They saw all of two other human beings the entire duration of the trip.
With so little fishing pressure, Barry managed to hook 35 rainbow trout and about 20 grayling on dry flies. Of the trout he caught and released, about 30 measured 20 or more inches. Even Lynn managed to catch almost two dozen grayling. This was paradise, about a million metaphorical miles away from the congestion on the Kenai – another reason why Barry keeps returning every chance he gets. Someday, he’ll catch a 30-inch rainbow.
“Maybe I’ll get lucky on my next trip,” he says. “We’ll see what happens.”
But he’ll enjoy all of the smaller and even too-small fish along the way.
THE BARRY FAMILY is to basketball what the Barrymores are to acting, the Wallendas to high-wire acrobatics and the Kardashians/Jenners to reality TV stardom. Of Barry’s six kids, only daughter Shannon never got involved in playing basketball.
Rick was known for his unique but rarely copied foul shooting technique (son Canyon shoots his free throws underhanded for his current college team). The family patriarch’s fabulous career included more than 25,000 points scored, a Rookie of the Year award, an NBA Finals MVP award for the 1975 champion Golden State Warriors (see sidebar) and five first-team All-NBA seasons. Lynn, who is Canyon’s mom, was a star basketball player at the College of William and Mary and later remained in the game as a coach and administrator.
There are also four older Barry sons: Scooter won an NCAA title at the University of Kansas and spent many years playing abroad in pro leagues. Drew is his college alma mater’s (Georgia Tech) all-time leader in assists and played for four NBA teams. Jon (ESPN) and Brent (TNT) are successful TV analysts who also had lengthy pro careers (Brent Barry also won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 1996).
“I’m hoping to get them up there (in Alaska), and I know Scooter told me he’d really like to go,” Rick says of his sons. “But they have young kids and they’re busy with what they’re doing. One of these summers I’m hoping to convince them to take their boys and go with me.”
And who knows? Rick Barry said events happen in threes; his sons all played basketball at a high level just as he did. At one time or another, Scooter and Brent also dabbled in broadcasting like their dad and brothers have on a full-time basis.
“Hell, the third thing can be that they all become fly fishermen,” Rick says.
Still, there is no shortage of sports royalty for Rick Barry to head up to Alaska with. There is World Golf Hall of Famer Raymond Floyd, who fished with Barry in Alaska earlier this summer. One of Barry’s closest friends, former Warriors teammate Clifford Ray, is a regular fishing partner who went with Barry on a trip to Sitka and to Prince of Wales Island in August.
“Clifford’s like a brother to me,” Barry says.
Even legendary NBA/ABA star George Gervin, who was known as “The Iceman” during a Hall of Fame career, got in on the action. That spurred a joking twinge of disdain from Barry about these two hoops gunslingers meeting in Alaska.
“George is a spincaster. He didn’t have any waders or boots. But he came up with his son (and a couple others) and we did mostly saltwater fishing and we did some freshwater too. We had a good time,” Barry says, recalling that not many old basketball war stories were swapped. But The Iceman did get in a memorable photobomb.
“We have a great picture where I’m holding up a nice silver salmon, and George is in the background with his son and they’re both giving me the finger.”
SO PRODUCTIVE CAN the fishing in the Last Frontier be that Barry sometimes gets spoiled by the constant action.
“You catch so many fish and it’s so beautiful. It’s such a special time when you’re up there, get away from everything and get into nature and God’s beauty and be hooking into a lot of fish,” he says.
On one river float, the guide pointed out to Barry that a large trout was on the other side below some tree cover. The conundrum? There were roughly 12 inches between the water surface and the branches.
While the guide was skeptical there was enough room to get a cast in that space, Barry wanted to give it a shot. “Let me try,” he said.
Recalling the moment, Barry says, “I got out of the boat and into the water, got down low and just cast it sideways and level with the water. I tried to make sure that I got my length correct. I threw a couple casts that were a little too long. I shortened it up a little bit, and after a couple of casts I threw it in there. It hit the water and that fish came up and exploded – it just nailed that fly. It was a 23-inch rainbow and I thought, ‘If I don’t catch another fish the rest of the day, this is still awesome.’”
Still, catching fish is what the sport is all about. In basketball, the name of the game is ultimately getting the ball through the hoop. Some anglers go to Alaska hoping to catch that once-in-a-generation trophy salmon, trout or Arctic char. But Barry is more about quantity than quality. He’s perfectly fine with a catch-and-release day where he’s constantly landing fish, size be damned.
“For me it doesn’t matter if it’s 4 inches long or 40 inches long. It’s all about the strike and setting the hook. That’s why I can’t understand why some people get so enamored by going out trolling with the rods in the holder,” Barry says. “All of a sudden, they hand you the rod. That’s not fishing – that’s reeling. Even in the times when I do go out and saltwater fish, I want to hold the rod.”
And he’s done so through hours upon hours of casts during annual trips to Alaska (his bike wreck prevented going up in 2014). Barry loves to share stories of an endless cycle of casts, bites, and catch-and-release action.
A couple years ago, Barry was at his beloved Rainbow River Lodge on a solo trip with a group he wasn’t familiar with. Every day he’d go out and was asked upon the return how he did. He’d caught “about 100” on the first day.
“The guy said, ‘That’s unbelievable.’ So I go out the next day and the same guys ask, ‘How did it go?’ ‘Another great day. About 100 or more fish.’ So I go out on the third day and come back and tell them about another 100 and something fish. They said, ‘That’s insane.’ By the fourth day when they asked again I said, ‘You really don’t want to know.’ ‘Come on, tell us what you did.’ I said, ‘Two hundred and twenty-four fish.’”
All of the jump shots he’s made, all of the underhand free throws he’s swished in basketball have been replaced by other astonishing percentages. Barry recalls once landing fish on 24 consecutive casts of his fly rod. During his trip with Raymond Floyd in August he texted, “I hooked over 500 in four days!”
There are more awaiting him for years to come.
“This might be crazy,” he says, “but my goal in life is to be 100 years old and go fly fishing at Rainbow River Lodge.”
Don’t bet against him. By then, making a perfect fly cast will probably be as simple a task for Rick Barry as shooting an underhanded free throw was: almost a sure thing. ASJ
Editor’s note: More information on Rick Barry’s Alaska fishing trips can be found at rickbarry24.com. Follow him on Twitter (@Rick24Barry).