The Ernie Barrett Interview
Michael D. McClellan
Sunday, August 22nd, 2004
His basketball career began in a Kansas railroad town, and while his legacy will forever be defined by his contributions to Kansas State University – first as an All-American guard with a feathery touch from outside, and then as the school’s athletic director and fund-raiser extraordinaire – Ernie Barrett will also remain deeply woven into the fabric of professional basketball’s greatest franchise. Selected in the first round of the 1951 NBA Draft by Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics, Barrett’s most important contribution may have come years later, as Auerbach wrestled over whom to select with the Number 4 overall pick in 1970 – New Mexico State big man Sam Lacey, or Florida State’s undersized-but-energetic Dave Cowens. Auerbach respected Barrett’s opinion immensely. He also knew that Barrett, then the K-State athletic director, had seen Lacey in action against the Wildcats. Barrett came away from that contest less than enamored with the Aggies’ 6’-10” center, and he shared his evaluation with Auerbach on the eve of the draft. The Celtics patriarch heeded Barrett’s advice and selected Cowens at Number 4; and while Lacey would go on to play thirteen solid-yet-unspectacular seasons with the Cincinnati Royals, New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers, Cowens would win two NBA championships with Boston and wind up in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Barrett may have grown up in the shadow of the Great Depression, but the hard times did little to dampen his can-do spirit or quell his outsized personality, gifts that have served him well throughout an illustrious career capped by a statue in his honor and the unofficial title of “Mr. K-State”. His palm-crushing handshake has become both his calling card and the stuff of legend. Years earlier that calling card was his dead-eye shooting, a gift that helped propel a tiny Kansas high school to its only state basketball championship and earn Barrett a scholarship to Kansas State University.
Barrett joined the Wildcats in 1947, the same season legendary coach Jack Gardner – who would later earn the distinction as the only coach to take two schools to the Final Four twice – returned to the helm at K-State. The union proved just the tonic for the once-moribund basketball program, as the Wildcats improved their win total by 10 games and posted a winning season for the first time in sixteen years. By 1951 the circle was complete; K-State toppled mighty Oklahoma State before battling Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four title game. UK may have won that game, shutting down K-State with rock-hard defense in the second half, but Barrett capped his dream season in style; the talented senior received All-American honors, and quickly found himself the draft-day property of the Boston Celtics.
Barrett joined a Celtics team boasting a fiery, young coach named Red Auerbach, but the arrival of the great Bill Russell was still several years way. The league was still in its infancy. Fans flocked to the college game, while the NBA struggled to attract a mainstream audience and earn a place alongside baseball and football as one of the country’s major professional sports. Players such as Barrett were vital in this regard; they possessed valuable name recognition, a key component in selling the league to a reluctant public. Auerbach, of course, only cared about winning. He selected Barrett to upgrade a roster that still had plenty of holes, not to help sell more tickets. Winning would take care of that.
Championship banners did not flow like wine until Russell joined the team in 1956, but the pieces were slowly coming together – Bill Sharman was there, sharing the backcourt with a young basketball wizard named Bob Cousy – and Auerbach was always on the prowl for standout players. Barrett certainly fit that bill, but he could not immediately join the team; a military obligation beckoned, and it would be the 1953-54 season before K-State’s favorite son could bring his basketball marksmanship to the Boston Celtics. Auerbach, famous for taking his team on barnstorming exhibitions throughout New England, made liberal use of Barrett’s talents during these games. Sharman, however, saw the lion’s share of the action once the regular season started.
His chances of unseating the future Hall-of-Famer slim, Barrett returned to Kansas following the season determined to begin a career in coaching. The stay would be short-lived, as the NBA adopted the 24-second shot clock following the 1954-55 season. Auerbach, sensing that the change would be a boon to free-wheeling, dead-eye players like Barrett, wasted little time in placing a call to coax the All-American out of retirement. Barrett gladly accepted, playing one more successful season in a Celtics uniform before returning to his beloved K-State for good. (The 1955-56 Boston Celtics averaged a league-high 106 points-per-game, with super-sub Barrett averaging 20.2 minutes-per-game off the bench.)
Barrett’s name is indelibly linked to Kansas State University, his legend there secure. He has been inducted into the K-State Athletic Hall of Fame, both as a player and as an administrator. He has been part and parcel of the university for six decades, first as an All-America basketball player, later as the athletics director and now as fund-raiser extraordinaire. Still, he remains closely connected to the Boston Celtics. He counts Bob Cousy among his closest friends, and his relationship with Auerbach is especially noteworthy. Barrett played alongside Celtic tough man Bob Brannum in his first stint with the team, and then played with “Jungle” Jim Loscutoff two years later. And then there is Dave Cowens. Had Auerbach selected Lacey, those championships in 1974 and 1976 – banners twelve and thirteen on your scorecard – probably wouldn’t have happened at all. Barrett’s advice validated Auerbach’s faith in his one-time sharpshooter, and proved to be the perfect gift indeed.
Celtic Nation would like to thank Ernie Barrett for granting this interview. He is a class act, and deserving of every accolade.