Former ABA teammates Barnes, Gerard living proof of evils of drugs

By MICHAEL MURPHY, Houston Chronicle

Gus Gerard figured the time had come to kill himself.

There was nothing left. Nothing. Cocaine had assured that.

Despite playing seven years of professional basketball, most everything Gerard once owned was gone. The money, the house and the cars had all disappeared to pay for his drug habit.

After making millions, Gerard was living back at home with his mother, sneaking into her room at night and stealing $10 bills out of her purse.

Anything to pay for that next hit of cocaine.

But the addictions had slowly drained the life from Gerard, who had retired from professional basketball in 1981. Twelve years later, after coke had taken away all of his material possessions, his family and his sense of self-worth, it was about to take the only thing Gerard had left -- his life.

Just one more binge, one more fling, and that life would be over. Gerard, who was living in Cleveland, scraped together $500, blew it all on cocaine and a half-gallon bottle of vodka, climbed into his car and started driving.

"Finally, after just so much drinking and drugs, I decided that I was going to kill myself," Gerard said. "I was thinking, 'I know this is the chicken way out, but I'll just get out of everybody's way.'

"I drove around for a couple of days. I'd stop in and drink at these little motels, and by this time I was smoking cocaine. I really had no idea where I was going, only that I was going to kill myself when (the cocaine) was gone."

Gerard eventually pulled his station wagon into the garage of his rented house, settled down in the seat and watched the door slowly slide down behind him.

Somewhere, through the thick cocaine haze in his brain, Gerard remembered how Bill Robinzine, a former teammate on the Kansas City Kings, had committed suicide the same way, falling into a final carbon monoxide-induced sleep.

He remembered that it seemed so peaceful.

"They found Bill a couple of days later, and whatever pain he was in, he wasn't in that pain anymore," Gerard said. "He was really heavy on my mind."

So Gerard closed his eyes and listened to the hypnotic hum of the engine. The cocaine he had consumed finally was about to consume him, and Gerard drifted off to sleep, hoping that he, too, would never awaken.

· · ·

Gus Gerard's former teammate, Marvin Barnes, also was tortured by his personal drug demons. But many wondered if Barnes wasn't often a willing accomplice.

A quick, powerful 6-9 forward, Barnes often described himself as "Superman" on the court. He didn't think there was a player alive who could stop him from doing anything he pleased, and Barnes certainly didn't think cocaine could, either.

But it did. Barnes' addiction grew to the point where, toward the end of his career, he was snorting cocaine during games.

"Yeah, I was doing it on the bench," Barnes said. "I was playing for the Celtics, and I was sitting next to Nate Archibald and somebody else, and I was snorting cocaine right there on the bench while the game was going on.

"They all moved away from me. I had it under a towel. I guess I don't need to say that my career didn't last much longer after that."

Barnes (below left) and Gerard (below right) began their careers on one of the youngest, wildest teams in professional basketball history -- the Spirits of St. Louis of the American Basketball Association. They teamed with 6-9 Maurice Lucas, who later would start alongside Bill Walton on Portland's 1977 NBA championship team, on modern basketball's only all-rookie front line, the 1974 Spirits.

It was perhaps the most aptly named team of all time, since the St. Louis roster was well-stocked with free spirits -- Gerard, the skinny white kid whose leaping ability rivaled Julius Erving's; James "Fly" Williams, the playground legend from Harlem who would walk off the floor in mid-fast-break to get a drink of water; Lucas, a strict vegetarian who practiced yoga and whose elaborate pre-game stretching routine is now common in the NBA.

Barnes, however, was the freest Spirit of them all.

A muscular power forward, Barnes was one of the quickest frontline players in the ABA -- or the NBA, for that matter. Before long, Barnes became one of the upstart league's brightest stars, averaging 24 points and 15.7 rebounds in his rookie year.

"I think Marvin could probably have been one of the greatest players to ever play the game," said Utah Jazz announcer Ron Boone, who began his career in the ABA and finished his 13-year career in the NBA. "I thought the game came just that easy to Marvin Barnes. One of the reasons the players become superstars is, first of all, hard work, but then it's also something where the game comes easy to them.

"You look at Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird -- with those types of players you can see their confidence and you can see how the game is easy to them. And Marvin Barnes definitely fit that category. It just didn't work out for him."

Perhaps it didn't work out because Barnes may be the most complex product ever turned out by heaven's lathe. Cocky, loud, arrogant and tremendously self-absorbed, Barnes is also charming, caring, loyal and genuinely funny.

And while he was ahead of his time on the court, he was even more so away from the game. A gangsta before there were gangstas, Barnes grew up on the cold, hard streets of Providence, R.I., enduring a childhood he will only describe as "horrific," refusing to pick any further at that mental scab.

The rough childhood gave Barnes a death wish that he had every intention of fulfilling.

"I was young, I was wild and I thought I knew everything," Barnes said. "I was doomed. I never thought I was going to live past 30. I wanted to die in a shootout. I didn't want a long life. It wasn't my ambition to live long. You know, live fast and die young. That was my goal."

But Barnes, who described himself as "a black militant" during his youth, formed an unlikely friendship with Gerard almost from the moment they met.

A white kid from suburban Pennsylvania, Gerard had honed his game on the playgrounds of downtown Pittsburgh. His true gift was his incredible leaping ability, which led former Indiana Pacers center Mel Daniels to say, "There was a lot of soul in that skinny, white body."

Gerard, however, possessed a quieter soul.

"He was open and everybody liked Gus, but if you put 10 people in a room, you would know that Marvin was there all the time, but you wouldn't know Gus was there unless he came up and said something to you," said former Spirits trainer Mike Kostich, now a real estate broker in Houston.

"You could always hear Marvin because he was talking loud or laughing loud. But you would never hear a thing from Gus. They were completely opposite in that regard, and yet they got along real well."

Their opposite personalities and upbringing points out one of the most insidious aspects of addiction -- both threw everything away for drugs, even though they went about it in different ways.

For Gerard, the pursuit of good times led him to cocaine. Barnes turned to drugs as an escape.

"Yeah, I remember the first time I really tried it," Gerard said. "I was in New York (with the Spirits) and we had a couple of days there. This guy I knew from college came up to my room and said, `Hey, I have some coke. You should try it, man. It really gives you a lift.'

"It was all stuff like that. So I tried it, and I immediately fell in love with cocaine. It became a big part of my life after that."

It did for Barnes, too.

"Man, coke intensified everything," he said. "It intensified my sex drive, it heightened my awareness, it made me more outgoing and talkative, and I thought it made me better on the court.

"But like all drugs and like alcohol, it turns on you. It started diminishing everything. It turned me inside out. I used to be a snappy dresser, I had the gift of gab, I was into working out and eating well and living well.

"But when I started doing drugs I stopped dressing nice and I became withdrawn. My game really fell off. I prided myself on being one of the best players in basketball. When I was in the ABA, I was one of the top five players in basketball -- ABA or NBA. No question. But when I turned to cocaine, alcohol and marijuana, everything fell off -- my dress, my looks, my weight and my basketball game.

"I went from being social to being antisocial. I went from being loving, caring and giving to being selfish, dishonest and mistrustful."

He went from Hall of Fame lock to basketball nomad, bouncing from team to team. By the time the ABA merged with the NBA in 1976 -- just two years after he had begun his professional career -- Barnes was washed up. In two short years drugs had taken away everything that made him a great player, but he no longer cared.

"On the court I felt that the only ones who could stop me were God and myself," Barnes said. "And that's what happened. I stopped myself.

"When I started using drugs, I was snorting cocaine day and night. I didn't have any control. When I started using coke, if we had back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday, I would start snorting coke and keep doing it up until an hour before the game Saturday. As a result, I was tearing my body down."

But, unbelievably, Barnes had yet to hit bottom.

"It was coming," Barnes said, laughing. "I didn't know it at the time, but it was coming."

Gerard, too, was headed in that direction. He had bounced around, eventually playing for seven teams in his seven-year career. But Gerard no longer cared. His motivation had became the quest for cocaine, even if it cost him his career, his family and every cent of the almost $2 million he earned along the way.

"It became a nightmare when I got out of basketball," Gerard said. "I stopped getting paid, but I kept using the family money to support my cocaine habit. It wasn't just cocaine, though. I was drinking a lot, and when I'd drink, I'd start wanting cocaine.

"It became a major part (of his life) to the point where I was wondering each day, `OK, who am I going to see today and where can I get some coke today?' I started using it to feel normal instead of using it for a little bit of a party atmosphere. It became a way of life.

"When I woke up and saw my wife (Gaye) and kids (daughter, Kacie, and son, Walker), cocaine was right there with me. Everything I did, I'd have my little vial in my pocket so I could go in the bathroom and snort. I didn't care. All I cared about was that coke."

Gerard paused and looked away, almost unable to comprehend what he was about to say.

"A lot of times I treated the drug dealers better than I treated my own family, and that's the saddest part," Gerard said. "It makes me angry to this day when I think about that stuff."

· · ·

Marvin Barnes saw the rivulets of blood flowing across the concrete and he knew this was it.

Rock bottom.

Barnes was serving a seven-year sentence for delivery of cocaine at Lynaugh Prison in Fort Stockton -- his second drug-related prison stay -- when he got into a fight with a fellow inmate. The guards in Texas prisons, Barnes said, encouraged the fights.

"In prison they don't break up fights," he said, "they just pick up bodies."

But this would be a fight that would spark the personal battle he continues to this day.

"I knocked him unconscious and was beating his head into the cement -- I was actually trying to kill this brother," Barnes said, shaking his head. "I had his head in my hands, but I let it go and it fell to the concrete. He just laid there and seemed to be lifeless. I didn't know if he was dead or not, but I knew it was over. That was the turning point for me. That was about as bad as it can get.

"That was it. I was tired. The drug life was just too much for me. There were times when I was homeless, there have been times when I was in missions and times when I was in prison. That whole drug life and drug culture wasn't worth it for me.

"It's a horrible existence, and I finally decided to do something about it. I hit my bottom. There was nowhere else for me to go but up."

For every addict, rock bottom is different. For Barnes, it was almost killing another man. For Gus Gerard, it was almost ending his own life.

When Gerard pulled his car into that garage and fell asleep, the last thing he expected was to open his eyes again.

But that's exactly what happened, and his eyes were opened in more ways than one. Strangely, though, it was his lack of judgment, the result of his addictive behavior, that saved his life.

"Like a true drug addict I had spent all my money on alcohol and drugs and never put any gas in the car," said Gerard, now able to laugh at the memory. "The car ran out of gas.

"I don't know how long it was. I had passed out, but woke up in the garage very groggy, and the car had stopped running. Then, all of a sudden I started laughing because I had this moment of clarity and I was completely straight.

"This was after a three-day binge of nothing but cocaine and vodka, but I was as stone-cold sober as I could be. I don't know what it was, but I still get chills whenever I talk about it. I don't know if it was God coming into my life and telling me, `Look, it's time, you've had enough,' or what, but I started to pray right there. I started to pray, and I said, `Man, I need some help. Somebody help me. What am I doing with my life?' "

He was about to find out.

When he walked into the house, the Sunday edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was lying on the kitchen table. In was a Parade magazine section that featured a cover story on former Rocket -- and former cocaine addict -- John Lucas, who was coaching the Spurs at the time.

It gave Gerard the spark of hope he needed.

"John and I had known each other all the way back to when he was (in college) at Maryland and I was at Virginia," Gerard said. "In fact, we had roomed together at the World Games in Puerto Rico (in 1973). And, of course, our paths crossed during our NBA careers.

"But this story told about his treatment center here in Houston. It told about his story, how he woke up after a blackout in Houston after being thrown out of the NBA, how he got help and how had all these years of being clean and sober.

"I said, `That's it. I need to call John Lucas.' He called me immediately after he got the message, asking me how I was doing. He asked me if I could come to Houston, but I said, 'John, I don't have the money or anything.' He said, 'I didn't ask if you had any money. I asked if you could come to Houston and spend time with me.' I said, 'Yeah.' "

That was all Lucas needed to hear.

"Part of recovery is helping those who are having problems, sharing your experience, strength and hope, and to be of service to others who have suffered like you have," Lucas said. "That was Gus's deal, and when he called me, I said, 'Gus, just get there,' and he did -- he came on a bus.

"When I saw that he came on a bus, I saw that was a real commitment to his sobriety. Now Gus has taken his recovery further than probably any of us have because he now has the credentials (and is a counselor)."

And he couldn't be happier.

"After all I've been through," Gerard said, "here I am, happy, joyous and free."

Gerard is more content with his life these days, even happier than when he was making big money in professional basketball. Now reconciled with his children, he is a licensed chemical dependency counselor at Next Step, a halfway house that helps former substance abusers ease back into mainstream life.

Gerard is also involved in a program called Bouncing Back, in which athletes like himself, Barnes and former Rocket Dirk Minniefield travel to schools and businesses, sharing their stories about addiction and recovery. And he is president of Pro Counseling, which he uses to educate at-risk adolescents for local justices of the peace.

"Every day I see someone come in who is in the same situation I was in," Gerard said. "When I see them put their lives back together, that's my reward."

Barnes, too, was more than happy to share his story. After moving to Houston eight years ago to go through the John Lucas Treatment Center, Barnes returned to the city when he was released from Lynaugh in 1996.

"I was destined to die a lonely, horrible death," he said. "If it wasn't overdosing on dope, it would have been in a hail of gunfire. I wouldn't have been helping anybody. I would have ended up just another sad story.

"I almost overdosed a few times. It didn't stop me from doing drugs, though. I've been through the peaks and I've been through the depths. I really believe that I had a death wish. But drugs and alcohol was a slow, agonizing way of going about it."

· · ·

Since this is a true story about real lives, the endings rarely come neatly tied together. There are few golden sunsets in these stories, and Marvin Barnes is no exception.

Friends had been calling for weeks, but Barnes could not be found. Old concerns popped up. After almost two years of sobriety, many feared Barnes had relapsed and was back on the streets scrounging for his next fix.

He had been working as a director at Prospect House, a halfway house near downtown, and the Golden Eagle Leadership Academy, a boot camp for kids ages 13 to 17. But Barnes had not been to either location for weeks.

But the phone rang one day and a familiar voice was on the other end.

"Yo, bro, what's up?" Barnes said. "I got some news. Got some real drama for you ... "

The drama of which Barnes speaks is the result of his addictions -- a ravaged liver. A healthy 290 pounds just three months ago, Barnes now is a frail-looking 190 pounds, his skin stretched tight over his bones and his close-cropped beard covering sunken cheeks.

The body that had allowed him to dominate the game he loved so much is now failing, and Barnes has trouble understanding why. But his voice is still strong, and his confidence, perhaps Barnes' strongest character trait, hasn't wavered a bit.

"I'm getting by," Barnes said. "Haven't I had enough drama? You know, I can take going in the pen, and I can take getting in fights. But when this (mess) hit me, it messed me up. This is drama, bro.

"But I'm going to kick it, baby. I'm going to beat this. I've been through too much to let this beat me down. You know me, man, I'm a warrior."

He knows the road ahead is going to be rough.

"You know what it's like when you're running a marathon?" Barnes said. "You know, at the end, when every step you take is just agony? When it takes everything you've got just to take that next step?

"Well, that's what every day is like for me. It takes all the effort you have just to get up and face another day. Sometimes you wonder if you can make it, bro."

He swears he will.

Barnes often looks back on his career and how things could have -- or probably should have -- turned out.

He was there last season when the Rockets retired the number of Moses Malone, another of Barnes' former ABA teammates. Barnes was asked whether anyone thought Malone would turn out to be a Hall of Famer.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "We all knew Moses was going to be great. You could see it in him, even if he was just a kid."

Barnes paused and hunched his 6-9 frame forward, attempting to approximate confidentiality.

"But you know what?" he added. "I could have been better. I just took a few wrong turns along the way."

Gerard looks back across the years and remembers where he and Barnes started, and the disparate roads they've taken, only to arrive in Houston together.

"I love Marvin, and I always will," Gerard said. "It's ironic that we ended up in the same city, (taking) different routes to get here since he had to go through the penitentiary and stuff, but by all rights there are things I did where I just as easily could have been in the penitentiary, too.

"Things have a way of working out, I guess. We're here now, and that's almost a miracle."

Perhaps just as miraculous is the helping hand Barnes is receiving from his long past ABA days. Ozzie Silna, who, along with his brother Danny, owned of the Spirits of St. Louis, is paying Barnes' medical bills.

"After all these years, this owner, Ozzie Silna, has stepped up to the plate," Barnes said. "You don't get that kind of compassion from owners today. Most of them, once you're gone, they forget about you. But this man is taking care of me.

"These are the relationships I formed back then, during my playing days. I didn't understand back then, but these people really care about me. I went a long time thinking nobody cared about me. I was wrong.

"I guess I was wrong about a lot of things, wasn't I?"

This article Copyright © Michael Murphy and the Houston Chronicle and used with permission

Michael Murphy may be reached at

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