Aug. 23, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
It didn’t take long Sunday to figure out that Drew Barry is — unlike many people who have come from privilege — blessed to have forged for himself a perspective more valuable than valuables.
Reached by phone, Barry said he couldn’t speak for long because, “I’m following my wife; we’re going to the mall to buy school clothes for the kids.” Class began the next day in Alpharetta, when dad had to drive to middle Georgia and back for work.
This is not what you expected from Georgia Tech’s all-time assists leader, one of six former Yellow Jacket student-athletes who next month will be inducted into Tech’s athletic Hall of Fame. In a moment, he left the impression that he is like you, which is to use his words, “a normal Joe.”
Except that he was yanked around like you might never imagine in the NBA, and again overseas, and then saw his life run off the tracks when his daughter was diagnosed at 18 months of age with cancer.
Settle in; this is not a short story.
There’s nothing ordinary about Barry’s background. He is a hoops blueblood. Father Rick is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, the only player ever to lead the NCAA, the ABA and the NBA in scoring for a season, author of a deadly shot, a goofy under-hand free throw, a ferocious ego, and the father of four sons who all made it to the NBA.
As the youngest of the clan, Drew had a lot to live up to (without even considering that his grandfather also made it to the NBA), and he did well in that regard.
His 724 assists at Tech were more than any Jacket, and he has fantastic recollections from a college career that ran from 1992-’96.
“I would say the first was when we beat Duke when they were No. 1. Martice Moore and I both had really good games for freshmen. I would say in ’92 when we won the ACC Tournament with that great three-game run. That was a lot of fun. It was fantastic.
“When I played at Carolina and had 30 or 31 or whatever it was, that was memorable. I remember that Dick Vitale interviewed me after the game and I said everybody should put their money on my brother Brent winning the [NBA All-Star game] slam dunk contest that night [in `96], and he did.”
Barry doesn’t know where Moore, who transferred to Colorado after that season, is now. But he stays in touch with several teammates from his freshman season, including James Forrest, Travis Best, Matt Harpring, Gary Saunders, Juan Gaston, Michael Maddox and more.
He regularly plays basketball with and against some of them on Saturdays in addition to a travel league in which he plays once a week.
Basketball is enjoyable in those situations.
It was awful after he left Tech.
Although Barry was drafted in the second round by Seattle in 1996, “I was cut the day the season started, and felt like I was good enough to play in the NBA. Heck, I had two brothers in (former Tech player Jon and Brent; Scooter had passed through) the NBA. I went to the CBA (Ft. Wayne) and had a horrible experience, learned a lot making $250 a week. The travel was brutal.”
Like a yo-yo, Drew Barry dangled, had a year ruined in part by a labor dispute between the NBA players union and the league, and the net result was abundant frustration. “I kind of got fed up with the NBA because I was doing everything asked and every chance I got to play I did well . . . the NBA lost its luster.”
A stint in Australia was miserable. A brief trip back to the U.S. resulted in Barry and Dell Curry being cut the same day by the Warriors (the most notable of his father’s multiple NBA teams, by the way) to avoid the team vesting his contract for the rest of the season.
He had a second run with the Hawks as he replaced sour puss J.R. Rider on the roster, but the bottom line was a sour taste about the NBA. “My NBA career was a lot of watching [from the bench],” Barry said. “You need three years for [an NBA] pension] and I only got credit for two and a half. It is what it is.”
Barry went to Europe, playing in Italy, Germany and mostly Poland for about three years. It was not a positive athletic experience. “I always used to worry about all these guys who are making $3 million [in the NBA], and think, `I used to kill him in college,’ “he said. “But you can’t think about it that way.”
And he no longer thinks that way. It’s not hard to understand why.
Barry and wife Raquel became parents in Poland in 2003, and in ’04, precious Kylie, “was diagnosed with cancer and that really changed my priorities, and I realized that none of that matters,” Barry said. “It wasn’t what my contract was, or if I was playing in the NBA . . . all that was unimportant.
“She’s 7 now, diagnosed at 18 months. She was given a 20 percent chance of surviving five years.”
The cancer, on Kylie’s adrenal glands, has been tamed for the time being, hopefully forever.
Drew RE-railed his new family train – which is different than the old family train — soon after returning to the U.S.
Perhaps being a Tech grad might be better than being a Barry.
“I reached out to my friends at Georgia Tech, Jon Carter, president of the Georgia Tech Foundation and Jack Thompson in the [Alexander-Tharpe] fund,” said the business management graduate. “I tapped into the Georgia Tech family. I’ve been fortunate enough to plug into a lot of those folks. I tapped into CEOs, CFOs, venture capitalists m young up-and-comers, you name it. I used the Georgia Tech card.”
Drew Barry’s “Buzz card” helped more than his bloodlines, more than his basketball pedigree.
He’s in sales with the R.R. Donnelley company, a financial printing company with an office in Midtown.
More importantly, he’s at peace, and a royal Drew Barry is not.
Brace for the opening of a vein:
“Initially, I would say that if somebody recognizes the family name or remembers when I played, the initial response and reaction is they view me as a little bit different,” he said. “In all reality I’m just like everybody else. When [Kylie] got sick, that’s when my basketball was done. My daughter is doing really well but that was a really big wakeup call.
“When you look back at my basketball career, I think I had four solid years [at Tech], and to be able to make a life-long dream of making the NBA was great, but at the end of the day my kids are not going to remember that. They’re going to remember me for being at their sports and being there when they’re hurt. I’m a normal Joe. I drive an hour in traffic each way every day, get home at 7 o’clock a lot of nights.
“If you asked me if I had a choice between my brother Jon’s life [Jon is an NBA broadcaster with ESPN/ABC] and playing golf all day, I might take Jon’s deal, but . . . my wife and I have become very spiritual in this, and I truly believe that everything happens for a reason, and the Man upstairs has a plan. It may not have been what I thought when I graduated from Georgia Tech, but I look back and . . . I have a great job, a great family and other than that there’s nothing I need. I can pay my bills.
“In the businesses that I deal with, partners in law firms and CEOs and people who are never around their families, I tell them, `Go home.’ My preacher said it best, `I’ve not heard one say as they were dying, `God, I wish I would have worked more.’ That’s a telling statement for a lot of people. You’ve got to prioritize. My father was extremely successful in this sport, but he was arrogant and brash and burned a lot of bridges. I’ve tried to learn from his mistakes.”