One of these days, Rick Barry might be hailed for what he is: a pioneer in the now well-developed movement toward more freedom and higher salaries for professional athletes.

But for the present, Barry must live with the image he feels most fans have of him: "rotten, no-good SOB who raped owners and teams for every cent he could."

Barry feels that description is unfair. "I'm made out to be a bum just because I was one of the first to challenge the statue quo," he said. "The guys now who are making the big bucks are considered smart because they are taking advantage of the present setup and getting what they can from it."

An excellent case can be made to support Barry's feeling that much of what athletes are reaping financially today has come about because of what he accomplished in the courts in the late 1960s.

Before he jumped from the NBA's (now Golden State) San Francisco Warriors to the fledging ABA's Oakland Oaks, pro salaries were fairly predictable. In basketball, only a few superstars, like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, were pulling in $100,000 plus annually, a level matched by baseball's elite athletes.

But once the courts allowed Barry to change leagues after sitting out a year, the solid legal foundation upon which pro sports salary structures were built began falling apart. And along with it tumbled team budgets.

Barry's presence in the ABA helped that league survive and it touched off a salary war with the NBA that soon saw fringe players receiving $100,000, no cut-contracts. The enormous contracts soon spread to football and then to baseball, which still is undergoing dramatic change under the free-agent system.

He also was one of the first pro athletes to hold his own with management on the legal front, paving the way for numerous court suits by athletes.

"It bothers me to know that people don't like me based on what they see and not based on what I'm really like," Barry said yesterday on the eve of the Golden State's first meeting of the season with the Bullets tonight at 8:05 in Capital Center. "Everything I've done has been for personal reasons, not money.

"I've had a lot of bad publicity and it's made my life unpleasant at times. Things are changing a bit now. Maybe things are turning around near the end of my career."

Barry often thinks about the salary monster he helped create and he wonders now if the beast hasn't grown too big.

"Don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge any player getting as much money as he can out of this," he said, "but if I was an owner, I wouldn't pay these salaries.

"Things have gotten totally out of hand. You'd have thought football would have learned from basketball and that baseball would have learned from football. But they haven't.

"It blows my mind when I see where a baseball player goes from one of the lowest paid to highest paid in the game with one contract. It just isn't equitable to pay a baseball player the same king of money you pay a basketball player.

"Take Reggie Jackson, for example. He's a good friend of mine but how can you say he dominates his game as much as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominates basketball?

"If I was an owner, I wouldn't pay an untested rookie so much money I'd offer him a fair contract and tell him if he did well his first year, he'd get more money down the line. There isn't much sense in what we are doing."

But there always has been sense in what Barry has done. He has paralysed a career of contracts hassles, league wars, flamboyant behavior and high scoring averages into a confortable life that won't end when his basketball days do.

Once hailed as the highest paid second year player in NBA history (at a salary of $30,000) he now pulls in an estimated $400,000 a year and is just beginning a television career that could become even more lucrative.

Barry's contract with Golden State runs out this season. He says he wants to stay in the Bay area - although I'm sure some teams in this league would want me because I could really help them in certain areas" - and he is sure the Warriors want to keep him, probably for two more years.

"I don't think Franklin Mieuli spent all those years getting me back here to give me up now," said Barry, thinking back to those years of court battles with Mieuli, owner of the Warriors, over his NBA-ABA contracts. "Once he gets back from his South Pacific cruise, we will sit down and discuss what they have in mind for me and how I fit in."

Although he is fifth in the league in scoring (25.3 points a game), eight in assists (six a game) and first in foul shooting (93 percent), Barry's glory years are behind him.

The Warriors are trying to regroup after winning the NBA title three years ago and Barry is working to adjust to players he feels "just aren't schooled in the intricacies of basketball like we were." As a result, the game isn't as fun as it once was.

Last year, he attempted to help out by instructing the younger players when they wandered off the right path. But he says his effort was misinterpreted - "They resented it" - and now he is trying to keep his mouth shut.

"I'm not the only one who thinks the level of play is different," he said. "I've heard Jerry West and Bill Russell and others say it. They just aren't getting the coaching we used to in college. Just because this kids can jump higher and shoot better and run faster, coaches think they can win without being taught the fundamentals.

"It creates problems. You can't always function and execute properly as a team. You see things they don't and it slows you down."

The Warriors depend heavily on Barry's skills. In games they have won this year, he has averaged about 30 points. In losses, his average had dipped to about 20 points.

But he resents being singled out as a simply a scorer. He says one of the games of which he is proudest occurred last year, when he picked up 19 assists, a league record for forwards.

"You get stereotyped as a scorer when you lead two leagues in scoring at myself most of the time. I can't myself on an all-round game. I get as much satisfaction out of an assist as I do as a basket.

"I'm a perfectionist. I don't want to be one-dimensional in anything I do."

Yet his inability to accept anything less than perfection has led to another on-court image that Barry resents as much as anything in his career.

"I know fans think I'm a cry baby out there," he said."They think I'm yelling at the referees all the time and complaining. But I'm yelling at myself most of the time. I can't stand mediocrity, especially from myself. The game should be played a certain way and when it isn't, I get upset.

"Anything that can hurt your team and help you lose is bad, be it a bad pass or a ref's call. Winning is still what this is all about. I'm out there to win, period."

Barry would much prefer that he be judged by onlookers "on the basis of what I'm really like. But its natural for them to see me just in one light. I find myself doing it too and I have to say 'Hey, hold on, you are not giving that guy any more of a break than they give you.'"

Things might be different, he realizes, if 10 years ago he hadn't decided life would be greener in the ABA. There wuldn't have been the hate mail, the name-calling, the boos or the mental anguish suffered by his family.

But doesn't he wish he had done silver lining in every dark cloud," he said. "For me, it's my television work. If I hadn't would up with the Nets in New York, I probably wouldn't have gotten so much experience on television.

"I'm positive that CBS hired me to do NBA commentary off that TV work in New York. Since I'd always wanted to get into TV, things couldn't have worked out better."

"Sure. For one, I found out you can't take a man always at his word. Pat Boone (Oakland Oaks owner) and I agreed that I would play only in Oakland and not anywhere else, but I never got it down on paper and look what happened.

"I've become a very careful man since then. Your career is so short, you have to make the most of it."