He and his wife and two kids lived in a house on a hill overlooking a northern California valley.
And he had a silver Ferrari, in which that summer he packed his family and a color television and drove across country. Destination? Washington, D.C. For that August, a D.C. lawyer and sports investor, Earl Foreman, bought the Oaks, who had just won the ABA championship, and announced he was relocating them to the Washington Coliseum.
“Don’t call it a coliseum,” Barry ordered the other day. “It was a rat hole.”
The Coliseum was in a northeast D.C. neighborhood resided in mostly by black families trying to amass a down payment on the 99 percent.
“I had to pay a guy to watch my car,” Barry exclaimed.
It was a tip well spent. Barry said no one ever broke into his Ferrari.
But his new team, the Washington Capitols — with an “o,” yes — were never whole.
That it survived just one season here, 1969-70, planted in what was a cement fortress of an arena just off the H Street corridor — recently turned into an REI megastore — was remarkable. For when Barry and his teammates arrived, the neighborhood surrounding the arena was all but hollowed out by urban rebellion in the immediate wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. As The Washington Post noted last year in its reexamination of the uprising in D.C., “H Street NE was a neighborhood shopping district … the second-largest in the district … convenient to the working-class rowhouse neighborhoods and high-rise brick apartments that extended for blocks … Much of it was unsalvageable when the smoke cleared.”
The Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington was urging the city government to speed up rebuilding of damaged areas of the city. Visitors to the city had fallen off dramatically. And city officials were admitting to the public that the only renewal that was underway in areas of the city that suffered a lot of damage, such as the H Street corridor in particular, was the removal of debris.
“Some of that area looked like parts of Detroit now,” recalled Ira Harge, now 78, who was the Capitols’ 6-foot-9 black center from New Mexico, where he lives again. “There were a lot of vacant houses and vacant land. We had a difficult time finding a place to practice.”
And when the Caps, as their jerseys were emblazoned while keeping the Oaks’ green-and-gold colors, played at home, fans had a difficult time getting over fear of venturing into what was called in the 1960s and ’70s “the inner-city,” a euphemism for the black ghetto. Rarely more than 3,000 people filled the 8,000-seat arena. A rookie guard from West Virginia Tech, Mike Barrett, told Sports Illustrated in 1970 that the place was often so empty he “could hear the echo when I dribbled.”
Foreman tried to reassure potential fans. He partnered with the city bus system to set up shuttle stops in the whitest, wealthiest parts of town to ferry potential fans to the Coliseum’s doors so they wouldn’t have to park in and walk through the burned out black neighborhood. He contracted extra police presences and made public pronouncements about how safe things were.
At the same time, national conventions that came to town warned its attendees to stay inside at night.
“It was a sparse crowd till the playoffs got started,” Harge recalled.
Coached by Al Bianchi, who died last month, the Capitols made the playoffs, boosted only by their talent. Because the move from Oakland to D.C. was made just two months before the season started, the ABA couldn’t rearrange the schedule to accommodate the Oaks as an East Coast team. So it played long road stands as if it was still a Western Division team. In November, it played seven road games in 12 days including two back to back between New York and Kentucky. The Caps went 2-5 during that stretch.
They also did so without Barry. He had blown out a knee after the third game of the season and didn’t return until December.
But he returned with a vengeance. By the time he got healthy, he was routinely scoring 30 and 40 points. He dropped 55 on Denver in March 1970. The team finished 44-40 but was eliminated in the playoffs.
“It was not a pleasant experience for me,” Barry allowed of his D.C. time.
The 6-7 scoring machine originally from New Jersey, who played college ball at Miami because he liked the weather, dispatched his family back to northern California before the season tipped off. He took up an apartment in traditionally predominantly white Chevy Chase, in part because it was near St. Alban’s, one of the team’s practice sites. Another practice facility was the Jewish Community Center. There was no place to live near the Coliseum, of course.
Barry roomed with another white player, a diminutive guard from the University of North Carolina, Larry Brown. Barry told The Washington Post’s Robert Levey then that he rarely went out, and when he did it was into the suburbs.
Even Harge said he was hesitant to venture out into a city that turned predominantly black in the ’50s.
“I didn’t know Washington,” Harge said. “I had never been to Washington. I lived in Hillcrest Heights.”
He would go out only with Fatty Taylor, the D.C. legend who was on the team. Taylor died in December 2017.
“There was a soul food place on 7th or 8th street,” Harge recalled. “Fatty took us there. And there was a barbershop. That was the time of the big Afro. I went to a couple of the clubs. Away from the arena, we were with black people. They guided me.”
Barry told Levey he watched a lot of color TV in his Chevy Chase apartment.
“I just don’t think this team can make it in this area,” Barry told Levey then. “I think Washington needs a team and deserves a team, but you’ve got to play in the suburbs where land is cheap and people will come.”
The next season, the Caps moved to the 757 area code around Virginia Beach and called three different cities in that area home as the Virginia Squires. Barry didn’t go further south because, he said, he didn’t want his boys to say, “y’all.”
A few years later, Abe Pollin renamed the NBA Baltimore Bullets as the Capitol Bullets and moved them to suburban Washington. Land was cheap and people came.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post. Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this research.