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Bob Ryan

Marvin Barnes: What a talent, what a waste

Marvin Barnes (seen here with the Buffalo Braves) was often the best player on the floor.
Marvin Barnes (seen here with the Buffalo Braves) was often the best player on the floor.(1978 AP file photo)

Basketball always came easy to Marvin Barnes. Once he stepped outside the gym, it was a different matter.

“He struggled with life,” says Mike Tranghese. “He really did.”

The colossal struggle, which included a reported 19 separate drug rehabs and a documented four prison terms, ended Monday. He was 62.

Tranghese, a former commissioner of the Big East and a current member of the college football playoff selection committee, was a young sports information director at Providence College when Ernie DeGregorio, Kevin Stacom (who reported the death to the world Monday afternoon), and Marvin propelled a Dave Gavitt-coached PC team to national prominence, culminating in a trip to the 1973 Final Four.

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Tranghese remained close to Marvin over the next 40 years, but being close to Marvin Barnes didn’t mean he could exert any real influence over Marvin’s tumultuous, chaotic, colorful, and perpetually destructive lifestyle.

But however exasperating Marvin could be, Tranghese, DeGregorio, Stacom, and Gavitt were always there for him. They truly loved him and cared for him.

“He was probably one of the most misunderstood people I’ve ever known,” insists Tranghese. “He was a really good person at heart.”

There was, however, no misunderstanding Marvin on that 94-by-50-foot expanse of lumber known as a basketball court. That is, when he wasn’t under the influence of something or other. When sober and motivated, Marvin Barnes was a magnificent basketball player. There is universal agreement on that score.

Dave Cowens knows. He was Marvin’s coach during his abbreviated tenure (38 games) as a Celtic during the 1978-79 season.

“Simply hanging around,” Cowens recalls, “he was just better than everybody else.

“He did things easily. Other people make it look hard. I’d say he was a combination of Alex English and Connie Hawkins. There were times when he really wanted to play and get after somebody. He would get to the point where he was unstoppable.”

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The problem was by that point in his career — and keep in mind that as a Celtic he was only 26 — those dominant bursts of basketball brilliance were seen rather infrequently. And sometimes Marvin himself wasn’t seen, either.

And so he was released.

“He just said, ‘OK, I understand,’ ” Cowens explains. “There was no outburst. He knew he had screwed up.”

Marvin always knew he had screwed up. He never blamed anyone else for his troubles. But at no point in his adult life did he get a handle on things. He would mess up. He would issue his mea culpas.

And he would mess up again. And again. He missed his latest court appearance Monday morning. He was found dead Monday afternoon.

But, oh, the basketball memories. He averaged 18 points and 19 rebounds as a junior at PC. He averaged 22 points and 19 rebounds as a senior. The 76ers made him the No. 2 pick in the 1974 draft, behind a fellow named Bill Walton.

Those PC teams were enthralling. That ’73 Final Four team, which was leading Memphis by 10 in the semis when Marvin hurt his knee and left the game, may have been the best New England team ever.

Were there messy moments? Are you kidding? He had an altercation with teammate Larry Ketvirtis in which he wielded a tire iron. He wound up with probation and a $10,000 fine. So we know the Ketvirtis family doesn’t think he was so lovable.

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He spurned the NBA in favor of a contract with the ABA Spirits of St. Louis. If you want a full story, check out Terry Pluto’s fabulous “Loose Balls,” his wonderful oral history of the ABA. The Spirits and Marvin tales are laugh-out-loud hysterical.

Marvin averaged 24 points and 15 rebounds a game as a rookie, the Spirits games being broadcast by a 22-year-old announcer out of Syracuse named Bob Costas.

“The epitaph on Marvin?” inquires Costas. “Squandered talent. Extraordinary talent. Hall of Fame talent. Maybe — maybe — all-time great talent. I saw him go for 35 and 25 in games against Dr. J and be the best player on the floor.”

He was even more memorable off the court.

“He had a Rolls-Royce,” says Costas. “He would drive around and pick up kids. He would pull up to the arena, maybe having swung by McDonald’s and picked up a quarter-pounder and some fries, swagger into the area 15 minutes before game time with the kids behind him, have the coach look at him ruefully, and get 40.”

Both Cowens and Costas echo the Tranghese sentiment. If he was a monumental screw-up, he was a charming one.

“He was just a free spirit,” Cowens declares. “He was on his own wavelength. He was a decent guy with a decent heart. He just couldn’t control whatever it was that was controlling him.”

“People always liked him and pulled for him,” agrees Costas.

No one ever really understood why Marvin couldn’t figure, you know, “it” out, why he would squander that Hall of Fame talent. Imagine what it must have been like to be him. He knew what he had done to his life, but he just couldn’t help himself.

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He was Marvin “Sad News” Barnes.

More from Bob Ryan:

Opening Day 2015 can’t come soon enough

Are fans really happy with the Patriots?

It’s the end of the NCAA as we know it

Lester left Boston in very good company


Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.