Gators vs. Providence: Memories of Marvin Barnes

When the University of Florida takes on the Providence College Friars Saturday in the Orange Bowl Classic in Miami (5 p.m., Sunshine Network, Gator Country's Larry Vettel handling play by play), it will mark the first time in the coaching career of Gator Coach Billy Donovan that he's had a chance to face his alma mater.

"It's going to be great going against them," said Donovan. "They're a great team now under Tim Welsh, whom I have so much respect for, and of course, the program has so much history and tradition. I'm excited about it."

The Friars of the Big East Conference come into the game on the heels of a third place finish in the Preseason NIT, earning the consolation trophy with a Friday night win over Michigan behind a career night from guard Dwight Brewington, who poured in 23 points to go with seven rebounds, six assists and two steals. Providence (4-1) will easily be a step above the Gators first two opponents, Atlantic Sun Conference members Jacksonville and Florida Atlantic, both of whom were disposed of easily.

Providence is led by Brewington (6-5), who averages 20 points per game, and 6-7, 240-pound power forward Ryan Gomes, averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds per game. The Friars also start 6-9 Tuukku Kotti (8.8 ppg), 6-4 guard Gerald Brown (9.5) and 6-4 guard Donnie McGrath (7.8). This will be the third game in five days for the Friars, now in their seventh season under Welsh (175-105 career, 105-83 at Providence).

Florida, winner Tuesday night against Florida Atlantic by a 90-45 margin, will start guards Anthony Roberson (6-1) and Matt Walsh (6-6), forwards Corey Brewer (6-8) and David Lee (6-9) and center Adrian Moss (6-9).

Donovan was the star for Providence back in 1987 when the Friars were coached by Rick Pitino. Behind Donovan's hot shooting, the Friars became the Cinderella of the NCAA tournament, making the Final Four where they lost to Syracuse in the semifinals. It was one of the more memorable seasons in the storied history of Providence, which counts Lenny Wilkens (all-time winningest coach in the history of the NBA), John Thompson (NCAA championship coaching Georgetown), Jimmy Walker, Ernie DiGregorio, Kevin Stacom and Donovan among its famous alums.

The best basketball player ever at Providence, however, was none of the above listed All-Americans. That honor would go to Marvin "Bad News" Barnes, a two-time All-American in the 1970s who became as famous off the court as he did playing the game.

It was after his freshman year at PC that Barnes nearly saw his career come to an end. On a cold spring evening, the 6-9, 225-pound Barnes cleverly disguised himself and walked into a Providence Convenience store toting a gun, ready to hold up the place for all its cash.

"You don't have to do this Marvin," said the clerk, a bright fellow who wasn't fooled by the ski mask.

News was puzzled that he was recognized. It never dawned on him that there weren't too many tall, athletic looking black men in Providence, and particularly, not too many who would be wearing a Providence College letterman's jacket with the name "Marvin" stitched above the P.

Thinking quickly, Marvin retorted with words that pretty much define what became of his basketball career, "I ain't me. I'm somebody else."

With Marvin Barnes, you never knew if it really was him or somebody else. There are a thousand theories about him, alien abduction probably as close to reality as any of the others. The same Barnes who would attempt to hold up the Providence convenience store (he got off on probation as a first time offender) would lead PC to the Final Four in 1973 when he was a sophomore and would take the Friars to the Eastern Regional semifinals as a junior.

He left PC a year early for the American Basketball Association's St. Louis Spirit, turning down the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers, who drafted him second behind Bill Walton. In two years with the Spirit, he averaged 24.8 points and 13.8 rebounds per game, but he was always a problem needing only a place and the right situation to expand into full scale trouble.

His misdeeds off the court often merged with the heroic efforts on the court. He once missed a flight to Virginia for a game with the ABA's Squires, so he chartered a plane from St. Louis to Richmond, took a taxi to the Richmond Coliseum from the airport and arrived midway through the first quarter. He changed into his uniform on the bench, then went onto the court without so much as a single warmup shot — and scored 57 points in less than four quarters.

When the ABA and NBA merged, Barnes' career went south. Four years and four NBA teams later, he was out of a job and lacking the skills to handle all the money he had made. He went to prison four times and into drug rehabilitation 19 times.

But even the darkest cloud can have a silver lining.

The folks at Providence College didn't give up on News, even when everyone else did. Though he was in prison, Providence people took the classroom to Barnes, tutoring him in his jail cell until he got his college degree.

Now, clean and straight, Barnes runs the Rebound Foundation, an organization that helps young, troubled men who can't get their lives straight because of drugs and crime. Barnes is making his mark in the real world, impacting the lives of people in a way that he never did as a basketball player.

"Gosh he was a great basketball player," said Billy Donovan Tuesday night after the Gators had beaten Florida Atlantic. Donovan shook his head and laughed as he ran a finger across his chest in the area where the P would have been on a Providence letter jacket, acknowledging the story about Barnes and the attenpted convenience store robbery.

The great basketball player is now a great human being. His contributions to society far outweigh the bad of his life. He's just one of many success stories that have come out of Providence.

"It was and will always be a very special place," said Donovan, "and not just for the basketball. You think of Providence and you think about basketball, but there is so much more. I'll always be grateful for the education I got, the friends I made there and the experiences I had."

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