Barnhill and WSU photos

Catching up with old Cougs: Norton Barnhill has taken art of the game from hardwood to canvas

IN THE transformation of Washington State basketball in the early 1970s – from largely white and regionally grown – to black, white and nationally produced, no one illustrated the metamorphosis more than Norton Barnhill.

A professional artist today, he says if commissioned to capture that long-ago makeover in Cougar hoops with paint and canvas it might look something like this:

“A convergence of shapes, sizes and colors that lead from despair – Coach Raveling couldn’t get a win early on – to joy,” he told Cougfan.com in a recent phone interview from his home in Winston-Salem, N.C.

After a pause, Barnhill marvels that in his final season at WSU, 1975-76, the Cougars went 19-7, winning nine Pac-8 games and defeating two Top 20 teams -- yet stayed home in March.

Regardless, that season affirmed the bold, new direction WSU athletic director Ray Nagel wanted to take Cougar basketball when he hired 34-year-old George Raveling to be the Cougars’ head man in 1972.

"I asked Ray, why did you hire me? Pullman is probably the last place in the Pac-8 where you should have a black coach," Raveling told CF.C in 2013. "Ray said, ‘I really want to see what it would take to make this program competitive. We need someone who could recruit players to Pullman … I called all over the country to find a great recruiter, and your name kept coming up’…”

Raveling was one of just four African-American head coaches in a major conference at the time.

He went 6-20, 8-21 and 10-16 in his first three seasons at WSU and the hand-wringing among the faithful was ramping up.

But five of his subsequent eight Cougar teams each won between 18 and 23 games and two went to the NCAA Tournament.

Barnhill was the epitome of the new era – and aura -- in Cougar basketball.

He was a natural shooting guard, but at 6-4, 205-pounds, and with long arms and remarkable leaping ability, he could also go into the post.

He was the future of a sport getting more athletic, stronger and faster by the season.

For a fan base raised on basketball talent largely from places like Richland, Yakima, Sandpoint, Anaconda and occasionally Tacoma and Seattle, the multi-dimensional kid from North Carolina signaled a dramatic departure from the old way.

Raveling’s first recruiting class featured more guys from outside the Northwest than the program had seen in the previous dozen years combined: In addition to Barnhill, there was Edgar Jeffries (Ohio); Sammy Miller (Connecticut), Xavier Hunter (Florida), Brad Greenberg (New York) and Californians Karl Krug and Terry Justice.

"To sit back and reflect now, we were pioneers," recalls Jeffries, a retired retail operations director for Hostess who lives outside Chicago. "At the time, you're focused on getting an education and winning games, so you don't really look at it like that, but now you can see it."

Barnhill said his eventual path to Pullman began when Raveling, recruiting him for Maryland, "came to see me practice and said he might be getting a new job and that I’d have to come out for a visit. He didn’t say what school it was, but said let’s hold off on Maryland and the ACC for now.” Barnhill eventually narrowed his 20-plus scholarship offers down to WSU and USC.

RAVELING WAS KNOWN TO HYPE his recruits, but with Barnhill, and a year later with center Steve Puidokas out of Chicago, there was just a little more juice in the suggested upside.

Puidokas took no time to impress, averaging 16.8 points per game as true freshman in 1973-74. Barnhill, though, spent what would have been his first year, 1972-73, at a junior college following legal charges -- for which he was found not guilty – that derailed his path.

He finally suited up for the Cougars midway through the next season and glimpsed at the future Raveling had promised, averaging 16.6 points in 10 games.

The way he moved, the way he drove, everything about him was tantalizing. Raveling’s battle cry to boosters – “Wait till they’re old enough to shave” – was all about a brighter tomorrow and Barnhill had hope written all over him.

A severe ankle sprain high-centered him in 1974-75 and he managed just 17 minutes and 6 points per game and the Cougars, while improved, still struggled.

Then came the turnaround season.

Barnhill, fully healthy, envisioned a return to 15- and 20-point scoring nights.

But Greg Johnson, a post player from Saginaw, Mich., injured a knee and Raveling turned to Barnhill to switch positions.

Norton Barnhill vs. Marques Johnson (WSU)
 He wound up pulling down 132 rebounds – 5.5 per game – while averaging 10.2 points. Certainly not the superstar production Raveling had alluded to four years prior, but an out-of-position, workman-like effort that was key to getting the program on the path to sustained success.

“We didn’t have anybody else to play power forward when Greg got hurt,” Barnhill remembers. “Playing the post at 6-4 sounds ridiculous but I said OK. And we went 19-7. I think my stock went down with the NBA, but that was a sacrifice worth making.”

He still got his pro shot.

And it was with the team he had wanted to play for since reading about the NBA’s 1967 expansion: the Seattle SuperSonics.

“When I was a kid I knew I was going to college even though my mom didn’t have the money for it. I knew I was going to get a scholarship.

“I also knew I was going to play for the Sonics – not that I hoped to play for the Sonics, that I knew I was going to play for them one day,” he says. “I can’t really explain it.”

Sure enough, Seattle took him with the 134th overall pick of the 1976 draft. He played in four regular-season games for them that season before being released.

Between guaranteed contracts and the flood of talent coming into the league from the folding of the ABA, the odds of sticking weren’t on his side. Worse, he chuckles, one of the rookie guards he was competing against for a roster spot was none other than future Sonics all-timer Dennis Johnson.

SO BARNHILL HEADED TO ARGENTINA. He played there professionally until an elbow injury ended his career in 1986. Fluent in Spanish, he became a color analyst on game broadcasts before returning to the U.S. He held a series of jobs – from clothing sales to juvenile detention counselor – but art pulled him back to Pullman.

“I’ve always viewed the world through colors …. I remember on road trips with the Cougars I’d try to check out art galleries and museums, but I really didn’t tell anyone about my creative side

“I knew when I started pursing art seriously I wouldn’t stop.”

That pursuit began when an old friend, Walter Little, went to work at WSU as an academic adviser and encouraged Barnhill to return to the Palouse to complete his degree.

He wound up with two – in studio art and humanities.

“I almost finished school (in 1976) and always wished over the years I had completed my degree,” he says. “But I have it now. And once you have it, no one can take it.”

More than a dozen of Barnhill’s paintings are variously scattered around the WSU campus. 

One of his favorites is called “Jubilation.” It’s an abstract coming together of oil and acrylic that captures the energy and excitement around the 2002 Cougar football team’s run to the Rose Bowl.

“I was proud of my university then and I’m proud of it now,” he says. “My times in Pullman – in the 1970s and then in the early 2000s – were very special. It’s a great university and the people are so nice.

“I remember sitting down for dinner one time in the dorm when I was playing ball and a student, who was from Taiwan, looked up and saw me and said, ‘You’re a big man on campus.’ I said, ‘No, I’m just going to class and taking exams like you are.’ That’s Pullman – one big, unpretentious family.”

NOTABLE:

  • Barnhill has four children and three grandkids.
  • He keeps in touch with many of  his old Cougar teammates, including Jeffries, and reports that Ricky Brown is living in Collierville, Tenn.; Ron Davis in Phoenix; and Ken Jones in Detroit. In the photo at the top of this page, Davis, Jeffries and Marty Giovacchini are to the left of Barnhill and Greg Johnson to the right.
  • Jeffries feigned incredulity that an old nemesis with Oregon's Kamikaze Kids would now be the head coach of the Cougars.
  • Barnhill can be found on Facebook HERE.

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The life and times of Steve Puidokas

Elusive Don Collins greatest ever?

WSU is No. 1 for me, Raveling says

Terry Kelly still can't watch tape of final game

BARNHILL ART SAMPLE:


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