By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
Barry Booker never thought he’d be a basketball TV analyst, espousing on the conference that still has his name in its record books as one of the most accurate three-point shooters in SEC history.
But if you’re the last of 12 children like the former Vanderbilt guard, you’ve always had a backlog of words and thoughts stored.
“Being the youngest of 12, I guess I wanted attention,” Barry says. “I was like `Please look at me.’ I guess TV that does that for me a little.”
Barry, 45, counts his blessings that he’s never had to move away from Nashville to become a success, and raise a family like his late parents Monroe and Mary Booker did in the Nashville suburb of Franklin.
He went to high school in Franklin, and then drove 20 miles north to play for Vanderbilt. Now, he’s a commercial banker in Nashville and is in his 20th year as a TV analyst. This week, he doesn’t have to leave the city to call games, because the SEC men’s tournament is coming to him, starting Wednesday in downtown Nashville at Bridgestone Arena.
It seemed like just yesterday that Rudy Kalis, a Nashville sports TV anchor, approached the affable Barry with an offer to be a halftime guest announcer for a Vanderbilt-Memphis game.
Barry did so, and knew he had found a hobby that became a second profession.
“I’m thrilled and astounded I’m invited back to announce year after year,” Barry says. “I was in my fourth year out of school at Vanderbilt when I first did it in 1993. People said I was pretty good and I needed to look into becoming an analyst. (Then-Vanderbilt) Coach (Eddie) Fogler recommended me to Jefferson-Pilot (then the league’s TV syndicator).”
Most of Barry’s audience knows him as a sharp-to-the-point talking head that sees things develop before his play-by-play announcing partners.
But if you ever saw Barry during his Vandy career from 1985-89, when he averaged 10.6 points and made 46 percent of his three-pointers (246-of-535) which was the best percentage in SEC history (minimum of 500 attempts) until last season, you’d know he announces the way he played.
“That’s the way I hope I am,” Barry says. “I have to constantly tell myself to keep my eyes on the whole court, and not just watch the basketball. I try not to say anything obvious or too long-winded. I try to think of what would be insightful to viewers that I can also fit in a very small window.”
Barry was a natural athlete who developed his competitive skills as a product of his brother-sister filled environment.
“I just wanted in the game,” Barry says. “It was like, `Let me play, please!’ ”
By the time Barry enrolled at Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, every coach wanted him to play his sport. Barry settled on basketball (19.4 points per game career scoring average), baseball (hit .348 as a senior with 31 steals and a 5-1 record as a pitcher) and track.
What? No football? At 6-5 and 185 pounds with speed, he could have been big-time wide receiver.
“My first day of school at BGA, I was asked by coaches to play football,” Barry recalls. “I’m interested, but I go home to talk to my Mom and Dad about it. My Mom said, `No! You’re too skinny and they will break you in half. You’re not playing football.’ I said, `OK,’ and that was the end of my football career.
“Years later, she said, `You didn’t argue back.’ So I guess if I really had wanted to play, they would have let me. But I’m thankful they didn’t.”
Though Louisville, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Virginia, and Penn State all chased Barry with basketball scholarships in hand, it was a foregone conclusion that Vanderbilt Coach C.M. Newton would be the winner in the Barry Sweepstakes.
Of course, Newton had the homefield advantage. But what clinched it for Barry was his sister Karen was a star player two years ahead of him on the Vanderbilt's women's Lady Commodores.
“It was a great school, close to home and Karen was there,” Barry says. “It was everything I was looking for 15 miles from home. Karen showed me the ropes and helped me get settled.”
There was never a question that Barry would academically qualify for Vanderbilt. His parents, despite working long hours at the family-owned Booker Brothers gas station in Franklin, made sure all their children took care of academic business.
In fact, when Barry graduated with a Bachelors degree, it meant all 12 Booker kids earned college degrees. These days, they are involved in teaching, law, social work, engineering, entrepreneurship and Barry’s banking/slash announcing.
Now each year in Nashville as part of celebrating Black History Month, the Booker children give a $500 scholarship to a Freedom Middle School student who demonstrates leadership, work ethic and commitment to education.
Obviously since Barry was on the bottom of the Booker totem pole, the pressure was on him to get a college degree to make it a perfect 12-for-12 for the Booker Bunch.
When he arrived at Vandy, he encountered a different type of pressure.
He had to conquer the oncourt transition of moving from playing inside much of his high school career, to being asked to play college point guard.
“It was a huge leap after playing a lot with my back to the basket,” Barry says. “I was used to being the biggest, quickest guy on the court in high school who could jump the highest. I had all the advantages.
“In college, I was one of the smaller guys on the court and there were people with better athleticism. But my sophomore year at Vanderbilt, when Coach Newton made me the starting point guard and the NCAA started the three-point shot, it was ideal.”
In Barry’s three years as a starter, Vanderbilt went to the NCAA tournament twice (getting to the Sweet 16 in 1988) and to the NIT once.
He played for a coach (Newton) who immediately embraced the three-point shot. Vandy’s lineup was filled with three-point gunners – Barry, Barry Goheen, Scott Draud, Derrick Wilcox and Charles Mayes – and then-Vandy radio play-by-play announcer Charlie McAlexander tagged the group “The Bomb Squad.”
How good was “The Bomb Squad? The 1988, 1987 and 1989 Vanderbilt teams are still ranked No. 4, No. 5 and No. 8 in the SEC record books for best single season three-point percentage. Barry, Draud and Goheen were all 40 percent or better career three-point shooters.
“Coach Newton embraced the three-point line right away, but he had a couple of rules,” says Barry, who was nicknamed “The Long Ranger.” “He didn’t want us to bring the ball downcourt and just pull up for a three off the dribble. He wanted threes taken inside out by feeding the ball to a post and kicking it back out to a three-point shooter, or dribble penetration kicking it back out.
“And in practice, you had to make 60 percent of your threes unguarded and then had to shoot at least 40 percent in games to get the green light. Those were pretty high standards.”
Newton set the bar high, because his teams played competitive non-conference schedules.
Because of Newton’s long-time friendships with coaches Bobby Knight of Indiana (they coached together on the U.S. Olympic team) and Dean Smith of North Carolina, Vanderbilt was able to schedule such national powers for home-and-home series.
The Commodores knocked off a No. 2 Indiana team that went to win the 1987 national title. A year later, Vandy beat No. 1 North Carolina.
Back then, no major pro sports franchises called Nashville home. Vanderbilt was the Nashville’s “pro team” and crowds packed Memorial Gym, especially when the Commodores made their NCAA tourney run to the ’88 Sweet 16.
“We had the whole city behind us,” Barry says. “Vanderbilt was the biggest show in town. It was phenomenal to be a part of that. We felt like we could beat anybody at home. We could take you down at Memorial. We packed Memorial even for December non-conference games.”
Because of the variety of Vandy’s outside shooters, it seems like the Commodores always had option when the game was on the line. Barry loved looking for Goheen when things were tight.
Barry recalls playing Georgia his senior season with a play designed for Goheen late in the game. Goheen told Barry “I’m not feeling it,” bypassed the shot and told
Barry to take the shot.
“So we get to the end of the game about five minutes later, we’re down by two points, we’re rushing the ball downcourt and I throw it to Goheen near a corner,” Barry says. “He has 10, 12-foot bank shot off glass to force overtime, but he doesn’t take it.
“He checks the clock, backs it out behind the three point, checks the clock again, dribbles, winds the clock down to two or three seconds left and drills the three to get the win. Coach Newton asked him afterward, `Did you know the score?’ And Goheen says, “Yeah, I just didn’t think you could take overtime.’ ”
After Barry’s college career ended with a first-round NCAA tourney loss to Notre Dame, he briefly dabbled playing professionally in Venezuela for Ed Martin, who was an assistant at Vanderbilt. He also went to camp with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, but was one of the final cuts by then-coach Larry Brown.
When that happened, Barry knew it was the end of the road. After playing in Venezuela, he realized he didn’t want to be a globetrotting hoopster. Also, the anonymity of playing for a reclusive CBA franchise didn’t appeal to him, because he was spoiled playing in front of large crowds at Vanderbilt.
He knew it was time to go home.
“Larry Brown was almost apologetic when he cut me,” Barry says. “He’s searching for words, and I stopped him. I said, `Hey, I knew this day was coming. This is why I went to Vanderbilt.’
He perked up and said, `It’s a good thing you went to Vanderbilt.’ ”
Barry returned to Nashville, worked for Bell South for five years and then enrolled in Vandy’s Masters program in its School of Business.
For the longest time, Barry played pickup basketball three to four times a week at the Vanderbilt Rec Center. Finally, at age 39 when a doctor told Barry he didn’t have much cartilage left his knees, he stopped the full-court runs with youngsters half his age.
By that time, Barry’s broadcasting career was well in full swing. So while he could no longer play the game he loved, he could still be in it.
“It has been so enjoyable to be involved in broadcasting games,” Barry says. “It eased the transition from not being able to play at all. I still love the game.”