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Monday, July 5, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

Barry surfing easily the waves of free agency

This summer Brent Barry sits with his pals on the deck of his home on the water in Hermosa Beach, Calif., looks deep into the Pacific Ocean and talks seriously about free agency.

Barry is one of the prime prospects on a thin list of free agents this summer. And his friends are full of suggestions.

"Dude, you gotta go to San Antonio," one friend will say. (Did I mention these friends are surfers?) "You go there and you get five, maybe six more shots a game, guaranteed. Dude, if you go there I'll pick you on my fantasy league team. Make you one of my first nine picks. I swear."

Every year, in every sport, a free agent is signed and a news conference is held at which the free agent, who just made a deal for maybe $30 million, tells the assembled reporters, "This has been the most difficult time of my life. And my family and I are just happy the process is over."

Yeah, it's tough sitting at home worrying whether you're going to earn $30 million or $35 million.

But Barry, 32, a Sonics guard for the past five seasons, is the anti-free agent. He isn't overwhelmed by the media sibilance. He's enjoying the process. He understands his great good fortune. These are the best of times, not the worst of times. His life is elaborately placid.

"It's kind of flattering to have teams call you," Barry said. "Maybe it's some team that's kicked your ass in the past, or maybe you kicked their ass and now they're talking to you about playing for them and you're wondering how you could fit in."

Barry's mentor in all things basketball is Chris Mullin, recently appointed executive vice president of basketball operations for the Golden State Warriors. A long time ago, Mullin gave him advice on free agency.

"Mully told me that being a free agent isn't about the money, it's about getting a chance to play where you feel like you fit in," Barry said. "The decision should be made on how you fit in, the style of play, the teammates that you'll be around.

"He told me it's not about chasing the money. He said it should be about basketball and where you want to be. You don't have many opportunities in your career to have the chance to make that decision."

The last time Barry was a free agent was disastrous. It was 1999, the year of the lockout, and when the lockout ended players were scrambling to find teams. Barry signed with Chicago at the beginning of the post-Michael Jordan era. It was the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now Barry's cellphone is turned on and ringing. He expects to make a decision sometime this week.

"I'm not going to parade around the country, meet with other teams, go out for a steak dinner and make a decision," Barry said. "Teams know what I have to bring to the table. I don't have to sell myself."

My advice to the Sonics would be to sign Barry now. Give him a fourth year if he wants it. This young, rebuilding team needs his veteran leadership. And it needs his presence in the community.

My advice to Barry is similar to his surfer friend's: Get out. Sign with San Antonio or Denver, Indiana or the Lakers. Go with a team that can win.

Sign someplace where you can be the missing link to a championship — the shooter the Spurs need or the playmaker the Pacers are missing.

The Sonics are playing a waiting game. Seeing what another team is willing to offer Barry. If they don't match that offer, it will be a clear sign to Barry that it's time to go.

"I think the (Sonics) organization is at a crossroads and my career is at a crossroads," Barry said. "The buzz around the Sonics has been that they're in a rebuilding situation, and maybe the time has come to do more if they are fully committed to that. Get younger."

The Sonics are the devil that Barry knows. The other teams interested in him are part of the great unknown.

"There's a comfort level in Seattle," Barry said. "There's prior knowledge. I like my teammates. But I have concerns about every situation I'm looking at. The city, style of play, environment, past history, direction, all of that. But right now I think I have to wait and see how some of the other dominoes fall in free agency. Where the other guys go."

Guys like the Lakers' Kobe Bryant.

When it becomes clear that Bryant is staying in Los Angeles, other teams looking for a shooting guard will become more aggressive with Barry.

In the meantime, Barry doesn't sweat the decision. He surfs. Last month he spent a couple of weeks in Costa Rica.

"You're either a surfer, or you just surf," he said. "I just surf. I just go out there and have a good time. Living on the beach for the last five years and seeing those guys out there every morning, it seemed like a lot of fun. And, at the end of every season, I like to pick a spot somewhere that is far removed from basketball and the NBA.

"Costa Rica is not like Philadelphia or Boston in December. It's the perfect place to do something completely different and get away from the game for a while. When you're out in the water, all you're thinking about is the next wave. Nothing else is on your mind."

And for the guy who surfs, but isn't a surfer, the waves are rideable. And the experience is cathartic. And the days are rejuvenating.

Too many free agents talk about their experience as if it's akin to the pain of unemployment. Brent Barry knows the truth about his job and his situation.

At this stage of Barry's career, life's a beach.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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