The year: 1979. A young kid on his high school JV team is told by the coach to run a certain play. He does, it doesn’t work. The next time down the court, same thing, same result. The kid notices the defense is overplaying to the side the play is being called. The coach yells from the bench to run the same play one more time. As the kid dribbles the ball up the court he smiles at the first defender to look him in the eye. The kid acts as if he’s going to pass the ball to his teammate coming off a screen on the left of him, just as he’s done the last two times down the court. The defense bites. With the ball still in his left hand the kid whips an ugly behind-the-back dribble at the top of the key, splits the two-three zone defense, and cradles the ball to the hole for the finger roll. Automatic two. The crowd goes bananas. He freaked ‘em. Job done. As he approached the bench his coach looked at him, pulled him out of the game, sat him at the end of the bench and said “Who in the hell do you think you are, Micheal Ray Richardson?”
I saw Micheal Ray play only twice. Oh, there were many times on the television, but Sugar was one of those players whom you had to see live for 48 minutes in order to fully appreciate his talents. But you didn’t have to see him live to embrace him. In January of ’82 I got a chance to see him ball at the Garden against the Pistons. I sat in amazement, watching this man do things to Isaiah Thomas that I had never seen anyone do. Not only did he drop 23 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists and five steals on ‘em, he held Zeke to nine points.
Sugar Ray had the ability to leave something indelible in your mind. He did things that were hard to forget. But he was never able to lead the Knicks (or the Nets) to the promised land. His partner Ray Williams once said that Micheal Ray’s problem was that he was sometimes “overanxious.” But in the same breath he’d say “I never knew someone who wants to contribute more than Sugar. He wants to be a part of everything. He gets involved in the game and wants to help win.”
Dark. Inside another hotel suite. Uniform jersey lying on the floor. An attractive young sistah lying in bed fast asleep. Clothes clutter the floor, the chairs and the bathroom door. The television is the only source of light. Paint a perfect picture. Micheal Ray is awake. His addiction is whispering to him like an old friend. Again. He’s still in his game shorts, no socks, no shirt, just the gold of his famous “Sugar” necklace. The small tap-tap-tap of a razor blade against glass can be heard. Glass pipe. One lighter. One love. Eyes close, his head floats back. One death.
Too many nights like this in Sugar’s NBA career. He always woke up from nights like this. He was more fortunate than some. Count the number of ballers, the number of chosen fel who were blessed with the truth only to fall victim to the lie. Cocaine: the other other white meat. David Thompson, Earl Manigault, Fly Williams, Spencer Haywood, John Lucas, Roy Tarpley, Lloyd Daniels, Mitchell Wiggins, Richard Dumas, Lewis Lloyd, Billy Harris, PeeWee Kirkland, others we’ve never heard of.
Those who have never tried it, you will not understand. Because you are the ones who judge, who ask how, why: “How can they throw their careers away like that?” “Why can’t they just stop.” “Why do they keep getting chances, lifetime chances, and continuously fuck them up?” It’s the power of something bigger than the game of basketball and the game of politicking the game. It’s the power of the lie where the truth sometimes rests. “I wasn’t an everyday smoker,” Sugar says. “But when I smoked I couldn’t stop, you know what I mean?”
The problem is that I do. We go on to have a conversation about my cousin who just recently smoked his way into respiratory failure, a 911 left-for dead phone call and three days in ICU. Life saved. We talk about a 5:30 a.m. phone call I got six years ago from my best friend’s girl; she’s hysterical because he’s laying next to her dead, pipe in hand. Life lost. We talk about Len Bias. “How did that affect you?” I ask Ray.
“Len wasn’t lucky,” he says. “I was.”
He’s been clean for 13 straight years now. Someone ought to be proud.
Freaky says his peace. “Micheal Ray Richardson was the baddest mothafucka ever! He’d back you down like this. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Then he’d put that spin move on you. He could not be stopped. When I played against him…” Loungin’ over Stephon Marbury’s apartment in Atlanta, a conversation breaks out about NY legends. Freaky, Steph’s main man, got stories. Of all the names that come up (Nate Archibald, Bob Cousy, Kenny Anderson, Pearl Washington, etc.) Micheal Ray is the one he fears and respects the most, and Freak has balled against all of ‘em if you let him tell it. Freaky’s a historian of the game, politics too. So am I. Yet we totally disregard the fact that Micheal Ray is from Denver—not New York.
Still, FIBA (the International Basketball Federation) has been good for Micheal Ray. For 13 years he’s been able to compete and display on a professional level. He loves it in Europe. “I’m more free over here than I’ll ever be over there,” he says of the United States, though he occasionally returns to visit family. He has a Moroccan wife who is living in France this season, while he graces Italy with continuous no-look passes and finger rolls. His life is complete. All that’s left is the Guinness Book. “I want to be the oldest player that’s ever played professional basketball,” he says with a laugh.
“Then you may have to tour with the Globetrotters,” I say.
“I can do that too.”
Summing up Micheal Ray’s life, Kevin Kernan of the New York Post, who first started covering Sugar with Harvey Araton in ’82 and last year tracked Micheal Ray down in France for an update story, said it best: “There’s only two things Micheal Ray ever wanted in his life: He wanted the ball at the end of the game, and he wanted to be loved. It’s just very unfortunate that he had to go overseas to really find both.” He pauses, then finishes. “But in the end it’s great that he did.”
“I say this sometimes, but I try not to think about it too much.” More truth. “I was put out of the NBA because of drugs, but you know what? I always wake up and kiss my blessings. Here I am 14 years later, and I’m still playing professional ball. Still doin’ my thing. So I ain’t mad at nobody. All I ask is that you be real. Don’t paint me out to be to be no choir boy, because I wasn’t. Just judge me for what I was able to do on that basketball court, nothing else. That’s all I ask. Because where there’s muthafuckin’ shit, there’s always some muthafuckin’ sugar.”
The reason this story has never met anyone like Micheal Ray before is that most of the cats who have lived this life aren’t around to read their stories. Their eulogies are usually told by a friend, the black armbands are displayed and the kids and loved ones cry themselves to sleep. Sugar Bear’s legacy is not that he’s still able to play but that we can see his game in others. Rod Strickland is Micheal Ray all over again. Vicarious living through basketball. Cloning. A replica of a legacy. “Yeah,” Micheal Ray says when I say this. “He’s got some game too. Special game.”
Special game in the way that nothing overly spectacular is done, but little, subtle things that deceive the eye become part of the basics. “Those are the things that you don’t normally see on the basketball court,” he says. “I never really did anything spectacular on the court, I kinda kept to the basics. But I wanted everything I did to be special.
“Unlike Michael Jordan,” I say; MJ does everything in spectacular mode. Responds Sugar: “He’s the greatest to ever play.”
“Are you upset that you never got a chance to play against him? Shut him down?”
“I played against him,” Richardson says, correcting my history. Then he drops this part of his legacy that’s documented. “If you look in [MJ’s] book, he said there were two players that he hated to play against, Alvin Robertson and me.”
Damn. The statement made earlier about the Hall-of-Fame creeps back. It haunts me. So do the politics involved in a brotha like Micheal Ray not being there. In reality he’ll never be; in the hearts of many he deserves to be. Questions swirl. Is it because he never won a championship? Or has one of the greatest players ever to ball been vilified out of enshrinement because he hit the pipe?
“If they had a ghetto Hall-Of-Fame, for the brothas who could really ball, you’d be in there,” I say, searching for some consolation because we both know it will never happen for him. “Yeah,” he says with a laugh. “You want to know something?” Micheal Ray always says this when he has a point to make. “Me not being[in the Hall-of Fame] is not the thing, but Bob McAdoo not making the NBA 50 is. He’s the only MVP not on that list. Explain that to me.” Of course I have no immediate answer.
“Politics?” I mumble. The phone is silent.