This Original Old School appears in the current issue of SLAM Magazine, SLAM 143. Most recently, Mitch Richmond helped produce the horror flick,Chain Letter. He resides with his wife and kids in California.
THE YEAR 1988 WAS A WHIRLWIND FOR MITCH RICHMOND.
From wrapping up his successful college career at Kansas State to playing for Team USA in the Seoul Olympics and getting drafted into the NBA, Richmond accomplished more that year than most ever do. So it’s not surprising that most of the details are blurry to him now. Most…but not all.
“I had a BMW 735,” says Richmond. “I loved that car.”
Mentioning the whip jogs his memory.
“It didn’t have no flash to it, just some chrome wheels. Then one of my boys was like, ‘You should put gold wheels on it. Nobody’s got that. It’s gonna be cold.’ I thought about it a little bit and said, ‘Know what? I’m gonna just dip my wheels in gold.’
“So I got it done,” continues Richmond, “and I’m riding through the hood in Oakland and everybody’s like, ‘Oh, man! That’s cold.’ Everybody was like, ‘Woot, woot! That’s cold!’”
Everyone, that is, except for his future wife, who refused to drive in it, and his Golden State Warriors teammates. “This rookie from Fort Lauderdale, FL, came out to Oakland,” laughs Chris Mullin, “and got him a black BMW with gold rims. The guys were killing him for it.”
Gleaming gold hubcaps were the exception. Otherwise, for the duration of a four-stop, 14-year career, Mitch Richmond thrived in the NBA without flare or fanfare.
“Mitch wasn’t a flashy player,” says Jerry Reynolds, the Kings’ GM when they traded for Richmond in 1991. “He was just a very solid, throwback kind of player. He was a guy you could just plug in there. Like a terrific hitter in baseball, you just put him in the lineup and he was gonna get you 25 points and guard his position.”
IN A 94X50 WORLD MADE UP MOSTLY OF PLEXIGLASS, LEATHER AND WOOD, MITCH RICHMOND WAS A ROCK.
“Most of the 2-guards in the League were half scared of him,” recalls Reynolds. “If they knocked him down, they’d run over and pick him up. They didn’t want Mitch mad. He got the nickname Rock for a reason. He didn’t back down from anybody. He was kind of the Karl Malone of 2-guards.”
Richmond attributes his hard-nosed game to a childhood spent on Florida’s many gridirons. “Once you go from football to basketball, the contact doesn’t really bother you,” says Rock, who didn’t cross over from pigskin to roundball until he got to high school. “You feel bigger and stronger than the next guy. I loved to hit, and I loved when you hit me. I played harder and stronger when you did that.”
Blessed with a 6-5, 220-pound frame bulging with muscle, his tenacious mindset, coupled with a still-developing jumpshot and dogged defense, led the Golden State Warriors to make the K-State grad the fifth pick in the 1988 NBA Draft. The Warriors were coming off an embarrassing 20-win season in ’87, a campaign that saw two coaches lead the team and 21 different players suit up. That summer, in an effort to right the franchise’s wrongs, much of the roster was turned over, and Don Nelson was appointed coach. No move, however, ranked higher than the drafting of Richmond. Having averaged more than 22 points a game his senior year at Kansas State, Rock brought great college stats to the Bay. More than that, though, he brought hope.
Rising to expectations like waves to the Californian shore, Richmond’s impact was visible from his rookie regular season opener, where he scored 17 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in a victory over the Phoenix Suns. “He came in ready to go,” says Mullin, who was then in his third season. “No doubt, he was a pro when he walked in the gym. There was not much transition period for him.”
Playing in Coach Nelson’s fast-paced, stats-stuffing system, Richmond averaged 22 points, 5.9 boards and 4.2 assists his first season, capturing the Rookie of the Year award while helping the Warriors win 43 games and reach the Western Conference Semis. That summer, Golden State drafted Tim Hardaway, creating a three-headed attack that would come to be known as Run TMC. According to Chris (C) and Mitch (M), that’s when the fun began. “To have Mitch and Tim come on board back-to-back was incredible,” says Mully. “That was the best time.”
“It was just awesome to play with those guys,” adds Rock. “We had a great style. We shared the ball. The city was buzzing about our team. We were just a couple of players away.”
In the ’90-91 season, the trio’s second campaign together, Run TMC combined to average 72.5 points and over 15 dimes and ’bounds. Led by those three, Golden State not only wowed crowds, but they won games, reaching the Conference Semis. Instead of letting the good times roll, however, Warriors management lusted for a natural forward and dealt Rock (along with Les Jepsen and a future second round pick) to the Sacramento Kings for the just-drafted Billy Owens.
“They broke it up too soon,” recalls Mully, his voice still taking on a somber tone nearly two decades later. But as bad as Mullin felt about the trade, his best friend Mitch felt much worse. So much worse, in fact, that Rock called his agent in a panic, asking if there was any way he could retire, come back and re-sign with the Warriors.
“I was young and didn’t know the rules,” chuckles the good-natured Richmond. “I just didn’t want to go to a team a lot of steps away from competing.”
Informed by his agent that the Kings would retain his rights no matter what, Rock begrudgingly took his talents 70 miles up I-80 to Sacto for the ’91-92 season. “I was concerned,” says Reynolds of Mitch’s negative reaction to the move. “He was really despondent, which I expected him to be. That’s part of the reason Mitch was good: He was loyal to teams and teammates. But honestly, I felt—and I told Mitch this—This’ll be the best thing in the world for you. With Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway, you’re one of the three. Here you’ll be the one.”
Immediately after arriving, Rock fulfilled Reynolds’ prediction, becoming the Kings go-to guy. But fighting off double-teams and bullying smaller defenders is only fun when you win. So while he would come to appreciate the small market city and fans, Richmond would never come to terms with the losing over the course of his seven-year stay. “I remember playing a game within a game, trying not to look at the score,” says Richmond. “You never get used to losing, and that was my first time losing that many games. That was really tough.”
Marty McNeal, the Sacramento Bee’s writer on the Kings beat from ’92-’05, remembers one story that encapsulates Richmond’s ringless reign in Sacramento. During the preseason one year, the Kings met up with the Chicago Bulls. With the Kings going full bore and the Bulls playing bored, the tilt ended up stretching to double-overtime, where Sacramento prevailed. When the final buzzer sounded, the Kings sang and danced their way around the court. The only thing missing was confetti. Says McNeal: “Jordan was like, ‘Go over there and tell Mitch that wasn’t the seventh game of the world championship. It was a pre-season game.’”
When you’re out of the Playoff hunt by the All-Star break, as the Kings regularly were, the preseason becomes your postseason and the postseason becomes your offseason. While the Kings didn’t excel during his tenure, Rock did—even if the lack of team success plus the tiny West Coast market equaled him flying under the average fan’s radar. During each of his seven seasons in Sacramento, Mitch bucketed between 21.9 and 25.9 per. Along the way, he was selected to play in six All-Star games, was named Second Team All-NBA three times, and won a Gold Medal with Team USA in ’96.
“He’s clearly the best 2-guard Sacramento has ever had,” offers McNeal. “He was never scared, which I took for being clutch. You always miss some shots. But you can look at dudes and see if they really want to shoot or don’t, and he always wanted the ball.”
“Everybody liked and really respected him,” says Reynolds. “He was a leader and a no-nonsense guy. It was really an unpopular move when he was traded.”
If the 1992 trade for Mitch Richmond was the best transaction Sacramento ever made, dealing him (along with Otis Thorpe) to Washington for Chris Webber in ’98 was the second-best. After the swap, Sacramento’s fortunes changed almost immediately, and they would make the Playoffs in each of the next eight seasons. For Rock, however, DC was another disappointing chapter in his career.
“He could still shoot the ball,” says Rod Strickland, Richmond’s friend and running mate with the Wizards. “He just had some rough times those couple of years. If I had Mitch Richmond earlier in my career—earlier in our careers—we would’ve been a problem.”
By the time the two paired up in the nation’s capital, they were on bad terms with Father Time. Leg injuries led to declining scoring averages led to a column full of Ls. All of which led to an unhappy Richmond.
“Washington was struggling, and, actually, the fanbase wasn’t as good as Sacramento,” says Mitch. “Washington wasn’t really supporting the team.”
After his third season in the DC, a 19-win ’00-01 campaign that saw the Wiz waive Strickland, the 35-year-old Rock decided he’d scored too many points in meaningless games; it was time to score a few in meaningful ones. So he signed a one-year deal with the defending champion Lakers.
Fortunately for Rock, going back to Cali allowed him to earn a long-awaited NBA Championship. Unfortunately, he didn’t impact the outcome as much as he would have liked. For the season, Mitch averaged just 11 minutes and 4 points per game. In the Playoffs, he appeared in two games.
“I thought I’d have a bigger role. That’s why I came there,” reflects Richmond. “Was I upset that I didn’t have the opportunity to play much? No doubt. But I feel like a team is a team. So, I still respect it. I got a ring. There’s a lot of people who haven’t had that opportunity.”
A lot of players haven’t won it all, and a lot of cities haven’t hosted a parade. Included on that list is Sacramento, the stop where Rock made his name. The closest the capital of California ever came to a Championship? That same ’02 season when, in an ironic twist, they met up with Richmond’s Lakers.
“It was tough to see the Kings turn it around when I left,” says Mitch. “It was even tougher when we were fightin’ with them to go to the championship. I was thinking, Are you serious? I cannot lose to the Kings! It’s my first chance to go; I cannot lose to my former team when I could not win a game there.
“I didn’t play that much, but I remember in Game 7, I was sweating like I had played. I mean like drenched, cause I was so into it. Thank God we pulled it out.”
That summer, basking in the Championship’s glow, Mitch Richmond stepped away from the game.
After 14 seasons, his NBA résumé read better than almost any other guard from his era not named Michael Jordan: 21 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.2 spg, six All-Star Games, five Second and Third Team All-NBA selections and one Championship.
A PLAYER BECOMES ELIGIBLE FOR THE HALL OF FAME FIVE YEARS AFTER THEY RETIRE.
Rock’s been out of the game for eight. For whatever reason—lack of Playoff success, playing in Jordan’s shadow, a dearth of highlight reel plays—he’s yet to receive an invite to Springfield.
“I don’t know if he’ll [ever] get in,” says McNeal. “I know there’ll be a lot of people in the Hall of Fame whose asses he’s busted, though. They didn’t call him Rock for no reason. When he got his jump-shot going, there was no stopping him.”
“I’d say he’s easily a Hall of Fame player,” declares Mullin. “His numbers are incredible, and he almost always guarded the best player on the other team. He had a great post game, three-point range. He did everything. Everything.”