Original Old School: The Phantom
SLAM 3: The story of Raymond Lewis, who some called the best player to never step foot on an NBA court.
Pulled from the pages of SLAM 3, this Raymond Lewis feature is impossibly good. So we’re putting it up on the site for y’all to enjoy.—Ed.
by Paul Feinberg
They asked me to find a legend, the best basketball player ever to come out of L.A. I found him sitting on the porch of his family’s house, just about a free throw from the Watts Towers.
Historically, a legend is either a person whose deeds are much discussed in his own time or a story passed down from generation to generation, which while believed to be true, is not verifiable.
Raymond Lewis, the greatest basketball player to ever come out of Los Angeles, fits both definitions.
Before the legend, though, are the undisputed facts:
After being named CIF Player of the Year twice and leading Verbum Dei High School to three straight championships, Ray Lewis passed on a scholarship offer from Jerry Tarkanian and Long Beach State to enroll at L.A. State (now known as Cal State L.A.). The nation’s leading freshman scorer and second best in his sophomore year, he declared himself a “hardship” case, became eligible for the NBA draft and was taken in the first round by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Lewis signed a contract and subsequently participated in the Sixers’ rookie camp and played great. He then asked to renegotiate his deal based on his performance in camp. The 76ers refused.
Raymond Lewis never played a minute of professional basketball.
Now the legend:
Everyone who saw him play has a Ray Lewis story to tell. They talk about his game: the nights in high school when every shot he took went in, how he was money-easy money-from 25, 30 and 35 feet out, how he could shoot, hell yeah, but how passing and ball handling were his real strengths.
Then there’s that little red Corvette he cruised around in college and the first-round draft pick he beat so bad they had to cancel practice.
As time passes, the line between fact and fiction becomes more blurry. The more the years fade into memory, the harder it gets to determine where the life ends and the legend begins.
Raymond Lewis still lives in the neighborhood where he grew up, the same streets, the same parks, the same courts. He’s added a little weight to what was a little 6’1″, 175 pound frame, a few of those pounds 12 ounces at a time. But people still recognize him, talk about him. Fathers still stop and point, and tell their sons, “See that guy, he’s the best I ever saw.”
The Los Angeles area has showcased a number of great young players. So I thought it would be difficult to figure out who was the best. I wondered if, like in New York, the legend would be known more for his playground rep than schoolboy exploits.
I figured I’d end up with John Williams, with some vote going towards Marques Johnson. I’d already heard a ton of John Williams stories: how he was the most dominant player of his time before blimping out.
In the end, I found out Raymond Lewis was the man.
Sure, there were a few diplomats who refused to pick the best, but everybody else-sports writers, players, coaches, fans and gym rats-all said Lewis was the greatest they ever saw.
Finding out about Raymond wasn’t too tough, finding him was another matter.
Start asking and the first thing you hear are those stories that grow more and more fantastic. The second thing you hear is the question: “Whatever happened to him?”
So you call a guy who knows everybody and he knows a guy who coaches summer league and is coaching a kid whose father played high school ball with Lewis and who might know where he is. Along the way you hook up with this other guy who can get a meeting-if the price is right.
The more people you talk to, the more you feel you know Lewis. A trip to the library turns up a fair share of newspaper clips-Bruce McDermott’s 1978 Sports Illustrated piece, and a couple of more recent “where are they now” pieces in the local press.
Eventually, you get lucky: a former coach has his father’s phone number or an old friend can get him a message. Then you find him, right there on the porch, around the corner from the old high school.
Verbum Dei High sits on Central Avenue on 110th. The neighborhood is poor and potentially dangerous. If you’re like me, you’re a little nervous, drive a little more carefully than normal, maybe feel a little guilty for your fear.
A Catholic school, it enrolls 300 boys-mostly black and Latin-in grades 9-12. Though small, it’s been a dominant power in local hoops for over 30 years. At the moment the old gym with its asbestos floor-good enough to practice in, but always too small to play games in-is being turned into classrooms. A new gym is being built and for the first time the team will be able to play its home games on campus.
Like all private schools, Verbum Dei is able to recruit the best students it can, for the classroom or the court. When Raymond Lewis entered as a sophomore, Verbum Dei won the first of seven straight CIF Southern Section championships. Both as a junior and a senior, he was the area’s Player-of-the-Year.
Dwight Slaughter, a year behind him in school, played with Raymond for three seasons, graduated Verbum Dei as a high school All-American in his own right and later joined Lewis at L.A. State. He is now a district salesman with an auto parts company.
“No guy who ever touched a basketball was as good as Raymond was,” says Slaughter. “If you looked at him you wondered ‘who is this puny guy’ and you’d think: ‘I’m gonna kill this skinny dude.’ But when the ball went up he was like nine feet tall and everybody else was like two feet.
“This may sound crazy,” he continued, “but we used to look at this guy in the shower and wonder, ‘How does he do what he does’. His feet look like ours, his hands, but there was a mystique. We were like 15-16 and he was like 30; he was so far more advanced than we were.”
How advanced? Jerry Tarkanian said Lewis combined “tremendous shooting ability with total control over the basketball and was best at beating his man off the dribble.”
Slaughter also knows him as a person. “We were a family, but Raymond was the kind of person, who, if you did not kiss his ass and do exactly what he wanted, you couldn’t be around him. It was not a two-way street. You had to be his friend, go to the store for him, drive him around. And you’d do those things because you idolized this guy. I did too, and I was an All-American.
“When I came out of high school, I could’ve gone to any college I wanted to go to. He talked me out of going to USC even though my mother begged me to go [there]. Raymond had so much influence over me; his talent made him an authority.
“[On the other hand], he was a hell of a guy, he would give you the shirt off his back, he would give you money. When he signed his [pro] contract, he would shower me [with money].”
In many ways, Ray Lewis is a product of his times. Dwight Slaughter remembers what it was like in the neighborhood in those days, only a few years after the Watts riots. “Growing up in Watts, the pressure to win and to be successful was there, you had to be somebody just to get out of the ghetto. “
On top of that pressure, Lewis was already being pursued by, for lack of a better word, agents. Also, the inevitable recruiting-cum-bidding war had begun, pumping his ego and, reportedly, lining his pockets.
What the young Ramyond Lewis knew was this: His skill on the court was his ticket out, that he could live life on his own terms so long as he could play, and that there would always be people who wanted to get close to him so they could get a piece of what his talent begot.
I was curious as to why Lewis didn’t go to UCLA-which was right in the midst of its run of 10-out-of-12 NCAA titles-where he would’ve been a member of the Walton Gang, or for that matter, USC, which was also a national power. Apparently, there were several reasons.
Academics was one. (Raymond himself told me later on that he just didn’t like school.) John Wooden’s preference for bringing players along slowly was another. And there was the desire not to join Caesar, but to bury him. (The truth is, despite the banners in Pauley Pavilion and pseudo-Wooden offense employed by Lewis’ high school coach, George McQuarn, the Verbum Dei gang were not admirers of Wooden. Slaughter recalls that the Bruins would pass five times to get a bank shot. At Verbum Dei, you worked the ball, sure, but if you got a step, you just took your man. It wasn’t a racial thing, but the feeling was that the Bruins lacked, shall we say, a certain style.)
The choice for Raymond Lewis came down to Tarkanian and Long Beach versus L.A. State, coached by Bob Miller. For Tarkanian, who already had Ed Ratleff and Glenn MacDonald, among others, Raymond was the guy who could get him past Wooden’s Bruins. For Miller, whose L.A. State program was clearly below the others, Lewis was his one shot at the big time.
The real reason Lewis chose L.A. over L.B. remains, for the most part, off the record. The potentially apocryphal story goes like this: When the offers were all about it, Raymond was driving a 1973 GTX with four on the floor. He drove it all summer and word was he was going to Long Beach. Suddenly, he committed to L.A. and was driving that candy-apple red Corvette Stingray. On sportswriter I talked to, distinctly remembers talk-never proved-of a certain coach with a certain new mortgage on his hands.
For his part, Bob Miller, who is still a physical education instructor at the college, recalls the car and thinks Raymond used part of his housing allowance to pay for it.
Significantly, Slaughter remembers another reason why Lewis rejected Tarkanian and went with Miller. The Long Beach 49ers still had Ratleff, an All-American who would be “the man” for the 49ers. Part of the deal, was that at L.A. State “the man” would be Ray Lewis.
In any case, Lewis entered State with one intention: to prepare for the pros. Depending on who you ask, he was either coming to the school for two years as the condition of his admittance deal or, as even Miller admits, he was going to leave as soon as he was ready for the NBA.
In his first year, Lewis led the nation’s freshman in scoring. As a sophomore he joined the varsity. It would turn out to be his final season of organized ball.
The team was only so-so and Lewis and Co. did not make an appearance in the NCAA tournament. On the other hand, Raymond’s scoring was prolific. After an early one-game suspension for disciplinary reasons-he would go on to finish second in the nation to Austin Peay’s Fly Williams.
The season was highlighted by two games against Long Beach. In the first, the 49ers won handily. Dwight Slaughter (then on L.A.’s freshman team), remembers what the Long Beach players didn’t know. “The first time we played them Raymond had a bad game, shot something like 8-32, but we stayed up all night before partying, drinking, kickin’ it.”
The rematch was held in the L.A. State gym. Long Beach was in the Top Ten. It would prove to be a high-water mark of Raymond Lewis’ career.
Though overmatched, Bob Miller’s crew stayed even with their PCAA rivals. Tarkanian first tried future Boston Celtic, 6’5″ Glenn MacDonald, one of the nation’s best defensive players, then just about everybody else to stop Ray. It didn’t matter, Raymond just kept scoring, and 49ers kept fouling out.
The game went into double-overtime, with L.A. State pulling off the upset. Raymond finished with 52. After the game, Bob Miller hugged Raymond’s dad and was heard telling him, “It was all worth it.” Even Jerry Tarkanian seemed happy for Raymond.
While Lewis was filling up baskets up and down the West Coast during the ’72-’73 season, on the other side of the continent, the Philadelphia 76ers’ basketballs were coming up empty. That season the Sixers lost 73 games, still an NBA record.
By virtue of their putrid performance, the 76ers picked first in the ’73 draft, taking Doug Collins, an All-American out of Illinois State and a member of the Soviet-bit ’72 Olympic team.
Afterwards, they signed him to the commensurate big dollar contract. With the last pick in the first-round, they took Ray Lewis.