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.
According to an October 23, 1973 Philadelphia Daily News article by Jack Kiser, Lewis received “a $25,000 bonus for signing and a 3-year contract worth $50,000 the first year, $55,000 the second and $60,000 the third. Only half the contract’s money was “guaranteed” and there were more penalty clauses than one could shake a writ at.” There were also some deferred payments. In short, it was not a good deal, more in line with a third or fourth round pick.
After spending his whole life dealing with agents, Lewis negotiated this contract by himself. He no longer trusted anybody to represent him.
Don DeJardin currently works as a player’s agent in San Gabriel, California. During the summer of ’73, he was the Sixers general manager and worked out the contract for Lewis. The first thing he told me-with an obvious sigh-was that I was about the 80th guy to come in search of the Ray Lewis story.
“There was a lot of time spent on (the negotiations),” says DeJardin now. “I ended up spending a lot of time on the phone with his father and it wasn’t trying to convince them of anything, it was time explaining. In retrospect, you could say he could’ve got a better contract.”
The legend reached its apex during a camp held for Sixer rookies during the summer.
Raymond first raised eyebrows showing up for the camp with his fiancé. Bringing a wife or girl was, and still is, unheard of. But that was noting compared to what happened on the court.
Simply put, Raymond tore it up. He handled the ball and passed that ball. Mostly, he shot the ball. I’m convinced he never missed.
Collins, on the other hard, had a so-so camp. One newspaper clipping cited a sprained ankle and a recent tonsillectomy as part of his problem.
As Lewis continued to dominate, the Philadelphia newspapers got into the act. One column, from June 26, typified the fabricated rivalry between Collins and Lewis.
The article begins by calling the camp “a tale of two guards”. There’s a quote from a Knicks scout calling Ray a “20 point favorite over Doug Collins.” It goes on to describe Collins’ affability and Lewis’ reticence with the press. Then this:
“When it came to playing the game of basketball, Collins wasn’t as impressive. He walked more than he ran, and his passed, while fancy, missed more than they hit. So did his shots…”
“Lewis, on the other hand, was doing everything but talk…You watched him closely for flaws…You saw absolutely none on offense. He could do it all and do it so much better than the next best, he was in a class by himself.” That same Knicks scout then says, “Raymond Lewis has more raw talent than any college player in the country, and that includes Bill Walton.” Ominously, the article continuously refers to head coach Greg Shue’s reluctance to compare the two players and demonstrates the coach’s apparent comfort with the presence of Collins and wariness of praising Lewis.
In practices, Collins could not handle Lewis man-up, and eventually Shue stopped matching them. There were two practice games against Ernie DiGregorio and the buffalo Braes, in which Raymond supposedly had better games as well.
Lewis took his performance and the clippings to heart. He knew this: he was better than Doug Collins, but he wasn’t being paid as if he was.
So Lewis demanded to renegotiate his contract. Philadelphia said “no.” That fall, he went in and out of training camp, practicing, then leaving. They started calling him “The Phantom.” One Jack Kiser clip alleged hat he could’ve had his release if he returned his signing bonus.
Eventually, he was suspended for the season. He returned to Los Angeles, worked out on his own. For the first time, his basketball talent alone didn’t get him to where he wanted to go.
Raymond would ultimately be suspended for three years of his Sixers contract. He almost got into an ABA game with the Utah Stars, where he would’ve played against Julius Erving and the Nets. He was literally pulled from the bench when the 76ers threatened a lawsuit.
In 1975, Pat Williams, then the Philadelphia general manager, brought Raymond back for anther shot; again, things didn’t work out. “I brought Raymond back to training camp and tried to get his career going,” Williams recalls. “But it was one thing after another, he could just never focus. Every day it was anther counseling session.”
Lewis continued to get chances. In 1978, he crossed paths with DeJardin again. DeJardin formed a consortium, which gave Raymond an allowance so he could work out and prepare for another shot.
There were tryouts in San Antonio and in San Diego, where Greg Shue took another look. There were countless summer league games and industrial league games and as many tales of dominance-50-point performances and 40-foot buzzer beaters.
Raymond Lewis never played a game in the NBA. He never played in Europe, never played in he CBA. The best player L.A. ever produced, eventually had to walk away.
I finally met Raymond when Dwight Slaughter took me over to his house. Through they aren’t as close as they once were, they still comport themselves like brothers, recalling the same events, able to finish each other’s thoughts and sentences.
By the time I arrived at 10:30 on a Saturday morning during the hottest Los Angeles summer in memory, the sun was already burning overhead. The two were already well into a 12-pack, with Raymond, as in the old days, setting the pace.
We sat on the porch of a house near where he grew up, around the corner from Verbum Dei. I asked him when he knew he could play.
“When everything I touched turned to gold,” Ray Lewis told me. “When I picked up a baseball and I struck everybody out. At 8, you know, 12, 13, 14 years old, running fast than everybody else, kickin’ a ball longer than everybody else. Shootin’ a ball, boom.” He says his father was his coach and the great players of the day, Elgin, Jerry, especially Oscar, were his role models.
As we talk, I kept listening for bitterness, even hatred for those who might have done him wrong. But there was none. Mention Pat Williams and he likes Pat Williams. Don DeJardin, same thing. He loves Bob Miller. And Gene Shue. Doug Collins, “He was jus another guy.”
He mentions God a lot, says he prays every day and that he believes whatever has happened to him was God’s will. This brings him a certain peace.
I ask Ray how his neighborhood has changed. He tells me how things have gotten worse. How before he was a ball player, he was a gangster. But in the old days, gangsters fought with fists, not guns, and how basketball gave him a way out.
The conversation winds around. Finally, I ask what happened to him: first, why did he got to L.A. State?
“More money. I ain’t gonna lie about nothin’. I love Jerry Tarkanian, he’s a very special man in my life. He wanted me to come to Long Beach State when I was a [high school] sophomore. He came to me before any other college and wrote me a letter, okay. [He] started visiting my house,” Lewis said. “It hurt me, [to turn down Long Beach], that I chose money over someone caring about me and [making] sure that I made something out of my life. I chose a car, a Stingray, I chose $2,000 a month in my pocket. To live.”
He’s cautious about where the money came from, doesn’t want anybody to get in trouble. But he’s passionate about wanting the truth out.
“The reason why I’m saying this is ’cause I know about the colleges making millions of dollars, [but] not paying the kids [any] money. I take exception to that.”
He continued with conviction. “It doesn’t make sense to me. These kids-black guys, white guys, whoever-are making millions of dollars for universities, okay. You tell me that’s not a business? They accepting the money. You making money off these kids, shooting this hoop. You know, that’s millions of dollars goin’ in they pockets. And you don’t tell me that you can’t give whoever it is [some money]. Oh my God! Why are they doing this to these kids? I mean, is the public gonna say something? It’s wrong for the university to make millions of dollars off kids playing basketball and not pay the players themselves.”
The final key issue to be cleared up is that of blackballing. Raymond makes it clear throughout our first conversation and on a subsequent interview that he was formally blackballed by the NBA. He speaks with positive authority, as if it were an established fact. Earlier, Dwight Slaughter referred to Raymond-and by association, himself-being blackballed from the league. He meant literally being told by men he trusted that he and Lewis were on a secret list and that they would never play pro.
Eventually, Lewis never felt he was going to get a fair shot. “Man, I never felt right every time I got on that plane,” he explained. “No one, wherever I’m going, they not gonna let me play. ‘Cause I mean, I know that they blackballed me. But I had to go. To fulfill the bargain. And it was bullshit and I knew it. But I had to go because everybody would have said, ‘He didn’t even go’.
“Look, when I was at San Antonio, I asked, ‘Do I have a chance to play?’ You know, if it’s a blackball thing, let me know. I don’t wanna waste my time. I have a family at home, I’m worried about my kids. Do I have a chance to make this team? You know I’m better than everybody on this team.
“[The coach said], ‘Yeah, Ray, well, you know, what I mean, we have Ice…, Johnny Moore…’ It was like, ‘We have this, we have that. But you can stay and play against your old team.’ I said, ‘Man, give me my ticket.’ You know, what I’m supposed to do? I’m there to play ball. But he gave my a hint to tell me that, ‘Yeah, you are being blackballed.’”
For over a month, I mentioned the blackball issue to everyone else I talked to who knew anything about the NBA. Everyone denied such a thing existed. As Pat Williams said, “We’d sign Atilla the Hun if we thought he could play.” Ray said he never left a camp on his own, but his behavior seemed a lot like a guy who breaks up with his girlfriend before she can really break up with him. As his old coach Bob Miller put it, he would usually find a reason to leave, so “He [wouldn't] have to face the thought of getting cut.”
Was there really a list? Raymond would be made at me for saying this, but I have my doubts.
However, I have no doubt Raymond Lewis was blackballed.
He was blackballed by every person who tried to make the most from his jump shot without helping him make the most of himself.
Raymond Lewis was blackballed by coaches willing to exploit his talent on the court without helping him grow off it.
He was blackballed by a team that let a nineteen-year-old kid negotiate his own contract. He was a teenager, practically a child. Someone should have put him in touch with an honest lawyer.
Raymond Lewis was blackballed by a team that suspended him and sent him home without any supervision. If he wasn’t mature enough for the NBA, you keep around, look after him, make him feel part of the team. At least send somebody around once in a while to see how he’s doing.
He was blackballed by everyone who was a little intimidated by an introverted kid from the ghetto, one with a little attitude and a lot of arrogance.
Was there a list? Probably not. But what about those phone calls when Ray Lewis’ name came up: “Ray, he can pay, but he’s got a problem. He’s trouble.” What’s that, if not being blackballed?
Despite the blackballing charges, Lewis does take some responsibility for his fate. He knows he made some mistakes. He’ll tell you he was getting high on grass in a Utah hotel room while waiting to play. He’ll tell you he did a little coke, if only to prove he has nothing to hide.
I told him he would’ve been better off if everything hadn’t gone his way when he was younger. To have failed at something earlier, might’ve made it easier to cope with what was to come.
He agreed. To this day, he feels that he went pro one year too soon, that he grew up a lot the year he turned 20.
I told him that if I could change one thing for him, I would send him to Long Beach and Jerry Tarkanian. Bob Miller is a nice man who’s sill trying to get his old player a job up at Cal State L.A.-but Jerry Tarkanian has proved over the years that he knows how to take care of his guys. As Tark put it, “If he had come with us, he’d have been in the NBA.”
The legend of Raymond Lewis is one of a man both ahead f his time and behind it. On the court, he was light years ahead of everyone. Ironically, if he had come along now, instead of 21 years ago, it is inconceivable that he would slip through the cracks. For that matter, try to imagine a temperamental young figure skater, or violin prodigy in any era being allowed to waste their gift.
In 1994, first-round draft choices don’t sign contracts without the advice of an agent, and players with talent-think Lloyd Daniels-are not allowed to disappear.
Raymond doesn’t pick up a ball much anymore. Since he stopped playing, he’s worked for a grocery company, as a park operator, and a fueler at the airport. Along with the leads he may get from Bob Miller, he’s angling for some type of coaching job at Verbum Dei.
The legend of Raymond Lewis is an important story, too many young African American boys are counting on sports as their ticket to success. They need to know that if Raymond Lewis-”the best there ever was”-could end up in the stands, so could anybody else. What Lewis would really like, is for someone to make a movie about his life, to get the message out there. Perhaps all that’s missing is the upbeat Hollywood ending.
Raymond’s 14-year old son and 18-year old daughter live with their mother up in Oakland. The son, according to the father, plays a little ball but really takes after Ray’s grandfather, a man who was good with his hands.
His daughter, Kamillah Ray, is an A-student in high school, who has her choice of universities to attend.
But the one to watch out for, says Raymond, is her son. He turned three on his grandfather’s birthday in September, and Raymond Lewis believes the little boy is his legacy.
“He’s gonna take after me. He’s gonna be the next Michael Jordan. He’s so into basketball, since he’s two years old. It’s like they had to put baskets in his room, the bathroom, outside. Everything he does is basketball.”
Maybe that’s the Hollywood ending, the last page of the script. A three-year-old with a little ball, shooting 10-footers.