Impossible Dream

Young Stanley

by Matt Caputo
Originally published in SLAM 128

It was November 24, 1999, and Stanley Roberts was early for practice. Timeliness had never been one of Roberts’ calling cards, but Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Larry Brown, who had a special relationship with the big man, asked Roberts to arrive early for a meeting. And so he did.

Roberts was there. Brown was there. And, surprisingly, a disciplinary officer from the NBA who worked under Rod Thorn was also there. The officer produced an envelope, cracked it open and withdrew a letter. He read aloud the few sentences and handed the paper to Roberts. Stanley’s eyes confirmed what his ears had heard: Stanley Roberts had tested positive for high levels of amphetamines. And with that, Stanley Roberts became the first player banned under the NBA’s new anti-drug program.

“I loved the game. I didn’t like everything else that came with it,” Roberts says now. “You know, I enjoyed going out and playing in front of the fans, but everything else, I coulda did without. The autographs signings, the money—I didn’t care about that. And that’s why I gave most of it away.”

Stanley Roberts was a legit seven-footer, a hulking giant with the soft hands of a professional wide receiver. His talent gave him everything—cash, clothes, security. But his indulgences—eating, smoking and spending—would cost him millions and, ultimately, his NBA career.

Today, nearly a decade after flunking that drug test and washing out of the NBA, Roberts is in good spirits.

“I’m happy,” Roberts says from his dorm room in Baton Rouge, LA. He’s attempting to complete the college degree he abandoned at LSU nearly 20 years ago. “I got a house in Houston, my lady, a few cars and I have my four children. I am even happier now than I was with $30 million.”

Roberts was born a big kid in 1970, in the close-knit town of Hopkins, SC. It was the kind of place where neighbors had the authority to discipline neighbors’ kids. Roberts was a homebody. Despite having an older brother who played JuCo ball and uncles who balled at Coastal Carolina and for Bobby Cremins at Appalachian State, Roberts didn’t start hooping until the 8th grade.

“My first year, my concept of the game was zero,” Roberts recalls. “I didn’t go outside and play sports. In my first game, I didn’t realize you switched baskets after halftime. I scored six points for the other team shooting at the wrong basket.”

Roberts’ brother, Wayne, played at Lower Richland High School and asked the school’s varsity coach, Jim Childress, to look after his younger brother, an incoming sophomore. Roberts was already 6-7 but not serious about hoops and without the grades to play in ninth grade. Childress didn’t need much convincing to help the truck-sized youngster find his calling.

“Coach’s eyes got real big,” says Roberts. “He wanted me to play JV and work my way up. He wanted to take me to basketball camp and I said that if my mom said OK, I’d try. I went to camp and I found out I really sucked.”

Roberts never played on the JV team. After that first camp, his family took him to a playground and toughened him up. At a second camp, Lower Richland won the camp championship and Roberts was selected MVP. By his senior year, he was named to both the Dapper Dan and McDonald’s All-American teams.

“He had that brontosaurus rex body and soft hands. Body of a blacksmith, touch of a surgeon,” says Tom Konchalski. The legendary prep scout considered Roberts a Top-10 player in the class of ’88. “Good touch, was a good passer, but he was never in shape. More have been slain by suppers than by the sword.”

In April 1987, Roberts’ junior year, his brother Wayne shot and killed an 18-year-old and wounded two others in self-defense. The hearings coincided with Stanley’s recruitment. He had narrowed his choices to three schools: the University of SouthCarolina, Georgia Tech and LSU. “The judge was a South Carolina graduate and basically said that if I didn’t sign with SC, my brother would to go to jail for life,” Roberts says. “My mom worked at SC and received threats, which weren’t proven. My mother said not to commit until the trial ended, but it kept getting pushed back.”

Roberts chose LSU and Wayne was still cleared of all charges in early 1988. A state investigation couldn’t prove any wrongdoing against Roberts or his family. Lower Richland won a second straight state title, and Roberts finished his high school days being escorted by FBI agents for safety. He flew straight to LSU after graduating.

“I think what sold me on LSU was when Coach Dale Brown visited my home, sat down and said that I would be his friend and a part of his family, before I was an athlete,” said Roberts, who was joined by Chris Jackson (later Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) in that year’s Tiger recruiting class.

Roberts didn’t qualify academically to play as a freshman. By the time he was eligible for the ’89-90 season, the Tigers had signed a second seven-footer to complement their sleeping giant: ShaStanley & Shaquillequille O’Neal. “He was an excellent teammate, a good friend and was hard to stop. He had it all,” Shaq says ofRoberts now. “He was unstoppable.” During their one season together, the Tigers went 23-9 and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Roberts earned Third-Team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press and was second on LSU in scoring (14.1 ppg) and rebounding (9.8), to go along with 60 blocked shots. However, after two years of school and only one season of college ball, Roberts turned pro. “LSU said I left because of academics, and I’ll leave it at that. I was supposed to carry a 2.0 [grade point average]; I had a 1.7. I would have had to sit out that fall semester, and I didn’t want to. I decided to leave.”

Roberts missed the deadline to declare hardship and put his name in the NBA Draft, but he signed with an agent, Oscar Shoenfelt, who had a tryout lined up with Real Madrid. Roberts says Real made him the highest-paid player in Europe at 19, but he racked up more than $150,000 in fines during his one season there. “It was different. The two-a-days taught me that it was a job and you had to treat it like it was a business,” Roberts recalls. “All of the fun that you enjoyed in high school and college kind of left. The only time I felt it was fun was playing in front of fans.”

When he got back to the States, Roberts toured numerous NBA cities to showcase himself for the ’91 Draft. Because he was rapidly gaining weight, he slipped from the Lottery and was selected by the Orlando Magic with the 23rd overall pick. The extra pounds would continue to hinder his development. Despite missing nearly 30 games due to injuries, Roberts showed real promise as a rookie, posting solid averages of 10 ppg and 6 rpg and being named Second-Team All-Rookie.

Still, one year after Roberts was drafted, guess who showed up in Orlando? The Magic won the Draft Lottery and selected Shaq with the first pick in ’92. Orlando had only signed Roberts for one year but owned his rights for three. Roberts remembers, “Dallas was very interested in me and I flew out and signed a contract with the Mavericks. They put an increase in pay if I get traded, all these things in in my favor ’cause they didn’t want Orlando to try to match the contract and bring me back, which they ended up doing anyway. I was upset ’cause I really wanted to play with Dallas. I went to see Pat Williams, the Magic GM and I said, I’m going to buy a house, but I’ll get an apartment if you’re gonna trade me. I was assured that my future was in Orlando. Two weeks later the Magic call and say, ‘We have a three-way deal to trade you to the Clippers.’ I had just signed papers on the house.”

Roberts says he fought the trade. “They’ll never admit this type of stuff, but Williams said, basically, ‘Shaquille don’t want to play with you. If you stay, you’re gonna be at the end of the bench.’ It hurt. This is the first time—other than telling my friends and a few people—I’ve said it publicly,” Roberts confides. “I was pissed off more than anything because I just bought a house for over half a million dollars and if I didn’t accept the trade, they were going to kill my career.”

Roberts eventually agreed to the trade to L.A., where he worked under Larry Brown, who had been brought on to turn the Clips around. Brown and Roberts formed a unique friendship, becoming close when Brown had to convince Roberts that the situation in L.A. was right for him. “I remember trying to recruit Stanley like you would a college kid,” the now-Bobcat coach says with a sparkle in his eye. “You know, I always thought he needed to be in a little better shape, but that was coming. He tried for me. He was a fun kid to be around, and I thought he had an unbelievable upside. He was so quick, athletic, explosive. I thought he had a real chance.”In L.A., Roberts started to find a groove on the court. Off it, however, life was difficult. He ran up tremendous debt buying lavish cars and giving away most of his earnings. At one point, Roberts had seven people living with him in L.A.—he eventually left the house to his guests and rented himself an apartment. “I was out there alone,” he says. “I was out there with people who were sharks and I didn’t know who to trust.”

In ’93-94, Roberts ruptured his Achilles. By that time, Brown had left to take a job with the Indiana Pacers and couldn’t make a move for Roberts. Roberts missed the entire ’94-95 season with injuries, and then the street element he’d never been exposed to in South Carolina really hit his life. “There was pressure and I didn’t want to think about basketball,” Roberts says. “I didn’t want to deal with the Clippers so I started hanging out with people from the streets, the Bloods and the Crips. I felt comfortable. They understood me.”

By the start of training camp in ’96, Roberts’ relationship with the Clips’ latest coach, Bill Fitch, was rocky at best. Roberts says he asked to come to training camp a day late to witness the birth of one of his four children and then had what he says is the only run-in he ever had with any coach. “I came back with pain in my lower back and Coach Fitch didn’t believe me. He huddled us up and started saying, ‘Some of us came in late and out of shape.’ And I just lost it,” Roberts admits. “I said, You bad-heart having sonofabitch! He’d just had a triple bypass. Had Lorenzen Wright not stopped me, I would have been the first Latrell Sprewell.”

Fitch kicked Roberts out of camp, but GM Elgin Baylor kept him on the team. Roberts played in 18 games for the Clippers but wasn’t re-signed at the end of the season. He joined the Minnesota Timberwolves in ’97-98 for what would be his last full season. Roberts posted decent numbers (6 points, 5 rebounds and 1 block per game) in limited action but still struggled with weight and injury issues, as well as mocking teammates. Stanley did, however, find words of encouragement from his T-Wolves teammatStanley & Kevine, Kevin Garnett.

“I grew up in ACC/SEC country and watched a lot of basketball, so he’s a guy I watched play a lot,” says KG, himself a South Carolina native and prep legend. “I’m going to stand up for anyone that’s getting picked on. Stanley was an interesting guy, a different type of personality, but he was a great teammate. Really nice guy off the court who—when he wanted to—was able to really be an animal on it.”

Unfortunately, Roberts never had that confidence in himself. He ate excessively, smoked marijuana and used other drugs during his NBA career. Foolish generosity and bad investments plagued his portfolio and he found himself barely hanging on to his once lucrative source of income. He signed in Greece during the ’98-99 NBA lockout , then joined the Houston Rockets once it ended. He was injured again and only played in six games.

In October of ’99, Larry Brown again recruited Roberts, this time for the Philadelphia 76ers, where Stan became friendly with Allen Iverson, Larry Hughes and Eric Snow. Philly would go on to play in the Eastern Conference Semis, though without Stanley—the drug suspension had ended his season. “Once that happened, there wasn’t much I could do,” recalls Brown. “That killed me because I had no idea. If I had an idea of what was going on, maybe I could have helped. Stanley could have played forever. He would have been able to help us in Philly.”

The ban was supposed to last two years, but Roberts was arrested for cocaine possession in 2000 and the suspension was extended a year. He sued FIBA for upholding the ban and blocking him from signing with a team in Turkey. In 2003, the Toronto Raptors signed him, but he couldn’t get in shape in time for training camp. After a quick summer playing in Puerto Rico, Roberts’ career was over. “I don’t even think I’m going to be remembered,” he says. “They don’t bring my name up too often, but when they do, it’s always because I was the first player suspended under the new drug policy. I was a poster child.”

Once Roberts’ career ended, the money ran out. Since then, he’s worked odd jobs, once as a security guard and another as a “car broker” in the Houston area. Nothing seemed to stick. With few options remaining, Roberts returned to LSU and restarted his education in the fall of ’07.

“I’ve been spending the past six years getting my life back on track,” Roberts says. “Coach (Dale) Brown stayed on me all these years about finishing school. It’s a change for me. When I was first here, we only had about four of five computers on the whole campus; now you even take your tests online.”

Though Roberts missed out on much of the glory of a pro sports career, he never stopped enjoying the game. He’s now about 18 months from earning a Bachelor’s Degree in sports management (he says he’s got a 3.2 GPA at the moment) and hopes to get into coaching. His education is being funded by financial aid and the Dale Brown Foundation. Roberts has gone back to church and spends time working with a substance abuse program. Because of the many physical problems he’s had in his post-playing career, Roberts is attempting to receive disability benefits. He never asked for much out of life and definitely got more than he expected. Now he’s hoping to move on to a simpler life, one without the headaches and heartbreaks he’s already endured.

“My goal, my dream my whole life was just owning a little house, having a wife and family, that’s all I ever wanted. I didn’t ask for this. It was never my dream to be an NBA player,” Roberts admits. “Everybody else threw me into it because of the money. I was pushed. Everybody told me I should play ball, but nobody ever stopped and thought what I thought my life should be like.”e