Hoop Dream 

How Sugar Stayed Sweet

The rise, fall and rise of Micheal Ray Richardson, the greatest Grizzly ever

On February 25, 1986, the National Basketball Association banned Micheal Ray Richardson for life. A star of shimmering talent and a terror to the game's elite, he was the first active player permanently banished for drug abuse.

If the league had decided to crumple the contract of some bench-rider, it would have been sad enough, but "Sugar" Ray possessed some of the most exciting raw skill in a generation. In 1978, the New York Knickerbockers gave him a spectacular baptism, recruiting him from the University of Montana as the fourth choice of of the league's draft, two slots ahead of the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird. In eight NBA seasons, Richardson rolled to 8,253 points, 3,056 rebounds (2,075 on the defensive end), 3,899 assists and four trips to the All-Star game.

He also racked up: at least 16 cars; about seven agents and "advisors"; a couple of collapsed marriages; three shoe companies (simultaneously); tens of thousands of dollars, often borrowed; a possible unofficial record for disappearances; and three positive tests for cocaine in two years.

Micheal Ray Richardson

To a league struggling desperately to forget its own coca-soaked 1970s, such chaos was unacceptable. But the Knicks had discovered in Richardson a mercurial genius who baffled future Hall-of-Famers on the courts. At Montana, he had devoured the provincial competition of the Big Sky Conference, always too fast and too smooth for the blue-collar players he faced. Years after his pro debut, the New Jersey Nets, his third club, hoped to make him the cornerstone of a new league power.

In short, Richardson was a phenomenon, and for that reason even NBA Commissioner David Stern rued the extreme punishment meted out by the league. "[This is] a tragic day for Micheal Ray Richardson," Stern said as he announced Richardson's exile. "Nothing less than the destruction by cocaine of a once-flourishing career."

The event quickly took on a funerary tone, a tendency to talk about Micheal Ray in the past tense that prevails to this day. It was as though Stern had come to that 1986 press conference wearing an executioner's black hood. Buck Williams, Richardson's New Jersey teammate, took note. "Banned for life, that sounds like cancer, that he has no hope, that there's nothing they can do for him," Williams said at the time.

There was talk of reprieve if Richardson could escape coke; the rules held out some slim hope. For a 31-year-old guard with an endless addiction, though, the future looked very dire. All these years later, however, it would seem reports of the demise of Micheal Ray Richardson-the sweetest Grizzly and one of the NBA's lost greats-have been greatly exaggerated.

Il Straniero

In 1999, both the NBA and Montana's basketball program find themselves in uncertain territory. This year's Grizzlies, playing for small crowds in a high school gym, seem far removed from the halcyon days of Micheal Ray, when Jud Heathcote sweated oceans on the sidelines and the "Tips" came within a breath of beating mighty UCLA in the '75 national tournament. The passion that once boiled over in the Fieldhouse is missing.

Through a winter of squalid labor trouble, the major league of hoops hasn't played a single game, though the club owners and players have put on quite a show. The owners and players agreed last week to dust the cobwebs off their stadiums, play a short season and crown a champion in the spring. Nearly 13 years after the NBA decided it couldn't live with Micheal Ray Richardson, the league has found it can barely live with itself.

Meanwhile, a world away, Richardson has concerned himself with more practical matters than the riddles of hard and soft salary caps, television revenues and free agency. Matters like raining in baskets, for instance.

Richardson plays for Carne Montana Forli, a Northern Italian team competing in the second division of that country's Lega Basket. (The team is named for its sponsor, a meat company.) The Italian league is home to a legion of NBA cast-offs and Continental hardcases; by reputation, it's the toughest circuit in Europe. Richardson, born in 1955, is 22 years older than Forli's youngest player, yet he has started most of his club's games, posting startling numbers.

On January 3, Richardson scored 16 points in a win over Viola 98 RC. He put in 23 points while playing 38 minutes against Cordivari Roseto in November. In a game against Trieste on December 6, his 33 points made up nearly half Forli's total. He scored 27 against Fila Biella, 21 against Snai Servizi, 17 against Banco Sardegna on the parched, rocky island of Sardinia. After losing six of nine games to start the season, Forli has surged back since Richardson found his stride and now sits in the middle of the pack.

"I think I'm the oldest basketball player out there still playing professionally and playing well," says Richardson in a telephone interview just two days after he strafed Trieste. While he talks on the phone, a young daughter plays in the background. Richardson's married to an Italian woman, and in a league where foreign players-stranieri-are at a premium, Forli's roster now lists "ITA-USA" as Sugar's nationality.

A trans-Atlantic telephone call with a stranger is perhaps not the best forum for judging a rebuilt life. In the bad old days, though, journalists often complained that Richardson was a flaky and difficult interview. Now, he's friendly and open in conversation, talking enthusiastically about his current team and a career that's taken him to the capitals of Europe and a few of its obscure backwaters as well. He says his future looks good. He works for the NBA in the off-season, traveling Europe to promote the league; there's even talk of a movie of his life, to be co-produced by the NBA and Turner Network Television. More to the point, he sounds happy.

"Basketball's been with me all my life," he says. "I can still do it, and I'm still having fun and I still have that love of competition inside me, y'know? I still have the will to win, and as long as that's with me I'm going to keep going. I said to myself before this season that I would play this season and one more and then hang it up. If I keep playing the way I have been, though, I don't know."

Forli is just the latest stop on Sugar's strange odyssey. Despite the stain of the NBA ban, his skills remained so sterling that someone was always willing to take a chance. He wandered the fringe of the American game for two years, playing for the Long Island Knights and New Jersey Jammers of the United States Basketball League and the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association. Then, it was off to Italy, a refuge where American players face insane fans and even crazier expectations, a straight-across trade for solid paychecks and second chances.

"Italy is a real strong league," Richardson says. "I'd say it's probably the second-strongest league in the world, outside of the NBA. It's a whole different way of life, though, a whole different world."

While Richardson is remembered as an NBA washout, he’s still playing long after his contemporaries have retired.

Indeed. Just last month, a game between Varese and Polti Cantu, bitter neighbors in the first division, was abandoned when their respective fans brawled. Richardson stepped into the center of this hothouse in 1988, joining Knorr Bologna, one of Italy's greatest clubs. He promptly blew everyone away.

In Il Basket d'Italia, a 1994 book on the Lega, Portland author Jim Patton catalogues Richardson's success with Bologna. "[H]e had more talent than Italians had ever seen," Patton writes. "The fans loved him. Knorr won the Italy Cup in '89 and '90, and in '90 took the [European] Cup of Cups. ... A photo of the Cup of Cups team doing a champagne toast hangs in Roberto's Restaurant, with Micheal grinning as if he's already had a few glasses. The other straniero in the shot is Clemon Johnson, who, I'm often told, 'got fat in Bologna, with Sugar feeding him so much.'"

"Oh, we won a lot of trophies in Bologna," Richardson says now with evident pride. Still, it wasn't all sweetness and light. A convoluted drug scandal in 1991 led to his departure from Knorr-though, Patton recounts, the fans there were still chanting "Shoo-gah, Shoo-gah" three years later. Richardson played for Jugoplastika in Yugoslavia, for Baker Livorno in Italy. There was a coaching stint in Israel in there, somewhere, too.

After four years in France, finally, Richardson returned to Italy for yet another new lease on his basketball life. "France was great, it was a good experience," he says. "I won two championships there. But Italy means more money and tougher competition. This team, Forli, is a good team where I can make an impact.

"I still play pretty much like I've always played. When I was in school at Montana, though, I played point guard. Now I'm playing mostly power forward. It's a different role to play, but I've always played different positions, so it wasn't hard to adjust."

He says he values his European adventures as the best education he's ever had.

"Without basketball, I would never have had the opportunity to live in other countries, to experience life in other countries," he says. "For me, it's been the greatest learning experience of my life. I like the way they live in the European countries. It's way, way, more relaxed. There's less crime. The way the people live is wonderful. Over here, playing in Italy, I still have the record for scoring 50 points in the All-Star game, and that, I think, is a record that probably will never be broken.

"It gave me a second life, y'know? A second life. After I left the United States, a year later I had a chance to go back. The Philadelphia 76ers wanted to sign me, the league was going to reinstate me. I decided to stay over here. I was 33, 34 years old, and I thought to myself, well, if I could go back over there, I might play one year and that might be it. I was hoping to get a two-year guaranteed contract, and the Sixers only wanted to sign me for a year. So I decided to say here, and here it is, nearly ten years later and I'm still playing."

The First Life

Jud Heathcote, who coached Montana from 1971 to 1976 before becoming a legend at Michigan State, tells the story of Richardson's recruitment, outlining the sort of scenario that must keep coaches staring at ceilings through many late nights.

"We were looking at this little guard out of Denver who came up for a visit but he decided that, well, he had a lot of family problems so he decided to go closer to home," Heathcote recounts. "But then I get this phone call from a guy who says, hi, I'm Micheal Ray Richardson, I'm a friend of so-and-so and I hear that's a nice place, I'd like to come up there. And I said, whoa, hold on. I called [assistant coach] Jim Brandenburg and asked him, who the hell is Micheal Ray Richardson? And he said, oh, he's a six-foot-three forward from Manuel High School down there. And I said, we're not looking for any six-foot-three forwards. Brandenburg says, well, maybe he can play guard, I don't know."

Heathcote's retired now, living in Spokane after a career highlighted by Michigan State's 1979 national championship. The star of that Spartan team, of course, was Magic Johnson, the electric conductor of the all-glitz Los Angeles Lakers dynasty of the 1980s and early '90s. The same fans who recall Micheal Ray Richardson primarily as a human disaster in high-tops prize memories of Johnson's telekinetic sense of the court. Heathcote insists that only a few inches of height separated the mystery kid from Denver and Magic.

"I always say that Magic did it at six-foot-eight and Micheal Ray did it at six-foot-four," Heathcote says. "As a guard at six-eight, there's just a lot more you can do. But athletically they were very similar in their abilities. And Micheal Ray went on, in the NBA, to become a great defensive player, while Magic just remained a great offensive player.

"If it hadn't been for drugs, I think Micheal Ray would have had one of those great careers."

Heathcote, then, did very well to give the cipher six-foot-three-inch high school forward on the other end of that 1974 phone call a chance-though, really, as coach of an underfunded hoops program always scratching the earth for players, he perhaps didn't have much choice.

"Oh, we were scrambling," Heathcote recalls. "So I said, sure, what the hell, come on up. Now, we couldn't work out the players under the rules, but they used to play and we used to sort look in on 'em, you know? And I watched Micheal Ray for about five minutes and said, my God, has he got some quick hands! He was six-three and couldn't dunk, but I said, let's give him a try."

The scratchy video of the Grizzlies' 1975 NCAA tournament game against John Wooden's UCLA Bruins shows Montana, outclassed by the owners of nine national championships, playing in a daring frenzy. From a soaking-wet Heathcote to wooly center Ken McKenzie, the Griz look like a troupe of Unabomber impersonators who've stumbled into the penthouse suite. In the midst of the fray, the generously Afro'ed freshman Richardson attacks relentlessly, forcing turnovers with one crazy lunge after another, sprawling on the ground in pursuit of the ball. For the young player, it's a mere appetizer for things to come.

"He grew an inch and became a great scorer, an inside-outside guy, a real threat," Heathcote says. "Then I left and Jim Brandenburg took over. We were close for those two years. I guess he kind of looked up to me as a father figure, which I didn't really realize until I left. He wanted to go with me, but I said no, you belong here. Your place is here."

Brandenburg, now living in Texas, recalls that Richardson came into his own after his sophomore season. "He was always a really good kid, a good practice player and a hard worker," Brandenburg says. "On the slope of improvement, though, his was a very steep curve. His strength, his maturity and his toughness-all improved. By his third or fourth year, if we'd featured him more, he could have scored 30 or 40 points a game, every game. We knew we couldn't let him do that or other teams would have just stuck three guys on him and that would have been it."

In his 1995 autobiography, Heathcote made bringing black players to Missoula-then an unhip mill town even more lily-white than it is now-sound like a revolutionary social experiment. Richardson now acknowledges that moving here from Denver's inner city was a little weird, but says he remembers the Garden City fondly.

"For me, it was kind of strange," Richardson says. "I grew up mainly around blacks and went to a high school that was almost all black. But I'd say it took me a month, two months to make the adjustment. The people were real friendly, we had a great team and the people were crazy for basketball. I remember when I scored 40 points in one of the games against the Bobcats, and man, the city was insane that night.

"[If] I had to do it all over again, I would still go to Montana."

For the conclusion to this week's Feature, please pick up a copy of the Missoula Independent at one of more than 500 locations around Western Montana.

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