Once banned for life from the NBA due to drug use, Michael Ray Richardson is working his way back to the league from the sidelines.
Michael Ray Richardson could’ve been one of the great players of the 80s. We could be mentioning his name with Isiah, Bird, and Magic. Hell, we might even be mentioning his name above those guys if everything worked out a certain way. But reality took a turn one way, leaving what could’ve been on the side of the road.
“Sugar” was the fourth pick in the 1978 NBA draft, taken by the Knicks two spots ahead of Larry Bird. He played four years in New York, becoming only the second player ever to lead the league in assists and steals in 1980—Bird and Magic’s rookie year.
When he played, really played, no one controlled the point any better. He had a way of not making a decision until after it looked like he’d already decided. It’s like the game was a split second behind for him. When it looked like there was one way he couldn’t go, he’d always go that way. He had the size of a shooting guard and that made him scary. He frightened Isiah Thomas, who admits that to this day. You know, the same best-pure-point-guard-of-all-time Isiah Thomas.
But like a lot of guys of his era, drugs caught up with Michael Ray. By 1986, the four-time All-Star had developed a drug addiction and had violated the NBA’s drug policy three times. David Stern banned him for life in what Stern said was “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as commissioner.”
Richardson eventually kicked his addiction and then went and played 13 seasons across Europe, finishing up on the older side of 40. Since his playing days ended, he’s has taken up coaching. He’s spent five successful years in the minor league ranks—CBA and PBL—as a head coach. He’s hit a few bumps, but he’s owned up to every mistake like he always has. And he’s still hoping to one day get another shot at the NBA—but this time, he’ll be in a suit.
We caught up with Michael to talk about his playing days, Montana, Bird, homosexuality, and the corruption that is the Premier Basketball League.
How’d you end up in Montana?
I’m originally from Denver, Colorado, so I was recruited by the University of Montana. I had three or four other schools: the University of Iowa, Colorado State, and Colorado. But I chose Montana because I was gonna be able to play right away as a freshman. As soon as I got there, I was the starting point guard for all four years. It was a place I could play ball right away.
What was it like living and playing up there?
I mean, it was nice. It was a lot of snow, but it was nice. The people were good. It was great. The first few years, I was the only black on the team, but I didn’t really have a problem with that.
You were drafted ahead of Larry Bird. Do you think you could’ve taken him one-on-one?
Do I think I could’ve? I mean, I did.
What do you think made you the player that you were?
I put in a lot of hard work and a lot of time. In anything you do in life, when you put in a lot of time, it pays off at the end.
Is there one specific game or moment that stands out for you?
On Christmas day when I played for the New Jersey Nets we went back over and played against the Knicks. Bernard King (who the Knicks replaced Richardson with) had 60 points that game, but I had an unbelievable triple double, and we ended up winning. So that was probably one of the biggest highlights of my career.
Also, I played in four NBA All-Star games, so those were pretty much the highlights of my career.
What’s your biggest regret from your playing career?
I wish I could’ve played longer than I did. I went through some problems that were well documented, but that’s part of life. It’s part of growing up. But then I left the NBA and played overseas for another 13 years.
It was a great experience playing over in Europe. I had a chance to experience the ways other people lived in other countries, which I probably never would’ve had a chance to experience if I never left the NBA. I spent six years in Italy, a year in Croatia, a year in Israel, and then the rest of my time in the south of France. I played, you know, worldwide.
Even today, racism is still a problem over there, especially at soccer games. Did you have any problems?
No, I still have a lot of friends over there. I had a great, great time over there.
What have you learned from all your problems?
There’s always something in the world that is just as powerful and as big as you are. You gotta respect everything. There’s a time and place for everything in life. When you take it over the limit, then you’ve got problems. I’ve fallen down and picked myself up and kept moving. Staying healthy, that’s the most important thing that I have in my life. Because without your health there’s nothing you can do in the world.
How do you think you’ve changed since your playing days?
I just got wiser. Like they say, the older you get, the smarter you get. That is so true. You mature and you have to learn by your mistakes, and I think I have. I think I’m a blessed man because there are a lot of people that’ve been involved in drugs, and it cost them their lives. And I’m still here, in great shape and in great health, just enjoying my life.
Who in the NBA now reminds you of yourself?
Jason Kidd, Chris Paul. They are such unbelievable team players. I think that’s a lost art today. In today’s game there’s not a lot of real good, fundamentally sound players. But these guys are really fundamentally sound.
Why get into coaching?
Really, just to see if I can do it and if I can be successful at it. I’ve been coaching in the minor leagues. I’ve won three years in a row and have been in four finals in a row, so I’ve been really successful at it.
Does it take a certain player to make the transition from playing to coaching?
The most important thing about coaching: It’s not about Xs and Os. It’s about communication and getting the respect of the players, because if the players respect you, then they’ll play hard for you.
What coaches have influenced you?
Stan Albeck, Larry Brown. I’ve learned from and played for great coaches. I think Willis Reed was a great coach. He didn’t have a long coaching career, but he was a great basketball coach.
Some of the PBL’s problems have made national news. What happened?
It was a disaster. I’ve been in basketball for quite a while. And I’ve never seen, in the finals of a season, that you have the same officials in all three games. And then the officials are from the same hometown as where one of the teams is playing. And then the owner of the league also owns the team. It was so obvious that it was fixed. If I wasn’t in it to see it, I would’ve never have thought that it happened. It was a disgrace to minor league basketball. The PBL is a disgrace, a disgrace to minor league basketball.
Do you have to coach differently in that situation?
We knew. All of our fans knew. The owners knew. Even the officials knew what was going on. There’s no way that we’re the home team, we shoot one free throw in the second half and the other team shoots 29 in the championship game. It’s just unheard of. They called us for 35 or 40 fouls, and they had, like, 12 fouls. It was just too lopsided.
Your team dropped out of the league. What’s next for you?
Hopefully there will be a couple other leagues around. I’ve got a pretty good resume, so I don’t think I’ll have a problem getting a job coaching in minor league basketball, but I can tell you what, I’ll never coach again in the PBL. It was just a disgrace.
How far are you hoping coaching takes you?
Of course, I have a dream of getting to the NBA. That’s the ultimate goal. Is it gonna happen? I don’t know, but that’s my goal.
On the heels of Kobe Bryant’s recent comments, do you think there’s any homophobia in the NBA?
No, not at all. It was something said in the heat of the battle. It wasn’t nothing meant by that. It was in the heat of the battle. It was something said that shouldn’t have been said. That’s just part of life. People do things, people say things they just shouldn’t say some times. That’s just part of being a human being.
How do you think the league will react to the fist gay player in the NBA?
That’s his choice. It’s his life. He can choose whatever he wants to be, that’s got nothing to do with his profession. That’s his personal life.
Who taught you about manhood?
I looked up to a guy who was the principal of my elementary school, Donald Wilson. Once I got older, and I went through all my problems, I think commissioner David Stern was a real big part of me getting my life back together. He and I are pretty close, and I have a lot of respect for him.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
When you do something, you have to take full responsibility. You can’t blame anybody. I think, through all I’ve been through, I took full 100 percent of the responsibility.
What’s the worst advice?
I don’t think there’s anybody that’s given me any worst advice. As you get older, you just get wiser.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?
Getting involved with drugs.
Have you been more successful in your private life or public life?
I’ve been more successful in both. I’m not playing ball, but I’m still in ball. I’m doing what I want to do and I think that’s a blessing. There’s not many people in life who enjoy or get to do what they want to do.
When was the last time you cried?
I cry all the time. I’m a sensitive guy. Guys who don’t cry are not real men. We all have feelings. It’s good to cry sometimes. I think it is.
—Photo via Knicksnow.com; Metro.ca