L.A.'s ultimate basketball player
The dude is plastered on billboards all over Southern California courtesy of Nike. His name is still spoken in reverence to this day. He is a legend among legends. A man who was supposedly blackballed from the NBA. A man whose talent and skill with the basketball was so immense he could have been one of the greatest ever. Raymond Lewis was so good that he never needed a nickname. In Los Angeles if you said Raymond, they said Lewis. And if you said Lewis, they said Raymond. His name was synonymous with scoring. The man could put the rock in the hole. The playground legend from Watts, California who ruled the basketball world in Los Angeles in the early 70s and 80s is still to this day considered one of the greatest basketball players that ever lived. And, without exception, the best to ever come out of California.
"I often hear people talking about the basketball players who they say was the best to never play in the NBA," says Dean Prator, Lewis’ homeboy and confidant. "But without question, I believe Lewis is the best never to play in the NBA."
The 6-foot-1 cat-quick guard with unlimited shooting range and blessed with the agility that seemed almost supernatural led Verbum Dei High School to four straight California Interscholastic Federation divisional championships. He was named his division best player two years in a row, and averaged 24 points a game despite being ordered by his high school coach George McQuarn not to shoot the first five minutes of each game.
"I'll never forget Ray Lew and just how sweet he was," says former NBA great and UCLA alumni Marques Johnson. "He had a picture-perfect jump shot that I copied on my backyard court. Very compact, medium arc and definitely wet. The whole town was buzzing about him at the time. Whenever people talk about the greatest player to come out of L.A., Raymond Lewis is the first name that is mentioned."
Verbum Dei High School was an oasis in the middle of Watts. On all sides were poverty, despair and disease. Raymond Lewis was born on Septembers 3, 1952 in that town.
In a Sports Illustrated feature story back in 1978, Father Thomas James, who taught English to Lewis before he went to high school, remembered him as a quiet and shy guy, not particularly interested in studies.
"Basketball was the focal point of his life and he didn't have a great amount of confidence in himself as a person," Father James said. "But on the basketball court, he was phenomenal. A different person emerged."
Over 250 colleges – including UCLA, USC, Notre Dame and Long Beach State – recruited him. He eventually chose California State-Los Angeles, and as a freshman in 1972 he threw in 73 points one night, and led the country in scoring with a 38.9 average. NBA Hall of Famer David Thompson was second. In his sophomore season, he averaged 32.9 a game to finish second in the nation.
Then he turned pro.
"He was the 18th pick in the first round of the 1973 NBA draft, and had signed a three-year contract for about $55,000 a year," Dean says.
But Ray Lew's NBA dream never materialized.
"Raymond was upset that the Sixers signed Doug Collins to a $200,000 per year contract after Lewis scored 60 points on Collins in a full-court scrimmage game and dominated Collins throughout practices."
Marques Johnson backs this up.
"He made his mistake when he busted Doug Collins for 70 points when they were both Sixer rookies in a scrimmage and demanded to be paid what Collins was being paid. He left training camp and his opportunity to showcase his unique gift," Marques relates.
Lewis walked out. He had a can’t-miss tag, but Ray Lew missed, because the only person who could stop him was himself.
"Lewis said that he was told to sit out a year so that he could mature," Dean says. "In any event, many feel that he was blackballed from the NBA after the contract dispute. I'm not making any excuses for Lewis, all he had to do was play out his contract, show the people what he could do, and renegotiate, but the man had too much pride."
Ray Lew was relegated to taking out his frustration in summer pro leagues throughout California, Crenshaw High, Westchester High, Compton College, Trade Tech College and Cal State-Los Angeles.
No high school, junior college, university or playground was safe from Lewis's scoring binges.
"I've heard he would turn out every training camp he was in over the next few years," Marques Johnson says. "Only to have the coach tell him that although he was the best player in camp, he would have to be let go. A management decision."
In the book "Runnin' Rebel", legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian devotes 10 pages to Raymond Lewis. Tarkanian wrote how at Long Beach State he had recruited New York Player of the Year Ernie Douse. When Raymond heard that Douse was in town, he went to Long Beach State's gym and a one-on-one game between Lewis and Douse was set up by an assistant coach. When Tarkanian got news of the game, he rushed out of his office to stop the event. When he got to the court, Lewis was already killing Ernie 18-4. Tark immediately stopped the game because he was afraid that Ernie was going to catch the next flight back to New York.
Stories abound of Lewis dominating pros on the blacktop. In 1983, he dropped 56 on Lakers forward Michael Cooper in a summer-league game. It’s said that what Isiah Thomas did, and what Allen Iverson is doing now, Ray Lew was doing in the seventies.
"He had this unstoppable jumper off the dribble going left," Marques Johnson says. "And he was a trash talker before the term became in vogue."
In games, Lewis used to point to the spot on the court where he was going to shoot from before making the basket.
"He also possessed a killer crossover that literally caused a stress fracture on former Long Beach State and NBA player Glenn McDonald," Dean says. "He created his own opportunities often launching 35-foot jumpers, and making them on a regular basis."
Ray Lew's superior ballhandling skills allowed him to penetrate at will. He was AI before AI.
"He felt that he belonged in the NBA, and he stated that he realized he had made mistakes, but felt he was never really given a fair chance to make the NBA after the contract dispute," Dean remarks.
Sadly, Raymond Lewis died on February 11, 2001 at County-USC Medical Center. He contracted an infection in his leg, and wouldn't initially let doctors amputate the leg in order to survive. He was worried about not being able to make a jump shot on one leg. He was only 48 years old.
The legend who never was could have been in the class of Oscar Robertson or Jerry West, his high school coach George McQuarn said. He was living the American Dream, but before it could be fulfilled it fizzled on him for whatever reasons.
But Dean Prator his friend and confident is determined to keep the legend alive.
"Lewis was every bit as good as Pee Wee Kirkland, The Goat or The Helicopter," Dean says of the New York streetballing legends. "I have made a personal commitment to keep the awesome legacy of Raymond Lewis alive. The world needs to know about this phenomenal basketball player."
And to that end Dean is making a film of Lewis' trials and tribulations.
"I plan on shooting the documentary this summer," Dean says. And he has already set up a website, www.raymondlewis.com, where former NBA players, college coaches, sports writers and streetballers have a say about LA's ultimate basketball player. Check it out.
Seth "Soul Man" Ferranti, federal prison number 18205-083, is housed at FCI Loretto. Previously he resided at FCI Fairton, FCI Fort Dix, FCI Beckley and FCI Manchester. He has been a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com since 2003
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