Excerpted from Sugar: Micheal Ray Richardson, Eighties Excess, and the NBA. Copyright © 2018 by University of Nebraska Press.
After the Knicks disastrous 33-49 performance during the 1981-82 season, Hubie Brown replaced Red Holzman. Brown was a superb technician, who had broken the game down into every conceivable situation: How to execute and defend single-double baseline-picks. How to throw lob passes into pivot men. Which was the push-off foot for making a zipper cut from here and also from there. Which way to turn when slipping a pick-and-roll. Letting the defense determine if a shooter should curl, fade, or make a back-door cut when presented with a down-pick. And so on.
On the other side of the ledger, Brown was an unbending perfectionist who was quick to curse any player who zigged when he should have zagged.
Players chaffed under this constant and often vicious verbal abuse. They also resented Brown’s insistence that he, not any of the players, was the star of the team.
Because Brown also had a cast eye, his players ridiculed him in private: Instead of being an NBA coach, he was best suited to be a lookout on a battleship during war-time when he could watch for hostile submarines and airplanes without moving his head. Micheal Ray had a simpler way of describing Brown: “He’s a google-eyed motherfucker.”
After Brown’s experience with druggies in Atlanta, he wanted nothing to do with Richardson. Since Bernard King had left Golden State to sign a free-agent contract with the Knicks, Richardson was sent to the Warriors as compensation.
A player’s reaction to getting traded can range from depression to euphoria. Moving from a losing team to a winner, or vice versa are critical factors. Other vital considerations are the addition or reduction in playing time, any changes in the player’s accustomed role, the theories and practices of his new coach, the friendliness or enmity that may have been established with his new teammates, and the lifestyle available in his new home. While some players are upset at not being wanted by their former team, this feeling of betrayal is usually trumped by the new team’s enthusiastic welcome.
All things considered, then, Richardson should have been delighted by the move. After all, the Knicks were 33-49 in 1981-82 while the Warriors were 45-37. So, too, Golden State’s holdover point guard was the decidedly mediocre Lorenzo Romar. And if San Francisco lacked the glamour of New York, it was still an exciting place to live. Plus, Richardson had no desire to play under Hubie Brown. Even so, Micheal Ray didn’t report to Golden State for a couple of months.
“While my agent was trying to squeeze more money out of the Warriors,” says Richardson, “I stayed in New York smoking my brains out, running the streets at night, hanging with all of the city’s sports heroes one night, then hanging out with the worst kind of street scum the next night. The worst part was that I was thinking everything was cool. I wasn’t an addict, I was just having myself a good time. When we finally got the deal done with Golden State, I went out there and sprained my ankle the first day I practiced. So now I was holed up and all strung out in a Holiday Inn. Women were bringing me drugs and food and I was totally fucked up. This was the low point in my life so far.”
Al Attles had been Golden State’s coach since 1970, after playing eleven seasons as a rough-and-tumble-in-your-face point guard for the Warriors in both their incarnations in Philadelphia and in California. For the 1982-83 season, Attles joined Paul Silas in San Diego and Lennie Wilkins in Seattle as being the only black coaches in the 23-team league.
(Fast forward to the 2012-13 season when twelve of the NBA’s thirty teams were coached by black men. But by 2016-17, there were only eight black coaches in the league.)
Eventually Richardson’s ankle healed and he managed to get back into playing shape. “But if I didn’t have any problems with my teammates,” he says, “I had a hard time with Al Attles, my latest coach. Even though Attles was the blackest motherfucker anybody ever saw he was nothing but an Uncle Tom. He was a yes-man in the organization, he didn’t know the game, and he was the worst coach I ever played for.”
To make matters worse, Richardson and wife divorced. Plus, during his time in San Francisco, he spent almost $50,000 on his drugs of choice. If Richardson made sure to be straight during games, he would frequently lose his concentration. “I’d forget what I was supposed to do,” he said.
No wonder Richardson played poorly. His per game averages included 12.5 points (his lowest total since his rookie season), and a career-low shooting percentage of .412. He did manage, though, to dish out 7.4 assists and 3.1 steals. After 33 games, Richardson was traded to the New Jersey Nets for Mickey Johnson and Sleepy Floyd.
Micheal Ray’s latest coach was Larry Bown, a graduate of North Carolina, who, because of his penchant for thinking that the next job on the horizon was the better than the one he had, was dubbed “Next Town Brown.” The itinerary of Brown’s complete coaching history reads like a madcap, hop-scotching, hoops travelogue: Raleigh, North Carolina (ABA); Denver; Los Angeles (at UCLA); New Jersey; Lawrence, Kansas; San Antonio; Los Angeles (with the Clippers); Indiana; Philadelphia; Detroit; New York; and Fort Worth, Texas (at Baylor). Through it all, Brown was impatient, a chronic nagger, demanding (except for players from the Atlantic Coast Conference), and alternately enthusiastic and cynical. After games, Brown’s posture was usually either “I won” or “They lost.” During what was left of the 1982-83 season, Brown was also Richardson’s latest substitute father.
“I knew Larry from when he coached the Denver team in the ABA. I was still in high school, and he used to let me watch the Nuggets’ practices and leave me tickets for their games. I was so happy to be back in the New York area that I stopped getting high. I was straight for the rest of the season, which amounted to three months.”
As for Brown, he said that he would judge “Micheal Ray for myself.”
Richardson told Brown only that he was having “personal problems” and “financial trouble.” Brown’s assessment was that Richardson was depressed and had no self-esteem.
Even though Richardson prided himself on being drug-free, he was still bedding down as many women as he could. Before one game, Micheal Ray said this to Fred Kerber, a sportswriter for the New York Post: “I’m gonna have a great game because my sperm count is very low.”
Despite his drug-free and sperm-reduced condition, many of Richardson’s numbers continued to dive. Although he scored 12.7 points per game, his assists were down to 6.0, and his steals to 2.6. Remarkably, Richardson still paced the NBA in steals with an overall average of 2.84.
But if Richardson had taken steps to straighten out his life, Brown was up to his old crooked tricks. The Nets were playing well and Brown gave them a Sunday and Monday off prior to a practice on Tuesday. On Wednesday they were scheduled to fly to Detroit. Mike Weber was a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger and he heard a rumor that Brown was in Kansas City about to be interviewed for the coaching job at the University of Kansas. Somehow Weber found out the hotel and the room number where Brown was staying, so he made a phone call.
“Hello? May I speak to John Williams, please?”
“There’s no John Williams here, but this is Larry Brown.”
“Hi, Larry. This is Mike Weber from the Star-Ledger.”
BLAM! Brown hung up the phone in a hurry. But now the news was out.
Brown was back in New Jersey for Tuesday’s practice, but when he took it easy on his players, they knew that something was up. After an early morning meeting with the Nets’ owner, Joe Taub, Brown was still with the team when they prepared to board the plane to Detroit. Then Taub appeared, pulled Brown aside, and fired him on the spot.
Since Joe Taub placed such a high value on loyalty (as Richardson would personally experience later on), he felt that Brown had betrayed him when he interviewed for another job while still under contract with the Nets.
According to Darryl Dawkins, only Richardson and the Nets two ACC players (Albert King and Buck Williams) missed Brown. “The rest of us,” says Dawkins, “were glad to see him go.”
Indeed, Richardson was so upset to lose still another father figure, that he resumed his snorting and smoking of cocaine.
Assistant coach Bill Blair took over, and the team finished the regular season at 2-4. Although Richardson had a brilliant series, the Nets were then were swept by the Knicks in the playoffs.
On April 1, the New York Daily News, noting that he had been seen in several coke houses, reported that Richardson had a drug problem. Six weeks later, he accrued Strike Two after failing another drug test, and entered a drug rehabilitation center, Fair Oaks Hospital in Summit, NJ. The program was scheduled to last about seven weeks, but Richardson stayed in the clinic for only thirteen days.
“I checked myself out,” he says, “because the program was bullshit. They had locked doors like a prison, and there was nothing for any of us to do except have group therapy sessions. That’s where everybody was supposed to talk about their problems, but all everybody did was blame somebody else for their addictions. Their parents, their bosses and their jobs. Shit, when I said that I did drugs because I like it, they all thought that I was crazy. Like every other drug rehab center I’ve ever been in this one was really all about making money. When somebody’s insurance ran out, they boot them back into the streets whether they were ready or not.”
Richardson spent the summer of 1983 in New York, and was soon back on the pipe. Another failed drug test was amnestied because the latest collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and the NBA Players Association would not take effect until the beginning of the 1983-84 season. Even so, Richardson was suspended without pay while he entered an NBA sanctioned rehab program, this one at the Hazelton Foundation in Minneapolis. Upon completing the program, Richardson pronounced himself “cured.”
But once the Nets pre-season workouts commenced, he was so strung-out that he couldn’t deal with the grueling, boring two-a-day practice sessions. After one particular exhausting day on the court, Richardson simply checked into a different hotel, summoned a few druggie friends, and was off on a crack-smoking binge that lasted four days. That’s when he called a friend, Charles Grantham, who was the executive vice-president of the NBA Players Association.
“I don’t think basketball is for me,” Richardson said. “I’ll just become a truck driver.”
“Just trying making it on $165 a week,” said Grantham. Eventually, Grantham convinced Richardson to meet with a counselor from the Life Extension Institute, a service the league had contracted with in 1981 shortly after the Los Angeles Times reported that seventy-five percent of NBA players used cocaine. But Richardson failed to show for four different appointments. With Nets on the verge of releasing him, however, he finally checked into still another rehab program on October 14, his third attempt at structured rehab in five months. On the day before he entered the program, Richardson and a teammate “got as high as we could without landing on the moon.” This time, however, he completed the program and was cleaner than he had been in years.
These days, virtually every drug-abusing NBA player seeks help and rehabilitation from John Lucas, CEO of John Lucas Enterprises—and Lucas is nothing if not enterprising. Aside from his rehab work, Lucas runs a dozen skills camps throughout the year for players of all ages and levels.
As an NBA player and coach, Lucas was renowned for being a jive-talker who was always upbeat and gregarious. Several ex-clients claim he tries to “bullshit” them as a way out of their addictions, but his low cure-rate probably has more to do with the power of addiction than to his methodologies.
In any case, when Richardson rejoined the Nets in mid-season, he had remarried and seemed to have an extremely positive attitude. However, not all of his teammates were happy to see him return to action. “If he’s coming back,” said Reggie Johnson, “I want to be traded.” (Turned out that Johnson played out the season, his last in the NBA.) In fact, many of them remained resentful until the Nets visited the archrival New York Knicks on February 4, 1984, and Richardson bagged a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give New Jersey a 108-105 win. The clutch shot set off a team-wide celebration and Richardson was back in his mates’ good graces.
Playing well is always enjoyable but, above all, Richardson was thrilled to fall under the benign influence of the next on his lengthening list of coaches/father-figures: Stan Albeck, who was as relaxed and laid back as Larry Brown was frenetic.
For example: The Nets were down by a point with only ten seconds left in a game against the Bulls. During the timeout, Albeck designed a play to get the ball in the pivot to Dawkins. “Sugar,” said Albeck as he drew lines on his game-board, “I want you to dribble over to here, then dump the ball into Darryl and the game’s ours. While Albeck was diagramming the play, Richardson was attentive in the huddle, nodding his head, nodding his head, and chewing on his bubble gum.
“G-got it,” Richardson said. “G-got it.”
Once play resumed, Dawkins ran down to his assigned spot in the pivot and Richardson dribbled the ball to the wing just as Albeck had instructed. But instead of passing the ball to Dawkins, Richardson launched a twenty-foot jump shot. As soon as the ball left his hand, Richardson shouted, “We win!” Then while the ball was still aloft, he ran off the court toward the locker room. Of course the ball split the net.
The Nets began jumping around in celebration, and by the time they got to the locker room, Richardson was already coming out of the shower.
“I t-told you s-stupid motherfuckers we win!”
And where, despite the outcome, Larry Brown would have been hopping mad at having his instructions so blatantly ignored, Albeck just shook Richardson’s hand and said, “Hell of a shot.”
Another reason why Richardson and most of his teammates liked Albeck was because he was the unusual coach who liked to hang out with his players. Whereas Red Holzman told his players that the bar in whatever hotel they were quartered was his personal domain and strictly off limits to them, Albeck would routinely mingle with his charges at the hotel bars and buy drinks for all of them. And the players also liked spending some off-hours with Albeck because he had a host of funny anecdotes to share.
Like the time Albeck was an assistant when Wilt Chamberlain was the head coach of the ABA’s San Diego Conquistadors. On the afternoon before a home game, Wilt told Albeck that he had a hot date with a girl who was going to be in town for only one night. Since the date and the upcoming game conflicted, Chamberlain told Albeck that he’d be late for the game. Wilt’s solution was to make an audio tape of his pre-game spiel and have Albeck play it in the locker room. The players laughed throughout Chamberlain’s exhortation to forget about their off-court lives and to focus entirely on the game.
Pace Mannion was a member of the Utah Jazz during that 1984-85 season, and he vividly remembers a preseason game in Miami against the Nets. “John Stockton was a rookie,” says Mannion, “and Utah’s starting point guard was Ricky Green, a black dude. “Well, Sugar basically let his bro’ do whatever he wanted to do. Not challenging Green when he drove to the hoop, not contesting his jumpers, and not making any effort to score. But, once Stockton replaced Green, Sugar went off. Five times in a row, Sugar simply backed Stockton into the lane, turned, jumped over him, and knocked down ten-foot jumpers. Literally, five times in a row. Then, as Sugar passed Utah’s bench, he yelled to coach Jerry Sloan, ‘You better get this white boy out of here.’ When Sloan subbed Green back in for Stockton, Sugar went back to his do-nothing routine. I mean, Sugar really turned his game up when he went against white guys.”
Excerpted from Sugar: Micheal Ray Richardson, Eighties Excess, and the NBA. Copyright © 2018 by University of Nebraska Press.