Just off 52nd Street, one thousand five hundred and forty-eight miles from Madison Square Garden, the man once known as Sugar is watching a basketball game unravel. “Th-they’re gonna call a foul now — watch, watch,” says Micheal Ray Richardson, a 56-year-old grandfather sprawled out on the carpet of his home office like a restless child at naptime. When he gets worked up, which is often, a hint of a stutter trickles into his speech. One beat, two beats, and there it is on-screen: A whistle, a foul. He pauses the video, props himself up on his elbows, and looks to me for validation, a pained grin creasing his face. “I told you,” he says.
The tape keeps running. Micheal Ray gets up and leaves the room. He comes back, offers me a glass of water, leaves again, returns, rushes the little television bolted to a shelf in the corner, braces an arm against the wall, and squints at his own image, trying to will away the anger. It is not easy: This is the first time he’s rewatched this game, and he spent the day teaching basketball to a camp full of children who refused to pass the ball, and he just discovered one of his grandkids (in town for the camp) had been drinking beverages in his bedroom (that’s how you get bugs, man), and it is 106 degrees and rising outside with no relief in sight. Outside the window are houses built and half-built, mounds of dirt and pleading signage (FOR SALE! UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT!), a subdivision with a forgettable name, a relic of the great land rush. Down the street: a storage center, a foot clinic, a taco joint. These are what one might call the suburbs of Lawton, Okla., if such a thing can exist in a city the size of a single New York neighborhood, and 25 years after David Stern banned him from the NBA for a cocaine problem that would not abate, this is what happened to Micheal Ray.
He is everything that it looked like he might never become back then. He says he has been clean for so long that he no longer keeps track. He owns this home, with the overstuffed furniture and the fireplace and the big-screen television downstairs where one of his grandsons is sprawled out on the sofa in his gym clothes, half-asleep in front of a Will Smith movie. A casserole is slow-cooking in the kitchen. He is on what he tells me is his third marriage, to a local girl he met when he moved here several years ago; there are pictures of Micheal Ray’s family and surrogate families all through the house. Perhaps most surprising of all, he is a basketball coach, and a pretty damned successful one at that. Which brings us back to the game on the television set, and to Micheal Ray’s staring down a dark-haired official he is convinced is out to get him. It is one of the more disconcerting game tapes I’ve ever watched, and not just due to the imbalance in foul calls in favor of the visiting team, but because it is accompanied by the call of the radio announcer for the Lawton-Fort Sill Cavalry, who believes that he is providing narration for a grand conspiracy.
This belligerent, black-haired official …
The crowd is really into this, knowing what is going on …
They ARE under orders to steal this basketball game …
It is a disgrace …
Swept up in the dramatic arc, Micheal Ray can feel it now: Something sinister is about to happen to him again. He is coiled up next to the screen, fists clenched. He is still loose-limbed and nimble, a point guard with the body of a small forward, his eyes wide and expressive, a stud in his left ear, a long face framed by a goatee that betrays little sense of his age. We are watching Game 3 of the Premier Basketball League championship series, the deciding game, and Richardson’s Cavs are only down a single point to the Rochester RazorSharks late in the fourth quarter despite the prodigious gap in fouls and foul shots, despite the conviction of Micheal Ray (and many others) that the result of this game has been preordained, that the commissioner of the PBL — also the owner of the Rochester franchise — conspired to ensure his team’s victory.
They’re physically picking people up and throwing them out of the arena!
Richardson’s team pushes the ball upcourt. Then: a collision. One referee calls a block, and then the other referee — dark-haired — swoops in and waves off the foul. “Same official! Same official!” Micheal Ray says. His cadence speeds up, then slows down, as if his psyche is gathering itself, recalibrating its equilibrium. “When I seen that, I wanted to run out there and kill him.”
He tried. With 0.6 seconds left and his team trailing by three, the officials scampered off the floor for the sake of their own safety. Micheal Ray went after them. You can see him on the tape, rushing underneath the bleachers, a scrum of people, police intervening, the officials disappearing into the locker room door just before Sugar gets there. It’s a good thing he didn’t. It’s a good thing he didn’t because he wouldn’t have held back — “I would have punched them in the face,” he says — and the world would hear of what happened to Micheal Ray now, and they would do what they’ve done before and assume the worst about him: that he is still the same petulant youth who never fulfilled his potential as one of the most dynamic NBA guards of the 1980s; that for the league to facilitate his return to the league as a coach would be nothing more than a colossal mistake. Sometimes it still feels to him like the circumstances are never on his side. All people remember are the mistakes.
The video continues to run. Micheal Ray clenches his jaw.
The police are out in force, trying to guard these officials …
“This is cheap,” he says.
I start to ask him something, but in that instant, it is as if I am no longer here. He is alone with his frustrations, alone with the magazine covers (Weekly Soho News: THE GREAT BLACK HOPE) and the framed Sugar basketball cards hanging on the walls, alone with that photograph of the 1985 Eastern Conference All-Star team, alone with his own name, which he had a local painter inscribe in cursive above the window, alone with all those relics of a life that seemed destined to wind up in a far different place than this.
He snaps off the video.
“Seen enough?” he says.
That’s Larry Bird he is abusing. Midcourt at the Garden, and Bird pushes a two-handed pass above Sugar’s head; Sugar leaps, steals the ball clean, and then it is just he and Bird, and this is a mismatch to end all mismatches, so Sugar takes him off the dribble and lays it in. You watch those highlights of Richardson as a young man and it’s like someone put Magic Johnson on fast-forward: He is quick and strong and fearless in the lane, a point guard from the slums of Denver unleashed on the streets of New York at a precarious moment to be young and rich in America. He blew through half a dozen agents and (according to a 1985 Sports Illustrated profile) bought 16 cars, including a Mercedes with “Sugar” inscribed in gold on the handle of the stick. He partied at Studio 54 and Plato’s Retreat. He clashed with coaches (Hubie Brown most of all) and he demanded more money and he disappeared at inopportune times, often without adequate explanation, and amid that erratic behavior he would tantalize you with absurd lines like the 27 points, 15 rebounds, and 19 assists he put up against Cleveland in March of ’81.
He was one of the most fascinating messes ever to sweep through the five boroughs. He was brash and sympathetic and restless and afraid of nothing; he would prance into the Detroit locker room and tell Isiah Thomas, I’m going to bust your ass up tonight. When the Knicks began to fall apart during the ’81-’82 season and Micheal Ray uttered to a group of reporters that the ship be sinking, it became a homespun tabloid headline for the ages. “Those [media] guys took everything out of proportion,” he says. “For some reason everything I say, it just makes news. All these years and that quote still haunts me. But it was the truth. Why would you regret saying something that’s the truth?”
There has to be an immensity of talent in order to deem it wasted — in order for the unfulfilled possibilities to assume the proper weight — and Micheal Ray’s tantalizing abilities allowed him to become one of the most poignant symbols of wasted potential in NBA history, a totem of that era of professional basketball when drug abuse was an ignominious subtext, when nearly everyone did it and Micheal Ray was merely the example of what would happen when you couldn’t find a way to stop doing it. He was traded from the Knicks to the Warriors and then to the Nets; he went to a rehab facility in New Jersey and to another in Minnesota and to a third in Manhattan. He thought about quitting basketball.1 The Nets nearly let him go. In 1985, the year after the Nets stunned the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, he averaged 20 points and eight assists. But even then, even as the NBA altered its drug policies, the reality was impossible to avoid.
“At some point, it went from snorting to freebasing,” says Otis Birdsong, who played alongside Micheal Ray in New Jersey. “I remember the first time I saw that I was at a teammate’s house, and guys kept walking in and out of the kitchen. And I poked my head in and said, ‘That’s what they’re doing.’ It’s amazing to me that guys could do that and perform. But I never knew Micheal had those problems until the problems arose. That stuff just got the best of him, as it has a lot of people.”
Two days after Christmas in 1985, Micheal Ray went to a team Christmas party at George’s Restaurant in Moonachie, N.J., then left with a girl for a party in Fort Lee. He didn’t show up at practice the next day, and landed in rehab once more. Three months later, after attempting to break into the home of his then-estranged wife, he failed a third drug test. On February 25, 1986, four months before Len Bias overdosed on high-grade cocaine in a Maryland dormitory, NBA commissioner David Stern banned Micheal Ray from the league, ostensibly for life. Off he went, to Italy and to Croatia and to France, where he played until the age of 46.2
All of this was a long time ago — Micheal Ray and Stern have since developed a friendship, and he has credited Stern with helping to save his life — and it feels a little awkward for Richardson to talk about, because it doesn’t seem like it should apply to him anymore. Hasn’t the statute of limitations expired? Look around: Isn’t it clear by now that he’s changed? “I look back,” he says, “and I’m like, ‘What was I doing?’ It’s not me.”
And yet if anything has carried over from his old life, it’s that Micheal Ray still has a knack for courting trouble. After working in community relations with the Denver Nuggets upon his retirement from basketball (a job David Stern helped to arrange), he took a job coaching the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association. In 2007, he led the Patroons to the league finals, and then he suffered one of those inexplicable lapses of judgment that seem to strike him at the worst possible moments. Speaking to a local reporter about a possible contract extension, Micheal Ray made what he says were nothing more than poorly worded jokes, about his “big-time Jew lawyers” and about the “crafty” nature of Jews, as exemplified by airport security in Tel Aviv. By pointing out that Jews are often in powerful positions in professional sports, and that they have adapted to circumstances despite being one of the most despised ethnic groups on earth, Jewish author Zev Chafets wrote, Micheal Ray was attempting to issue a clumsy compliment, and he was “guilty of nothing more than free speech.” It’s just that the words tumble from his mouth without sifting through the filter that shields most of us from social harm.
If anything, Micheal Ray says, they should have called him anti-black, since all his children are of mixed race. His ex-wife (with whom he says he has a cordial relationship) is Jewish; he has two children who are being raised Jewish. He tells me that his lawyer, who really is Jewish, called him and laughed when he heard the quotes, and that his ex-wife’s father couldn’t believe the controversy, and that even David Stern came to his aid.
“That was total bullshit,” says John Zelbst, a part-owner of the Cavalry, who’s become a close friend of Micheal Ray’s. “It was completely blown out of proportion. We’ve never had one bit of a problem with Sugar.”
It wasn’t meant to last in Albany. Maybe it was too close to that glimmering metropolis where his problems coalesced all those years ago. Micheal Ray already felt the relationship with Patroons management unraveling after he traded one of his players away when the general manager went on vacation. Around the same time, the Albany paper reported that Richardson used the same gay slur against a fan that aroused controversy when Kobe Bryant utilized it this past season; Richardson said at the time that the fan was drunk, and that he was immediately remorseful. He does this, lashes out without thinking, and even as he knows it affects the broader perception of him — even as he knows it reinforces the narrative that Micheal Ray will never grow up — he has trouble holding himself back from conflict.
“They put their emotions in it instead of keeping it a professional business,” he says of the management in Albany, and it is one of those statements that could apply to speaker, as well, but Micheal Ray talks right through it. “[The general manager] came back from vacation, and that’s when our relationship went sour. That’s when it all went downhill in Albany. [The owner’s] wife was babying all the players. I just told her I didn’t want her in my gym, in my locker room, messing with my players.
“It’s part of my recovery, is to tell the truth. You have to be honest with yourself and honest with other people. Sometimes it gets me in trouble, but that’s just the way it is. It’s either yes or no. It ain’t no in-between.”
He tells me he would never go back to New York to live. Once the owners in Lawton decided to give him another chance following the debacle in Albany, this place became his home. He’s even worked as a substitute teacher in the local school system. When he goes elsewhere to coach, he says he’ll come back here to retire because life is easy in Lawton, and there’s something to be said for that, especially when you’re fast approaching 60. A couple of years after he left for Europe, he says, the Sixers called him about coming in as a replacement for the injured Johnny Dawkins; most likely, Stern would have reinstated him by then. Richardson said he held out for a two-year guaranteed deal, and the Sixers offered only one, and so he never came back. At that point, it was simpler to put an ocean between himself and his mistakes.
The gym is at the First Baptist Church just off 5th Street in what passes for downtown Lawton, not far from an outdated shopping mall and the Christian radio station where a Come to Jesus mural beckons at passing motorists. On the outskirts of town is a military base, Fort Sill, and a Comanche Nation casino, and miles of farmland lining the highway that runs straight to Oklahoma City. Downtown, there’s ample street parking and not much reason to park, unless your kids are here for Micheal Ray’s basketball camp, where he and Birdsong have spent the morning attempting to gain control of a gang of schoolchildren by forbidding them from dribbling.
“Look at this ball,” Micheal Ray is saying. “The only name on this ball is Spalding. So when you get it, you got to pass it.”
It took some time for Birdsong to realize that Micheal Ray was serious about this coaching thing. So much about him seemed ill-suited to the profession: He was serially high-strung and he never lifted weights as a player and he was so shaken by losing that his teammates would have to calm him down afterward. Hell, even if his game was grounded in the fundamental understandings of a point guard, Sugar never wanted to let go of that ball himself. “Sugar always wanted to shoot,” Birdsong says.
And yet for some reason, it seems to work. For three straight seasons before this one (twice in the CBA and once in the PBL), Micheal Ray won league championships in Lawton. There is nothing conventional about Micheal Ray’s coaching style; he’s been known to get into raging arguments with his own players in the locker room. As long as it happens in private, he doesn’t care. But earlier this year when he began screaming on the sideline at one of his players for not sliding over on defense, and that player told him, with a profane flourish, to please get off his case, Micheal Ray told him to pack his bags at halftime and don’t come back.
There is nothing easy about coaching minor league basketball: There are no clubhouse attendants to wash the uniforms, and there is no money for a full-time assistant, and leagues and owners and general managers come and go. It is a matter of constant adjustment, and Micheal Ray has figured out how to do it most effectively. His rotation is steady, and his sets are minimalist; eight players on this year’s Lawton team averaged in double figures. (“If you can’t think,” he says, “you can’t play.”) He thrives on a manic edge, which means he also tends to overstep the bounds of propriety. He once got thrown out a minute and 20 seconds into a game, an opposing coach recalls, and then he kept sneaking back into the arena to watch the rest of it. Opposing players often think he’s certifiable.
“He yells at the officials after every play,” Birdsong says. “I said, ‘Sugar, you can’t do that.’ If you want to coach in the [NBA] D-League, they don’t let you do that. The thing with Micheal, it’s hard for him to find that balance. When they lost that championship game [in the PBL], he called me, and I was concerned. I thought he was going to have a stroke.”
The day after the Cavalry lost the PBL championship, the local paper led with a quote from Micheal Ray, declaring the game a “disgrace to professional sports.” For once, he was not alone in his anger: The general manager of the Halifax Rainmen questioned whether the commissioner, a Chicago podiatrist named Sev Hrywnak, thought “we’re stupid, when it’s so blatantly obvious;” the general manager of the Saint John Mill Rats, Ian McCarthy, tells me that the presence of two officials from Rochester at a number of the RazorSharks’ playoff road games (violating the minor league custom of using local officials) was “an inside joke around the league;” the coach in Quebec, Rob Spon, tells me that during the game that eliminated his team from the playoffs a third official who wasn’t from Rochester told him, “I’ve never been involved in anything like this.”
At first, such a theory sounds preposterous, but so are the numbers: In the final two games, Lawton shot a total of three free throws in the second half. For the series, the fouls were 104-49 in favor of the RazorSharks; in Game 3, Rochester shot 43 free throws to Lawton’s 14. In a road semifinal victory over Quebec that provoked a near-riot in the stands, Rochester shot 71 free throws, equaling the NBA record for most foul shots by one team in a nonovertime game. It is enough of a trail of indirect evidence that, the day after this game ended, nearly every team in the PBL (with the exception of Rochester) dropped out of the league. Hrywnak vehemently denies knowledge of any game-fixing, has already brought a lawsuit against a poster on the message board OurSports Central, and says he is preparing legal action against the Cavs’ radio announcer.
Hrywnak tells me his head of officials resigned after people began making “false accusations,” but that he did not investigate further because “if I ask [the referees] what happened, what do you think they’re going to tell me?” He says he’ll take legal action against anyone who says the games were fixed, and says he had nothing to do with choosing the officials, though he did admit two were from Rochester. He says the other clubs’ allegations about his autonomy in league decision-making are false. And when I ask him about Micheal Ray, he is particularly venomous.
“From what I was told by other coaches and fans, he got away with more than any other coach,” Hrywnak says. The people in Albany, he says, told him not to allow Micheal Ray in his league (I asked him, two separate times, whether he had any say over individual coaching hires, but his answers were unclear). “The guy got a second and third chance, and he blew it.”
It is difficult to picture a scenario in which appearing in five consecutive finals and winning three consecutive championships (and losing a fourth in perhaps the most controversial moment in minor league basketball history) could constitute a failure, but this is Micheal Ray: There is yes and there is no. He’s just being honest with you; if this is what’s caused his exile from the NBA, there is nothing he can do to change it. When he tells me he had nothing more than a “token interview” with the D-League a few years back, and Birdsong tells him, “You’ve got to learn how to politic and play the game, man,” Micheal Ray walks away from the conversation. What’s the point in that?
In June, he went to coach a team in Thailand; in early August, a few weeks after the basketball camp ended, with the Lawton franchise temporarily defunct, he took a job coaching in the newly formed National Basketball League of Canada. As long as he keeps winning, there will be work for him, even if it is his job to occupy the places in-between. “Right now, I’m pretty happy,” he says. “I mean, is there some things that I would do different if I could? Yeah. But I can’t worry about it now. It’s over. It’s done.”
We’re sitting at midcourt in the church gym, the afternoon sun bursting through the windows, the children wrestling each other over a single basketball. Micheal Ray keeps changing positions, turning a folding chair around and spreading his legs and then draping them over the backrest, treating it like a piece of playground equipment. He settles back into his seat, and one of his grandchildren climbs into his lap, and for a brief and tender moment, Sugar falls into a lullaby.
Go to sleep, little baby, he sings. Before the boogeyman gets you.
Michael Weinreb is a Grantland staff writer and the author, most recently, of Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB and How the ’80s Created the Modern Athlete.
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