Part two of my four-part interview with Bill Rieser
What was the college recruiting process like for you?
Recruiting started as soon as I transferred from St. Agnes to Ben Franklin.
Brian Mahoney, the assistant coach at St. John’s University came to most of my games and let me know that coach Louie Carnesecca wanted me to play for St. John’s.
They invested two years in trying to get me to commit. Coach Carnesecca would make visits to my house and my step-dad, who was from Italy would cook for him.
While I have no regrets these days about the poor decisions of my past there was no better fit for me than St. John’s.
The issue was with me.
I had one thought running through my head and that was to get as far away from New York City as possible. I was in “running” mode and could not wait to get out of the City.
Looking back I wish I had the knowledge of what the college coaches were saying about me.
I put my entire trust in Stan Dinner, my high school coach. I trusted him to be my spokesperson during the recruiting process.
Unfortunately Dinner did not have my best interest at heart. I made visits to Purdue and Texas El-Paso but Dinner was good at keeping everyone else at bay telling them that I was not interested in playing for them when they expressed interest.
Louisville, UCLA and Notre Dame all showed interest in me.
Coach Dinner accompanied me on my final visit to Centenary; he was very close to their assistant coach. Centenary and Dinner put the full-court press on me trying to get me to leave New York. They succeeded.
Now, as much as I have put this on my coach, the final decision was up to me and at the end of the process I wanted to play for them because they were far away from home. Plus they had a great schedule.
In my final high school game in the annual PSAL versus CHSAL I dominated. I was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
I spoke to coaches from all over the country and they told me they recruited me but never heard back from me. They were puzzled why I would choose Centenary?
I am not bitter about what happened because I was a train wreck myself. I had a self entitled mindset that was as naive as they come when it came to recruiting.
How was your experience at Centenary?
Upon arrival for the 1978-79 season I became part of a power struggle. The head coach was not a fan of my game and the assistant coach wanted me to play more.
I was benched for the first part of the season and after an intervention from a booster I soon began playing.
Like I said earlier, we played a tough schedule. Two games included Arkansas with Sidney Moncrief and DePaul with Mark Aguirre.
In the last home game of my freshmen season against Northeast Louisiana University, I scored 26 points. Calvin Natt and his younger brother Kenny were both on the team. I threw down a dunk on Kenny during the game.
Sadly, it was the only solid game I had the entire season.
I never played to my true potential because of the emotional devastation I experienced that season.
I finished the year extremely upset about the start to my college career. Our record was 9-20.
After returning home I told coach Mahoney, who was taking the Manhattan head coaching job, that I would transfer. The coaches from Centenary found out and flew up to New York to persuade me to come back to Louisiana.
It worked. I went back to Shreveport.
Six days before the start of my sophomore season I injured my knee and had to have surgery.
My operation was performed the first week of November. They expected me to play by the end of January, fully aware that I was not one-hundred percent.
I played six games that year at about fifty percent capacity and on Billy Rieser poster night, on the advice of a pro-agent, I left Centenary and went back to New York.
What was your next move?
The agent was good friends with Ed Byhre, head coach at Eastern Kentucky University.
He told me he could arrange for a visit. After making the team I would sit out a year to get healthy and play my junior and senior years. EKU was a low division one school where I would be a star and then get drafted.
My tryout was great. My year sitting out was even greater. I was healthy. My frame of mind was great and things were back on track.
In 1981-82, my junior year, Coach Byhre resigned. Max Good came in and he was not a fan of Bill Rieser. Our record over two years was 5-21 and 10-17. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Coach Good had no interest in playing me and when I suffered injuries that sidelined me for 8-10 weeks at a time both my junior and senior seasons, my college career was lost and so was I.
I became bitter. I used drugs and women to numb my pain. The emotional toll it took on my life was nothing short of devastating. After leaving EKU I did not touch a basketball for almost three years.
Did you miss being away from the game?
One day I was walking through the projects in the Bronx and I came upon a court. Looking in, through the chain-linked fence I said those magic words that every outdoor baller uses;
“I got next!”
I played all day. Two weeks later I was asked to play for the 98.7 Kiss FM All-Star Team composed of ex-pro and college stars.
We played at Rucker Park and West 4th Street and ran against the best teams in the city.
White Jesus was making a comeback!
So now you got your mojo back. You’re traveling all around ballin’ – what was next and what were you thinking? Over seas? NBA? CBA?
The only thing on my mind when I started to play was can I play like I used to?
Can I still slam on people?
Can I dominate? Most of all, can I have fun playing the greatest game in the world?
All of those hopes would come back in short flashes of glory every now and then. But serious injuries to my knees and ankles were too much. I never was able to play at the level I once did.
More than trying to play at my old physical level was the fact that I never again played at the mental level I once was known for.
No longer was I the most feared person on the court.
No longer was I the guy who had the 44-inch vertical and would put on a dunking exhibition leaving fans for more.
I was strong enough to still fly, slam and pop three pointers deep. People would leave the gym talking about how Bill Rieser had game, but not like they used to.
Playing for the Kiss All-Stars brought plenty of exposure. Slowly but surely I was getting better.
Offers to play overseas were available but nothing with guaranteed contracts. I was told that I was close to getting a look by a few NBA teams ready to bring me in for a workout.
I thought that a comeback was in the making. I knew I needed to get my game and body in shape. My hopes were high once again.
History would repeat itself. This time with a blow that had me devastated. I suffered two injuries that my doctors told me I could never play basketball ever again. I had my shoulder ripped out of my arm socket in my last Kiss basketball game. My back had been hurting for some time and my doctor told me about some bad disks that could not take the pounding of playing basketball ever again.
Describe some of the things you experienced outside of basketball?
So many things hurt me growing up. Things like my dad leaving when I was six months old. Being the victim of a brutal sexual assault when I was twelve by a mafia guy who threatened to kill me and my family if I told anyone about it.
Being forced to do drug deals by another mafia guy who killed people for the fun of it. He was giving me counterfeit $100 bills to buy his stuff that got me busted.
Giving a drug dealer a counterfeit bill almost ended my life. Two guns were drawn on me with a gun to my head and a gun to my heart. Both guns loaded and both triggers pulled and both guns not going off. I thought for sure I was going to die.
I survived and walked away from the busted drug deal but not without divine intervention I am sure!
I experienced my share of deep hurts growing up in a place like East Harlem but like I said, nothing hurt more than the final realization that my basketball career, hopes, and dreams were over.
To manage that pain, I resorted to what I knew best; drinking, drug use and more womanizing.
My life soon became out of control like never before.
(NEXT UP: RESPONSE-ABLE)