Thanks to Clarence Gaines for tweeting this link (via Grantland.com) on a story about former NBA all-star Michael Ray Richardson. ‘Sugar’ was my favorite player back in the 80’s.
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.
Eric Clapton once said, “I hate listening to my old records, which I did stoned or drunk.” You can bet Michael Ray feels the same way about his game back in the day.
During my teenage days in the 1980’s I grew up in Brooklyn, New York; I idolized Sugar.
I fell in love with his game. I loved the way he defended, rebounded, shared the ball and most of all, the confidence he displayed. Of course I had no clue he was killing himself, off the court. We didn’t have TMZ, Sports by Brooks or even Deadspin. We didn’t have camera phones either.
Sugar’s downfall was white lines; no, not the ones that make up the baseline, free-throw line, or half-court lines. He liked to party. It’s a shame because the two (hoops and drugs) don’t mix. Or how about this equation? New York City, the 80’s, ladies, a superstar…?
Sure there have been many star athletes come through New York and not ‘fuck up’, but Michael Ray couldn’t overcome the temptations.
I saved up a few dollars to purchase an authentic Knicks jersey with RICHARDSON sewn on the back from Gerry Cosby’s Sporting Good store. It ran me close to $200. When I wore it people thought I was crazy. Today, you have grown men wearing jersey’s.
My friends and I also collected sneakers and practice jersey’s from NBA players. We’d wait outside the Garden after a Knicks home game and ask the players for their shoes. Michael Ray was one of the coolest cats I ever met. He always made time to rap with us after the game.
When Richardson was traded to the Golden State Warriors in 1982 he played in 33 games; he was then traded back East to the New Jersey Nets. Along with Otis Birdsong, the duo teamed up to form a sweet backcourt. Their highlight came in 1984 when they upset the defending champions Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs. In game 5, down in Philly Sugar had 24 points and 6 steals clinching the series.
When people mention Bernard King first thing they talk about is the former scoring machine’s superstar 60 points on Christmas night in 1984 at MSG vs the New Jersey Nets. Little do they realize the Knicks lost that game 120-114 behind Richardson’s 36 points.
I was heartbroken in 1986, the day Sugar was thrown out of the league for good-by David Stern.
Forget autographs, who needed that when you could get Trent Tucker’s practice jersey?
Just for old times sakes, I carry a basketball card of the Sugar Man in my wallet.
There’s no telling how good Michael Ray could’ve been if drug addiction didn’t get the best of him.
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