Thursday, July 26, 2018

Books: "Sugar" On Michael Ray Richardson & The NBA In The '80s

Sugar: Michael Ray Richardson, Eightees Excess, and the NBA
By Charley Rosen
Nebraska University Press, 192 pages, $24.95

The 1980s were arguably the NBA’s best decade, giving rise to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. They were among the game’s greatest players who brought pro basketball out of its 1970s funk and made it faster, more fluid, and more exciting. Off the court the game was changing rapidly too, with the draft lottery, shoe commercials, and a style driven largely by excess.

One player who personified the eighties excess is Micheal Ray Richardson. During his eight-year career in the NBA (1978–86), he was a four-time All-Star, twice named to the All-Defense team, and the first player to lead the league in both assists and steals.

Richardson was also a heavy cocaine user who went on days-long binges but continued to be signed by teams that hoped he’d get straight. Eventually he was the first and only player to be permanently disqualified from the NBA for repeat drug use.

In Sugar, Charley Rosen tracks the rise, fall, and eventual redemption of Richardson throughout his playing days and subsequent coaching career.

Rosen describes the life‑defining pitfalls Richardson and other players faced and considers key themes such as off‑court and on‑court racism, anti-Semitism, womanizing, allegations of point‑shaving within the league, and drug and alcohol abuse by star players.

Richardson started his career with the Knicks, and then had a brief stint with the Golden State Warriors before he was traded to the New Jersey Nets halfway through the 1982-83 season.

Rosen writes of Richardson's 1983-84 season in New Jersey, "During that season, (Nets owner) Joe Taub called Richardson every single day to make sure his backcourt ace was clean. 'I'm cured,' Richardson would reply, even though he was back on the pipe. 'I was a celebrity once more,' Michael Ray recalls. 'Everybody likes a comeback story, so I was bigger than ever. Once again, I was hob-nobbing with the A-list - movie stars, politicians, internationally famous athletes. But once or twice a week, I was dashing up the stairs and swivel-hipping my way past nodded-out junkies on my way to score.' Still, his drug fog reduced his numbers to only 12.0 points and a 4.5 assists per game.

"Otis Birdsong and Richardson composed the Nets' starting backcourt for four seasons and became the best of friends. If Birdsong believed that his buddy was clean, he was well aware that several of his teammates were freebasing. Birdsong recalled the first time he discovered this problem: 'I was at a party in a teammate's house, and guys kept walking in and out of the kitchen. So I poked my head in there and saw what they were doing. It was amazing to me that guys could do that and perform. But I never knew Michael had that problem and until everything came out in public.'

"Even so, the Nets finished the regular season at 45-37. But both (Stan) Albeck and Taub were dismayed when the Nets ended the regular season with three losses and seemed ill prepared to enter the money season against the Philadelphia 76ers, the league's defending champs. That's why Taub was on hand during his team's initial pre-practice meeting prior to that daunting series. Taub was in total agreement when Albeck said to the players, 'I'm gonna run your asses off in practice today.'

"This prospect did not please Richardson. 'F-fuck it, man. My m-motherfucking b-body is entirely wrecked, and I ain't m-motherfucking p-practicing at all.'

"Taub was also so committed to helping Richardson overcome his drug problem that he ordered Albeck to cancel practice and go hard the next day. When Taub left the room, Albeck turned on Richardson. 'There's a fucking asshole on every team,' Albeck steamed, 'and you're it.'...

"Judging by his performance in the Philadelphia series, Richardson's body had fully recovered. He was absolutely spectacular - averaging over 20 points, 7 assists, 4 steals, and dominating virtually every clutch situation. Even though, in Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney, Mo Cheeks, and Bobby Jones, the 76ers' roster featured five certified All-Stars and four future Hall of Famers, Richardson led the Nets to victory in the decisive fifth game in Philadelphia."

That Nets team went on to lose to the Milwaukee Bucks, and 
Richardson played a couple more seasons in New Jersey before he was banned for life by NBA Commissioner David Stern.

Rosen does a remarkable job of constructing his various lines of narration around the polarizing figure of Richardson, who was equally a basketball savant, drug addict, and pariah.

With Sugar, Rosen illuminates some of the more unseemly aspects of the NBA during the 1980s, going behind the scenes to provide an account of what the league’s darker side was like during its celebrated golden age.

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