Rebound

Sugar Ray Richardson's Ship Be Stayin' Afloat in His New Life in Italy

In a small town on the Mediterranean coast just north of Pisa, in a dilapidated arena that looks suspiciously like a converted airplane hangar, Livorno is playing Jesi for first place in Italian Seria B. At the far ends of the stands, rival groups clad in replica uniforms and scarves sing their teams' praises to the tune of unlikely pop classics. But this is not a soccer game. It's a basketball game—which perhaps explains all the empty seats. The fans from Jesi in their green and yellow are more organized than the small band of maroon-clad Livornese, but the home fans do have a drum, which is helpful for laying down the beat to "Yellow Submarine."

Forza Livorno!
Ale, ale, ale!
Ale, ale, ale!
Ale, ale, ale!

Despite their fans' support, the home team quickly falls behind by 10. Livorno coach Stefano Michelini looks to his bench. After a moment of indecision, he signals to one of the oldest professional basketball players in the world, a 44-year-old former cocaine addict. As number 15 jogs over to the scorer's table, his uniform cannot entirely mask the beginnings of a potbelly, but the maroon-clad fans have no doubt that Michelini has made the right choice. They begin to chant: "Reeeee-chuuurd-soooon. Reeeee-chuuurd-soooon. Reeeee-chuuurd-soooon."

Micheal Ray Richardson's story had all the makings of a basketball tragedy: the rise from humble origins, the tragic flaw, the inevitable fall. (So much so that his life has been made the subject of a TV documentary, which will air on TNT on February 16.) Raised by a single mother in Denver, Micheal Ray shoveled snow off the playground blacktop to practice in the winter. But despite his dedication he was not a highly touted high school recruit. By his final year at the University of Montana, however, Micheal was averaging 24 points a game and had been given a new name worthy of his numbers: "Sugar."

The Knicks took him with the fourth pick in the 1978 draft, and he quickly began to live up to his billing as the next Walt Frazier, leading the league in steals and assists in only his second season. His triple-double capability led to frequent comparisons to Magic, but Sugar was much quicker. Larry Bird once called him the best basketball player on the planet.

As much as other ballplayers liked his game, sportswriters liked his mouth, even impaired as it was by an occasional stutter. Lines like his classic summation of the state of the '82 Knicks—"The ship be sinkin' "—became back-page tabloid headlines and made Sugar a media sensation.

He knew how to have fun with all the attention. His Mercedes could often be spotted parked outside of Studio 54, the Paradise Garage, or Plato's Retreat. And even though he was married, you never knew what girl might be in the passenger's seat or what you might find in the glove compartment. Cocaine was the drug of the moment, and in the freewheeling days before Len Bias, there weren't a whole lot of deterrents to a young athlete's curiosity.

His fall was long and painful, full of stops and starts, "miracle cures" and relapses. A wealth of talent and a horse's constitution allowed Micheal to continue to play, and to play at an All-Star level, long after other people's bodies would have given out. And ironically, the final crash came just when he seemed to have finally decided to leave the spoons and water pipes from his freebasing days behind. By December of 1985, after trades to Golden State and then to New Jersey, he had regained his status as one of the dominant players in the league, and the Nets were quickly evolving into contenders. A third of the way into the season, Sugar was averaging 17.3 points, 7.8 assists, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.9 steals a game, and the Nets were 19-12 and had won nine of their last 10. Then came Christmas.

On the night of December 27, Sugar and Darryl Dawkins hit The Sports Bar in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., a spot where ballplayers could be sure to find willing groupies. Against the advice of teammates who had urged Chocolate Thunder to take care of Micheal Ray, Dawkins exited the bar with a lady companion and left Sugar in the hands of another woman. Sugar didn't show up at practice the next day or the day after that. The team tried to track him down, but various trails went cold. Just before the Nets' next game, Sugar finally called his agent, Charles Grantham. "I think I'm just gonna watch this one on TV," Micheal Ray said quietly. It was cocaine again.

On February 25, 1986, a whirlwind rehab and another failed drug test later, Sugar became the first NBA player to incur the full force of the NBA's new drug policy: three strikes and you're out. Banned for life. In debt, unemployed, and under investigation for harassing his estranged wife, Richardson seemed headed for the abyss, destined for an overdose or the street.

Instead he moved to Italy.

Thirteen years later, at the FilaForum in Milan—where the San Antonio Spurs are playing the Varese Roosters in the '99 McDonald's Open—the same man who expelled Micheal Ray from the NBA is giving him a big hug. David Stern tells me about seeing Sugar two years earlier at the '97 McDonald's Open in Paris, the first time they had spoken since the ban: "I sort of knew he was going to be there, and he came up and I said, 'Hi Micheal Ray. How ya doing?' He said, 'I'm doing great. I got a new wife, a kid, I'm still playing.' And then he said, 'I want to thank you.' I said, 'You want to thank me? What do you want to thank me for?' He said, 'I want to thank you for saving my life.' "
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