Rebound

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

In October, their private reconciliation was packaged for public consumption. At halftime of a '99 McDonald's Open contest, while Marv Albert was interviewing Stern, Micheal Ray sneaked up from behind, tapped Stern on the shoulder, and gave him a warm embrace. When something looked a little off on the first take, says Richardson, they acted out the whole sequence again.

On the train from Milan to Livorno, where Richardson is playing this year in the Italian second division, he talks about some of the stops on his journey, and very quickly shows that he's still good copy. His first foray outside the states was to Israel: "You think it's going to be an awful place. You just see bombs going off all the time, but it ain't like that." He starts talking about a club in Tel Aviv called Cinerama. "On Thursday and Friday nights, you'd get 4000, 5000 people in there. Yeah. There's another side of Israel too." He raises his eyebrows and turns down the corners of his mouth. "Let me tell you something. Them Jews know how to party."

In the last 12 years Richardson has played in France, Croatia, and all over Italy. In a league where teams are only allowed two foreigners, his recently granted Italian citizenship may allow him to play into his fifties. And even if he is ever forced to retire he has no plans to go home. "I feel more free in Europe than I ever felt in America," he says.

Livorno is far down the food chain of Italian basketball cities. It was heavily bombed during the Second World War, so rather than 15th-century palazzi, its streets are lined with cement-block housing. And although the city is on the sea, the coast is dominated by a heavily industrialized port, which gives it a dirty smokestack, New Jersey-on-the-Mediterranean feel. But Micheal Ray's not complaining. The team gives him a car and an apartment and he's still making over six figures. "Hey," he shrugs, "that ain't bad for two hours a day."

Micheal Ray picks me up the following morning, driving a silver Vespa and wearing a black leather WWI flight helmet. "See, I'm just like one of them." We head to his nicely furnished apartment, where I meet his third wife, Ilham, an olive-skinned French-Moroccan beauty.

There's a highlight reel from his NBA days on the rack near the VCR and I ask if we can watch. As the images of the early '80s flicker on the screen, a big smile lights up Micheal Ray's face. "Look, everybody got them little shorts. They look like hot pants, man." And there is the young Micheal with a little mushroom of a fade and the hot pants and long white socks hiked all the way up to the knee. His old self burns people. Wearing a Net uniform, he fakes baseline and cuts sharply back to the hole, and the defender is so crossed up he literally falls down. "Oh, when I watch this, boy, I be like, 'This is the hype!' " In clip after clip, he makes slashing drives to the hole and impossible dishes. Running full speed, he can make soft touch passes with either hand. Even he is impressed. "I knew I had game, but I didn't know I had game like that.

"I guess it was the cocaine."

When the laughter dies he says quietly, "No, but at this time I wasn't doing it. Nuh-uh, basketball season." It's hard to know whether to take this statement as an actual denial, and the pause that follows is somewhat awkward. But when we get down to talking seriously about drugs, any feeling I had that he might be interested in writing revisionist history fades. Micheal Ray says all the right things. "I took fully responsibility for my actions. That's why I'm able to sit here now and speak about it and have no regrets. . . . David [Stern], he didn't really put me out. I put myself out. He really probably, when you think about it, he saved my life. I probably would have ended up like Len Bias otherwise." But interspersed with his honest and genuine repentance and acceptance there is some bitterness, too—the bitterness of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the anger of a man singled out for special punishment for the same thing all his friends were doing.

In the early '80s, the NBA was in very serious trouble. A 1980 Los Angeles Timesreport stated that up to 75 percent of players had tried cocaine. While baseball and football probably had problems of similar scope, basketball was a majority black league, and fans and the media held it to a different standard. According to Charles Grantham, director of the NBA players' union at that time, the perception that the league was filled with spoiled black drug addicts was sending the NBA "down the tubes."

In this environment, nothing could have been better for the league than a star—a black star—who had violated the rules and could be publicly punished to show that those rules had teeth. Who could be exiled in such a way that it would stand as a symbolic expelling of the scourge of drugs. Stern admits that the drug policy and the public reaction to it "was as responsible for the ultimate success of the league as anything else." But he denies that the NBA profited from Sugar's fall and emphasizes that simply making the rules sent a strong enough message to sway public opinion.

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