By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Despite Stern's insistence, it is difficult to believe that the threat of a death penalty ("three strikes and you're out") would have meant much if it were never administered. Nothing could have proven that the NBA would no longer tolerate drug use more clearly than the banishment of Sugar.Micheal checks his watch to see how much time is left before the game, and then turns back to the screen, where the passing clips we've already seen once have looped around again.
"I'm a better passer now than I was then."
"He kept the same moves," Ilham adds, "he's just a little slower."
I wonder if he could still play in the NBA.
"For 15 minutes. Yeah. I could give someone 15 minutes. I still got the basics. That's all I need."
In the car, on the way to the game, Micheal Ray points out the soccer stadium. "They lose every game and it's still packed. We doing pretty good and we still have empty seats." He's not exaggerating, and there aren't even that many seats to fill. Even so, when Sugar gets in the game 10 minutes into the first half, the 2500 that are there definitely know his name: "Reee-chuuurd-sooon! Reee-chuuurd-sooon! Reee-chuuurd-sooon!"
Their faith in him does not initially seem well placed. Sugar looks sluggish. He doesn't move away from the ball, is very slow getting back on defense, pushes off instead of moving to free himself, and gestures angrily at teammates after they miss shots. This is surly, sulky Micheal, the Mr. Hyde his former coaches used to complain about. In 10 minutes he is 0-3 from the floor with one rebound, one assist, and one foul.
"It's really not his day," Ilham admits after turning her hat backward fails to improve Micheal's play. "He gave him two days," she says, referring to coach Michelini, who let Sugar miss practice to go to Milan. "Now he'll never do that again."
But late in the second half the old Sugar shows up. With Livorno down by 10, he gets the ball at the top of the key, drives right, but can't shake his defender. He turns his back to the basket, then fakes left, pulls back and nails a turn-around from 25 feet. At the other end, he tips a pass and it bounces off his man and out of bounds. They feed him the ball again and he drives baseline, pulls up, and nails a 20 footer. Then he rips down a tough board in traffic, throws the outlet, gets the ball back at the top of the key, and slides a neat bounce pass to a cutter for an easy two. Suddenly, Livorno is within three, and Micheal has an open shot from behind the line to tie it.
Clang. Off the rim.
As abruptly as the Sugar from the highlight reel appeared, he slips away again, and leaves his evil twin in his place. Despite his ineffectiveness, his teammates rally to within two, 68-66, but then the game moves out of reach. An ill-advised three by Livorno's gangly center caps an ugly final sequence, and Jesi wins 76-71. After the game, Sugar is obviously upset.
"You see that shot. I was wide open. C'mon. I told him. You can't do that, man. You know." Exclamations punctuate his excuses like amens to his own sermon. "You see how they was passing the ball. Hey. You know what I mean. They gotta pass to the open man."
As he remembers the end of the game, his tone becomes angrier and the words fight to get out of his mouth. "The big boy, our number four, he gonna shoot a damn three? I'm wide open. Did you see it? C-c-c-come on."
We are all silent for a few minutes. Micheal breathes out a long sigh, like he's finally expelling all his anger about the loss. The air relaxes, and I finally have the courage to speak.
"You looked a little tired today, Micheal."
"Yeah, man. I didn't have no legs."
The next game he scores 20.