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.’ ”

    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 Times report 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.

    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.

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