By Neil Beldock
His given name at birth was Micheal Ray Richardson.
His nickname, based upon how sweet he played the game of basketball would become “Sugar Ray”. Micheal “Sugar Ray” Richardson.
But in the case of Micheal “Sugar Ray” Richardson, the term “Sugar” represents two dynamics, two ends of a scale, no pun intended.
From a basketball perspective, “Sugar” represented a player with unlimited ability, a player who’s immense talent indicated a hall-of-fame career could be forthcoming.
On the other end of the scale, “Sugar” can be used to represent the drug which ultimately derailed and destroyed the career of Micheal Ray Richardson; Cocaine.
To many who saw Richardson play, he could have been what Magic Johnson turned out to be.
Said Magic Johnson about Richardson: “Micheal Ray was a guy who played just like I played. Every time I saw him he went right at me……and Michael would talk trash too, the whole game.”
Richardson, raised in the slums of Denver, would attend the University of Montana before becoming the 4th overall pick in the 1978 NBA draft by the New York Knicks, two picks before the Boston Celtics selected Larry Bird (although Bird was not eligible to play until the following year).
Said legendary Boston Celtics Coach and General Manager Red Auerbach: “If the Knicks had not picked Richardson I would have. I like the way this kid plays”.
Larry Bird once referred to Richardson as the “best basketball player on the planet”.
The Knicks envisioned Richardson as the next Walt “Clyde” Frazier, and the player who could lead the Knicks back to the elite status they maintained through the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
The comparisons to Frazier did not appear to be unrealistic. Richardson, much like Frazier, could score, pass and defend at what appeared to suggest an all-star level.
Also, much like Frazier who was a muscular 6 feet 4 inches tall, Richardson was big for a point guard at 6 feet 5 inches tall.
For Micheal Ray Richardson it appeared that “the sky was the limit”, verbiage which in a somewhat cruel twist of fate, Richardson himself would use to describe the fall of the Knicks during the 1981-82 season, and very well may have described his personal path as well (keep reading-see below).
Early on, the potential envisioned for Richardson was showing signs of fruition.
(Against Nate “Tiny” Archibald)
In just his second year (1979-80) Richardson began to play at an elite level. He finished the year averaging 15.3 points per game, 10.1 assists per game, 6.6 rebounds per game and 3.2 steals per game. He was also selected to play in the NBA All-Star game.
To create perspective, in that same year, Magic Johnson posted numbers of 18.0 points per game, 7.3 assists per game, 7.7 rebounds per game and 2.4 steals per game.
During that 1979-80 season Richardson became just the 3rd player in NBA history to lead the league in both assists and steals in the same season. His play helped the Knicks improve to a 39-win team, eight wins more than the previous season.
Richardson followed the 1979-80 season with two more promising years.
During the 1980-81 season Richardson averaged 16.4 points per game, 7.9 assists per game, 6.9 rebounds per game and 2.9 steals per game in leading the Knicks to a 50-win season and back to the playoffs after not qualifying for the playoffs the previous two seasons. He was once again selected to participate in the NBA All-Star game.
The future seemed bright.
The ascension continued the following year (1981-82) when he posted numbers of 17.9 points per game, 7.0 assists per game, 6.9 rebounds per game and 2.6 steals per game, and for the third consecutive year, played in the NBA All-Star game.
But 1981-82, a time which can be described as the Studio 54 era in New York City, was when cocaine entered Richardson’s life and both his play and personality would become erratic.
With hopes skyrocketing for the future success of the Micheal Ray Richardson led Knicks going into the 1981-82 season, the Knicks as a team struggled and appeared to be in free-fall late in the season.
During their late season collapse, Richardson’s quote is what many remember and recognize as not only his defining moment as a Knick, but a personal assessment as well.
After yet another Knicks loss Richardson was asked by a reporter about the teams apparent free-fall. Richardson said;
“The ship, it be sinking”……
The reporter followed-up his initial question to Richardson by asking him how bad it could get. Richardson’s response;
“The sky’s the limit”…….
In retrospect, this clearly was not only an assessment of the Knicks, but an early assessment of the path which Richardson’s life was upon.
In spite of the unquestionable talent Richardson showed which included posting 18 triple-doubles for the Knicks, second most in team history, the Knicks were concerned.
Feeling that Richardson was becoming unmanageable with untenable behavior, and though not documented, very possibly aware of his growing cocaine use, the Knicks cut bait early.
After the 1981-82 season, the Knicks shipped Richardson to the Golden State Warriors as compensation for signing Bernard King as a free agent.
Perhaps also sensing something was amiss with Richardson, after just 33 games of the 1982-83 season the Warriors cut bait as well and traded Richardson to the New Jersey Nets.
(With the Nets vs. Mike Dunleavy & the Bucks)
His play during the 1982-83 season evidenced a precipitous drop in effectiveness. His numbers plummeted. He ended the season averaging 12.6 points per game, 6.8 assists per game and 4.6 rebounds per game. Clearly there was a problem at hand.
That problem would reveal itself early the following season.
By December of the 1983-84 season Richardson had been to three drug clinics over the previous 5 months and the Nets eventually waived him. He played just 48 games that year with his performance continuing to decline. He averaged just 12.0 points per game, 4.5 assists per game, 3.6 rebounds per game and 2.1 steals per game, a far cry from his production earlier in his career and prior to his cocaine abuse.
In spite of his drug issues, his immense talent and potential drove the Nets to reverse course and re-sign Richardson before the 1984-85 season believing that he had been able to put his cocaine issues behind him and that he would be able to rebound and become the player who he was earlier in his career.
And rebound he did! During the 1984-85 season he posted All-Star level numbers averaging 20.1 points per game, 8.2 assists per game, 5.6 rebounds per game and 3.0 steals per game. He also made a return appearance to the NBA All-Star game.
It appeared Micheal Ray Richardson was back, and in a big way. He signed a new 4-year contract with the Nets, participated in NBA anti-drug messaging and, according to the Nets, passed every weekly drug test mandated by his contract.
Said teammate and close friend Buck Williams: : “He seemed to have the world by the coattails”.
Williams also said that Richardson had told him, “Buck, I’ll never go back on drugs. Never.”.
But cocaine addiction is a tough hand to play, and although it appeared that Richardson and his game were back, it would only be a matter of time before his demons would be back as well.
Early the following season, on the evening of December 27, 1985 he relapsed.
After attending a team Christmas party, Richardson and a couple of teammates headed to a bar for some drinks. Before the night was over, Richardson would go missing.
A couple of days later Richardson would reach out to his agent and ask for help with his cocaine addiction.
But within just a couple months Richardson would relapse once again.
On February 25th, 1986 Richardson tested positive for drug use for a third time.
In accordance with the NBA’s 1983 Anti-Drug Program, Richardson was banned from playing in the NBA. He was the very first player ever banned for drug use.
A career which appeared to be headed for greatness was now over. And one could only question whether or not a life would soon be over as well.
But Richardson once again showed resiliency and rebounded yet again.
He headed to Europe committed to resurrecting his life and basketball career. Fortunately for Richardson, this resolve won out over his cocaine addiction and he played professional basketball in Europe until the age of 46. His style of play excited the European fans, leading fans to refer to his game as “Sugarmania”.
(“Sugarmania” in Europe)
Years later Richardson had this to say about his being banned from the NBA; “I wasn’t angry. I took full responsibility for what I did. It was a way to really catch my attention. (NBA Commissioner) David Stern really helped save my life. Unfortunately it takes what it takes. God has a plan for everybody. Unfortunately that was my plan. I’m still here.”.
Although Richardson’s NBA career spanned eight seasons (1978-79 to 1985-86), Richardson played just five full seasons in the NBA. During those five full seasons when cocaine did not dominate his existence and shorten his seasons, Richardson was a 4-time NBA All-Star, a 2-time All NBA First Team Defensive selection, 3-time NBA steals leader and a 1-time NBA assists leader.
Micheal Ray Richardson was a great, great basketball player who might have become one of the great players of all time. A unique talent who unfortunately had demons which took too long to defeat, thus robbing himself and basketball fans of being able to see and appreciate what very well may have been a Hall-of-Fame career. A career however which wound up being derailed by cocaine addiction.