Richardson returns to NBA after 17 years

Updated: August 12, 2003, 11:21 AM ET

DENVER -- Micheal Ray Richardson can't keep the sweat from dripping into his eyes as basketballs bounce all around.

A dozen or so kids try to mimic his moves, but most either lose the ball down the stairs or splash his legs by dribbling through the puddle in the middle of the square.

Sure, a city park in the heat of a summer day seems a long way from the glamour of the NBA, but it's been a while since Richardson lived that life. Besides, helping kids in his hometown is just what he needs 17 years after becoming the second player in league history to be banned for using drugs.

"It's a great feeling because one thing about that kind of stuff, it runs in all of our lives," Richardson said. "If I can come back and save two or three of our kids, I think I've made a great contribution."

After playing for nine teams in five countries, Richardson is back in the NBA. But this is no comeback attempt. He gave up playing two years ago, finally walking away after 24 seasons at age 46.

No, Richardson is back because he wants to tell his story so kids in the neighborhoods where he once played will steer clear of the path that robbed him of stardom and sent him into an exile of sorts in Europe.

It's that message Richardson has been conveying to kids at clinics and appearances since he was hired as a community ambassador for the Denver Nuggets about a month ago.

"I just thought he just had a very compelling story and really could add at lot to our organization -- helping our young kids, keeping them kind of the straight and narrow, and recognizing some of the pitfalls," Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said.

But if it weren't for drugs, it could have been a success story instead of a cautionary tale.

Richardson escaped the inner city to become a star at the University of Montana, then the New York Knicks took him with the fourth overall pick of the 1978 draft. He quickly became a star in the NBA.

Richardson was a four-time All-Star, led the league in steals three times and in 1979-80 became the first player in NBA history to lead the league in assists and steals in the same season. He also was named to the NBA's all-defensive team twice and was the league's comeback player of the year in 1984-85.

But the life of a star was too much to take for a once shy kid with a stuttering problem. Cocaine became his way of coping.

Richardson was reprimanded by the league twice, in 1983 and 1986, but couldn't shake his habit even after stints in drug rehabilitation programs. The Knicks tired of his off-court problems in 1982 and traded him to Golden State, where he finished out the season before being traded to New Jersey a few months later.

Richardson proclaimed himself drug-free on several occasions, but the charade came to an end on Feb. 23, 1986, when he was banned for life after a third violation of the league's drug policy. John Drew was the first to receive a lifetime ban just a month earlier.

"It was just being in the wrong place with the wrong people," Richardson said. "It was looking for something that maybe I shouldn't been looking for."

What Richardson found was himself looking for a place to play.

First it was Long Island of the USBL, then a brief stint with Albany in the CBA and a coaching job in Israel. Richardson set off for Europe in 1988, playing three seasons in Italy before moving to Yugoslavia for one year. Then it was either Italy or France for the next eight years.

"I done played all over the world," Richardson said with a chuckle.

But a funny thing happened to Richardson as he crisscrossed Europe. He liked it.

Branded a drug addict in the United States, Richardson was a star abroad.

The Europeans liked the flashy American who could score points in bunches and led his teams to league titles in Italy and France. He enjoyed the European food and lifestyle and was particularly appreciative of how the fans were more connected to their teams than back home.

Richardson was reinstated by NBA in 1988 and had an offer to play with Philadelphia in 1990, but turned it down because he wanted a longer deal than the 76ers offered. Besides, he liked Europe too much.

"I loved it over there," said Richardson, who plans to keep his house in the south of France after his wife and two children move to Colorado. "The everyday living, the people, it's a great place, the food is good -- everything was great."

But a few years ago, Richardson started thinking it was time to come home.

He worked for the NBA office his final three years as a player in Europe and enjoyed coming over for the All-Star game. Richardson also knew that his mother was getting older and wanted to be able to spend more time with her.

He talked with Vandeweghe about coming back a couple of years ago, then gave him a call earlier this year after attending his sister's wedding. Vandeweghe offered him the job in June, allowing Richardson's life to come full circle.

"You never want to see anybody go through hardships, especially avoidable ones," Vandeweghe said. "It's too bad, but you know, at the end of the day maybe he can help some young kids. That seems to be what he wants to do. I'm really excited about it."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index