Sugar Ray makes sweet return to NBA

Banned by the NBA for drugs, Michael Ray Richardson is back working for his hometown Nuggets.

Updated: August 19, 2003, 4:39 PM ET
By Marc J. Spears | Special to ESPN.com

DENVER -- Former NBA great Micheal Ray Richardson has a message for the youth of Denver. It's a message the Denver native wished he could've heard himself years ago before he was kicked out of the NBA due to his extensive drug use.

"I speak about (my past) probably 75 percent of the time," said Richardson, the Denver Nuggets' new community ambassador, of his speeches to kids in Denver. "Most of the kids weren't born back when I played. What I try to explain to them is there is a better way in life outside of drugs and alcohol.

"There are going to be some kids who are going to experience it because it's out there. There's a limit to everything you do and you can't put yourself in that predicament."

Micheal Ray Richardson
AP PhotoMichael Ray Richardson, right, tells Denver youth that there's 'a better way in life outside of drugs.'
After starting a superstar career in the NBA, Richardson found himself in that predicament in the mid-1980s.

They called him "Sugar Ray" back then. He was a bigger-than-average point guard at the time, standing 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds. After playing collegiately at Montana, the New York Knicks drafted Richardson with the fourth pick overall in the 1978 NBA Draft and he was billed as "the next Walt Frazier." Two picks later, the Boston Celtics drafted Larry Bird.

During the 1979-80 season, Richardson became the first player in NBA history to lead the league in both assists (10.1) and steals (3.23 ), setting Knicks franchise records in both categories. The four-time NBA All-Star reached his prime during the 1984-85 season when he averaged 20.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists for the New Jersey Nets. During his eight-year NBA career, the two-time NBA all-defensive team selection averaged 14.8 points, 7.0 assists and 5.3 rebounds.

"(Basketball enthusiasts) remember that I was the first big guard in the league," Richardson said. "I played both ends of the floor."

Richardson played hard off the floor, too. What began as recreational drug use turned into a full-blown addiction. Richardson's drug problems became so bad that David Stern made a decision that he called "the hardest thing I've ever had to do as commissioner." Stern banned Richardson from the NBA in 1986. Since then, Richardson said Stern has been a strong supporter of his and was happy to see him return to the NBA recently with Denver.

Following stops in the CBA and USBL, Richardson went to Europe to continue his basketball career. He said he had a chance to return to the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers, but ended up staying overseas where he played 14 seasons in Italy, France and Croatia. More importantly, he also got sober thanks in large part to being overseas where he had a lot of idle time to think about his situation.

"When I first left and went over to Italy, during my first year I kind of missed it," said Richardson of the NBA. "Then, my second year I had a chance to play for the 76ers. But they only wanted to give me one year (on a contract) and I wanted two years. I was already 32 years old. I felt Micheal Ray would last a little longer if I stayed in Europe. It lasted a whole lot longer. I missed it, but I can say I was able to play in the NBA and be a successful basketball player.

Where I am in my life now, I feel blessed. When you look at Len Bias (a former Celtics draft pick who died from drug overdose), he didn't have a chance. For me to sit back and think about, 'What if?,' I just don't do that because even with what I went through I still played another 11 years of professional basketball.
Michael Ray Richardson

"Where I am in my life now, I feel blessed. When you look at Len Bias (a former Celtics draft pick who died from drug overdose), he didn't have a chance. For me to sit back and think about, 'What if?,' I just don't do that because even with what I went through I still played another 11 years of professional basketball. Plus, I still have my good health."

Last year, Richardson bumped into Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe at a Euroleague basketball tournament in Bologna, Italy. It was then that Richardson's road back to the NBA began unfolding.

"I was telling (Vandeweghe) that I was thinking about moving back and I was looking for a job," Richardson said. "He told me to give him a call if I decided to come back. I came back on May 22 (to Denver) because my sister was getting married. When I was here, I gave him a phone call and he said he would make some calls to see if he could find something for me to do. He called me back and told me he wanted to give me a job, and I accepted it.

"For me, it's a great feeling. I've always been a fan of the (ABA) Denver Rockets when I was growing up. I always wanted to play for the Denver Nuggets, but I never had that opportunity because I was a (high) draft pick. Things just didn't happen. This here is a great opportunity and I've always wanted to be a part of the organization."

While Richardson will occasionally help the Nuggets' young players and possibly do some scouting overseas, his job is primarily focused on aiding Denver-area youth from following in the same footsteps that killed his potential Hall of Fame career. Since being hired earlier this summer, Richardson has made about 15 appearances to tell his story. And in that short time, "Sugar Ray" has learned that a lot of good can come out of a story about a fallen star.

"It's going real, real well," Richardson said. "It's going to be a lot bigger and more satisfying than I thought it would be. I'm getting a lot of positive feedback. I think I am already affecting lives. The kids I have spoken to are very excited. I am already beginning to reach out and touch a lot of people."

Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.