Not So Sweet as Sugar: Micheal Ray Richardson's Sad Fall from Grace

Cyrus I.Correspondent IJune 8, 2009

February 25th, 1986.

That date alone was the turning point in Micheal Ray Richardson's life.

On that day, Richardson tested positive for cocaine for a third time, becoming the first player to get banned under the NBA's anti-drug program, which was established in September 1983.

It all started in 1978, where the New York Knickerbockers took a gamble on a relatively unknown 6'5'' scoring point guard out of the University of Montana with the fourth pick in the draft.

Despite some obscurity surrounding the Knicks' selection, others were very high on Richardson's ability as a basketball player. Immediately, he was credited with the title as "the next Walt Frazier."

Right from the start, it appeared as if Richardson would live up to that billing, as he flourished in the New York City limelight almost effortlessly.

In just his sophomore season in the league, Richardson became the first player in NBA history to lead the league in both assists (10.1) and steals (3.2), setting Knicks franchise records in both categories.

That 1979-1980 season was the season that marked the debuts of collegiate superstars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, but Richardson was left undaunted every time he matched up with either one of them.

"Micheal Ray was a guy who played just like I played," Johnson once said. "Every time I saw him, he went right at me... and Micheal would always talk trash, too, the whole game."

Larry Bird once called him the best basketball player on the planet.

In the 2000 narrated film Whatever Happened to Micheal Ray?, Peter Vecsey of the New York Post said that "Isiah Thomas, to this day, tells me that the one guy he was scared of was Richardson."

Richardson was incredibly versatile, as he could play three positions rather effectively. He could manage the offense and set up his teammates with his pinpoint passing or simply take over a game with his scoring ability. Richardson was a capable defender as well, and he always sought to lock down the opposing team's star player.

As much national attention as Richardson received, the emerging face of the league was seen with the wrong people at too many of the wrong places and soon, basketball was not a priority.

That's when cocaine, one of the more enslaving drugs in the world, halted Richardson's basketball career.

In December 1983, he had been to three drug clinics in five months and had been waived by the New Jersey Nets.

Soon the Nets brought him back, however, and in 1984, Richardson led his team to a shocking first-round playoff upset of the defending champion Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers.

For the moment, Richardson was feel-good story. He had overcome mountainous obstacles and proved many critics wrong, refuting their belief of him deteriorating as a basketball player after his earlier cocaine abuse.

He signed a new four-year, $3 million contract in early September, participated in an NBA anti-drug video entitled Cocaine Drain, and, according to Net officials, passed every one of the weekly drug tests mandated by his contract.

Richardson had no plans of reverting back to his old lifestyle, a lifestyle that had turned him to a period of complete darkness and away from his family, friends, and teammates.

Buck Williams, Richardson's former teammate and close friend, said that "he seemed to have the world by the coattails."

Until he relapsed once again.

On December 27, 1985, Richardson was laughing it up at a team Christmas party in Moonachie, New Jersey, after which he headed to a bar for a few drinks with teammates Darryl Dawkins and Bobby Cattage.

He went temporarily missing, and even his wife, Leah, did not have any idea where he was at the time.

A couple of days later, Richardson called his agent, Charles Grantham, and admitted that for the first time since October 1983, he needed help.

"It was the first time that I didn't know what to say to him," said Williams, after Richardson called to tell him that he messed up once again. "He had told me so many times, 'Buck, I'll never go back on drugs. Never.'"

Months later, Richardson found his way out of the NBA. 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, Richardson signed a basketball contract to play with Bologna of the Italian League in Europe and chose to rebuild his life there.

Richardson lived in Italy, Yugoslavia, Israel and France, where he attracted a countless number of European fans. His NBA nickname, "Sugar," broadened into "Sugarmania" overseas, where hundreds of shirts and hats were sold bearing the moniker.

He enjoyed the game so much, and he continued playing professional basketball until the way overdue age of 46. In his 40s, Richardson was not even a shadow of his former self, a sluggishly role player rather than a crafty guard who can slither through double-teams like no other.

Nevertheless, the Sugarmania fanatics greatly appreciated him for lengthening his basketball career, to a point where he could hardly play and make contributions to the team.

Looking back on it in 2003, where he made a comeback to the NBA as a Community Ambassador for the Denver Nuggets, Richardson took some time to reflect on his punishment handed out by NBA Commissioner David Stern.

"I wasn't angry. I took full responsibility for what I did," said Richardson. "It was a way to really catch my attention. 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."

Stern's intervention was a wakeup call of sorts, and now Richardson is regarded as basketball's poster child of overcoming addiction.

It's just a shame that he will never be remembered for his basketball ability by the younger generations.