This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in April 2004.

Ex-NBA star giving back to Denver community

By Ed Odeven

His story is better than any buzzer-beating basket. His reality beats any fantasy.

Micheal Ray Richardson overcame the path of self-destruction and now does all he can to keep others away from the perils of drugs.

As the community ambassador of the Denver Nuggets, Richardson is a visible figure in his home state, a tireless spokesman for one of the most important topics of our time: drugs.

“I speak to kids every day about how important it is to stay in school, to carefully choose your friends and beware of the dangers about being around the wrong people since they are always getting involved with drugs,” Richardson was saying Saturday during a phone conversation.

“My speech is really from my history. I think that a person like me has a lot to offer young kids.”

A former first-round draft pick of the New York Knicks (fourth overall in 1978, two spots ahead of a guy from French Lick, Ind., named Larry Bird), Richardson quickly established himself as one of the league’s top point guards in the early ’80s. He was a brilliant defender — Sugar Ray, as the fans would say, led the NBA in steals three times — an exceptional passer and a first-rate scorer. (His name was one I’d repeat over and over again, consciously and unconsciously, after watching a game. While playing ball on NYC-area playgrounds, kids and adults used to say they were doing their best “Sugar” impersonations.)

The former University of Montana guard appeared destined for superstardom. Knickerbocker fans proclaimed that he was the second coming of Walt “Clyde” Frazier.

It seemed he had everything going for him.

But Richardson fell into a trap that befell many: he became addicted to cocaine.

“If you go looking for trouble, you’re going to find it,” he told Jet Magazine in an October 2003 interview.

Which is exactly what happened.

In 1986, Richardson was banned from the NBA after testing positive for cocaine for a third time, as ordered by NBA commissioner David Stern. At the time, he was playing for the New Jersey Nets, his third NBA team.

But wait, the story gets better.

Richardson got clean, put his life back in order and began a 14-year professional career overseas, playing in France and Italy and Yugoslavia and Israel. He retired in 2001 at the age of 46. He says he loved every minute of the experiences he had playing in Europe.

No doubt 22 years as a pro left Richardson with a gold mine of memories. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time on Saturday to ask him about all of them. So I decided to ask him two simple questions: Who was the best player you ever played against in Europe? And who was the best player you ever played with in the U.S.?

“The best I ever played against over there was Bob McAdoo,” Richardson says of the Hall of Fame forward who averaged 30-plus points a game for three successive seasons with the Buffalo Braves in the early ’70s. “He was 41 when I got over there and he was still putting the ball in the basket.”

Richardson says Otis Birdsong, the vastly underrated Nets guard, was the best teammate he ever had.

Reflecting on his life, Richardson says Stern is, and always will be, a special person to him.

“He’s not only the NBA commissioner (to me), he’s a man,” Richardson says. “He has feelings. He has a heart. I know what happened to me, but he didn’t really have a choice. But I respect that and I dealt with it because I put myself in that predicament. So I had to get myself out. I have a lot of respect for what he’s done for me.”

Nowadays, people are gaining the same respect for Richardson. His week-to-week schedule is filled with activities that make a difference in the lives of countless people. Some days he speaks at schools, other days he’s busy helping out at a charity fund-raiser.

On May 5, in Bologna, Italy, where he used to play, he’ll participate in a charity basketball game to raise money for children with leukemia. And yes, Richardson will lace up his high-tops for the game.

After retiring in 2001, Richardson began running clinics for the NBA in Europe. He took his current job with the Nuggets last year.

“It’s been great. It gives me an opportunity to get back into the NBA family,” says Richardson, who lives in Aurora, Colo., with his wife and two young children. “It gives me the chance to work for a great franchise and a great guy like Kiki (Nuggets general manger Kiki Vandeweghe), plus the team is winning. So this has been a real good year.”

Our conversation abruptly turned to the Nuggets’ first-round playoff series against the Western Conference’s top-seeded team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, which starts today.

And what do you think of the Nuggets’ chances against the Wolves? I asked him.

“I think it goes seven (games),” he says, “because I think that we can beat them. In basketball anything can happen.”

The same is true in life. Micheal Ray Richardson is living proof.