Whenever anyone reaches out to Micheal Ray Richardson, they inevitably ask the same questions.
Why did you get kicked out of the NBA?
What were your lowest points?
How long have you been sober?
“Who has lived a perfect life?” Richardson said during a recent phone interview with The Post. “I don’t think there’s a perfect person in this world. I made a mistake, I paid my price, and life goes on.”
Life is good for the Manual High School graduate, whose basketball career was defined by both accomplishment and seemingly unfulfilled potential. Three and a half decades since his last appearance in the NBA though, Richardson has built a life that few could have imagined, with a focus on giving back.
A 6-foot-5 point guard with moves so sweet some called him Sugar, the four-time NBA all-star went head-to-head with legends like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas.
Along the way, he posted 18 triple-doubles with the New York Knicks — second in franchise history behind Walt Frazier. He led the New Jersey Nets to the franchise’s first NBA playoff series win, a shocking first-round upset of the reigning champion Philadelphia 76ers in the 1984 playoffs. And he was named NBA Comeback Player of the Year the season after that.
But by the middle of the 1985-86 season, he was out of the NBA — expelled by Commissioner David Stern for violating the league’s drug policy. It’s a ruling that has followed Richardson ever since, even as he moved from country to country extending his basketball career.
“It was three or four years, and then it was over,” he said of the time he was using drugs. “It was three or four years that cost me my NBA career, but I was able to pick up the pieces, go overseas, and turn my life around.”
More than 30 years later, Richardson said he has long since moved on, even if outsiders continue to bring up his past.
“I felt bad about the NBA experience,” said former NBA coach Bob Hill, who brought Richardson to Europe and coached him at Virtus Bologna. “At the end of the day Micheal Ray is a terrific human being.”
For most of late July, Richardson was in South Florida, along with his former Nets teammate Otis Birdsong, providing school supplies to underserved communities. It’s an extension of the youth basketball camps they’ve run together for nearly a decade.
The idea started when they worked together with the Lawton-Fort Sill Cavalry, then called the Oklahoma Cavalry, in the Continental Basketball Association. Birdsong served as president and general manager, and Richardson as head coach. They won two CBA championships together.
Following one of their successful seasons, the former NBA all-stars decided to hold camps for local kids at about $100 per week during the offseason. After a few years, Richardson and Birdsong realized they wanted to reach a different demographic, and made their camps free in an effort to bring in kids from underprivileged communities.
Richardson said the places he has camps remind him of his childhood growing up in Denver.
“We want to help our kids,” he said. “We want to give our kids an opportunity that we didn’t have.”
Instead of charging participation fees, the pair tried to find sponsors to help cover the costs. It was a struggle, with some supporters hesitant to help, or even backing out, after learning of Richardson’s involvement.
“It (ticked) me off,” Birdsong said, “as if 30 years later they think he’s still using or something.”
The pair finally got a break when former Nets owner Joe Taub asked them to put on a camp in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. His support reignited interest in Richardson and Birdsong’s idea and helped the Ball Stars Youth Camps become what they are today.
The camps are still free, and Richardson estimates they get about 150 kids per week in pandemic-free circumstances.
Birdsong said Richardson brings an element of fun to the camps, with his magnetic presence on the court. His jokes with the kids keep the atmosphere light and enjoyable, even if he also ribs them about missed jumpers or blocked shots. Richardson said he just likes to see his campers smile.
Richardson and Birdsong’s aim is to educate children in disadvantaged neighborhoods about both basketball and life. They teach financial literacy, communication skills, stress the importance of education, and talk about how to interact with the police at their camps.
“We use basketball just to get the kids in, but we also teach them life skills,” Richardson said.
And, yes, Richardson also teaches the kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
“It’s easy to fall into that trap,” he said. “One thing about drugs, it does not discriminate. White, black, pink, orange, rich, poor, it treats you all the same. That’s what I explain to the kids. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have. If you stay in it, it’s going to get you.”
While he continues to work with youth, Richardson also has other plans to reclaim his story. He hopes to write a book about his time in the NBA and his life following his suspension. He says he still feels he was scapegoated by the league for a drug problem that was rampant throughout the NBA at the time.
“I took the heat, you know what I mean?” he said. “Because at that time, the whole league was involved. But I don’t point the finger at anybody because I did it, I got caught, I paid for it, and I move on.”
Richardson said the suspension might have actually been a blessing in disguise. He played in places he never thought he would visit, and the lighter schedule allowed him to keep hooping professionally until age 46. He won titles in Italy and France, then returned to North America as a coach to pick up championships in the CBA and Canada.
He keeps traveling, too. Before the pandemic hit, he was working with the NBA Academy in India and Africa.
It’s his family that makes him the happiest though. Richardson still lives in Lawton, Okla., with his wife, Kim. He is a proud father of five children and three step-children, and now a happy grandfather with nine “grandbabies.”
“He’s crazy about his kids and his grandkids,” Birdsong said.
As he continues to work, spend time with his family, and give back to his community, the labels that have haunted Richardson ever since 1986 are a distant memory.
“I’ve done everything I’ve probably wanted to do in my life,” he said.
All of the potential people saw in Richardson has been realized, just not in the way NBA fans thought it would be.
He’s so much more than a basketball player now. Richardson’s a father, grandfather, coach, philanthropist, mentor, winner, and world traveler.
He’s sugar — still as sweet — just showing it in a different way.