Sex, drugs and the pick-and-roll
Long before standout Griz guard Michael Oguine raised the Big Sky Conference trophy last season, and even long before his coach, Travis DeCuire, put his name in the record books as one of Montana’s most prolific point guards, another flashy guard set the bar for the university’s proud basketball program. Micheal Ray Richardson arrived in Missoula from Denver in 1974 as a virtual unknown, but he left as “Sugar,” one of the best Big Sky players ever, and ended up the fourth overall pick by the New York Knicks in the 1978 National Basketball Association draft. Put into perspective, future Hall of Famer Larry Bird went two picks after Richardson.
Unfortunately, Richardson’s on-court exploits rarely get much attention. Despite four all-star appearances, he will forever be known as one of the sports world’s biggest cautionary tales. In 1986, at the age of 31, he received a lifetime ban from the NBA due to repeated failed drug tests. An insatiable appetite for cocaine ended one of the game’s most promising careers at its peak. He never played in the league again.
The reasons for Richardson’s demise and the unforgiving nature of his battle to rebuild his career provide the backbone of Sugar, a new book from veteran basketball writer Charley Rosen. Less straightforward biography and more examination of the NBA’s awkward transition from afterthought to the multibillion-dollar global draw it is today, Rosen is especially interested in exploring the broader issues of drugs and racism. This setup makes Richardson the perfect protagonist and provides plenty of colorful anecdotes. It does not, however, deliver the most complete, convincing or impartial look at its main subject.
Griz fans will probably be disappointed. Sugar spends all of seven pages covering the entirety of Richardson’s childhood in Texas and Colorado, his debilitating speech impediment and how basketball helped him gain confidence, and his four years in Missoula. It’s not nearly enough space to meaningfully probe some obvious foundational material, such as Richardson’s loss of a father figure when then-Montana coach Jud Heathcote left for Michigan State or Richardson’s adjustment to what Rosen describes as “the provincial world of Missoula.” The reader is left wanting for details both personal and competitive. There’s nothing but passing mention of an unnamed girlfriend becoming pregnant, then marrying Richardson in the summer before his sophomore year. The stories of how he used to dominate Big Sky opponents are the thing of legend, but none appear here.
Instead, Rosen moves at a fast break speed toward Richardson’s hard-partying days in the NBA. The author doesn’t hold back on sordid details or raw language, retelling the height of Sugar’s fame, complete with willing women, unlimited drugs and days-long benders. These episodes receive the sort of whirlwind treatment befitting a Scorsese montage.
“White chicks, black chicks, yellow chicks, even a red one once in Houston, he’d had them all. As far as Sugar was concerned a pussy was a pussy,” Rosen writes. “Still, he was haunted by the memory of his childhood in Lubbock, a dusty, nowhere shit hole in the Texas Panhandle. Where the crackers mercilessly made fun of his stuttering. … Yeah, so he took a certain relish in fucking white chicks. Besides, unlike many of the greedy hellcat sisters he’d been with, no white chick ever called him ‘nigger.’”
Rosen aims to reveal the messiness of Richardson’s demise and unpack the complicated nature of everything that followed, but his style is more talk radio host than reporter. He inserts theories that are, at best, plausible but thinly supported. Worse, he seems most interested in littering the narrative with personal beefs and his own tangential tales; Rosen coached professionally in the ’70s and ’80s, and, at one point in the book, admits he served as a weed hookup for an NBA team whenever it traveled to New York City. Colorful, sure, but unnecessary in a story capable of carrying its own weight.
Take the racism angle. Rosen believes race—specifically a need to “whiten-up the league”—played a crucial role in Richardson’s ban, suggesting the commissioner unfairly singled Sugar out when so many others were also guilty of drug abuse. Perhaps. The league’s racial divide is a very real issue. But going so far down this road in Sugar seems to excuse Richardson’s multiple failed drug tests and obvious need for help. Later, and much more dubiously, Rosen wonders if race or the league’s powerful Jewish owners somehow kept a now-clean Richardson from landing a coveted NBA coaching gig. He posits this just pages after writing about Richardson’s volatile and often violent behavior when coaching at lower levels. What NBA team is going to hire someone known to hit and choke his own players?
Too often the hot takes in Sugar get in the way of what is, on its own, a compelling story. There’s room for debate in whether the depth of Rosen’s reporting supports the veracity of his theories, but the primary question is why it’s even an issue. (We’ll also skip over the errors throughout, including numerous typos and one egregious reference to Heathcote’s Michigan Wolverines, a mistake akin to confusing Montana with Montana State.) Richardson is a fascinating subject. Rosen is a basketball-lifer who knows the game better than most. You’d think the author would realize when the right play is to simply put the ball in the hands of his star player and get out of the way.