For someone who was only in the NBA for eight seasons, Micheal Ray Richardson managed some pretty impressive feats.
He was the second player to lead the post-merger NBA in both steals and assists in the same season, since matched only by John Stockton and Chris Paul. He has the second-highest career steals per game average in NBA history and is one of only three players to lead the league in SPG three times; the others being Alvin Robertson, Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson. He was drafted two picks before Larry Bird, and as a draft pick or player was traded for Moses Malone, Tiny Archibald, Phil Jackson and Bernard King. After putting up 24 points and 6 steals in the series clincher against the reigning champion 76ers in 1984, he averaged 20.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 8.2 APG and 3.0 SPG while starting every game in the 1984-85 season.
Yet what Micheal Ray Richardson is most remembered for is his drug abuse and subsequent lifetime ban from the NBA.
The 1980s saw a number of New York-area athletes battle with cocaine, but while LT and Doc and Dwight are the scandals that endure, Richardson may have lost more than any of them. A 6’5” PG, he should have been entering his prime in 1986 but instead “Sugar Ray” exited the NBA for good after repeatedly violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
David Stern didn’t really kick me out. If I didn’t do what I did, I’d have kept playing in the NBA. I was only out of the league because of myself. But sometimes, something drastic happens, like what David Stern did, and it wakes you up. In my case, that was a wakeup that helped save my life.
While Micheal Ray Richardson was definitely a difference-maker when he was on the court, it was this expulsion that had perhaps the biggest impact on the Nets franchise. The Nets were in the midst of their fifth straight playoff season when David Stern made his ruling. They finished that year 39-43, their first losing season since 1981, and were swept out of the playoffs in the first round. Needing a point guard to the fill the void left by Richardson’s abrupt departure, the Nets picked Pearl Washington in the first round of the 1986 draft. The following season they plummeted to 24-58, and it would be 15 years before the Nets next won a playoff series.
It’s hard to say what Micheal Ray Richardson could have been if he’d been able to control his demons. Arguably more versatile than any PG east of Magic Johnson, he was a unique talent and quite possibly the best point man in Nets history until Jason Kidd arrived. He was only with the Nets for parts of four seasons, but that time coincided with the most success the franchise would experience in the decades between Dr. J’s departure and J-Kidd’s arrival. For a franchise with a history filled with what-ifs, Micheal Ray Richardson’s failure to fulfill his immense potential stands as one of the most tantalizing and painful unrealized outcomes.