Casual NBA fans, especially those younger than 45, probably don’t remember Michael Ray Richardson. To hear he was the original Magic Johnson might make the youngsters think I’m talking about a streetball legend who never got his due because he was busy hustling the streets of Brooklyn (including myself when I was first told about him), but I’m talking about an honest to goodness NBA star who put up crazy numbers for the Knicks and Nets from 1978 to 1986 before his eventual lifetime ban for drug abuse.
For starters, saying “Sugar” was the first Magic does a disservice to his defense. Whereas Johnson let the other Lakers pick up his substantial slack on that side of the ball and played enough centerfield to get decent steals numbers without ever actually stopping somebody, Richardson was a one-man, turnover-forcing disaster for opponents, regularly leading the league in steals. As a 6-feet-5 point guard with immense quickness and phenomenal anticipation, he could smother smaller point guards and be an absolute nuisance for taller guards expecting a slower or smaller defender. He was named 1st Team All-Defensive NBA in both 1979-80 and 1980-81, and his steal averages of 3.2, 2.8, and 3.0 in 1979-80, 82-83, and 84-85 respectively were all league leaders. When he wasn’t at the top of the NBA in that category, he was still pulling in 2.9, 2.7, 2.6, 2.1, and 1.4 (as a rookie in 17 minutes per game).
But how about his offense? This is where the Magic Johnson comparisons come from. With a penchant for getting into the lane and creating a complete defensive collapse by the opponents, Richardson was one of the best. He was quicker to the hole than Magic, plus he was equally adept at scoring with a deceptive ball-over-head-leading-into-a-finger roll as he was passing off to a teammate. Playing next to guys who didn’t resemble Magic’s sidekicks in any way, Richardson made a living averaging 15 ppg and 7-plus apg each season, including a league-leading 10.1 apg in 1979-80 and top-10 averages three other times. By driving into the paint at full speed and still being under control enough to contort his body mid-air so that he flick a shot up to the rim under a defender’s attempt at a block or deftly pass off to an open teammate, his playmaking abilities were top-notch.
Richardson was also a pretty good rebounder for his position. He wasn’t pulling down 7 and 8-plus boards per game on occasion like Magic or Jason Kidd did, but he had a three-year stretch of 6.6, 6.9, 6.9, plus he pulled in over 5 per game his last two seasons.
The statistical results of all these skills were pretty special and extremely rare. Since he was drafted out of Montana (you heard that right) by the Knicks with the #4 pick in 1978, there have been 44 instances in which a player averaged 15 ppg and 10 apg in the same season, most regularly done by Magic Johnson (9 times), John Stockton (6 times), Steve Nash (5 times), Isiah Thomas (4 times), and Kevin Johnson (4 times). Richardson is on the list. Whittle it down with the additional qualifier of 6 rpg, and everyone falls off except for Johnson, Jason Kidd, and Richardson. Factor in steals and Richardson outdistances the other two by quite a bit. Go at it a slightly different way, and you’ll see that only Stockton’s 88-89 season matches up with Richardson’s 79-80 season when you’re looking for 15 ppg, 10 apg, and 3 spg, but this time Michael Ray’s rebounds far out-trump Stockton’s. The completeness of that one season was something quite unique.
If you look a little more liberally at seasons in which someone averaged 15 ppg, 7 apg, 6 rpg, and 2.5 spg, you got a short list. There’s two seasons of Magic’s, Jordan’s ridiculous 88-89 season, a couple Fat Lever years in the late-80’s when the Nuggets were re-inventing the fast break offense, and a trio of Richardson seasons. He has more than anyone. That’s how complete his game was.
His abilities were so well respected, the Lakers were reportedly willing to trade Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the 1982 playoffs (they won the title that year) in order to acquire Richardson as part of a multi-team trade. The Hall of Fame center’s scoring and rebounding averages the previous two seasons were 26-10 and 24-9, and he was still blocking nearly 3 shots a game. Plus LA already had the aforementioned Magic, yet they were still willing to part with their center to pick up Richardson.
I don’t want to get too much into Richardson’s drug situation that eventually pushed him out of the league, but he was one of the main players affected by the rampant cocaine use and abuse that destroyed many great talents in the 70’s and early-80’s. New commissioner David Stern got tough in 1986, and Richardson became the second player ever to receive a lifetime ban for failing three drug tests. Richardson became a vocal proponent against the NBA’s tough stance on cocaine while turning a blind eye to Chris Mullin’s serious alcohol issues at the same time, claiming there was a “double standard” since Mullin was white. After his early exit from the league at 30 years old, Richardson played a few years in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and the United States Basketball League, plus over a decade in Europe, finally retiring in 1999. He’s also had some controversial stints coaching in the CBA (berating refs, comments about Jews), but he’s now chiefly remembered for his lifetime ban and the immense talent that had people saying Magic could be the next Richardson.