EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Each member of the New Jersey Nets probably had his own way of dealing with the news earlier this week that star guard Micheal Ray Richardson, a three-time offender of the National Basketball Assn.'s drug policy, had been banned from the league for at least two seasons, more likely forever.
But to trainer Fritz Massman, who has seen many Net players come and go over the years, Richardson's departure apparently was no different than that of any other player who had been waived, traded or just cast adrift in the swampland surrounding the Meadowlands Arena.
As is his custom, Massman walked over to Richardson's deserted locker, slid the nameplate off the front and taped it to a wall in a back room, alongside the nameplates of all the other departed Nets.
Yes, Micheal Ray Richardson, the Nets' immensely talented but even more immensely troubled guard, is off the team again. This time, he probably will not return.
On Tuesday, Richardson became the first active NBA player to be banned from the league after he had tested positive for cocaine use for the third time since the 1983-84 season, when the league's drug policy went into effect.
Richardson, nicknamed Sugar, can apply for reinstatement in two years. But reinstatement is not automatic, and given his age, 30, many are saying that Richardson will never play another minute in the NBA.
Despite the bold headlines in the New York tabloids--"SUGAR FOULS OUT" proclaimed Newsday, and "BANNED FOR LIFE!" screamed the Daily News--this does not mark the end of Micheal Ray Richardson's tragic and bizarre story.
A once-flourishing basketball career may have been ruined by cocaine addiction, but it is clear that Richardson's problems go far beyond drug abuse and aren't easily dismissed.
By most accounts, this is a story of a naive, semiliterate person who came to New York in 1978 from the University of Montana, greatly unprepared for both life in a big city and the pressures of professional sports. He apparently just could not cope.
That, at least, is the view of Richardson's agent, Charles Grantham, who also serves as executive vice president of the NBA Players Assn. Sitting in his office overlooking Central Park Thursday afternoon, Grantham sadly shook his head and talked at length about Richardson's low self-esteem, his fits of depression, his other serious problems.
"Micheal Ray is not a unique case," Grantham said. "Here's a kid who, right out of college, was chased by agents, probably offered large sums of money by them, is approached by people with drugs to give him and really just finds himself in a different world.
"This isn't an excuse. Micheal Ray did this to himself. But when you look at it, I see a lot of potential Micheal Ray Richardsons out there. Not just in the pros now, but guys in college and high school."
Not many athletes who have experienced as many problems, drugs and otherwise, as Richardson stay in the NBA so long. That is a testimony to Richardson's outstanding talent, which prompted Boston's Larry Bird to say that Sugar was sweeter than any guard in the league, excluding Magic Johnson.
But when people review Richardson's eight-year career, which includes selection to the All-Star team three times and being voted comeback player of the year last season, they naturally tend to remember more about what happened off the court than on it.
Richardson has had five known stays in drug-rehabilitation centers since he first experimented with cocaine in 1978. He has also had a variety of domestic and financial crises.
Richardson divorced his first wife and recently had separated from his current wife. He also has had seven agents in five years and still finds himself deeply in debt to various creditors, including at least one of his former agents.
Just in the past few months, Richardson "has been a constant distraction to the team," Dave Wohl, the Nets' frustrated first-year coach said.
In late December, after his strange disappearance following a team Christmas party, Richardson entered a rehabilitation center, then eventually rejoined the team. In early February, Richardson missed a practice and could not be located. The league said he passed a drug test and was suspended for only one game by the Nets.
The situation reached the critical stage Feb. 20, when Richardson was arrested for trying to break into his Mahwah, N.J., home at 1 a.m. after his estranged wife, Leah, had gotten a court order barring him from the house.
The NBA, which had the right to administer Richardson's drug tests whenever it had reason to suspect resumed abuse, called for one Feb. 21, before the Nets left for a two-game trip. When the Nets returned Tuesday, Richardson was told that the test had been positive and that he had been banned.
At first, Richardson doubted the validity of the test, and Grantham sought another test. But Wednesday, Richardson admitted to his agent that he had again used cocaine and that he again needed help.