UM’s Richardson Named One of Big Sky Conference’s 50 Greatest

By Beacon Staff

Whatever happened to Micheal Ray Richardson?

It’s a question often asked by basketball fans. Back in 2000, Chris Rock narrated a documentary aptly titled, “Whatever Happened to Micheal Ray?”

Hardcore fans remember the triple-doubles, the All-Star appearances, the time he led the New Jersey Nets to an upset of Julius Erving and the defending NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers in the 1984 playoffs.

Montana basketball fans remember the versatile, 6-foot-5 guard scoring 40 on the Montana State Bobcats. They remember the high-flying, defensive stalwart who scored 1,827 career points and was named Big Sky First Team All-Conference three times. Those are the reasons he ranks 31st on the list of the Big Sky’s “50 Greatest Male Athletes.”

Back in those days, Dahlberg Arena in Missoula rocked as more than 9,000 fans routinely packed the place, and the rowdy student section known as the “Zoo” cheered for “Sugar” Micheal Ray Richardson from 1975-78.

“There was a showman in him,” said former Idaho State basketball player Steve Hayes. “We didn’t get a lot of that in the Big Sky, but there was a lot of that in him. He was a talent. He could shoot, and he could take it to the hoop.”

Fans also remember his much-publicized substance-abuse issues, the ones that earned him a ban from the NBA in 1986.

The fast-lane lifestyle Richardson led in the early 1980s is long gone. He’s now a very successful coach, having led the London Lighting to back-to-back titles in the National Basketball League of Canada.

“This is the third year of our league and we won championships the first two years,” said Richardson, who lives in Oklahoma during the offseason. “I’ve been coaching the last eight years, and my teams have been in the finals all eight years. I’ve won championships in three different leagues.”

Richardson came to Montana from the ghettos of Denver, recruited by the legendary Jud Heathcote, and his assistant at the time, Jim Brandenburg.

“I had a couple of other offers,” Richardson said. “Jud came and visited me in Colorado. I came up to Montana, and they told me I would have a chance to play right out of high school. I went up there, and everything went really, really well for me.”

Richardson played as a freshman on the Montana team that beat Utah State and then narrowly lost to UCLA in the 1975 NCAA Tournament. Richardson scored 13 points in the win over Utah State, but was known much more for his defensive prowess that season.

“He was a very, very good defender,” said Eric Hays, a senior on the 1975 Grizzlies. “That’s how he got playing time. He would guard the other team’s best guard. His senior year, I was back in Missoula so I got to see him play a number of games. He was a much, much better player offensively at that time. It was kind of fun to see how he progressed.

Micheal Ray Richardson playing for the New York Knicks. Photo courtesy University of Montana.

“I was a great defender,” Richardson said. “I was a great driver to the basket and about a 42, 43 percent shooter from the field. As I got older, I shot the ball a lot better.”

Montana won the Big Sky regular-season title in Richardson’s senior season, but lost to Weber State in the Big Sky Championship game at Dahlberg Arena.

A few months later, Richardson was selected with the fourth overall pick by the New York Knicks. Larry Bird was tabbed two spots later by the Boston Celtics. No other Big Sky player has been drafted higher than Richardson, and only two others have been selected in the first round.

“It was a surprise,” Richardson said of his draft spot. “During my senior year, I was projected in the high second round. After the season I went to Hawaii and played in the Aloha Classic. I played unbelievable against all the big-time college players and moved up the draft.”

In his second season, he became the first player in NBA history to lead the league in steals and rebounds. Four times in eight years, he led the NBA in steals, a statistic not officially kept during his collegiate career. He was selected to the All-Defensive team twice, earned All-Star honors in 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1985. He averaged 14.8 points, 7.0 assists and 2.6 steals per game in his NBA career.

“Micheal Ray was a guy who played just like I played,” Magic Johnson once said. “Every time I saw him, he went right at me…and Micheal would always talk trash, too, the whole game.”

Richardson is now a very successful coach in Canada.

Following his banishment from the NBA, Richardson rebuilt his career in Europe. He played for several teams in Europe well into his 40s.

“I experienced the world,” he said. “What a way to live. I was in Italy, France, Romania, Russia, Poland, Portugal, Croatia, I was all over. That was a lifetime experience.”

NBA Commissioner David Stern, the man who issued the ban, ended up hiring Richardson. The two remain close, and Richardson has credited Stern with saving his life. Richardson worked for the NBA for two seasons, before spending two years with the Denver Nuggets as a community ambassador.

“I went out and spoke to kids about drugs and alcohol,” Richardson said. “Every year I and a guy I played with named Otis Birdsong go to about eight or nine kids at different camps, underprivileged kids. We educate kids about drugs and alcohol. I’m not going to be able to save all the kids, but I’ll be able to save some.”

Richardson is hopeful that he’ll someday land an NBA coaching gig, or maybe even a college job. He said he’s honored to be selected as one of the greats in Big Sky history.

“Anytime you can go and chase your dream and be one of he top 50, it’s great,” he said. “Over the years, there have been a lot of good basketball players in the Big Sky. I just really want to thank the University of Montana for giving me the opportunity to fulfill my dream.”

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