Rosen, Charley. Sugar: Michael Ray Richardson, Eighties Excess, and the NBA. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 2018. Pp. 192. $24.95 hardcover and ebook.
Reviewed by Cat Ariail
During his tumultuous tenure as general manager of the New York Knicks, Phil Jackson often appeared to air his grievances, including the infamous ones against Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony, through Charley Rosen, a sportswriter then with FanRag Sports who has co-authored multiple books with Jackson. With Sugar: Michael Ray Richardson, Eighties Excess, and the NBA, Rosen voices his own grievances against the NBA.
Rosen argues that Michael “Sugar Ray” Richardson’s basketball life “mirror[s] what was (and still is) wrong with not only the NBA but also with many aspects of American culture. To wit: racism, anti-Semitism, selective justice, drug abuse, sexism, macho-bred immaturity, the lack of personal responsibility for misdeeds, and the mindless adoration of celebrities,” (10). While correctly identifying that Richardson’s experiences could serve as an insightful window into social ills that inflicted the NBA in 1980s, Rosen, who is now an NBA analyst with FOXsports.com, unevenly executes his intentions. More often than not, Rosen uses Richardson’s story to offer his own opinions about the problems with the organization and culture of the modern NBA.
Among the largely irrelevant, if still entertaining, asides that Rosen includes are: his criticisms of the high pick and roll that characterizes contemporary NBA offenses, the “bogus” Most Valuable Player award and “dubious” Coach of the Year award (which Jackson only won once), and the “unmitigated disaster” that has been Isaiah Thomas’s coaching and management career (a correct assessment). However, along with the many random peeves and preferences shared, it is clear that Rosen has sincere sympathy for Richardson. Late in the book, Rosen writes, “If it was easy to get angry with Richardson, it was impossible to dislike him,” (124). After reading of Richardson’s improbable basketball journey, one likely will agree.
Born in Lubbock, Texas, Richardson played high school basketball in Denver, where he, his mother, two brothers, and three sisters moved after his father left the family. Although an overlooked prospect as a 6’3’’ forward at Manuel High School, Richardson eventually would thrive as quick, explosive guard at the University of Montana in Missoula. In the 1978 NBA draft, the Knicks selected him with the fourth overall pick. After struggling in a reserve role as a rookie, Richardson established himself as one of the league’s best guards during his sophomore season. However, following his third season, Richardson did not return to Denver to again work on his game, instead choosing to stay in New York and indulge in the city’s offerings. Already known for enjoying the spoils of stardom, Richardson began regularly using cocaine, a habit he would struggle to abandon. Following two more less than stellar seasons in New York, Richardson was traded to Golden State before he then was dealt back east to the New Jersey Nets.
After a summer of shenanigans in New York, Richardson was suspended without pay at the start of the 1983-84, resulting in multiple stints in league-mandated rehab programs. Richardson resumed play at midseason, putting up middling numbers for a 45-37 Nets squad. However, Richardson then fueled a seemingly improbable playoff run, with the Nets defeating the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers in a first round series before falling to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games. Richardson maintained his strong play through the next season, winning the NBA’s Comeback Player of the Year award. Yet, his off-court struggles returned the following season, jeopardizing his basketball career.
In February 1986, Richardson received the “Death Sentence,” with his third failed drug test resulting in banishment from the NBA. Richardson then became a basketball vagabond, playing in some of Europe’s best, as well as less than best, leagues, along with stints in the United States Basketball League (USBL) and Continental Basketball Association (CBA) in the States. Remarkably, Richardson continued to hoop until age forty-seven, despite continued to struggles with substance abuse. Seemingly even more remarkably, Richardson established himself as a successful coach in the CBA. After assuming head coaching duties for the Albany Patroons during the 2005-06 season, he returned as head coach the following season until a homophobic, anti-Semitic outburst resulted in his dismissal. The expansion Oklahoma City Calvary, however, soon hired Richardson. He led them to back-to-back titles before the CBA ceased operations after the 2008-09 season. The Calvary then joined the Premier Basketball League (PBL), where Richardson continued to lead them to success until the franchise folded in the spring of 2011. Richardson, however, had redeemed himself in the eyes of NBA, welcomed back into the league as a director of youth basketball camps in India, Indonesia, and Africa in 2016.
Because of his sympathy for Richardson, Rosen offers a justifiably stinging critique of the role of racism in causing much of the tumult that troubled Richardson’s career, situating his experiences in context with the league’s historic tendency to privilege what scholar Yago Colás has called the “white basketball imaginary.” Rosen details incidences past and present, unapologetically calling out the Boston Celtics’ historic penchant for white players and the Golden State Warriors’ firing of Mark Jackson. He particularly criticizes the racial biases that inflected the policies and practices of former NBA commissioner David Stern, quoting HBO’s Real Sports’s Bryant Gumbel, who once asserted that Stern “has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation owner treating NBA men as if they were his boys,” (79).
In regard to Richardson’s experiences, Rosen argues that Stern’s effort to address drug use among players, black and white, involved identifying the problem with only black players. Drawing on the self-reported experiences of Richardson and teammate Darryl Dawkins, Rosen suggests the league organized a sting operation against Richardson in December 1986, setting him up with a vivacious blonde with a supply of cocaine after the team Christmas party. Rosen further asserts that Richardson, in receiving the “Death Sentence,” served as the designated fall guy, designed to deter other players, especially other white players, from abusing substances. As Richardson told Rosen, “I was a punk-ass kid from nowhere, so the NBA thought I was expendable. There’s a double-standard in the league. Believe me, when I got kicked out, all of them white druggies threw away their pipes and got clean in a hurry. The NBA got exactly what they wanted. There’s no question in my mind that there was a double standard,” (73).
However, while Rosen recognizes that the structural racism of the NBA reflected and reinforced that of American society, he also advances racialized criticisms of Richardson, other black players, and the NBA at large. Rosen himself appears swayed by a certain version of the so-called “white basketball imaginary,” repeatedly arguing for the importance of stoic, steady, and presumably white patriarchal leadership in the lives of young black men swayed by the supposed excesses of NBA life. Rosen relies on uncited sociological research that reads as a modernized Moynihan Report to justify his contention that the absence of a father figure explains many of the struggles of Richardson and his contemporaries. Rosen details Richardson’s relationship with his myriad of coaches, seeing Richardson’s various clashes with coaches as indicative of his unending search for a father figure. Rosen offers praise for those coaches who balanced the execution of their authority with respect for Richardson’s charismatic personality. In short, Rosen seems to believe that a Phil Jackson-like figure better could have steered Richardson’s career.
Rosen’s racialized insensitivity is exemplified by the moments when he chooses to recreate Richardson’s episodes of drug-fueled womanizing. He appears to delight in describing the ostensible excesses of Richardson. For instance, Rosen writes of Richardson, “Yeah, so he took a certain relish in f***ing white chicks. Besides, unlike many of the greedy hellcat sisters he’d been with, no white chick ever called him “n*****,” (7). Such statements not only engage in racial voyeurism, but also participate in the objectification of women. As such, these descriptions only detract from his work. Nonetheless, some of his other discussions are worthy of consideration. In light of the recent Supreme Court ruling that will open the way for the expansion of sports gambling, Rosen’s chapter on the history of point shaving in the NBA proves illuminating. His discussion of the history of fighting in the league likewise is interesting.
But these positives do not outweigh the book’s shortcomings. Rosen’s biases overburden his story. The potential power of an analysis of Richardson’s experiences, especially as a window into race in the NBA, remains unfulfilled. Scholars interested in such an exploration should stick to Yago Colás’s Ball Don’t Lie: Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball. David Halberstam’s seminal works on the NBA, The Breaks of the Game and Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, also offer better contextualized perspectives of the NBA.
Cat Ariail received her PhD in history from the University of Miami. Her dissertation, “Sprints of Citizenship: Black Women Track Stars and the Making of Modern Citizenship in the United States and Jamaica, 1946-1964,” analyzes how black women track athletes illuminate the re-thinking of the raced and gendered boundaries of citizenship in the postwar era. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.