Continental divide

Adrian Wojnarowski
The Vertical
Yahoo! Sports
Born: April 11, 1955
Drafted: No. 4 overall by the Knicks out of Montana in 1978 (two picks ahead of Larry Bird)
Career: Set franchise regular-season records with the Knicks in 1979-80 with 10.1 assists and 3.2 steals per game. … Four-time All-Star (1980, '82, '82, '85). … Played eight seasons with Knicks, Warriors and Nets. … Led the NBA in steals three times in his eight seasons. … Given lifetime ban for drug problems by David Stern in 1986. … Averaged 13.9 points for 1988 CBA champion Albany Patroons. … Played the next 14 seasons in Europe.

ALBANY, N.Y. – Across his basement office in the Washington Avenue Armory, Micheal Ray Richardson is trying to understand the crisis his assistant has brought him on the morning of a game. Tell me again, the coach of the Albany Patroons asks, why the general manager is telling us we have to wear our home yellow tops with our away green shorts tonight?

"That don't match," Richardson tells Derrick Rowland, and his assistant is giving him that please, please, please don't kill the messenger look.

"You're telling me we don't have yellow shorts? From here out, we've got to wear green shorts every game?"

"Until we find another pair," Rowland says. "I'm just telling you what [general manager Jim Coyne] tells me."

Richardson throws up his hands. "Crazy," he says, and then he looks across his desk and gives you that look, as though this is what he's been trying to tell you for 20 minutes now.

Ex-Patroons took the gear with them, and ownership isn't replacing them because, well, this is the reality of the never-so-fledgling Continental Basketball Association. This is where Richardson, 51, had to come to be a pro coach two years ago.

All these years later, he still is impatient – a flurry of tics and stuttering and animation. All the way back when people declared him a worthy peer to Magic Johnson, when he gave the New York tabloids one of the great back pages upon declaring "The ship be sinkin' " about the 1981-82 New York Knicks, no one would've seen his Albany incarnation coming.

He drove coaches crazy, and broke hearts, and when he was delivered a lifetime ban for his drug addiction four years later, he was about the last character ever expected to return to pro ball with a clipboard and wingtips on the sidelines.

The Patroons gave him a shot to coach here, when no one else was offering, but Richardson isn't so flushed with gratitude on Wednesday morning. This day, it was the uniforms. Earlier in the season, ownership stopped letting his assistant, Rowland, travel with the team on the road – unless Richardson wanted to leave a player home.

"Unheard of!" Richardson barks in his office.

Twenty-one years past NBA commissioner David Stern's banishment, Richardson, the four-time All-Star who snorted away his Hall of Fame talent and whom they still call "Sugar," is getting worked up about life in the bush leagues.

"Everybody looking in on the outside thinks everything's rosy," he says. "Everything here is not rosy.

"When I took this job, I had two assistant coaches and 10 players. At the beginning of the year we were 12-3 and able to carry my coach around. Then all of a sudden, things changed. 'Either carry an assistant coach, or carry nine players.'

"This year, we're the only team – even Pittsburgh (5-32) is carrying an assistant coach on the road. Here he we are, fighting for the top position of our division and I can't have an assistant coach?"

At this point, the sign protecting the cold drinks in his office – "Take Notice: No one is allowed in this refrigerator except Micheal Ray Richardson," – has the feel of a last line of defense for him. Richardson stops himself and takes a deep breath. He has tried to make his stand in the minor leagues, but sometimes that can feel like the biggest losing cause of all.

Everyone told him to calm down this year, to ease back on his temper, and he thinks about it. The passing of his old buddy, Dennis Johnson, hit him hard, too. He's trying to keep all of that in mind, he swears.

"I'll do my job," Richardson says. "When it's over, it's over. I'll move on.

"I'm a survivor."

Richardson doesn't see himself returning to the Patroons next season. "Hard to see that," he confesses, adding that he hopes instead to rejoin his wife and two children in the south of France as some NBA team's European scout.

Between then and now, though, the Patroons are destined for the playoffs, a 21-14 record that trails first-place Minot by four points in the CBA's scoring system. There's been progress this season after a 20-28 debut, especially when too much of Richardson's rookie season found him storming past winning coaches without shaking hands, relentlessly berating his ball club and creating enough uncomfortable sideline circumstances that league and team officials had to talk to him in the offseason.

"I thought he was a little shaky the first year, but this year he's improved quite a bit," Coyne says.

Even so, you still get the idea that management wouldn't mind if Richardson moved on at season's end. It's a shame, too, because Coyne has had one of the great hiring touches in the history of basketball. The G.M.'s run in the 1980s included Phil Jackson, Bill Musselman and George Karl. And you wonder, if the greatest living pro coach, Jackson, ever would have been a basketball coach if Coyne hadn't been so persistent to hire him with the Patroons in 1982.

In the beginning, the plan was for this job to be Richardson's lottery ticket as well. After a decade and a half in Europe, playing ball into his mid-forties in Croatia, France and Italy, he cleaned himself up and came back.

Through it all, Stern has never lost track of Richardson's life. He always called the Richardson suspension the toughest thing he ever had to do in basketball, and he wanted to see him get his life together and get a second chance. Often, they still connect by phone.

"The commissioner's a compassionate man," Richardson says. "But I put him in that position, and he did what had to be done with me. At that time, it was the right choice for me because it saved my life. I did that to me – not him. But he has never turned his back on me."

Stern helped arrange for Richardson to get a community relations position with his hometown Denver Nuggets in 2003. Two years later, the Patroons were brought back as an expansion franchise in a post-Isiah-Thomas-destroyed CBA. Coyne remembered Richardson from when he played for Musselman in the Patroons' second championship season of 1987-88 and brought him back to coach the franchise.

Mostly, the big-name coaches and players are gone from the CBA now. Nevertheless, this is where Richardson had come for his shot, and this season, he hurt his standing with the franchise when he left the team for two games to work a fantasy camp in Las Vegas during the NBA's All-Star weekend (with – who else? – Darryl Dawkins). He had been the CBA's Coach of the Month in December, but that suddenly didn't mean much when, in his second straight season, he left his team to his assistant in February.

And shortly after, while Coyne was away on vacation, Richardson traded forward Eric Williams to Pittsburgh for Marvin Phillips.

"We talked about [that trade], and he pretty much assured me that it wasn't going to happen," Coyne says. "I went to the Bahamas for a week, and it happened."

He manages a laugh. "Now, only one person is authorized to make trades here."

And it's not Sugar. At the time, Coyne let everyone know that he didn't like getting undercut on a trade by his coach. In response, Richardson barked back to the Albany Times-Union, "This isn't the YMCA. Are you kidding me?"

Now, Coyne says, "It is the CBA and not the NBA. Micheal's got to focus more on that. All he has to do is ask Phil Jackson and George Karl. They've been through it all."

So Wednesday night at the Armory, Richardson has his newly hand-picked point guard, Kareem Reid, on the floor, and Reid is shredding those Indiana Alley Cats with lob dunk passes and deft drives to the basket. What's more, Reid kept finding that ill-gotten forward, Phillips, for basket after basket. At halftime, Coyne sensed the irony and laughed that crazy minor-league basketball laugh. This night had been a measure of vindication for his coach, and he knew it.

"Hey, looks like the old days here tonight," he says.

After the game, the first in weeks that Richardson had 10 players active, he bellows to the team's beat writer, "They still want to criticize my moves?"

And soon, Richardson has the last laugh on his way into a cold, upstate night. The Patroons are creeping closer to first place, and maybe the coach still is figuring out a way to make this job work for him, the way it did for those big names on his G.M.'s past watch.

"I'm a survivor," he says, and truth be told, there always seems to be one more run left in Micheal Ray Richardson.