The old NBA player walked into the high school gymnasium for his first day of work Monday night wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers' long-sleeved T-shirt and practice shorts. The gym at Trimble Tech High in Fort Worth, Texas, hardly resembled the packed 18,000-seat arenas in which he used to play. On this night he wouldn't be matched up with Kobe Bryant(notes) or Michael Jordan – only unheralded former small-college stars. No more charter flights or Four Seasons suites. These days, it's Best Westerns and long bus rides.
This is where 38-year-old Isaiah "J.R." Rider now finds himself, preparing for his first season with the North Texas Fresh, one of more than 50 teams in the American Basketball Association. Sixteen years ago, Rider was the fifth overall pick of the NBA draft, a promising rookie for the Minnesota Timberwolves who would go on to win the All-Star dunk contest. Nearly two decades of self-inflicted drama and personal pain – including several arrests and a 3½-month stay in jail – have now dropped Rider to the low minor leagues, desperate to revive his career and rewrite a different ending to his troubled story.
"I still have it in me," Rider told Yahoo! Sports. "I still have something left in the tank. It's still in my blood. My juices still flow.
"I know I can still ball."
No one ever doubted Rider could play. He showed flashes of being a dynamic scorer and his acrobatic dunks brought crowds to their feet. During his nine-year stay in the NBA, he averaged 16.8 points while making stops in Minnesota, Portland, Atlanta, Los Angeles (Lakers) and Denver.
"I look on a lot of NBA courts today and I still don't see guys with the talent he had," said Washington Wizards vice president Tommy Sheppard, who worked in Denver for Rider's brief stay. "He wasn't the best ball-handler. But he scored in bunches and was an unstoppable force."
Of course, wherever Rider went, chaos usually followed. He was repeatedly late to practices, meetings and games. He was convicted of kicking a female manager of a sports bar and busted for possession of marijuana and an illegal cell phone. He spit on a fan. He quarreled with management, coaches and teammates, once threatening Atlanta Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo(notes).
Rider, who grew up in Alameda, Calif., even once missed a meeting with the Oakland mayor that would have led to the city naming a gym after him and opening up a midnight basketball program in his honor.
"I'm upset that my career didn't go as long as it should have went," Rider said. "Looking back at it, I would have changed some things."
Rider spent his last full NBA season with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2000-01. He was left off the playoff roster, but still received a championship ring.
"J.R. was the type of player who wanted to do things his way, and if his way didn't match with the system sometimes there was a conflict," Shaquille O'Neal(notes) said. "Whenever you go to a new team, you have to go with that system. If you don't go with that system, then they oust you. He was a hell of a player and if he would have been a system-type baller then he'd probably still be here today."
Rider's NBA career ended in the fall of 2001 when the Denver Nuggets waived him after just 10 games. "It was because of chronic lateness," Sheppard said. "The talent was undeniable. But we had structure. … That's where all the bad habits came together. The Nuggets were in no position to take that, even with his talent at that time."
After the Nuggets cut him, Rider was certain another NBA or overseas team would eventually give him a chance. Nothing materialized.
"I thought they were trying to politic me out [the NBA]," Rider said.
After returning to the East Bay, Rider's life went from bad to worse. His mother, Donna, suffered a heart ailment and – after what Rider claims was a misdiagnosis – slipped into a coma and eventually was taken off life support. Rider considered Donna his best friend. Once, after Rider was ejected during a game in Minnesota, she walked onto the court, told him to be quiet and ushered him to the locker room.
"We were talking one day looking out at the ocean from the house I got for her in Alameda," Rider said. "Then the next day I get a call at 2 in the morning saying she is in the hospital. I never talked to her again, man.
"I was blaming myself because I'm not playing and she's used to going to games. I was like, 'Screw the world.' "
In early 2006, Rider was arrested in Marin, Calif., on a domestic-violence charge after allegedly driving off with a former girlfriend against her will. Ordered to stay away from the community, he drove into another car after a sheriff's deputy tried to confront him. His substance-abuse problems worsened after he began to lace marijuana with cocaine. Rider eventually pled guilty to several charges, including felony cocaine possession and evading an officer. He received a seven-month sentence in Marin County jail, and says he served half the time.
"It was the ultimate low point of my life," Rider said. "…There were no visitors. No one down for me. No letters. I had fake friends. They left me for dead. I've been there for so many people. I co-signed to pay for homes. I paid for weddings. But when I was struggling, no one was there for me."
Jail didn't cure Rider's problems. In January 2008, he was arrested in Berkeley, Calif., after a confrontation with a taxi driver while also possessing an unlawful firearm and being hit with a $5,000 warrant for grand theft. A drug arrest followed two months later. In March 2008, he was arrested on Los Angeles' skid row for investigation of auto theft before being released later in the day. He says the car belonged to his cousin.
"I regret it," Rider said about his problems. "I wish I could have it back. … I had to face and go through all of that to just get to this point now."
Thomas Brown, a deputy district attorney for Marin County, and Rider's lawyer, Garrick Lew, both say Rider made a lot of his problems worse by not following through with court requirements. As in most areas of his life, tardiness was a main problem.
"He couldn't get out of his own way," Brown said. "He would be able to resolve a felony or misdemeanor with fairly minimal diversion obligation and couldn't do that at all. There were always excuses. But personally, people wanted to see him succeed. He just couldn't do it and the courts got sick of it."
Lew said Rider has since fulfilled all his legal obligations.
"Most of the trouble he got in was from not going to court," Lew said. "It upset the judge. His bail would go up when he failed to do what he was expected to do."
Not surprisingly, Rider also ran into financial problems. The Marin Independent Journal reported that Rider lost his mother's home in Alameda to foreclosure in 2006 and also lost two properties in San Leandro, Calif., and several cars. Lew said Rider also paid for his sister to complete a master's degree program and helped support two brothers.
So how is Rider doing financially now?
"That's not public," Rider said. "That's no one's business whether I drive my Bentley to practice or ride with one of the coaches. I'm able to eat, able to feed myself and feed my family."
Rider, who now claims to be drug-free, said he began to turn his life around at the start of the year by attending church. He also reunited with a former girlfriend, Vanessa Cassidy. Rider and Cassidy dated while he was playing for the Lakers. Six months ago, she convinced him to leave the troubles of the Oakland area behind and move with her to Phoenix. The couple is now engaged and she is pregnant with a boy to be named Isaiah Rider III. Cassidy also is staying with Rider in Texas as he plays for the Fresh.
"It's been only her and that's it," Rider said of his main supporters. "Her and God. It seemed like everybody else, and I say this not mad at anybody, left me for dead in that support group. All the friends I used to have are not there. Arn Tellem, the agent I started with, won't answer the phone. Personal friends in Oakland, those friendships ran dry. I have quite a few associates, but very few close friends."
Hoping to restart his career, Rider contacted Joe Lee, a Washington-based agent who represents several players in the minor leagues and overseas. Lee, who has a law-enforcement background, was skeptical of Rider's sincerity.
"I gave him a test to see if he'd be on time calling me back and to see if he'd do the things I wanted him to do," Lee said. "And we went on for about two good weeks and he was on time all the time."
Rider's goal is to eventually land an overseas contract that could potentially pay upwards of $20,000 a month. Lee said teams in China and Dubai have expressed some interest, but all want to see him playing first. The hope is that the Fresh afford him the opportunity to compile some video evidence.
A 90-minute face-to-face meeting with Rider convinced Fresh owner Jay Bowdy to sign him. "I understand that he's made mistakes, he had his chance and he flunked on it for whatever reason," Bowdy said. "But the reason why I took him is because unless you mess up with me and I see it … then I'm not going to not accept you because of what you did 10 years ago. That's a long time and there's so much you can learn from your experience from that."
Bowdy, 26, said Rider will be one of the two highest-paid players and the Fresh also are providing him with an apartment. But that doesn't mean Rider will be banking much money. Sixty percent of the pay for players and coaches, Bowdy said, comes from each night's merchandise and ticket sales. The team will practice and play its home games in a high school gym and practices are scheduled at night so players with day jobs can attend.
"Just give me a gym with a nice floor and I'm good," Rider said. "It's a long way from practicing at [Trail Blazers owner] Paul Allen's house in Seattle, but it's still good though."
Rider also thinks he's still good enough to prove he can at least play overseas, where he could land a better contract.
"Money is green everywhere," he said. "I have a gift and I feel like I got to do what I got to do. God gave me a gift, and I feel like I should be able to play basketball for as long as I possibly can."
Rider still has dreams he can make it back to the NBA. Most NBA general managers see his chances as just that: a dream. One Eastern Conference executive said it would be "almost impossible" for Rider to earn another job in the league at his age.
Rider needs to work on his conditioning, but Bowdy said he is only about 10 pounds over his NBA playing weight of 215. He also liked what he saw from Rider's first practice. The first game for the Fresh is Nov. 22.
"He still has his tenacity and no-lose attitude," Bowdy said. "I was impressed. I will be scared to see what he does to my players when's he's in shape."
Just two months ago, Rider claims he pulled off his famed "East Bay Funk Dunk" that won him the 1994 dunk contest. He says he did so in a park. While wearing jeans. The video of the dunk he provided, however, makes it questionable, at best, whether the rim was the regulation 10 feet.
Still, Rider remains undeterred. "I'm the best player in the world not playing," he said.
For now, Rider has pledged to stay out of trouble and continue working toward his goal. In addition to playing for the Fresh, he's nearly finished filming a documentary about his life. The film will focus on Rider's struggles after he left the NBA. Only one part of the documentary is left to be shot.
Somewhere in an old gym in North Texas, Isaiah Rider continues to search for the right ending.