Monday, April 16, 2007

where they are today - Roland Houston

There was a time when Haifa was a basketball city, the days before Geovani Roso and Yaniv Katan (Maccabi Haifa soccer players), when a game between Hapoel and Maccabi – derby, Karmel style - would bring a lot of passion, excellent basketball and extreme tension. Days which Roland Houston still misses. "The derbys were complete madness, I really loved it and it saddens me to hear that it has all gone. I feel sorry for the basketball in the city and the Israeli league as a whole", says the player that was the icon of the Haifa scene, and regarded until to day as one of the best foreign players ever landed in Israel.

Today, at the age of 45, Houston serves as an assistant coach in George Washington university in the US capitol, and takes pride of the young talents he developed. "I worked with Rasul Butler from Miami Heat and with Steven Smith and Pops Mensah-Bonso who will be NBA players in the future. Before I started my coaching career, I tried my luck as a player's agent and even went back to Israel to follow some young local talents. But after a short while I realized that its not for me. You can't trust no body in this business".

His lack of trust in the basketball officials already started during the end of this five years Israeli career. Five years, all of them as Hapoel Haifa's player – a leading force in Israeli basketball of those days. Five years which he see as the best of his 14 years as a basketball player. "I left Hapoel Haifa in 1990, after I injured my ankle. After five great years with the team, it was an uneasy breakup, and I left in bad note. A lot of it because of the owner, Yaacov Schlesinger".

It seems that even now, 15 years after he left, Houston still mad about Schlesinger, who invested a lot of money on the team, but was also the first sign of its collapse in the early eighties. "He (Schlesinger) and his right hand, Yossi Livne, ruined the team, which was so close to win the championships in 1989. we had a great team with Jim Jusevic and Guy Goodes and all I wanted is to build on this success and maybe even beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in the year after. Unfortunately, Schlesinger wanted to do everything fast and this is not the way you build a basketball team".

To beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in the playoffs is something a lot of import players fantasize of, but Houston was one crazy shot from actually doing it, in the 1989 semi-final series. It was LaVon Mercer who scored this crazy basket at the buzzer, and ended Hapoel Haifa's season and lead the way to another Maccabi Tel Aviv championship. Houston was the only big man who could cope with former yellows' star, the late Kevin Magee. "I believed we can beat Maccabi and we almost did it" he remembers, "I wanted to be a part of the first team that takes the title from Maccabi and we were very close. It was like David against Goliath".

"I knew they were a good team, but I was confident of myself and of the possibility of beating them. Nobody believed we can do it, but every time we played them I found out that we can beat them. I also knew that they respected us and they knew we could beat them. When we lost after Mercer's shot, it drained us emotionally. It hurt so bad because I gave everything I had and we still missed it. When I look back, I think I can be satisfied because I know I gave it all and well represented Hapoel Haifa and the city. That's the most imported thing in sports".

So Hapoel Haifa lost in the end, and after several years it went bankrupt from its assets and its status at the top of Israeli basketball. That said, Houston assumes that the challenge he and his teammates presented to Maccabi, gave Pini Gershon and Hapoel Galil Eliyon the faith, five years later, that they can beat the perennial champions in 1993 – Something that looked impossible before that series with against Hapoel Haifa.

"The great series we had made teams believe they can beat Naccabi", claims Houston, "When Galil Eliyon actually did it, I'm sure they learned from us. Its just a shame we were not able to do it ourselves, and that is Schlesinger's fault. He waived Jusevic and brought other players who ruined the team chemistry and its building process. He actually destroyed the team with his own hands and with the help of Livne. This lawyer made a lot of money out of me, but when I needed him the most, shook me off. He worked for the players as well for Schlesinger, which resulted are own demise".

It's no coincidence, that one of the few questions Houston still knows how to ask in Hebrew is "eifo ha'kessef sheli?" (where is my money?), a question he was forced to ask over and over again when he was in Israel. When Houston hears about the current owner of Hapoel Haifa (that was united with Ramat Hasharon) – Miki Berkowitz, he is assured that the team will be managed in a better way than with Schlesinger and his kind. "Miki is a professional, who knows the business of basketball from close and he will know how to run it properly".

Berkowitz is one of those players that Houston learned to appreciate over his years in Israel and it seems that a lot of them still have special part of his past. "I had a chance to play against great players in Israel", he says, "In my time, it was a terrific strong league and I'm very sorry to hear it became uncompetitive and that the Israeli talents are leaving it. I remember Magee, and Earl Williams as well as Doron Shefa, Doron Jamchi, Adi Gordon and Haim Zlotikman, who played with me in Haifa. I'm really proud of Goodes, because of his career as a player and coach. You can say I actually raised him since he was a 16 years old kid and until he became a great player and a winner with Maccabi".

Houston also stayed close to the common people of Israel and keeps getting updated all the time about the Middle East's politics, which still interest him, even now in the US, "I loved the people, I loved going to eat fish in Tiberius and spending vacations in Eylat".

"I loved the Israeli experience, even talking about politics. I remember that I was caught up twice in a suspicious object events in the Karmelit subway, and it helped me understand how come the Israeli people can be so nice, but so aggressive at the same time. That time already, I knew it would be very hard to achieve peace and unfortunately, it seems I was right, although I keep praying for your sake and the world's that it will happen eventually. You deserve that. I have a lot of friends in Israel, I had fun there and I got a lot of support from the fans, especially in Haifa".

- photos courtesy of George Washington University Athletics

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

where they are today - Micheal Ray Richardson

If there are any Israeli teams out there who are interested in a coach, what about the following candidate: As a player he has a reach background of eight seasons in the NBA, four of them as an allstar. In the beginning of the eighties who was arguably the best passer in America and one of the best defensive players around. You can also add 15 successful years in Europe to this respectable record.

After he retired at the age of 46, Larry Brown offered him to join the New York Knicks as his assistance, but instead he serves as the head coach of the Albany Patroons of the CBA – you can laugh about it, but it's the same team where Phil Jackson, another Knicks ex-player, started his coaching career. He split his time between France and the USA, so you can say he is familiar with the European scene. You can say he also acquainted with the Israeli scene. OK, He was here as a player twenty years ago. Today, he'll be happy to be back as a coach. Wouldn't you want Micheal Ray Richardson as your coach?
"It wouldn't be a bad idea to hire me as a coach, and in any case I would be happy to come back to Israel and work for one of the teams, whether it will be Maccabi Tel Aviv or any other team" say Richardson, an American citizen living in the French Riviera, who have troubles getting acclimated to the cold winter in frozen Albany, in upstate New York (Where he works with his assistant coach, former Hapoel Givatayim star, Derrick Rawland). "Obviously, my biggest ambition is to work in the NBA and actually I was invited by Larry Brown to join his staff last year, but it didn't go through. Unfortunately, Isiah Thomas was not interested in my services".

So Brown's dismissal disrupted Richardson's effort to comeback to the team, where he starred as a player in his first four years in the NBA. Maybe it was even the rivalry between him and Thomas as players in the early eighties. The two were among the best guards back then and even cooperated twice in the 1982 and 1985 all-stars game.

Overall, Richardson (who is known as Sugar Ray), appeared in four all-star games during his prolific NBA career, which presents overwhelming statistics: 14.8 points, 7 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.6 steals a game. Hard to imagine but young Richardson was really one of the players in the NBA back then. He was picked for the top defensive team twice and lead the league in steals four times. He even lead the league in assists once, in 1980 (10.1 asst. per game).

Despite of his achievement in the NBA, eight years after he was picked forth by the Knicks in the 1978 draft (before Larry Bird, former Hapoel Tel Aviv Purvis Short and former Maccabi Tel Aviv Mike Mitchell), and managed to play for New Jersey and Golden State in the meantime, Richardson found himself in the holy land. Hapoel Ramat Gan, a declining elite team during that time, brought him in 1986 in order to help her compete for the championship against Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Hapoel Tel Aviv…Maccabi Tel Aviv…The Israeli come Richardson got to the middle-east basketball swamp, while he is in his prime, at the age of 31? The older basketball fans between us probably know the answer. Richardson was tested positive for cocaine and was suspended from the NBA and was asked to never come back – it was as unprecedented punishment, that marked the fight of then newly appointed commissioner David Stern against drugs use among the players.

And so, some months after he was outcast in his homeland, Richardson went on looking for a place to continue his magnificent career. One day the phone rang at his home. "Hi, my name is Avraham Hemo from Israel" presented himself the man on the line. It was the legendary coach and manager of Hapoel Ramat Gan, a veteran in basketball, whom also worked as a police officer. Hemo thought that under his supervision, Richardson will be able to restart his career and who knows…even to bring a title to Hapoel Ramat Gan.

"All I wanted was a chance to keep on playing basketball and the moment the opportunity came, I jumped on it right away" Richardson explains, "I wasn't afraid coming to Israel because I visited the country twice before as a member of the Nets that came for an exhibition game, and as a part of an American stars team that went there on a tour".

Richardson might not been afraid coming to Israel, but it seems Israel sure was afraid of him. As soon as the news arrived, they alarmed the late Kneset member Micha Reiser from the Likud party, whom demanded to discus the issue of the "drug-addict American played" coming to Israel. The head of the sport and education comity, Pinhas Goldstein, accepted Reiser's demand and attacked the team's decision to bring such a "non-educational figure". "Is a player that was suspended from the NBA because of drug abuse should find his place in Israel?" Goldstein wondered.

But not only politicians were afraid from the consequences of Richardson's involvement in the Israeli basketball league, the rival teams also didn't know how to accept the super-star that just landed in Ben Gurion airport and was welcomed with a barrage of slander. "It's a shameful disgrace that Richardson is coming to Israel" said Miki Berkovic, the leading star of Maccabi Tel Aviv and local basketball scene. It looked like Richardson signing with Hapoel Ramat Gan changed the balance of power between Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Ramat Gan and the other teams.

Although his coming to Israel sparked a public debate, Hemo and Hapoel union decided to stand behind Richardson. The coach even guaranteed that the player will stay clean under his supervision, an obligation that didn't manage to ease the tension. "I didn't read the papers and wasn't paying much attention to the things people say around me. All that I cared about was playing basketball again and the way that I can contribute to my new team. That's why I went there", claims Richardson who can't understand what was all the commotion about and how it got to the corridors of the Kneset.

Richardson probably tried to ignore the storm around him, but it didn't prevent the Kneset Comity from assemble in order to discuss his case. But eventually the issue never raised up in the meeting. Just when things started to boil, former FIBA president, Bora Stankovic, announced that there is no official document which indicates that Richardson was released from a amateur team from Denver, where he used to play. That's why, Stankovic explained, Richardson is forbidden from joining Hapoel Ramat Gan or any other team in Europe.

That’s how Richardson was prevented from taking part in Hapoel Ramat Gan as a player, because of spooky bureaucratic unclear reasons until further notice. The Hapoel union was forced to accept FIBA ruling and so was Hemo, whom wished the suspension is temporary. In the meantime he decided to keep Richardson around as an assistant coach. That was the first coaching experience of the future coach. Now he can even appreciate, but all he wanted back then was just to play ball and the true reason that it didn't happen eventually was because of Maccabi Tel Aviv, which had troubles accept the presence of the player and the threat it posed to its dominance.

"I was clean for eight years and I was determined to make the right decision in order to come back and play basketball" Richardson recalls, "The reason I wasn't given a chance is not connected to drugs or bureaucracy. The real reason was Maccabi Tel Aviv that had connection with FIBA. They probably felt threaten that they wouldn't manage to make me fail a drug test, so they use their influence with FIBA and managed to suspend me with un-serious excuses".

- Did Maccabi had a reason o be afraid?
"Of course. I believe that with me on the court, we could beat them and take the championships. If only they would have let me play, it was very hard to stop me. They were afraid, and they had a good reason to feel that way. But it's a shame that they acted in that way, although I would say this things happens everywhere. There are teams with a lot of power and influence and they use it to keep their supremacy".

Although he was forced to accept the ruling and understood he can't play until a final decision taken in his case, Richardson stayed in Israel and kept on working as Hemo's assistant. "It was fun and I learned a lot, but it was also hard to watch your teammates from the bench. You know that you are not injured and have no problem to play and you have this urge to step in, you want to help, but you are prevented from doing so", he recalls.

So what kept Richardson in Israel? Maybe it was the fondness of the country and it's people, maybe the expectation that someone from FIBA will make things right and fix the ill ruling in his case and maybe it was the relationship with Hemo. "I have a lot of respect for Avraham, he is a great person. He new basketball, but most of all he respected me as a human being and believed in me, something that shouldn't be taken for granted considering the tough situation I was in. He took me under his wing and gave me a chance after all".

Six months after he arrived to Israel, Richardson went back to the US, leaving behind him some bitter people. Apparently, Hapoel Haifa offered him a nice contract in order to get him for the following season, assuming the procedural problems will be solved until then. In the end the problem was solved, but it happened only after Richardson went to Italy and signed with Virtus Bologna in 1988.

"I'm aware that people said that I took money and left the country, but the thing was I got advanced payments from Hapoel Haifa that wanted me for next season. After I decided to sign in Italy, I needed to pay back the money, and that what I did eventually. I left Israel in good spirit and with a lot of love to the country".

The suspension removed, Richardson started starring on Italy's basketball courts, but his un-erasable drug abuse sheet kept on affecting his career. Under FIBA's instructions, Richardson had to be tested for drugs on regular basis so it can be assured that he is not using that anymore. One test almost got him suspended for life after it came out positive.

When the news about his looming suspension in Italy got to Israel, Hemo was asked if it's possible the player used drugs when he was in Israel. "He was completely clean with me", declared Hemo, and Richardson assures he was right. "Even though there were rumors, I stopped using drugs after I was kicked out of the NBA. I was totally clean in Israel as well in Italy. There was a misunderstanding that was cleared out and the fact is that I continued playing".

Richardson kept on playing for Bologna, which he lead to winning the cup holders European cup in 1990 with 29 points in the final against Real Madrid. Two years after that he starred for former European champions Yugoplastika Split in the post Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja era. With his Croatian team, he finally got a chance to play against Maccabi Tel Aviv in Yad Eliyahoo arena and put on a show with 30 points (4-4 from three points range), 6 rebounds and 5 assists – which didn't helped preventing the 85:95 defeat in the end. Doron Jamchi, who was "the best Israeli player" according to Richardson, scored 31 points for Maccabi.

In the end of that season, he came back to Italy and played two years in Livorno side by side with Wendell Alexis, future Maccabi Tel Aviv player. After that he went to the French Riviera beaches, and grouped in Olympique Antibes with another Maccabi star, Lee Johnson. That's where he met his wife and retried from basketball in 2001, after two more stints with Cholet in France and Foreli in Italy. "There is a time when you feel your body can't keep up with it anymore. When my time had come to feel that way, I retired. There weren't too many hesitations".

After he retired in the age of 46, and even though he started a new family (Richardson had five children, two from his current wife) and built himself new life in France, he went back to the US, where he became a mythological figure. Back at home, two producers Larry Weizman and Jim Podhoretz put his story in a film "What ever happened to Micheal Ray?" (2000). In the movie, which is comedian Chris Rock gives his voice to, there are some interviews with Richardson himself, as well as Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Walt Frazer, Bill Cartwright, Hubie Brown and even David Stern.

Since he came back to the US, Richardson decided to dedicate himself to working with youth and was hired by the Denver Nuggets a an ambassador in the community in Colorado, where he presented his version of the story. "During the two years I've worked with the Nuggets, I lectured more than 30 thousands teenagers and the massage stayed the same" say Richardson, "Above all education and so, in the end everybody has to take care of himself and remember – we all have problems, but if you are strong enough and believe in yourself, you can solve them".

This season Maccabi Tel Aviv had a player that was probably not strong enough and failed, it was Rodney Buford, that came to Israel with a problematic record of his own, a little bit like the case of Richardson back in the eighties. For Richardson, things look a lot different today in the age of 52, and from his own experience he knows that the bottom line is that the responsibility is on the player himself: "When you are coming to Europe, you have to be very open minded with a new place, a new culture. You have to adapt to it. If you know you have a problem and you can't get over it, just stay at home. In an unfamiliar culture you have to be alert, and you should know people will look for you. That the way it goes in our profession and need to be ready for it".

Strange, but Richardson doesn't remember encountering any of those kind of troubles in conservative Israel of two decades ago. "There will always be people whom will be bad with you, but in Israel I felt at home" says Richardson, "The people were great, they respected me and were very open with me. It's a good country, good food, beautiful women. I remember the Cinerama club, which opened in the year I got to Israel. It was wild club, I enjoyed it very much. If I'd only had a chance I would come back. Maybe you can ask if somebody needs a coach over there?".

- All photos courtesy of Chuck Miller (Albany Patroons)

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