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HE HAD GAME (STUDENT SPORTS, 2001)
RAYMOND LEWIS WAS THE PROVERBIAL PLAYGROUND STAR

"In Los Angeles he is a legend. You

say Raymond, they say Lewis. You say Lewis, they say Raymond."--Bob Hopkins, former New York Knicks assistant coach

 

Raymond Lewis died this week. He was the greatest basketball player you never heard of. His is a tragic story of Shakespearean dimensions. A story of enormous, wasted talent. The tale of an inner city black kid who was given bad advice by unscrupulous agents. A story of life…and death. 

 

Raymond Lewis was an urban legend, a myth, a conundrum. Raymond Lewis was an enigma wrapped inside a riddle, surrounded by a question mark. He was cursed by greatness…and by great, tragic faults. He was a babe in the woods, a guy trying to swim through shark-infested waters with a nosebleed.

 

His is not so much a story as it is a syndrome. A symbol, a cautionary tale.

 

Raymond Lewis was at once a shining example of the promise and possibility that gives hope to young black men in America. He was also a prime example of why black America remains suspicious of this country.     

 

Lewis led Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles to the CIF-Southern Section championship from 1969-71. Before Verbum Dei, there was Philadelphia Overbrook (Wilt Chamberlain) and New York Power Memorial Academy (Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Later, there was Hiattsville, Maryland DeMatha (Adrian Dantley), the great powers at Baltimore Dunbar and Cardinal Gibbons, and in Southern California, Crenshaw and Mater Dei. The Verbum Dei dynasty, however,  started by Lewis and lasting into the 1980s, may have been the Roman Empire (to borrow a Rick Pitino phrase) of high school basketball. Whether Lewis was Spartacus or Nero is debatable. Like Rome, Lewis fell from grace, seemingly unable to overcome himself.

 

Lewis once scored 73 points in a game for Cal State Los Angeles, and led the nation's freshmen in scoring (38.9). Lewis was about 6-1, with remarkable agility and quickness, and as smooth a jump shot as anybody has ever had.

 

"He was so gifted offensively that it was frightening," said Verbum Dei's former coach, George McQuarn.

 

Despite being drafted in the first pound by Philadelphia in 1973, Lewis never made it in the pros. When he should have been going one-on-one with Pete Maravich and juking Walt Frazier out of his shoes, instead Lewis spent those years living off of relatives in Compton. The "can't miss" prospect was stopped by the one guy who could stop him: Raymond Lewis.

 

Lewis was a man of great ego and no desire to play defense. He talked trash on the court before that became a popular, Jordan-esque pastime, and since he was a young black man from the ghetto, his attitude never did him any good with the game's power structure. Lewis was handed everything in his life and never went to class, driving a new Corvette.

 

"I don't think anybody would really tell you all they gave him because it would make them look very foolish," one agent said.

 

"They were ripping me off for my talent," Lewis once said, "and I slacked up."

 

Lewis signed with Philly, then wanted to re-negotiate before playing a regular season game. The 76ers sent him 

 

"If he had gone along with Philadelphia…he (would have been) an All-Pro guard," said McQuarn. "He would have been in the class of Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. He (would have been) the best in the NBA…no question."

 

The details about how Raymond signed, left and did not return to Philadelphia are just too dismal to recount in these pages. It involved their signing of Doug Collins, the white star of the 1972 Olympics, who received $200,000 of the club's money. That left less for Raymond, who took it as an affront.

 

"COLLINS TALKS A GOOD GAME, BUT RAYMOND LEWIS PLAYS IT," blared one headline.

 

"Raymond Lewis is a 20-point favorite over Doug Collins," wrote another journalist.

 

Money, race and jealousy reared their ugly heads. Still, Philadelphia gave Lewis $40,000 after he left camp, but the issues were never resolved. Lewis played in an industrial league, but his Philly experience left him less than his usual bravado self.

 

"The bad effect was that I tended to get soft," he recalled.

 

"When a guy has 12 people representing him and 12 cars, he has a lot of problems," said Beverly Hills agent Al Ross, who sued Lewis for money he said was owed him for legal services and loans.

 

At Verbum Dei, an oasis in the middle of Watts, next to a street nicknamed "Charcoal Alley" because it was burnt out in the 1965 riots, Raymond Lewis was a contradiction. In school he chafed under the strict Catholic discipline, unsure of himself as a scholar, not knowing what to say. On the court, he was a different person. When Lewis returned from Philadelphia, he came back not to the structured environment of Verbum Dei, but to the streets of the inner city. The "cats" in his neighborhood laughed at him, telling him he had been "played" by The Man. Lewis started hanging out, drinking beer, and gaining weight.

 

"In 1973 he was a 20-year old with the emotions of a 14-year old," Don DeJardin, Philadelphia's general manager, told Sports Illustrated at that time. "Right now he is a 25-year old with the emotions of a 35-year old."

 

"If I had been a white player, God knows I'd be playing and deserving the acclaim of the all-time greats of the sport," Lewis said, claiming he was blackballed by the NBA. "I was eating (Collins) alive."

 

Lewis would go through some soul-searching, during which time he found religion and called himself a sinner. The New York Knickerbockers flirted with him, but Lewis fell out of shape fast, and his reputation soured him with other players. A tryout with the San Diego Clippers ended in his getting cut.

 

Eventually, Raymond succumbed to alcohol.  Recently, an infection in his leg, easily treatable by modern medicine, was left to fester because he was unwilling or unable to care enough to get it taken care of. The result was that the leg had to be amputated. Lewis did not recover from the amputation.

 

How a player with his ability could find a way not to succeed is still one of the great mysteries of the LA playground scene. He was a legend, and anybody who saw him on the courts of South-Central and Compton would tell you he had game.

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