Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Legend of Billy Ray

For a writer, it is impossible not to be taken by the story of Billy Ray Bates.

The enigmatic Bates played in only 187 games in the NBA from 1979-'83, but he achieved immortality from his bit part in David Halberstam's "The Breaks of Game," cited in this space and nearly everywhere else as the greatest basketball book ever written. Bates also pops up in Rafe Bartholomew's immensely enjoyable "Pacific Rims," a study of the insatiable basketball jones in the Philippines.

Bates is that elusive complex character whose tale might be without rival in sports history. You'd be hard-pressed to find another son of sharecroppers in the backwoods of Mississippi who rode his athletic talent from a small college like Kentucky State to the minor leagues and then to the NBA. All of that despite a legendary wild streak and a body constitution that could overcome world-class drinking bouts to play basketball at the highest level.

That's just the beginning. When the booze eventually washed Bates from the NBA, he took his talents overseas. Bartholomew chronicled Bates' improbable second act as a near-deity for the hoops-mad Filipinos. Bates couldn't outrun his demons there, either, and he bounced around a few more basketball outposts before drunkenly trying to rob a Texaco attendant with a knife in 1998. Since his release from prison, Bates has tried to scrape together a life by trading on his basketball fame and working menial jobs.

It's almost too much to believe. With so much excellent reporting on Bates, you're often left hankering to see footage of him in action. On YouTube, you can find clips from his apex in the NBA, when he averaged 28.3 points per game against the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1981 playoffs, and also from his run in the Philippines Basketball Association.

But what about witnessing Bates in the full context of a complete game? How about Dec. 30, 1980, when Bates and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 109-108?

That game came during Bates' most successful regular season the league, when he played 20.3 minutes per game and averaged 13.8 points.

Against the 76ers, Bates checked in at the 1:31 mark of the first period. He quickly got in on the action, knocking the ball away from 76ers guard Lionel Hollins and missing a half-court shot at the final buzzer of the period.

Bates played for nearly the entire second quarter. A few minutes into the period, the Blazers' Mychal Thompson snared a defensive rebound and loosed a long outlet to a streaking Bates just across mid-court. Bates got a couple steps ahead of Hollins then took off for a "Statue of Liberty" dunk from just inside of the free-throw line.

The crowd at Memorial Coliseum went crazy. In a game that included pantheon dunkers Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins, Bates stole the show with that slam. His effortless athleticism looked remarkably similar to a player that would thrill those Portland fans in the coming seasons, Clyde Drexler.

Bates was incredible on the fast break, but often looked out of sorts when coach Jack Ramsey had the Blazers run their disciplined half-court sets. Later in the second quarter, when it looked like the 76ers' Steve Mix was going to drop in an easy lay-up, Bates flew in to force a mix. Then Bates sprinted up court and found Jim Paxson with a nice pass under the basket.

That freakish athletic ability could also spin out of control, as Bates missed two wild forays to the basket in the final minutes of the second quarter.

It's easy to see how Ramsey could get frustrated with Bates, even without bringing all the off-the-court nonsense to bear. After Bates looked like he was lost on defense in the fourth quarter, Ramsey pulled him in favor of Michael Gale

But all that talent was too tantalizing to keep on the bench. Bates checked back in with one second remaining and the Blazers trailing, 108-107.

Kermit Washington took the ball out on the side for the Blazers. Bates started on the opposite side and sprinted toward the basket. Washington lofted the ball toward the rim. Bates leaped from one side of the basket to the other, catching the ball at the peak of his leap and laying it in for the winner. He was tackled by Washington and Calvin Natt in the euphoria.

Bates scored only six points in the game, including a long jumper over Hollins. It was a game befitting his career: Flashes of brilliance that somehow make you forgive Bates for everything else.

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