If he isn't selected, don't expect to hear him complain. He is as silent as his nickname, Rock, implies, which could result from having grown up in Fort Lauderdale with a best friend who did most of the talking: Michael Irvin, now the star wide receiver of the Dallas Cowboys. "If you wanted to get in a word when you were with Mike," Richmond says, "you had to start early." Richmond's circle also included several other future NFL players, among them Benny and Brian Blades and Brett Perriman. But the portrait his mother, Ernell O'Neal, paints of Mitch as a young man prominently features her apron strings. "We were always close," she says. "I wouldn't let him sleep over at his friends' houses. I wanted to know where he was at night."
Doting on Mitch did not prevent Ernell from delivering, when necessary, a good swift kick in the posterior. Because of a poor semester in the ninth grade, Mitch spent the next three years struggling to catch up, sustaining himself with sweet thoughts of commencement exercises. "He used to practice how he was going to walk down that aisle," says Ernell.
While playing hoops during the spring of his senior year at Boyd Anderson High, Mitch sprained an ankle, which caused him to miss an algebra test. When his teacher refused to allow him to make it up, Richmond failed the course, leaving him half a credit shy of the graduation requirement. The day he found out he would not graduate with his classmates, Mitch came home and announced that he was finished with school, even if it meant losing a chance at a basketball scholarship. In response Ernell borrowed from the preaching technique of the Reverend Dr. W.F. Washington, whose sermons she and Mitch had heard every Sunday at church. Ernell thundered at her son, "You need three weeks of summer school to go to college, to get a $ 100,000 scholarship, and you don't want to do it? I've got news for you, Mitchell, you're going to summer school. You're going to prove to that teacher that you can do something with your life."
Take a wild guess about who won that argument. After belatedly earning his high school diploma, Richmond signed on for two seasons at Moberly Area Junior College, in the middle of Missouri. "He really struggled with homesickness," recalls Dana Altman, Richmond's coach at Moberly and now the coach at Creighton. It wasn't unusual for Altman's phone to ring in the middle of the night with Richmond on the other end. Altman would invite Richmond to come on over. In his pajamas he would persuade Richmond to stick around one more day.
But Ernell was the one who told Mitch most forcefully to not even think about coming home. "Just hang in there," she said. He did, and in two seasons with the Greyhounds, Richmond averaged 13.1 points and led Moberly to a 69-9 record. Along the way Altman repaired Richmond's shot. He had arrived with atrocious shooting form; he launched the ball from somewhere behind his right ear. Then Altman molded Richmond, an erstwhile center-forward, into a shooting guard. More important, says Richmond, "I learned to study." Those lessons stood him in good stead at Kansas State, where he majored in social sciences and averaged 20.7 points. And in the spring of 1988 Ernell and her husband, Joseph, drove for two days to see Mitch don black robe and mortarboard and take part in the commencement they all had fantasized about.
Surviving his rocky early college experience helped Richmond weather a similar trial in the NBA, when Golden State traded him and center Les Jepsen to Sacramento for forward Billy Owens the day of the 1991-92 season opener. With the Warriors he and his high-scoring friends, Hardaway and Chris Mullin, were dubbed Run TMC (for Tim, Mitch and Chris). But in Sacramento, Richmond was thrown in with a group of guys who, he says diplomatically, "didn't seem to work as hard as I was used to working." It was hard to blame Richmond for going into a long funk. "He wasn't the same for quite a while," says his wife, Juli, a former model whom Richmond met during his rookie year and married two years later. He spent most of the season in denial, commuting the 80 miles from his home in Oakland for practices and home games. Slowly he began to reconcile himself to Sacramento, where he moved only two seasons ago, and lately he has started to appreciate it as a suitable place to raise his family—he and Juli have two sons, two-year-old Phillip and five-month old Jerin. Now Richmond says, "This is a place I want to play in and a franchise I want to play for."
St. Jean and general manager Geoff Petrie are largely responsible for that. Petrie reversed the Kings' woeful draft history by picking forward Brian Grant in the first round two years ago and by stealing forward Michael Smith and point guard Tyus Edney in the second round in 1994 and '95, respectively. St. Jean has turned Sacramento into a hard-nosed defensive team that jumped from 25th in points allowed in '93-94 to eighth in the league last season. It's not a coincidence that '94-95, according to Simmons, "was the first year that Mitch looked like he was glad to be here."
In the postgame scene after Richmond's All-Star MVP performance last February, Phoenix Sun forward Charles Barkley sneaked up behind him, planted a kiss on his neck and, referring to the Suns' appetite for top-flight talent, told Richmond, "We can trade for you, too." But times had changed. Richmond had no desire to go anywhere. It's good to be a King these days, and impersonations aside, it is even better to be Mitch Richmond.