He can be any player you want him to be. Give him a name. Alonzo Mourning? Mitch Richmond will launch into a dead-on imitation of the Miami Heat center's foul-line routine, right down to the way he mops his brow with the back of his wristband. Tim Hardaway? Richmond will re-create Hardaway's signature move, the crossover dribble, so deftly that Hardaway, the Golden State Warrior point guard, would be proud. Hakeem Olajuwon? Richmond will mimic the pirouettes and pump fakes of the Houston Rocket center. His gift for impersonation is the one area about which Richmond, the Sacramento Kings' unassuming All-Star shooting guard, can't resist a tiny boast. "I'm telling you," he says, "there's nobody in the league I can't do."
Sometimes after King practices Richmond will take requests, bringing gales of laughter from his teammates with his comic impressions. "Mitch can be hilarious," says Sacramento coach Garry St. Jean. "For the team Christmas party we should just show a video of him imitating every guy in the league."
Occasionally someone tries to imitate the imitator—teammate Lionel Simmons will exaggerate Richmond's shortcomings as a ball handler by dribbling the ball off his foot and out of bounds—but Richmond is a hard man to mimic because the idiosyncrasies he picks out in others are absent from his own game. He is as consistent as a metronome and about as flashy. "From the day he walked in as a rookie with Golden State, he was a guy you could count on to give you two things: about 20 points a night and every ounce of effort he had," says St. Jean, who was a Golden State assistant when Richmond joined the Warriors in 1988. "And he would do it without ever once calling attention to himself."
The key to impersonating Richmond on the court is knowing what not to do. Do not hang from the rims or mug for the cameras. Do not talk trash or throw a no-look pass when a basic bounce pass will do. Richmond's style is simple and efficient, which makes him the type of player opponents appreciate but hate to play against. "Mitch can post you up, shoot the jump shot, put the ball on the floor and drive past you—and he plays defense," says San Antonio Spur guard Doc Rivers. "If you trap him, he finds the open man. If you don't trap him, he scores. Pick your poison. He's a great, unselfish player, and that's the worst kind."
Not very many people know how talented he is. Richmond has the seventh-highest career scoring average (22.6 through Sunday) among active NBA players, he is the star of an up-and-coming team, and after 10-of-13 shooting and a 23-point performance, he was MVP of last season's All-Star Game. So what's with the impersonations? Why isn't just being Mitch Richmond impressive enough?
Richmond thinks for a moment and then smiles. "You're asking the wrong guy," he says.
You can tell a lot about an NBA star from his sneaker commercials. Richmond has made two in his career, the first for Adidas several years ago. "As far as I know, it never got on the air," he says. The second, shot last season, was one of a series of Nike commercials set in a barbershop that included, among others, Hardaway, the Spurs' David Robinson and the Warriors' Latrell Sprewell. You probably saw the ads. You didn't see Richmond. He didn't make the cut.
He tells these stories without a hint of bitterness. The spotlight seems to tease Richmond, hovering around him for a moment before it decides to settle somewhere else. The formerly inept Kings, who didn't win more than 29 games in any of his first three seasons with them, finally turned things around last season, winning 39 and barely missing the playoffs. But news of Sacramento's improvement, which has continued into this season—through Sunday the Kings led the Pacific Division with a 9-4 record—hasn't reached the television networks. Sacramento has but one scheduled national-TV appearance this season, on Dec. 22 against the Los Angeles Lakers on TNT, which means that if you don't live in Sacramento or own a satellite dish, chances are you will continue to see precious little of Richmond. "I'm not the high-flying dunker or anything fancy," he says. "Maybe my game isn't what they want for the commercials and the TV appearances. It bothered me a little when I was younger, but I don't worry about it anymore. If the recognition comes, it comes. If not, I'll just keep doing what I've been doing."
What he has been doing is quietly making a place for himself in the NBA record books. Richmond is a former Rookie of the Year and a three-time All-Star who has scored at least 21.9 points per game in each of his seven seasons. If he averages 21 or more points this season (he was at 20.3 through Sunday), he will join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rick Barry, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only players to reach that figure in each of their first eight pro seasons. At 6'5" and 215 pounds, Richmond once scored mostly by using his strength to overpower smaller guards, but he is now an equally dangerous perimeter threat. He averaged 100 three-point attempts over his first three seasons but shot 424 last year, when the arc was moved closer to the basket, and made 37%.
Despite all that, Richmond wasn't among the top 10 Western Conference guards in the fan balloting for last season's All-Star Game. His lack of national exposure was largely to blame for that omission, but it's harder to figure out why he has been ignored by the basketball cognoscenti. Richmond was passed over by the selection committee for the first two Dream Teams, and he wasn't one of the first 10 players named to Dream Team III, which will represent the U.S. in the 1996 Olympics. (As a collegian in the days before NBA players were allowed to participate in the Games, Richmond was chosen for and earned a bronze medal with the '88 U.S. Olympic squad.) The two remaining spots on Dream Team III will be filled this spring, and there isn't a player in the league more deserving than Richmond.