His voice is smooth and controlled, a late-night, FM-radio kind of voice, with a mellow tone that puts you at ease. Isaiah (J.R.) Rider sees the surprise in people's eyes when they hear him speak for the first time. It's as though they are stunned to discover that a player with Rider's reputation—for bursts of anger and clashes with authority—doesn't growl or breathe fire. "I'm very intellectual, you know. Very smart," he says, without a trace of arrogance, one night in mid-November. "People think I'm this gangbanger, this monster, and I'm not. It's just that they don't know me, they don't understand where I'm coming from."
He sounds so calm, so logical, that it is easy to see why those who know him best talk about this disarming side of Rider, why even some of his harshest critics preface their remarks about him by saying, "I like J.R." Eventually you realize you are listening not so much to what Rider says as to how he says it. And you begin to suspect that he prefers it that way.
With the exception of the Chicago Bulls' Dennis Rodman, there is no other player in the NBA with a reputation as bad as that of Rider, the Portland Trail Blazers' notorious shooting guard. No other player runs afoul of authority with such absurd regularity as those two. But Rodman is part clown; most of his transgressions are committed with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Rider's persona is far darker. His four-year NBA career has been marked not only by an assortment of fines and suspensions but also by the occasional arrest. He was convicted of misdemeanor assault for kicking a woman during a dispute at a shopping mall in 1994. He served four days in jail for violating his probation on that assault conviction. In a later incident he was charged with marijuana possession.
The fifth overall selection in the 1993 NBA draft, Rider was the last first-round pick to sign a contract (seven years, $25.5 million), and then he set the tone for his career by arriving hours late for his first practice as a pro. He said he missed his flight from Oakland because of traffic on the way to the airport. Since then he has missed or been late for more practices, bus rides and flights than his coaches care to count.
"The kid's got a great personality, but even in Minnesota your pipes can only freeze and burst so many times," says former Timberwolves coach Bill Blair, referring to one of Rider's favorite excuses for being late or absent. "He had about nine broken pipes and about 42 flat tires."
Rider's habitual tardiness has at times escalated into ugly incidents. That apparently was the case on March 4, when he missed the Blazers' charter to Phoenix and, according to The Oregonian, became abusive after charter-service representatives refused his demand to be flown to Phoenix on a separate plane. Rider reportedly shouted obscenities, spit at one employee and smashed a cellular phone against a wall. (The case is being investigated by Port of Portland police.) Rider ended up taking a commercial flight to Phoenix the next day, only to miss the team bus to America West Arena. Portland coach P.J. Carlesimo benched him for the first quarter of the Blazers' 121-99 win over the Suns.
Such behavior was not out of character for Rider, 26, who was such a nightmare for the Timberwolves that on July 23, 1996, they traded him to Portland for James Robinson, a reserve guard; Bill Curley, a forward who has spent most of his career on the injured list; and a first-round draft choice in either 1997 or '98. That was not even close to equal value for Rider, a powerful 6'5", 220-pound proven scorer who entered this season with a career average of 18.8 points. But even at such a modest price, there were those who thought the Blazers had made a terrible mistake. Shortly after the trade Blair, now an Indiana Pacers assistant, saw Carlesimo on a golf course and offered a warning about his job security. "You better have a nice vacation spot picked out," Blair told him. "Because by December, that man is going to get you."
At week's end Carlesimo still had his job, and he remained a supporter of his troublesome guard. "Do I wish there hadn't been any of these incidents? Of course," Carlesimo says. "But at the same time, J.R. hasn't been nearly the distraction that some people think. On the court he's been fine. He has played hard in practices and in games, and he has done everything we've asked of him in a basketball sense."
"J.R. will be fine," says Portland point guard Kenny Anderson. "Some guys just need to burn their fingers a few more times than other guys before they get it together. But we know J.R. will be there when we need him."
To fit into the Blazers' offense, Rider has modified his game and reduced his shot attempts without complaint. Through Sunday he was Portland's second-leading scorer, averaging 16.1 points on 13.2 shots per game, down from his 19.6 points and 16.1 shots for Minnesota last season. However, he can carry the offense if necessary: On Jan. 16 he scored 30 points in a 102-98 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, and on March 9 he led the team with 25 in a 103-93 victory over the Seattle SuperSonics. Rider is a threat to score from all over the court, and he takes particular advantage of his size and strength. He's especially adept at posting up other guards, even bigger ones, to get his hoops.