The psychic terrain around Exit 16W of the New Jersey Turnpike sure is rockier than supersmooth Los Angeles, eh, Dave Wohl? As an assistant coach in La-La Land, you had movie moguls, Laker girls, the skyhook and a Magic man. Let's take a quick inventory of the operation you've inherited here in Jersey as the head coach of the Nets: thousands of empty seats at every home game, a team that has gone beyond the first round of the NBA playoffs only once (1983-84), an aging center from the planet Lovetron and an All-Star point guard in a drug rehab center. For the fourth time.
Tell us, rookie coach Dave Wohl, are you having fun?
"I couldn't be more content," says Wohl, 36. "I was with a championship team, and the same year I came back home to be a head coach. It's a dream come true."
He isn't kidding. Wohl, a three-sport high school star in East Brunswick, N.J., a scrappy point guard at Penn and a seven-year NBA journeyman, is an Easterner at heart. And the Nets were precisely the right team for him, one that needed both the flexible but forceful discipline and the X's and O's he learned while serving under Don Nelson at Milwaukee and Pat Riley in L.A. "Dave's the perfect coach for me," says center Mike Gminski, a Duke graduate and a quiet, scholarly type. "He's intelligent, and we both went to good schools." Has any NBA coach ever received a player's endorsement on those grounds? From the opposite end of the comportment spectrum comes another rave. "Dave has been real good for me and real good for my game," says Lovetron's Darryl Dawkins, now coming off the bench to form, with Gminski, the second-best pivot combination in the league after Boston's Robert Parish and Bill Walton. "That doesn't mean I wouldn't have shot him in training camp if I'd had my gun. It was a prison and the man was our warden."
Of course, there's plenty of time for the Nets—21-14 through last week—to unravel, now that their best player, Micheal Ray Richardson, a guy who never met a defense he wouldn't challenge or a guard he couldn't strip clean, has been stopped cold once again by drugs. Not surprisingly, Sugar's frat brothers feel compelled to protect and defend him, but the feeling of letdown is palpable. "In the final two minutes it's his game," says forward Buck Williams. Now it will have to be someone else's. Says Kelvin Ransey, who, with Darwin Cook, will be filling Richardson's point guard spot, "Most of all we'll miss his cockiness."
These Nets are stronger, and better, than previous NBA incarnations. It was Cook (with a Sugarlike line of 15 points, 11 assists, two steals and six rebounds) and Ransey, for example, who keyed a 38-point third period in a 125-106 win over the Cavs last Saturday night. Albert King, who last week received a $960,000 bonus check, appears to have found his jump shot along with his financial security. Williams, as usual, is an indomitable force, averaging 17 points and leading the league in rebounds with 12.3 per game. But count on Wohl, the Nets' sixth coach (including two interims) since 1980-81, to push the buttons necessary to keep the Nets near the Philadelphia 76ers in their battle for second place in the NBA Celtic Division. "Everybody is very aware of where Dave is coming from," says Williams.
Less obvious is where Richardson, 30, is coming from. Or where he is headed. Or why he would court cocaine trouble when things were apparently going so well—he had been averaging 17.3 points, 7.8 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 2.9 steals per game. He was last seen by his mates the night of Friday, Dec. 27, laughing it up at a team Christmas party in Moonachie, N.J., after which he adjourned to a Hasbrouck Heights bar for a few drinks with Dawkins and forward Bobby Cattage. Dawkins, a close friend, said he never suspected trouble was brewing. But Richardson failed to show for a Saturday morning shoot-around and a game that night with Washington, which the Nets lost 98-93. Even his wife, Leah, claimed not to know his whereabouts. On Dec. 30 Richardson called his agent, Charles Grantham, and admitted that for the first time since October 1983, he needed help.
The following day, two NBA drug counselors accompanied Richardson to the Pasadena ( Calif.) Community Hospital, the league's referral center for drug cases. The Phoenix Suns' Walter Davis had been there since Dec. 13. Richardson has made no statement, but sources say that he already considers himself back on track and is antsy to leave. Lewis Schaffel, the Nets' chief operating officer, expects Richardson back within four weeks. The players are more cautious. "What we must realize is that Sugar has a disease," says Williams. "He's got a handicap every bit as obvious as a man in a wheelchair." Says Wohl, "We have to go on as if he won't be here."
When Wohl interviewed for the Nets' coaching job last summer, Schaffel asked, "What would you do if you took Micheal Ray out of a game with six minutes to go and on the way to the locker room he called you a bleep-bleeper?" Wohl said he would wait until they were alone and tell Sugar he wouldn't stand for it. That was obviously the correct answer, and Wohl's relationship with Richardson until Dec. 27 can be described as fairly smooth with a light chop. Richardson knew that back in December 1983, after he had been to three drug clinics in five months and had been waived by the Nets, Wohl recommended that the Lakers sign him. Soon the Nets reinstated him, and Richardson led the team to victory over the Sixers in the first round of the '84 playoffs. This season Wohl could find little fault with Richardson's play. Unless your name is Magic Johnson, you don't perform at point guard any better than he does. Further, Richardson signed a new four-year, $3 million contract in early September, participated in an NBA antidrug video entitled Cocaine Drain, and, according to Net officials, passed every one of the weekly drug tests mandated by his contract. "He seemed to have the world by the coattails," says Williams. That's why Williams was so saddened when Richardson called during that lost weekend to tell him he had messed up again. "It's the first time I didn't know what to say to him," says Williams. "He had told me so many times, 'Buck, I'll never go back on drugs. Never."
If you want to believe some of his teammates, Richardson's return to the court is a secondary issue. "It's Sugar the person who's important," says forward Mike O'Koren. Says Williams, "He's got to take control of his own life. He's got to realize that this life isn't real. It's an illusion. Sugar, don't do it for basketball, the Nets, the wife or the kids anymore. Do it for Sugar. It's time now."