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Looking back, Raymond Lewis claims that the worst handicap of his years of promise was his avarice. He took what he could get. "The bad effect was that I tended to get soft," he says now. "They were ripping me off for my talent, and I slacked up. I lost a lot of motivation. It softened me, and I neglected myself and my game. I was an 18-year-old with a new Corvette."
He was also a pro rookie who signed a contract and then wanted to renegotiate, not only before he had played a regular-season game but also before he had taken part in a regular practice. The 76ers, naturally, refused. And Raymond Lewis was dumbfounded—and hurt. He went home to L.A.
"The bottom line on him is that he's absolutely the best player ever to come out of California. If he were playing today, if he had gone along with Philadelphia and continued to improve, he'd be an All-Pro guard. He would have been in the class of Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. He'd be the best in the NBA today. No question."—George McQuarn.
Lewis' Philadelphia saga is so confusing that even the principals can't figure out exactly what happened. Probably most of them would like to forget the entire business. Lewis himself never was enamored of the idea of going East; he would rather have been anywhere else. The previous year (1972-73) the 76ers had set a record for futility, winning nine of 82 games. Don DeJardin was the club's general manager then, and he remembers that when Lewis was drafted, six or seven impatient people phoned to claim they would be Raymond's agent during the contract negotiations. Finally, DeJardin talked to Lewis, who said, "I'm my own agent." But Raymond arrived in Philadelphia accompanied by Paul McCracken, who once played for the Houston Rockets. Lewis says he opened negotiations at $2 million, then dropped down to $1 million, but DeJardin scoffs at those figures. In those heady days, NBA money had Donald Duck's picture on it. Finally, after a phone call to his father, Lewis signed what he thought was a guaranteed three-year contract for $450,000. Actually, it was for $190,000. The contract provided for a $25,000 signing bonus, $50,000 the first year, $55,000 the second and $60,000 the third. The rest of the money, payable in the late 1980s, hinged on Lewis staying in the NBA. A newspaper reporter said the contract was appropriate for "a third-round pick with terminal acne."
A short time later the 76ers held their June rookie camp and Raymond Lewis was sensational. Hungry for news from what usually was a humdrum period, and practiced at mocking the team's top draft pick, the Philadelphia media "discovered" him, and were delighted that he looked better than Doug Collins, the club's and the league's first draft choice in 1973 and a star in the Olympic Games, who had signed for $200,000 a year. COLLINS TALKS A GOOD GAME, BUT RAYMOND LEWIS PLAYS IT blared one headline, LEWIS DESTROYS VAN LIER-TYPE was another. " Raymond Lewis is...a 20-point favorite over Doug Collins...." wrote one reporter, who cited a quote from Dick McGuire, the New York Knicks scout—" Raymond Lewis has more raw basketball talent than any college player in the country and that includes Bill Walton. He might be the best draft choice Philly made since Billy Cunningham." Another writer said, "Lewis is kind of young to be a legend, but he's off to a fast start." It was said that 76ers Coach Gene Shue refused to allow Collins to guard Lewis, and that is when Raymond Lewis decided he needed some new and richer fine print in his contract.
Lewis had shown up at rookie camp with his girl friend. "No one told me she couldn't come," he said. Al Ross, the Beverly Hills agent who had stung pro basketball with litigation over his client Spencer Haywood, was his new representative. Don DeJardin had resigned. In effect, Shue now was also the general manager. Lewis would practice a few days, then, upset over his contract, steal away in the middle of the night and fly to L.A. The 76ers would talk him into coming back. Lewis contends that once, while he was sitting in Ross' office and listening on a speaker phone, he heard Shue promise to renegotiate the contract and pay him another $20,000 in cash. Lewis showed up at camp with a letter summarizing the phone call, and Shue, he says, tore it up. Both Ross and Shue deny that such an agreement was made. In fact, Ross is suing Lewis for money he claims is owed him for legal services and personal loans. "When a guy has 12 people representing him and 12 cars, he has a lot of problems," Ross says now. "He came in here and said, 'DeJardin lied to me. Gene Shue lied to me.' We tried to work it out. The guy was ungrateful. He left a lot of people stranded. He owes a lot of money to a lot of people. He didn't want to face reality."
But reality to Raymond Lewis was that he was better than Doug Collins and that Collins was being paid four times as much as he was. He kept busy at the airports. He would depart, the 76ers would bring him back, then give him only two or three days of expense money in an attempt to keep him close to home. Lewis would take off again. At one point he was supposed to meet the club in Chicago at O'Hare Airport and join them for an exhibition-game trip. He failed to show. Shue dispatched Assistant Coach Jack McMahon to find him. McMahon located him and filled him in on the team's offense on the way to a game in Normal, Ill., ironically, Doug Collins' college town. Lewis dressed for the game, but Shue had not planned to use him. Wounded again, Raymond slipped away at halftime; no one could guard him on or off the court. The Philly papers now called him "The Phantom."
Verbum Dei High School is an oasis in the middle of Watts. On all sides are poverty, despair, disease. "Charcoal Alley," a street that was burnt out in the 1965 rioting, is not far away. Neither are the conditions that, in effect, ignited the first match—unemployment in Watts today is between 10% and 15%.
Father Thomas James is one of the priests who instruct the 265 students at the private Catholic school. He taught English to Raymond Lewis and remembers him as quiet and shy, and not particularly interested in his studies. "Basketball was the focal point of his life, and he didn't have a great amount of confidence in himself as a person," says Father James. "But on the basketball court he was phenomenal. A different person emerged."