The priest is sitting on a wall in the school courtyard, a short, black man talking in the patois of the community. "When he came back from Philly, he was just another cat on the street trying to make it. He didn't have the sophistication to deal with the people in the NBA. He went off like a young eagle just learning to fly and came back with his wings clipped. People around here thought he was an NBA star when he was still in high school. And he was just a kid. He had all of this talent, but he didn't have anybody to share it with, though a lot of people tried to take his success and use it for themselves.
"Those owners just laughed about the contract demands. They said, 'These niggers come all this way and tell us what they are going to do. They're telling us. We got the money and they ain't got nothing.' How're you going to deal with someone like Red Auerbach, you a kid, when Bill Russell couldn't deal with him? Raymond's a very proud person. And the whole thing has given him some negative hurt. But I have the feeling that he's going to get a fair shot, and if he does that, I'll feel good."
Twenty feet away is the Verbum Dei gymnasium, with its worn and dusty tile floor and wooden backboards, hardly the type of facility you would expect at a school that won the California Interscholastic Federation championship six straight years, at a school that has sent David Greenwood and Roy Hamilton to UCLA.
Raymond Lewis is on the court, his body glistening, playing one-on-one with George Simpson, a 21-year-old cousin. During his exile from basketball, Lewis had gained weight, ballooning to 205 pounds, and developed a bad reputation. The word was that he was "hanging out," drinking beer. Caldwell Black, the coach who got him started in the recreational leagues during junior high school, recalls walking into a community park one day and noticing in the distance a chunky fellow shooting a jump shot with a motion so pure it provoked his curiosity. As he got closer he realized with a wave of sadness and pity that it was Raymond Lewis, the legend who never was.
These days Lewis is trimmed down, with only a lingering hint of thickness about the midsection. Since February he has worked out nearly every day, running to exhaustion on the beach, wearing heavy boots, practicing his ball handling, scrimmaging with the Verbum Dei team, trying to erase the past.
Oddly enough, the architect of his comeback is Don DeJardin, who started Lewis' odyssey in 1973 by refusing his contract demands. DeJardin is now a real-estate investment man in L.A. as well as the agent for several players and the owner of an ice cream store. He bumped into Lewis in a parking lot last year and once again realized what a shame it was that he never had played pro basketball. It was DeJardin who had asked then-76er Coach Jack Ramsay to look at Lewis while he was still a freshman in college. Earlier that year, Lewis had been offered a $75,000 contract after a workout with Pittsburgh of the ABA. Ramsay had the youngster play one-on-one with a 76ers guard. Lewis destroyed him.
DeJardin remembers speaking to a class at the UCLA law school last spring, and when the students discovered he was involved with Raymond Lewis they begged for details. When he finished, they stood and applauded. "In 1973 he was a 20-year-old with the emotions of a 14-year-old," says DeJardin. "Right now he is a 25-year-old with the emotions of a 35-year-old because he has lived through some trying times and weathered them. He's the American Dream right now—the guy who had it all and lost it, who was buried. And now he's getting another shot."
DeJardin rounded up seven L.A. businessmen who agreed to put Lewis on a monthly retainer of $600 so he could concentrate on getting back in shape. In a few months he dropped more than 15 pounds.
Watching Lewis on the court, you first notice his legs. They flash like high-speed machinery. His starts and stops are abrupt. Then his ball handling draws your attention. His head is always up, his eyes looking for an opening, while the ball is under control. His cousin is a dogged opponent, but Lewis can do what he wants. Father James comes into the gym and joins the game. Now it is two against one. Lewis' spirits rise. His fakes are more intense, his moves even quicker. The other players are befuddled as they grab after him, while he glides into the air. He wins the game easily.
"Want some more?" he teases.