The days blend together in the City of the Angels; the summer sun, white and hot, is a spotlight for the lucky, for others a heat lamp turning the sidewalk into a griddle. The street is lined with houses losing the battle for respectability, the curbs littered with refuse. Down a sidewalk comes a boy in outsized Bermuda shorts and a faded T shirt. He is dribbling a basketball, pale from wear. As the boy reaches the corner, a young man lounging against a pole jumps out and deftly flicks at the ball, grabbing it in midair. He bats it several times from hand to hand, then shuffles it quickly between his legs, back and forth. The boy's mouth is open. Swiftly the ball circles the man's trunk—one, two, three times—then flies up into the air. He snares it with his extended right hand and in one motion rolls it gently down the arm, past his neck and on down his left arm, flips it again into the air and catches it near his eyes with his right hand, instantaneously spinning it on one finger as the boy stares, drinking in the show. "Mister," says the youngster. "You the greatest."
Raymond Lewis, playing his game on a hot sidewalk in Watts instead of under a spotlight, throws the ball back to the youngster, the fun draining from his eyes.
"I used to be," he says softly.
"In Los Angeles he is a legend. You say Raymond, they say Lewis. You say Lewis, they say Raymond."—Bob Hopkins, assistant coach, New York Knicks.
Raymond Lewis was so good that he never needed a nickname. For three straight years (1969-71) his Verbum Dei High School team won the California Inter-scholastic Federation divisional championship, and he was named his division's best player two years in a row. As a freshman at California State- Los Angeles, he threw in 73 points one night and led the country's freshmen in scoring with a 38.9-point average; David Thompson of North Carolina State was second. Lewis' team, on which no player was taller than 6'5", defeated the powerful UCLA frosh, a club that included David Meyers, Andre McCarter and Pete Trgovich. Lewis scored 40 points. In his sophomore season, his first of varsity competition, Lewis averaged 32.9 a game to finish second in scoring in the nation; then he turned pro. In 1973, the Philadelphia 76ers drafted him at the end of the first round under the hardship rule. Lewis' courtship with the pros had begun while he was still in high school and at 20 he was the youngest player ever drafted in the first round and signed by the NBA. The record books were open, waiting for him to rewrite them, but he never played a minute.
He was a shade over 6'1", lithe and blessed with agility that seemed almost supernatural; he could change direction as quickly as he could think it, he was a wisp that could not be contained. And his jump shot was classic. But as good as Lewis was shooting the ball, he was better dribbling and passing it. He could weave the length of the floor through a full-court press and score a layup. He could fire a pass and hit a teammate 90 feet away. George McQuarn, his former high school coach, said, "He was so gift ed offensively that it was frightening."
Now Raymond Lewis is 26 and living with his wife Sandra and young daughter Kamilah in a cramped bedroom that has sheets for drapes on the windows, in the home of his paternal grandparents in the Compton community adjacent to L.A. He survives through the charity of relatives and a dole from a group of L.A. businessmen who are financing his comeback. He had a can't-miss tag, but Raymond Lewis missed because the only person who could stop him was Raymond Lewis. And that is what happened. He held himself scoreless.
For all the talk about basketball being a "team" game, the fact is that very few players ever make an All-Star team by moving without the ball or setting a good pick. The measure of a player is his ability to get his shot whenever he wants it, to challenge his man and beat him. For every success there is a failure, a coach yelling, "Whose man is that?" On a basketball court Raymond Lewis had a colossal ego and conceit. He beat you straight up, one-on-one, then sneered.
Lewis discovered early that he could barter his basketball ability for just about anything he wanted. To paraphrase Mae West, he always gave them something, but never all, of what they wanted. College coaches literally clamored to pay his rent and provide money, clothes and other favors. Though he never had worked a day in his life, he drove a new Corvette to his classes at L.A. State. His mother, Ella, a devotee of drag racing, totaled it. Teachers gave him grades. Pro basketball agents loaned him money that was never repaid and offered automobiles; at one time Lewis had a Cadillac, a Pantera and a custom van. Says one agent, Vic Weiss, "I don't think anybody would really tell you all they gave him because it would make them look very foolish." Even the pro coaches and general managers were willing to put up with almost any indignity. Once they saw him play they kept coming back, passionate suitors at his doorstep. Over a period of years Philadelphia gave him $40,000.
All last summer he worked out in anticipation of a tryout with the New York Knicks, playing in an industrial league in Costa Mesa, Calif. Lewis' attitude had changed. He was subdued and showed less bravado, and slowly his skills were coming back. "Offensively, he's as good as any guard I've ever seen," said Billy Paultz, the center for the San Antonio Spurs and a summer-league teammate. "He has an automatic jump shot. He's not afraid to go against anybody."