Mitch Richmond, Golden State's 6'5", 225-pound rookie guard, is blasting up-court, pounding out a dribble with all the daintiness of a heavy-metal drummer. In the first 20 minutes of this game on Jan. 18 against the visiting New York Knicks, Richmond has pumped in 17 points by making bullish rushes at the belly of the Knickerbocker defense. He has driven past grasping Knicks for easy buckets; he has pulled up to muscle in 15-foot jumpers; he has soared, hung, drawn contact, double-pumped and banked in a layup. Now Richmond is on the loose down the lane once again.
He springs off the floor and begins his ascent to the hoop, but he has a slight problem: Patrick Ewing, New York's 7-foot, 240-pound center, has chosen to stand his considerable ground beneath the rim. Richmond tries a righthanded jam, but the ball clangs against the back of the rim and bounds to midcourt. The collision with Ewing and the subsequent thud—both players go down—send a minor tremor through the Bay Area. The whistle blows, and Richmond is nailed with an offensive foul. As a palpable awe spreads through the sold-out stands, Richmond, shaking his head, helps Ewing to his feet.
"That," Richmond said after the game, "was a stupid play." In his mind, perhaps. Others had a different view.
"You have to make a statement," says Warrior swingman Terry Teagle. "He was letting people know, This guy doesn't back down from anybody."
That could be Richmond's motto in his first NBA season. The fifth pick in the draft, Richmond, who is out of Kansas State, has a number of no-nonsense nicknames, including Hammer and Bam Bam, and he may already be the strongest shooting guard in the league. While his fellow Olympians are having all sorts of physical troubles (box, page 22), Richmond is thriving. "I like to call him Rock, as in rock solid. He's a hard body," says Chris Mullin, who, with a 27.1 average at week's end, is Golden State's leading scorer.
Says last season's Rookie of the Year, New York point guard Mark Jackson, of his likely successor, "He's a man with a great deal of heart. He knows how to get in the paint and what to do there. He's going to be outstanding."
Richmond's statistics support these assessments. As of last weekend, he led all rookies in scoring with 20.7 points per game, and he was averaging 5.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists. During the Warriors' recent eight-game winning streak—they had won 9 of their last 12 following Saturday's 114-112 victory at Indiana—Richmond averaged 23.9 points on .578 shooting. His numbers in Golden State's 133-119 bashing of the Knicks were 31 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists. And the way he idly chomps on his Big Red gum and chews on his jersey strap during games suggests that when it comes to the pros, the 23-year-old Richmond is still in his teething stage.
"What I love most about Mitch is that he's raw," says Golden State coach Don Nelson. "He's just starting to blossom as a player and as a human being. It's a wonderful time for him."
Before this season, his first with Golden State, Nelson had started only one rookie, Milwaukee's Marques Johnson in 1977-78, in 11 years as an NBA coach. Not only is Nelson starting Richmond, but also he is using him at everything from point guard to power forward. "Mitch is doing just about everything I've asked of him," says Nelson. "I need him to be dominant, but in the flow of the team, and he's doing that."
The steadfast way in which Richmond has handled himself echoes the style of another nuts-and-bolts fellow from the Bay Area, writer Jack London. "I am not stubborn, but I swing to my purpose as steadily as the needle to the pole," London once said. "Delay, evade, oppose secretly or openly, it's all immaterial, the thing comes my way. Life is strife, and I am prepared for that strife."