[In the early 1970s, the NBA still had a no drug problem. Or so, league officials contended. But the league could point to a few embarrassing outliers, top prospects who let illicit drugs scuttle their once-promising pro careers. That included the young Cyril Baptiste, a 6-foot-9 forward-center who attended Creighton University.
Here, Miami News reporter Paul Kaplan recounts Baptiste’s costly battle with a bad heroin addiction. Kaplan published his first version of the story in the Miami News on December 24, 1971. He updated the tragedy a few years later and published it in SPORT Magazine. In the summer of 1973, no long after this article appeared, Baptiste was arrested in Miami for heroin possession, though the charges were dropped. His big-hearted attorney Alan Goldfarb tried without luck to shop Baptiste to a pro team. “Cyril hasn’t been playing for two years, so [pro teams] figured he might not be as good as he was then,” said Goldfarb. “The teams think they’d be better off signing clean-cut, All-American boy type players, instead of . . . “
Through his persistence, Goldfarb got his client one last shot in the Eastern League with the Scranton Apollos, a feeder team for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and Buffalo Braves and the ABA’s Carolina Cougars. “It’s all up to Cyril now,” said Goldfarb. “If he’s as good as we’ve been saying . . . well, he’ll be on display now and hopefully someone we’ll grab him.”
No one ever did. In the 1974 Eastern League playoffs, Baptiste tripped and tore cartilage in his knee. Surgery was performed to repair the knee, and Baptiste sat out a full season. He was never the same and eventually resettled in Miami. It was all downhill from there. Though battling his addiction for the rest of life, Baptiste got on with his life and mostly stayed out of trouble and the headlines. But in 2006, his name popped back up in the Miami News. At age 56, Baptiste had succumbed not to drugs but to a terminal case of prostate cancer. “He could never conquer the demons,” Baptiste’s mentor and coach Leroy Floyd reflected on his life. “He always gave people good advice, but he didn’t always take it himself.”
Without further ado, here is Kaplan’s article from the early 1970s.]
When Cyril Baptiste was four years old, his mother, Elsie Mae, entered a Miami hospital to give birth to her fourth child. With several members of the family waiting for him at the front steps of the hospital, the husband Cyril, Sr., rushed to visit his wife. When he came within a block of the hospital, the family spotted him. Mr. Baptiste had one street to cross, and he stepped off the sidewalk a happy man. An automobile with no feelings plowed into the family provider, killing him instantly.
Elsie Mae gave birth to Arnon Baptiste the following morning. For four-year-old Cyril, the bizarre day and a half in which he lost a father and gained a brother was to set a precedent of misery for his life. To this day, 19 years later, the trend remains intact. For every drop of happiness that has approached Cyril Baptiste, a flood of anguish has slapped it down.
Baptiste grew to 6-foot-9, and by the time he was 18 years of age, he had become the greatest basketball player Miami ever had. That was in 1968. The next five years went like this:
- 1969—Baptiste is scholastically ineligible as a freshman at Creighton.
- 1971—Baptiste become the greatest non-senior college forward in America. He misses out on a $600,000 NBA hardship contract by a legal inch.
- Early 1971—Baptiste becomes a heroin addict. He drops out of college.
- Late 1971—Baptiste accepts $450,000 NBA hardship contract, contingent upon his making it with the Golden State Warriors. Physically ruined by hard drugs, he does not make the team.
- 1972—Baptiste is convicted of arson and robbery near Washington, D.C. He receives a three-year suspended sentence and is sent home to Miami for drug rehabilitation.
- 1973— ?
“This is one of the all-time unlucky kids,” says Lou Schaffel, an agent-attorney with All-Pro Reps, Inc., the New York firm that handled Baptiste’s contract negotiations. “His whole life has been traumatic. It’s a sad story.”
Indeed, the Cyril Baptiste Story has been a sad one. Most drug stories are. But Baptiste’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story sits aside, secluded from the others, because it is unique in its own sadness. Drugs did not keep Cyril Baptiste from greatness. Indeed, they did something far more treacherous. Drugs uprooted and drained the greatness he had already achieved.
The misery of war can never approach the horror of its aftermath. And the misery of failure can never approach the horror of one who fails after he has known success.
Cyril Baptiste has failed, and, as a 6-foot-9 junkie, he has failed big. But at 23, Baptiste has hit rock bottom, and while that is a highly dubious achievement, it is also one that gives Baptiste the opportunity to fight back. He still has a huge, marvelous body, and while drugs can take a man on a long, bad trip, it cannot make him forget how to shoot a basketball.
Schaffel says he has a note from the Warriors saying that Baptiste is welcome to return to the team any time he is in shape to play. “I think he’s going to come back and kill ‘em,”Schaffel has said. “If he puts everything into it, he can get into top shape in three months.”
It is somewhat ironic that when Cyril Baptiste, Sr., died, the young man who would carry his name would also come to carry the burden of the family’s hopes of financial salvation. When Cyril, Jr. began to grow, everyone saw big things.
Elsie Mae couldn’t wait. She went to work as a maid at a convalescent home. She worked a double shift—from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Cyril worked also, but towards a different goal. He wanted to play professional basketball. Cyril received 60 college scholarship offers after he averaged 25 points and 16 rebounds as a senior at Miami’s Curley High School, which went on to a 28-2 record and the state championship.
“Without Cyril, we might have broken even . . . if we were lucky,” said Curley coach Phil Petta.
After that endorsement from his coach, Baptiste accepted Petta’s endorsement of Creighton University. Petta had played for Red McManus, who was then head coach at Creighton. And here the trend of goodness-turned-sour continued to infest Baptiste. Creighton, a conservative, 2,500-student Jesuit school in frozen Omaha, Neb., was not exactly what Baptiste, a free-wheeling native of Miami, was looking for.
The misery struck quickly, and it struck hard. Baptiste was immediately unhappy to find how few Blacks were at Creighton. And he despised the cold weather. In his first year, he cut classes regularly and was declared academically ineligible for freshman basketball.
As a sophomore, Baptiste edged by academically. The stories of his tribulations differ drastically. “We know Cyril had a lot of problems and that he wasn’t happy here,” said Dan Offenburger, chairman of the school’s physical education department and Baptiste’s academic advisor. “And this is a tough academic school, like all Jesuit colleges. Cyril was interested in playing basketball, but a kid who comes here has to have a deep-seated academic interest. And Cyril never did.”
That was Creighton’s side of the story. Schaffel explains it quite differently.
“Creighton is tough for any kid who’s not Catholic and white. Creighton told Cyril that all he ever had to do was go to class—everything else would be taken care of. He earned 76 hours of C’s. He never got a B or an A; never a D or an F. Just 76 hours of Cs. He never once took a test. He never raised a hand. He just sat there. All he ever was to Creighton was a 6-foot-9 dynamo.
As a sophomore, Baptiste’s basketball brilliance and cultural hardships became magnified. In his first year of college ball, Cyril averaged 12 rebounds and 19 points, and there were also reports that he was “fooling around with drugs,” according to Ed Sutton, who replaced McManus as Creighton’s head coach. There were also reports of racial unrest from the Black athletes, among whom Baptiste was a respected member.
The important statistics that came out of Baptiste’s junior year were 11 rebounds and 20 points per game, plus one case of heroin addiction. Baptiste admitted to his lawyer Jim Morse, that he began getting involved with drugs late in his sophomore season and continued through his junior year. “He played a year of college basketball on drugs,” Morse said. “It just shows you what a super athlete he was.”
The racial unrest continued at Creighton, and when Baptiste dropped out of school two weeks after his junior season ended, several Blacks also quit the athletic program. Baptiste’s departure was one of mutual agreement. He didn’t want Creighton, and Creighton didn’t want him. But the NBA Phoenix Suns did.
“When Baptiste first dropped out of school, Phoenix offered him $600,000,” said Jerry Davis, another attorney-agent with All-Pro Reps. “They pinned down a figure with us, we accepted, and it was a quick, handshake sort of thing.”
The Suns did not know of Baptist’s drug addiction at the time, and Davis and Schaffel say they didn’t know either. And who would suspect it? UCLA’s Sidney Wicks and Villanova’s Howard Porter, both seniors, were considered the nation’s two best college forwards. Baptiste, a junior, was said to be No. 3. With the bidding war between the National and American Basketball Associations raging bitterly, $600,000 for a man of Baptiste’s talents seemed reasonable. Of the country’s three top forwards, only Baptiste could play center, too.
The Phoenix deal just missed. Since Baptiste was still an undergraduate, the NBA could not sanction his being signed. It was solely for the sake of signing Baptiste that the NBA instituted its hardship draft the next season, which was a draft of college underclassmen who could play pro ball before graduating if there was a financial hardship. That was Cyril Baptiste, whose entire life was a hardship—financial and otherwise.
On September 12, 1971, Baptiste signed a four-year, $450,000 contract with the Golden State Warriors. “Cyril can no longer be considered a financial hardship case,” said Harry Jupiter, a Warriors official.
After all the misery, it finally appeared as though Baptiste had made it. He was a pro in the world’s best basketball league, which was his life’s goal, and he had saved his financially troubled family. Plus, the Warriors had a Black head coach in Al Attles, and perhaps the warmest and most father-like owner in all of sports in Franklin Mieuli.
“He’s not a strong kid,” Schaffel said. “He needs a coach that’ll be like a father to him.” The Warriors were perfect. Almost.
Davis said, “The first two days were fine (with the Warriors) and then somehow he got hooked up with some guy out there (in San Francisco) and started with drugs again. I don’t know what was in his psyche to do it again. It was a good situation for him. But something snapped.
“At that point, we started getting calls, some of them at midnight, from the Warriors. Cyril left camp, thein came back, all sorts of weird things.”
The first week of camp, the Warriors put Baptiste under medication for a week and then he worked out again. He stayed with the team throughout the exhibition season. The longest he played was six minutes. The Warriors knew of Baptiste’s drug problem, but he was “clean” when he reported to rookie camp, according to Davis. The day that the 1971-72 season opened, word came from the Warriors that Baptiste had been released after failing his physical.
“It was a sad case,” said Warriors general manager Bob Feerick. “He was a sick kid. That’s all you could say. He just didn’t pass the physical. We did everything we could for him.”
That seems true. But Baptiste broke Mieuli’s heart, just as Rick Barry had done a few years earlier when he jumped from the Warriors to the ABA. “Mieuli took a special interest in Cyril,” Schaffel said. “He never once saw the kid smile. He never heard him talk. It made Mieuli sad.”
Mieuli tried. He went so far as to hire an analyst at a cost of $60 a day, just to have someone sit and talk with Baptiste. It didn’t work. Cyril left San Francisco and went to Washington, D.C., where his older sister, Bernadette, works for the FBI. Schaffel and Davis persuaded a friend, tennis pro Jack Schore, to let Cyril stay at Schore’s Maryland apartment while he was receiving help from the Narcotic Treatment Administration.
“It’s the drugs, nothing else, behind all this,” said attorney Morse. “The stuff is so vicious. Stick that needle in, and it’s all over. It’s so sad. Here’s a kid who’s been used all his life because he was a great basketball player.
“He’s a gentle guy, not violent at all. And definitely a warm, friendly person. He was captured by drugs. The devil owned his soul.”
On August 9, 1972, Baptiste walked into a Maryland courtroom dressed in blue jeans, a blue work shirt, and no socks. He was manacled to a jail attendant. An understanding judge, Joseph M. Mathias, gave him a three-year suspended sentence after Cyril was convicted of arson, a felony.
Penniless, Baptiste was flown to Miami, where he was placed under the care of his financially troubled mother. It was not an easy moment for Elsie Mae. Eighteen years earlier, Cyril Baptiste, Sr., had been killed and now she had to face Cyril Baptiste, Jr., who, at the age of 23, had killed the opportunity of a lifetime with drugs.
What remains is Baptiste’s fight to break the addiction that ruined him. There is an incentive. Schaffel says that three NBA teams—Chicago, Kansas City, and Philadelphia—would be willing to give Baptiste the tryout if he can get his body into shape. At least one ABA team is known to be interested.
“If he made a team this year, his earning capability would be very modest,” Schaffel said. “He could probably sign for $20,000. But, after that, if he gets straight, he has unlimited earning potential.”
Unlimited potential. Such is the final insult to a tremendously gifted young man. Perhaps it is the ironic end to Cyril Baptiste’s story.