The Cautionary Tale of Billy Ray Bates, 1982

[Near the end of his life, Jack Ramsay jotted down some parting thoughts on his illustrious basketball career as a coach, general manager, and media analyst. In 2005, Ramsay published his musings under the reflective title, Dr. Jack’s Leadership Lessons from a Lifetime in Basketball. Among those leadership lessons is a four-page cautionary tale titled, “Tough Opponents: Drug and Alcohol Use.” Mentioned prominently is the story of Billy Ray Bates, whom Ramsay coached in Portland. 

Here is Ramsay on Bates:

Billy Ray Bates was a talented 2-guard, who was undrafted from Kentucky State in 1978 and was acquired by Portland as a free agent in 1980. [Portland scout and administrator] Stu Inman had seen him play for the Maine Lumberjacks of the [minor league] CBA and thought he might give the team a backcourt boost in the stretch drive of an injury-plagued season. Inman arranged for Bates to come to New York, where the Blazers were scheduled to play the Knicks, so that I could work him out and decide whether to sign him.

After the team shootaround on the day of the game, I put Bates through a number of drills, to which he responded quite well. He was very raw, but had obvious offensive skills—he could shoot from a distance, drive and slam at the hoop, and was adequate with his ballhandling. I knew he’d have trouble defending, but the team was struggling on its way to a 38-44 finish, so I elected to sign him.

The players, who watched the drill work while waiting for the bus to take them back to the hotel, were impressed. Kermit Washington asked me if we were going to sign him. When I told him we were, Kermit’s face lit up, “He can play, Coach, that boy can play.”

Kermit Washington was spot on, and Ramsay picks up his narrative with Bates, a simple kid from the hardscrabble, cotton-is-king town of Kosciusko, Miss. (population 7,400), making a big splash in Portland. Neither he nor Ramsay were prepared for hoo-hah:

By the time we finished the six-game roadtrip, Bates was coming off the bench and injecting some life into the team offense. He had trouble remembering the plays, so we ran simple screen-and-roll plays for him when he came into the game. But he knocked down shots, rebounded, and played with a lot of enthusiasm—and the Portland fans loved him. Billy Ray became something of a folk hero. The Blazers signed him to a new contract, and before the following season, Billy’s face loomed large on billboards around town promoting milk for the area dairy association.

But we were soon to discover that, despite his boyish charm and his ability to put points on the board, he had problems off the court. It turned out he had learning disabilities. The coaches noticed that on roadtrips, when most of the players were reading books or magazines, Billy was gazing absently out the window or listening to music on his headset. We found that, on testing, his reading level was only that of a third grader. He agreed to begin a remedial reading program that the team arranged for him, but didn’t stay with it.

We also found that Billy Ray couldn’t say no to his new admirers, who regularly offered to buy him beers after a game, and sometimes he became belligerent when he’d had too many. Once when he had overconsumed while on the road, he put his fist through a stained-glass panel in a door leading from the barroom in the hotel and was refused further drinks.

That brings us to the article below, which ran in Basketball Digest in the March 1982 That’s right in the midst of Ramsay’s initial interventions to convince Bates to just say “no” and focus his energy on basketball. As the Oregonian’s Steve Kelley chronicles quite well, Bates is more than willing to get with the program and prosper in the NBA. Not mentioned here, in the end, all the fawning, unsolicited, let’s-get-a-beer attention would be too much for Bates and his limited will power. He sadly never truly learned to say “no.”]

It has been nearly two years since Billy Ray Bates came out of the woods of Bangor, Maine and slam-dunked his way into the National Basketball Association. He was greeted in Portland like some welcomed extra-terrestrial being. He was so different than the other Trail Blazers. He was everything they weren’t: exciting, unpredictable, creative, naïve, quotable.

All of those close encounters the Trail Blazers had been losing, they started to win—thanks to the roaring, soaring qualities of Bates. His spectacular month of March 1980 got the Blazers into the playoffs. He averaged 25 points per game in the three playoff games against Seattle, which was reputed to have the best backcourt in the league.

He became an instant celebrity. Everyone wanted to be his friend. Everybody wanted a piece of Billy Ray Bates and the naïve kid from Kosciusko, Miss., and the Maine Lumberjacks didn’t know how to say “no.”

People wanted to be seen with him. Billy Ray Bates was invited to parties, chased by women, clutched by hangers-on. Now, a year and a half later and Bates, now 25, is growing up. He’s met all the would-be friends. He has answered his telephone a dozen times a day listening to women asking him out. 

His oncourt role has changed. He has had to sublimate his talents so they blend better with the rest of team. While doing that, however, he sometimes becomes hesitant on offense. When that happens, he loses the explosiveness that is his trademark. Billy Ray was Portland’s fourth-leading scorer last season with a 13.8 per game average, despite being eighth in minutes played.

He still turns Blazer fans on with his sky-walking dunks. But he is playing less, and he is sharing the guard spotlight with Kelvin Ransey, Jim Paxson, and rookie Darnell Valentine. “I didn’t expect all that, the phone calls and all of those people,” Bates said. “I’ve outgrown that now. A lot of people I thought were my friends, well it turned out they weren’t. It took me a little bit of time to feel and find who my friends really are.

“For me, that was pretty difficult because I was a pretty easy guy, a little too friendly. Well, that’s over. I’m back to my bad game now. I pick my friends, and it’s pretty rare. In Portland, I don’t have many. I mean close friends.”

There still is a wild streak in Bates. He gets restless, especially after games. He Is a fun-lover, and his enthusiasm for life is infectious. “When you hang out every night, and if you chase women, it’s like playing another 48 minutes a night,” one former NBA player said. “You can burn out fast. Pretty soon, when you reach back for that extra step, it isn’t there.”

“We have to talk to Billy a lot. Bucky [Buckwalter] and I both do,” Blazer coach Jack Ramsay said. “He’s always going to need a lot of attention. Billy will be a continuing process. But he is such a breath of fresh air. You can’t help but like him. He is such a resilient personality.”

Ramsay and Bates had a heart-to-heart last January 22 at a time when it was suspected he was doing a little too much hanging out. “He [Ramsay] really didn’t come out and say he wasn’t happy with the way I was living,” Baters said. “We just sat down, and we had a rap. He wanted to know how I was living my day-to-day life. What I was doing. He didn’t say anything about drugs or women or partying. It wasn’t like that.

“He just wanted to know what I was doing with my everyday life. Really, he made me feel comfortable. I felt a lot better after we talked.

“I’ve separated all that bad stuff from me now,” Bates continued. “I don’t even have a beer no more. I could see that I was going to have to change my life. I just gave up drinking. Now it’s just milk and orange juice. I used to at least have a beer or so after a game. Now I don’t even have that. I just want to be able to say, ‘Hey, I don’t drink.’ I want to be able to feel that in my body and know that in my head.”

Bates (left) signing autographs for Portland fans.

Bates, who still is learning to play defense and learning to run a set offense, has learned the fine art of saying “no.” 

“When I came here, I just thought that all the people I met were going to be my friends. I didn’t realize that some people were going to hang on me as long as they could. Now, I’m null and void. I’m not seen anymore. I don’t hangout. I just go home and relax. You’ve got to tell people ‘no.’ Because people are always going to be running up to your face. I’m just going to do my thing now because I don’t owe nobody nothing.

“A few things have turned around as far as my game is concerned. I think I’m playing a little more under control. When I first came into the league, I was just hyper about scoring all the time.

“At that time, I was put in a position where the ball was always in my hand the majority of the time. Now it’s not going that way, so I’m being more patient and waiting for things to happen.”

Bates is taking the same patient approach to his future. “I’ve met a lot of people, got to know a lot of businesspeople. I’ve had a lot of people talk to me about getting into business and stuff, but I’m going to let my agent take care of that. I’m just going ahead and playing basketball. He’ll eventually find something that I’ll be comfortable with in the future.”

With Paxson shelved with an injury in last year’s playoff series with Kansas City, Bates got a chance to start. In three games, Bates scored 85 points, shooting . 565 on 35-of-62 shooting. He also dished off 13 assists. The Blazers Lost, however, two games to one despite Billy Ray’s heroics.

Bates has found one place in Portland that is an oasis for him. He has had at least one good friend who has helped him through the NBA jungle, his former high school pal, Floyd Brown.

“Floyd played ball with me in high school,” Bates said. “When I came to Portland, I was shocked to see him living here. He’s a good friend. He’s been like a brother to me. He keeps me out of trouble. When I’m not at home, I’m usually visiting him.”

At Brown’s home, Bates can escape the always-ringing telephone. He can concentrate on things that are important to him—basketball, music, and his close friends. He talks with Brown about the things he has learned about life in the NBA’s fast lane.

“This first was a learning experience for me,” Bates said. “I found out how difficult this life can be; that you have to be tough with some people, even if you don’t like being tough—because you have to survive.”

[Back to Jack Ramsay, his book, and his cautionary tale about Bates. If you don’t know the details of his fall from NBA grace, here in a thumbnail, eye-witness account is what happened after Kelley’s story ran in Basketball Digest]

As time went on, [Bates] began using illegal drugs and once didn’t arrive at a home game until halftime, despite attempts by trainer Ron Culp to call him by phone and those of a Portland police officer, who tried to rouse him by banging on the door of his apartment.

All the Blazers—management, coaches, players—and his agent, Steve Kauffman, were concerned about Billy. No one wanted to see him lose out on a great opportunity to make a career in the NBA, but his offcourt habits began to affect the quality of his play. We had many meetings with him, to try to get him to accept help for his dependence on alcohol and drugs. He went twice to rehabilitation facilities in the Portland area, but walked away before making any progress. In two years, he was out of the league.

He later played in a league in the Philippines, where he put up big numbers; and I saw him last in Philadelphia in the mid-1990s after a Heat-Sixers game I that helped telecast. He told me he was living in Camden, New Jersey, and was fine, though he didn’t say what he was doing . . . Sadly, Bates was later convicted of an armed robbery and served time in prison.

[For a longer and more up-to-date account of Bates’ ongoing struggles, check out Jon Wertheim’s 2016 “Where Are They Now” article in Sports Illustrated.]  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: