Ricky Sobers: The Bulls’ Man in the Clutch, 1982

[In our last post about James Edwards in Indiana, the name Ricky Sobers popped up quite a bit. Sobers was Indiana’s top guard at the time, and Pacers’ coach Slick Leonard had high hopes that “Sobers to Edwards is going to be a familiar saying around the league.” Well, Sobers played just one more season with Edwards, then tested free agency. It took him to Chicago, then Sobers tried free agency again.

But during the early 1980s, NBA free agency was still relatively new, and compensation was still required of any team willing to take another franchise’s property. And the compensation could be steep. It was a lesson that Sobers would learn firsthand in Chicago. 

In this brief, but excellent, article, the great John Schulian touches base with Sobers, one of the NBA’s true clutch performers back then, to hear about the challenges of free agency and the trials and tribulation of sticking in the league. Schulian’s article appeared in the January 1982 issue of Basketball Digest.] <  >

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In the magical game called basketball, too many disappearing acts take place when the time comes to put up or shut up. The clock does funny things that way, wraps an invisible noose around a man’s neck, and makes him look the other way as the final minute ticks toward nothingness. 

He’ll take every shot, except the most-important one. Score every point, except the one that decides between success and failure. He’ll vanish every night and make you wonder how Ricky Sobers, who takes these shots and scores those points, almost became a non-person in the NBA instead of the Chicago Bulls’ last-second salvation. 

It is hard to imagine Sobers flirting with oblivion now that he has established residence at the top of the key, searching for the ball, a pick, and the game’s biggest basket. You think of him not on the unemployment rolls, but ramrodding the Bulls past New York in last season’s playoffs. Doing the victory dance that began a week earlier when his 22-footer beat Indiana and established the cadence for the Bulls’ march into the playoffs.

“I got out my Magic Johnson shoes and started slapping five everywhere,” says Sobers. “It wasn’t like me—I’m usually not that emotional—but I had to do it. You understand? I had to.”

The electric charge that surged through him had been building since the long autumn days when he had neither team nor paycheck. After arriving in Chicago two seasons ago to add some much-needed ballast to the backcourt, he tested the free-agent waters and wound up without a port to call home.

The Bulls, flushed with the acquisition of rookie Ronnie Lester, thought they didn’t need Sobers anymore. Yet, the price they demanded as compensation when Atlanta and Denver came a-courtin’ had the same effect as a shotgun in the hands of a farmer with a comely daughter.

“I was in legal limbo,” Sobers says. “I didn’t know whether I’d catch on with somebody one week after the season started or one week before the season ended. 

“If it was necessary, I would have sat out the whole year. There was all that red tape I had to get through, and I’ll tell you the truth, man, it was a frightening feeling. The only thing I could do was believe that I’m a good person and that things happen to good people.”

Unfortunately, not everybody bought Sobers’ description of himself. In five years as a pro, he had built a reputation as a troublemaker, an occasional surly spirit with a decided distaste for practice.

The talk began in Phoenix, where he broke in as a first-round draft choice from Nevada-Las Vegas and finished the season playing the Celtics for the NBA title. “It all came so easy,” he says. 

Here was the kid who hadn’t played high school ball back home in the Bronx, the 6-foot-3 unknown who had ridden basketball’s underground railroad to junior college in Idaho, and suddenly, he was where he never thought he would be—the top. “If I’d been a fifth-round draft choice,” Sobers says, “that might have been better for me.”

But he was who he was. And what he was, including his reputation, followed him from Phoenix to Indiana to Chicago. “The NBA is a rumor league,” he says. Rumors, however, have a way of occasionally becoming facts. No wonder critics nodded knowingly when Sobers and Bulls coach Jerry Sloan collided two years ago. You could see the obituary of another wasted career being written already, and when the first 11 games of last season came and went without him, you wondered if Sobers could see it, too.

He tried not to look for as long as possible. He pumped iron and ran in the forest preserve by his home, ran “with the squirrels and all the other nuts,” ran until he was sure the Bulls had finished practice. Then he did his shooting in solitude and thought about the hard guys who had failed in the NBA because they wouldn’t bend, the guys he was beginning to resemble too closely. 

They were the ghosts who didn’t disappear until general manager Rod Thorn called to say the Bulls needed him after all. Ronnie Lester have been undone by his surgery-scarred knee once again, and Sobers was the best possible replacement—a bearded swashbuckler of 28 who would fire at will on offense, gamble on defense, and offer a guiding hand to precocious youngsters who frequently had trouble deciding which end was up.

What he wouldn’t do, whether the Bulls’ management wanted to admit it or not, was rock the boat, even when he learned he was going to be a sixth man for the first time in his career. “I didn’t try to take over when I got back to the team,” he says. “I just wanted to blend in.” 

Let the record show that Sobers failed magnificently. He tanked three three-point baskets against Phoenix in less than a minute, won no fewer than six games in the final seconds, and generally played like anything except the spare part he was prepared to be. “When the game is on the line, and the guys on the team put the ball in your hands and say, ‘Here, Ricky, win it for us,’” says Sobers, “then you know there aren’t any more questions about your attitude or your determination or your ability.”

He got the message against the Knicks in the playoffs, got it when David Greenwood stuffed the ball in his gut with nine seconds remaining, and left him to wrench free of the Knicks’ Ray Williams. The Bulls were counting on Sobers to set the table for the 115-114 overtime victory over New York that pushed them over their inaugural playoff hump, and to do that, he had to chop down some tall trees. 

Seven-foot Bill Cartwright fell first, watching helplessly as Sobers pounded past him to challenge 7-foot-1 Marvin Webster in front of the basket. When he should have been saying, “Oh my God,” Sobers was saying, “What the hell.” He stared Webster in the navel, arched his shot over the giant’s outstretched arms and, as the ball slithered through the net, you thought of the way Sobers describes the season that almost got away from him: “I defied some odds.” The habit is hard to break.

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