[During the mid-1970s, Margaret Olwine was one of two general assignment reporters for the Sunday Magazine of the Kansas City Star. Olwine’s weekly assignments stretched her in many directions, from celebrating life on the American Plains to exploring group therapy, tapping into the biorhythms of the human body, profiling pro golferTom Watson, and keeping up with the NBA Kansas City Kings.
On December 12, 1976, Olwine published a feature for the Sunday Magazine about the Kings’ latest rookies, Richard Washington and Andre McCarter. The two were college teammates at UCLA, and they now faced widely divergent prospects in the pros. The 6-feet-11 Washington was the team’s first-round selection in the 1976 NBA draft (third pick overall) and presumably one of the franchise’s cornerstones for the next decade.
The 6-feet-3 McCarter, a former high school All-American with press clippings galore, had been overlooked in the NBA draft and entered the pros as an underdog. He was the Kings’ sixth-round pick and, thanks to his backcourt artistry and the team’s surprising decision to trade away its star point guard Nate Archibald, McCarter secured the team’s twelfth and final roster spot.
Olwine wasn’t an accomplished sportswriter, and her profile is mostly observational and stays mostly on the surface of NBA life, minus the depth of most of the old articles published on this blog. But McCarter is a blog reader and, well, I wanted to give him his due. Thanks, Andre, for the memories at UCLA and for a few hard-fought seasons in the NBA. Hope you enjoy this blast from your Kansas City past.]
As all dyed-in-the-wool professional fans know, the Kansas City Kings traded their superstar, Nate Archibald, during the offseason. So, what does this mean? It means that Kings fans are going though withdrawal symptoms. They are temporarily frustrated by the lack of an ultra-gifted player to root for and idolize.
However, a new star looms on the horizon. He’s a rookie, Richard Washington, a 6-feet-11, 225-pound hunk of smooth coordination and self-conscious nice guy whom even an opposition coach could love. Or, at least drool over.
Washington, who is only 21 years old and fully two years younger than anyone else on the squad, is an athlete who appears to have everything. What he has, in the parlance of Phil Johnson, Kings’ coach, is a natural athletic ability that’s so easy and right that he doesn’t even look like he’s hustling when he’s hustling.
“Rich happens to be one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen,” Johnson states flatly.
Frankly, my first look at Washington was pure disaster, which explains why I am probably the only person in the recent annals of basketball who was not instantly enthralled by his highly touted abilities.
The occasion was a Kings-Seattle SuperSonics game, which the Kings won 126 to 106 . . . a runaway all the way, no thanks to Washington. He played between 20 and 24 minutes that night, making only two baskets out of 10 attempts—a far cry from his usual 51 to 53 percent success rate.
Seemingly, a foul was called every time he made a serious effort to guard an opponent under the SuperSonics goal. Several times, he let passes from teammates get by him. He even tipped a SuperSonics’ miss into the hopper for them.
Net score attributable to Washington: four points for the Kings, 10 for the SuperSonics. That was the Kings’ wonder boy? Their No. 1 draft choice?
The next day in practice, I saw a different Rich Washington, one who looked a lot more like the candidate for the National Basketball Association’s Rookie of the Year award that the Kings’ front office has been touting.
Shooting baskets at the Rockhurst College gymnasium, he arched in one basket after another from all the floor positions. Most were clean—right through the net. It was a beautiful sight to see.
In an intrasquad game, he glided from one end of the court to the other in 10 effortless strides. The night before, I had formed a rather negative opinion—namely that Washington wasn’t much of a hustler. But now I noticed what experienced athlete-watchers invariably perceive at first glance—that he was always in the right place at the right time and was picking off far more than his share of the rebounds.
The next night against the Indiana Pacers, he was totally effective, back in stride. Johnson said that the first game I saw was his only poor game out of seven. “Rookies are entitled to poor games now and then, and they all have them,” Johnson said calmly. “Most of them aren’t much help to a team until halfway or three quarters of the way through their first season. Rich helped us his first time out—against the San Antonio Spurs. He scored 24 points and picked off 13 rebounds.”
Washington has about as much going for him as can be imagined for a 21-year-old. There was never the slightest question about his making the cut. He has a five-year contract with the Kings, the amount of which has never been announced. But management hints it’s probably in the neighborhood of $500,000. So at 21, Rich Washington, high school and college All-American forward who also can play center, is drawing a paycheck of somewhere around $100,000 a year.
Not only is he making all that lovely money for playing 92 basketball games a year, he has also achieved a lifestyle which many a young man would find enviable. Out in front of his apartment in a sharp, new complex north of the river is a sharp, maroon van. He has an attractive, vivacious girlfriend named Leiko High. He has unusually good looks, beautiful clothes, an unusual measure of security, the enthusiastic support of the Kings’ management, the apparent support of his teammates, and an open sesame to the upper echelons of his sport alongside Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a handful of others.
At 21, Rich Washington appears to have it made . . . but not by his own evaluation. “I have a lot to learn,” he says quietly.
And how about Andre McCarter?
In the first place, McCarter’s situation on the team is much more precarious. He was not All-American in college as Rich was, and he just barely got in under the wire in the college draft. In fact, he was the Kings’ No. 6 pick, meaning that 92 other college players were chosen ahead of him. When he got to Kansas City, he had to outhustle and outplay several other draft choices and several free agents. He also plays guard.
“I’m thankful to make the team,” McCarter confided, “I didn’t expect to make it.”
Whereas Washington appears bland and cool, McCarter comes on as a heart-on-his-sleeve, super-intense sort of person. He projects this intensity in most situations—in practice, in game competition, in an interview.
Memorable was a recent practice at Rockhurst College gymnasium. Coach Johnson had clustered his squad in a section of the stands to study videotape of the previous night’s game. Washington sat high in the stands, somewhat removed from his teammates. When the others laughed, he smiled. When they guffawed (probably at his expense, for this was the game in which he’d played so ineffectively), he chuckled a bit.
McCarter, on the other hand, sat close to the coach and listened raptly to everything Johnson said. He glanced around occasionally, as if eager to share the information or mood of the moment with other players.
In a seesaw game with the Indiana Pacers the following night, Washington sat quietly on the bench watching the play with an expression as bland as ‘Lil Abner’s. He looked faintly excited and pleased when the coach signaled him to enter the game.
McCarter, on the other hand, squirmed in frustration. He did not get to play. As the No. 12 man on the roster of 12, he so far has been allowed to play mostly in “garbage time,” toward the end of games when the Kings are well ahead. That’s not too often.
But that didn’t dim his eagerness. When Coach Johnson called time and huddled with his players on strategy, McCarter hunched close, absorbing every word as if the game depended on him.
There’s no swank apartment or girlfriend for McCarter. He was living in a motel and looking for an apartment. He said that he dated some, but not regularly. “I keep pretty busy,” he said. “I’m a physical fitness nut—work out a lot. Lift weights. I go in for karate, all the martial arts. I like music, the fine arts. I play the flute.”
McCarter’s salary probably is around $40,000, as compared to the average pro basketball salary of $90.000. In an interview at Rich’s apartment, I asked McCarter what playing basketball meant to him.
“It’s a way of expression for me,” he responded earnestly. “It helps me get my mind off of everything else when I’m perfecting this skill I can do well. I enjoy basketball. Basketball is to me what music is to a musician, what painting is to an artist. I love it.”
And how about Washington?
“I like to play basketball. I’ve been playing since I was in the fifth grade, and I guess one reason I like it is because I’m good at it. I also like it because I like the kind of people who are in it. I’d like to stay involved with basketball. I don’t think I’d want to be a coach after I get through playing. But I think maybe I’d like to be involved part-time, maybe do promotional things, get up benefits.”
Rich said he likes “the way Coach Johnson goes about coaching.” He explained, “He has a very business-like manner. In practice, he expects something to be accomplished. That’s the way Coach Wooden was—business-like.”
He thought of other things he likes about basketball. “I like the competition of it . . . of a team working together with a purpose. Also, you meet a lot of interesting people and travel around. I like all of that. I like the fans here. They’re real supportive.
“I also like the players. I feel I can learn from all of them. The Kings have a real team spirit. Like yesterday when I had a bad game. Everyone tried to cheer me up. Nobody was down on me. Several said, ‘You’re not the only one who has a bad game.’”
I still had the idea in my head that Rich holds back somehow, that he doesn’t put out 100 percent. So, I asked him about it. He replied calmly that my hunch was right. “Ninety percent of the time, basketball is played at three-quarters speed,” he explained.
I’m pretty sure he meant his three-quarters speed, not necessarily that of other players. He finished his thought. “So, you play at the speed that’s required, and save your energy for when you need it.”
He paused again, looked down at me thoughtfully, and apparently decided that he’d make an effort to make me understand. “I have a philosophy. It’s not a particularly original philosophy, but here it is: A straight line is the shortest distance between two points. So, why go with a crooked line or a curve?”
I discussed this remark of Washington’s later with a friend who’s a truly hep sports fan. “Rich is a natural,” the friend said. “He has confidence in his ability. He’s trying to keep it natural, loose, and easy; and it’s the smartest, wisest thing he could do. Rich plays basketball the way O.J. Simpson plays football. He makes it look easy. The ones that make it look easy really find it easy. They’re the greats.”
McCarter also added his bit, trying to make me understand Washington’s style. “The competition Rich has played against, he didn’t have to put out. When he goes around this league a few times, and his competition gets used to him, he’ll have to put out more—and he will.”
The acquaintance of the two men dates back nearly four years. Washington was a top high school All-American and a versatile forward-center, and he was being heavily recruited by top college coaches all over the country.
“John Wooden sent for me to come down and look over UCLA,” Washington recalled. “Andre, here, was the one [whom] coach picked to show me around. We’ve been good friends—not necessarily best pals—ever since.” (Washington’s best friend and former roommate is Marques Johnson, a senior and basketball star at UCLA.)
Although McCarter is confident of his own abilities, he automatically assumes you understand that they’re not on a par with Washington’s. He displays not one iota of jealousy. “As for myself, my best assets are keeping myself in top condition and my quickness,” he asserted. “I have a lot of energy, and I’m a quick player. I’m trying now to use my quickness when I need it.”
Both said that the rookie year is hard in many ways. Pro ball is far more mentally and physically demanding than college ball, they emphasized. Rich: “At UCLA, we played 28 games in the regular season, or no more than a total of 32 games if we made the playoffs. In pro ball, you play 94 games. That’s a lot more wear and tear.”
Andre: “It’s four and five games a week, instead of maybe two on weekends. You don’t have as much time to get mentally and physically up for them.”
There’s also the fact that pros don’t get coddled when they sustain minor injuries. Washington, for example, is playing on a left ankle that he’s not quite sure of. He injured it early in the season in an exhibition game and missed five games because of it.
“I don’t know how I twisted it,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt now, but I’m concerned about hurting it again. So sometimes, I find myself favoring it and thinking about it. That’s not good.”
Washington sustained another injury early in the season. He pulled the flesh away from under the fingernail on the middle finger of his shooting hand. “Every time I shot,” he said, “the pain shot up my finger and up into my hand. Finally, it shot clear up the length of my arm every time I pushed the ball up.”
What did he do about it?
“I just kept on shooting. The thing about pro ball is it’s a full-time job. They’re paying you a lot of money, and they expect you to put up with that pounding every day.”
Andre: “The only time you get off is when you’re really hurt. You have to learn the art of playing—and playing well—with a charley horse or a pulled hamstring. If you were a starter like Sam Lacey, you’d be out there. The same with us.”
Rich: “They put you out there to test the injury, to see if you can handle the pain.”
Andre: “So you ignore the pain. You don’t get babied as in college ball.”
Another problem is the competition among teammates. Washington is vying with Bill Robinzine, a burly 6-feet-7 and 230 pounds of aggressiveness on and off the court. Robinzine fouled out 19 times last year, his rookie year. It was a dubious distinction, of course, but it did attest to his determination and fight. This year, Robinzine’s the starter; Washington is the sub. Robinzine is playing well and amassing more fan support with each home game.
Since the customary team makeup is one tall forward and one not-so-tall, Rich is in direct competition with Robinzine and no one else.
I noticed Robinzine engage Rich in a shoving match in practice. Jim Eakins, veteran center, stepped in and quietly broke it up. If Washington is upset over Robinzine’s rival tactics, he’s not admitting it. “Bill’s earned my respect, and I think I’ve earned his. I think we both realize what’s good for the team . . . He’s got the same character as the other guys. He’s helpful.”
“He tells you where the good stores are and all that stuff.”
He paused, plunged in again. “Bill does help the new guys, even though they want to take his spot.”
He paused again. “Part of the joy of playing is that you’ve earned your spot.”
Andre: “Another thing that’s tough for me—and I’m sure for Rich, too—is not starting. You have to adjust yourself to being a sub. I’m used to playing a lot. It’s tough to sit on the bench.
“But I try to adjust to the situation as it is. I’m No. 12. Naturally, they’re going to play the others more. It’s a matter of experience and economics, and I know it. They’re going to play a $100,000 player a lot more than a $30,000 player, for example.”
The only solution to that letdown, he emphasized, is to prepare yourself mentally, accept it, and figure that someday your big chance will come, and you’ll earn the starter’s slot.
It was Rich’s turn. He brought up the toughest rookie problem of all—getting used to the dirty tricks and physical violence of pro basketball. “They pull all sorts of tricks on you,” Rich said with a suddenly rueful look. “They shove your arm just as you shoot, especially under the basket. Then the fans wonder why you missed an easy one.
“They also have all kinds of tricks to get fouls called on you. You can just barely brush against a guy, and he’ll fall backwards on the floor like you shoved him really hard. If he’s lucky, he’ll get a couple of free shots.
“In pro ball, you are playing against five top players in every game. That alone makes it tougher and faster.”
I couldn’t resist commenting on Rich’s bland expression on the court. “Don’t you ever get angry?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “I get mad at the refs and at other players.”
What does he do about it?
“I tell them about it . . . usually after the game.”
Rich Washington may look as innocent and unaware as ‘Lil Abner, but once you start getting to know him, you figure that his bland expression is no more than a protective façade. He’s been a hero and a big man on campus since his freshman year of high school and through three years of college. He’s used to being stared at and idolized. The easiest way to handle it is to pretend he doesn’t notice. Unaware he isn’t. Naïve he isn’t . . . in a variety of ways.
One thing that had been puzzling me all along was his reason for not finishing college before turning pro. As you recall, he made himself available for the college player draft at the end of his junior year by declaring himself a hardship case. Why hadn’t he finished college?
“It was a matter of economics,” he explained. “With the ABA folding and more players eligible, I thought this was the last year of good contracts.”
Later, Joe Axelson, president and general manager of the Kings, confirmed that Rich had played it wise indeed to come in when he did. “With more players available and more competition for spots, I believe the days of super-contracts are about over,” he said. “Generally, too, salaries should drop a little.”
Axelson talked with me between halves of a tight game with the Indiana Pacers that the Kings ultimately won. “Everybody (himself, Coach Johnson, the Kings owners) is quite well-satisfied with what they’ve seen of Washington so far. Yes, Richard has the prospects of being a great player. He’ll be around a long time.
“A possible lack of aggressiveness was the only concern people had about him at all,” Axelson said. “We still don’t know how he’s going to react when someone really busts him one. But so far, he hasn’t backed down when someone has tested him. He’ll get a lot more of that as we make our way around the league a few times. He’ll get tougher defense when other players catch on to his style. But he’ll make it. He’ll do what’s required. He’s got character.”
Axelson also complimented Washington’s good disposition and a lack of cockiness. “He missed a photo appointment we’d set up for him. That’s the only thing he’s done wrong. I called him in and chewed him out. He took it fine. We haven’t had any trouble since.”
And how about McCarter?
“Well, Andre was the No. 1 high school guard in the country his senior year. He was heavily recruited for college. He was a starter at UCLA, but he didn’t make All-American, and he went downhill a little his senior year. So other clubs kind of overlooked him. We took him as our sixth-round draft choice, but remember, we traded away No. 4 and No. 5.
“Andre has a good body. He’s fast, and he works hard. That’s his secret. He’s aggressive, too. He’s a playmaker. We were glad to get him before we traded Archibald.”
Back to the two rookies: What are their plans for the future:
Rich who majored in history in college, but was in process of switching over to psychology, says he’d like to play pro ball about 10 years, then you go back and finish college. Other than that, he has no plans. “I’ve been pretty busy,” he says dryly.
Andre says he’s going to stick with pro ball as long as he can and save his money. “Athletics gives you a good start in life,” he philosophized. “Doctors and lawyers, they have to work hard to make it, and it takes them so long that they miss out on the fun part of their lives. In athletics, if you manage your money right, you’ve got it to live on and enjoy while you’re young. You also have a cushion for the future.
So there they are, Rich and Andre, two rookies from UCLA who are about as different as two guys could possibly be. One is a super-talent, the kind of talent, many believe, that comes along maybe once in every five or 10 years. The other is a hustler hanging on by his fingernails. One is Mr. Cool, maybe a little bit shy and inexperienced, yet still used to attention and adulation, still used to things coming somewhat easily because of his striking looks and his talent. The other earnest, intense, serious, an opportunist who expects to make his own opportunities, yet still he projects a pleasant, likable personality.
With a little luck, both of them will remain on the Kings’ roster for a long time. If they do, they’ll be fan-pleasers, that’s for sure.
[Washington battled frequent injuries and high expectations in Kansas City. It was a double whammy, and the perfect entre for his critics to attack his cool demeanor. Washington lasted just three seasons in Kansas City and six seasons overall in the NBA. He exited in 1982 with career averages of 9.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. McCarter completed his rookie season and one game of the next campaign as a King. Then he was waived. As a testament to his love of the game and oncourt artistry, McCarter stuck with it and returned for an encore NBA season with the Washington Bullets in the 1980-81.]