Pooh Richardson: As Chill as a Cucumber, 1993

[As long as the NBA has been selling hoops, its small-market teams have drafted big-city rookies and shilled their big-city dreams. Sometimes the union works; other times, the big-city rookie can’t wait to get out of the small-market town. In this article, from the February 1993 issue of SPORT MAGAZINE, the talented Thomas Bonk of the L.A. Times meets up with Philadelphia native and former UCLA point guard Pooh Richardson, who is entering his fourth NBA season. 

As Bonk knew, the hip, 6-feet-1 Richardson was the first-ever draft choice of the expansion, small-market Minnesota Timberwolves, the 10th pick overall in the 1989 NBA Draft. On TBS, which covered the 1989 draft live, college analyst Billy Packer, clearly no fan of Pooh, sounded shocked by the choice, while his TBS colleague and college coach Bucky Walters declared the selection “a steal” at number 10.

And so it went. No two experts could agree on the undersized, ball-dominant Richardson and his always-cool demeanor on the court. Some wanted more of this; others demanded less of that. What Richardson wanted was to get off of Minnesota’s expansion merry-go-round as soon as professionally possible. “When I got to Minnesota, I was going to play hard and do the best I could,” he later explained, “but my heart was really back in L.A,” where Richardson could let his inner sports celebrity shine.

In 1993, when Richardson sits down with Bonk, he’s neither in Minnesota or L.A. He has just signed a free-agent contract with the small-market, but established, Indiana Pacers. Things will go fairly well in Indianapolis for most of the next two seasons. Or, until a shoulder injury and a misunderstanding with the front office intervene. By October 1994, either to appease or be done with Richardson, the Pacers trade him to where he always wanted to be . . . in Los Angeles . . . with the Clippers. He would spend five productive seasons with the big-market Clippers, then call it an NBA career at age 33.] 

Pooh Richardson was a genuinely impressive sight as he walked into the Beverly Hills restaurant—so downright cool that he chilled the cucumbers in the salad bar as he strolled past. There was the ever-so-chic Armani floral print shirt, the collar just so, but it was not the clothes that made this man; it was the gold—so much of it that he might’ve sunk under the weight of anymore. 

He blinded with glare the closer he got, and after the preliminaries, I still couldn’t take my eyes off the jewelry. He ran a gold-and-diamond-laden finger down the face of the menu. On one wrist hung a diamond-studded Rolex; the other was adorned with a heavy gold ID bracelet, the name “POOH” spelled out in yet more diamonds. 

This man looked so much like a star, you’d never guess he’d been languishing in virtual obscurity up near Canada somewhere, a place with a lot of lakes and forests. The name of his former team says volumes—the Timberwolves.

While Minnesota is undeniably a beautiful state, it’s downright lonely for a would-be celebrity athlete, a basketball player who flourished at UCLA under the glow of the attentive media. 

The formalities over, the orders placed with the waiter, Richardson launches a discussion about the obscurity of playing in Minneapolis, a smaller, out-of-the-way city. Consider, says Richardson, a “guy like Kirby Puckett, arguably one of the best offensive players in baseball. How much do you really hear about Kirby? Same thing with my situation. [People] know [Kirby’s] a good player, and he’s won. What else? He still doesn’t get the recognition like Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, guys like that, because they are in large markets.”

Richardson’s probably the best point guard you’ve seldom heard of, thanks to his spending the first three years of his pro basketball career in what he feels was a virtual media void. That may now change due to the trade that sent him to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Chuck Person. He got a new start and a second chance at stardom.

“Getting traded,” he says, “is like being drafted all over again. But you got one advantage: You’ve been through it before.”

He surely has been through it, this Jerome Richardson of Philadelphia, nicknamed by his grandmother, who took one look at the infant point-guard-to-be and was struck by his uncanny resemblance to the main character in the children’s story Winnie the Pooh.

The name stuck, as did Pooh’s love for basketball, although he had to move around some to satisfy it—from the legendary playgrounds of Philly to the legendary playground of UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion to the, well, not-so-legendary playground of Minneapolis’ Target Center. 

The Timberwolves may not have been the franchise of anyone’s dreams, but there were doubts during his junior season at UCLA about Richardson being drafted by anyone at all. “At one juncture,” he says, “I was hearing maybe I wouldn’t get drafted because I was too small.”

His UCLA stats were impeccable—all-time team leader in assists and steals, 11th in scoring, and top 10 in three-pointers and games. The 6-feet-1, 180-pound physique, however, was underwhelming in a game where 7-footers are not uncommon. In the NBA, point guards come in all shapes and sizes, but Magic Johnson’s emergence into the league made height fashionable and changed the position’s entrance requirements.

For a while, all you had to do was stand flat-footed and graze your head on the bottom of the backboard to nail down a roster spot. But there’s been a swing back in the other direction in recent years toward the not-very-tall-yet-strong types.

“I think it’s just how big your heart is,” Richardson says, “and all those guys have great heart—you know, [Tim] Hardaway, Kevin Johnson, [John] Stockton, Gary Payton.”

The new breed, says Pooh, is characterized by aggression. “It’s an aggressive person’s league,” he says. “You may not score a lot, but you will be noted for steals on defense, for what you create for other players, for setting picks.”

The job of the point guard might just be the most intriguing position on the floor. The shooting guards shoot; the centers block shots, rebound, and score; the rebounding forwards rebound; the small forwards shoot and defend the best-shooting forward on the other team. And the point guard?

“You really don’t want to shoot. You just want to keep feeding those guys. Makes your job a little easier,” says Richardson. “You get a charge out of it when everybody else on the team is shooting the ball and doing things.”

In Minnesota, no one shot the ball well, so all of that was rather theoretical. With the Timberwolves, Richardson was sort of a sacrificial lamb. The first draft choice for the first-year Timberwolves, he was a steady rookie on a shaky team.

Richardson turned out to be the poor man’s point guard. Stockton had Karl Malone to dish off to, Hardaway had Chris Mullin, and Kevin Johnson had Tom Chambers. Pooh had no one—not even the guy who drafted him, personnel director Billy McKinney, who was fired before long. Later, Coach Bill Musselman, with whom Richardson sometimes feuded, joined McKinney in the unemployment line.

Last year with the Timberwolves, Richardson was No. 7 in the NBA in assists, and his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.36 was eighth best. Still, he constantly has had to justify his draft position—he went four spots ahead of Hardaway—while leading a bad team straight to nowhere. And while Stockton, Hardaway, and KJ were piling up wins, Richardson piled up frustration.

“I try to do the best I can,” he says. “But I don’t think those guys could withstand what I withstood at Minnesota. I don’t think Stockton would be the 12-, 13-assist guy playing for the Timberwolves. They had guys who were not utilized correctly. That’s what happens with a young expansion team that did not affiliate itself early on with real basketball people in its front office.”

That was the big problem with the Timberwolves, according to Richardson. They weren’t—and aren’t—run by basketball people. “To get down to the bare facts in Minnesota,” he says, “most of it is just financial. They just don’t want to pay the players. They got to pay Christian [Laettner], but for the people who put the work out for that team and gave the team the name it does have, they don’t want to do anything about that.

“Now that I’m in Indiana, when you go to a new organization and find out how classy it is compared to another, how one organization reeks of basketball direction, basketball executives, and the other one has none—one, two basketball people at the most—it’s [easy] to understand. If you ask me what’s the difference between Minnesota’s team and Indiana’s team, I’d say the commitment to winning.”

So, Richardson’s roadshow continues. And finally, it seems to be going somewhere. He’s still not quite posing for the camera, but if things work out as well as he hopes, that might come. The best way for him to become a household name would be to play on a team that wins something besides the race for the first team to be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

After all, Richardson is undeniably an asset at point guard. He can pass, he can run the floor, he can run the offense, and he can shoot, even though he wasn’t so sure of the shot early on in his career at UCLA, where Reggie Miller was the outside weapon.

In Indiana, Richardson continues his quest to be somebody, well, big. Not in inches, but in rings, championship ones. But he’ll settle for less—like, how about a winning season?

For the first time in years, he’ll get to feel like something more than a talented loser. Pooh Richardson will once more be able to be the playmaking point guard without feeling like a chump.

“When you have a good team, a lot of times they look for direction and strength from the person who controls the ball the majority of the time,” he says. “For a point guard, that’s pretty nice, but only if you don’t mind sacrificing your game to help other players.”

Richardson doesn’t at all mind sacrificing his game—just as long as his team wins the game.

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