Long before Jeremy Lin there was Billy Ray Bates
BY MARK POTASH Twitter: @MarkPotash March 12, 2012 2:25PM
Like Jeremy Lin, Billy Ray Bates was a little know player who took the NBA by storm. Bates averaged 26.7 points in six career playoff games, ninth all-time and the highest of any non-starter.
Updated: March 13, 2012 10:16AM
Jeremy Lin is in Chicago, but ‘‘Lin-sanity’’ is all but a vapor, having dissipated like almost any other phenomenon that can’t possibly survive the suffocating effect of incredible excitement and the tremendous weight of impossible expectations.
Beatle-mania it was not. When the Beatles played in Miami after taking New York by storm in 1964, they were white-hot on the Ed Sullivan Show. Jeremy Lin went to South Beach and shot 1-of-11 from the field, scored eight points and committed eight turnovers in a loss to the Heat.
Lin drew plenty of attention at the United Center when his New York Knicks played the Bulls on Monday, but he’s more of a celebrity than a sensation. After averaging 25 points and 9.2 assists per game and shooting 51 percent from the field in his first nine starts, Lin is averaging 16.3 points, 7.2 assists and shooting 39 percent from the field in his nine starts prior to playing the Bulls. The Knicks were 8-1 in those glorious first nine games. They’re 2-8 in his last 10 starts.
The 6-3, 200-pound Lin still is an effective player. But just five weeks after Lin-sanity erupted in New York City, that’s all he is — a good, sometimes great player whose staying power in the NBA more than likely will be determined by how opponents respond to him as much as how he responds to them. At this point, it does not appear that he controls his destiny.
Whether Lin lasts 10 years in the league or 10 months, he’ll always be remembered for his sudden impact that had New York acting like a little kid, the entire NBA taking notice and President Obama weighing in on Lin-sanity. But let the record show, if you strip away the myth from the man, that as NBA phenomena go, he still can’t touch Billy Ray Bates.
Yes, Billy Ray Bates — a forgotten relic of a bygone era but still the standard by which all NBA flashes are measured. A 6-4, 210-pound guard out of Kentucky State in the late 1970s, Bates was playing for the Maine Lumberjacks of the Continental Basketball Association when the Portland Trailblazers signed him in February of 1980.
Desperate for a scoring guard, the Trailblazers got more than they bargained for. While similar to Lin in size, Bates was the polar opposite in style. A sturdy leaper who was nicknamed ‘‘Dunk’’ at Kentucky State, where he played in the shadow of All-America forward Gerald ‘‘Superman’’ Cunningham for three years, Bates reportedly broke five backboards in one season in the CBA.
‘‘He was an explosive player with a great scoring ability,’’ said Ron Brewer, the former Bull who played with Bates in Portland. ‘‘His idol was Dr. J., so his thing was, if he could dunk on you he was going to do it. When he would attack the rim, his hands were so big he would grab the basketball like an orange and [dunk it]. And he would score in bunches.’’
Sparked by a breakthrough game against the Bulls, when he scored 16 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter of a 110-108 loss, Bates averaged 15.3 points in the final 11 games of the regular season, helping the Blazers qualify for the playoffs.
But he was just warming up. Still coming off the bench, Bates became a dynamic offensive force in a best-of-three playoff series against the defending NBA champion Seattle Supersonics. Bates scored 29 points in a Game 1 loss, 20 in a Game 2 overtime victory, including the tying basket in regulation, and 26 in a Game 3 loss in Seattle. He became the first rookie in NBA history to lead his team in points (25.0) and assists (4.0) in a playoff series
‘‘He was a special physical talent,’’ said Bulls director of basketball operations Jim Paxson, a rookie guard on the 1979-80 Trailblazers. ‘‘He literally won Game 2 in Portland. And our fan base — Portland had a great fan base — they fell in love with Billy Ray right away and he became pretty much a local hero for sure. And after that series in the Northwest everybody knew about him.’’
The Billy Ray Bates legend only grew the following season when Bates continued to come up big off the bench with a knack for making the most of limited minutes, scoring not only in bunches but at critical times. He scored 27 points, including the game-winning basket in the final seconds, to beat the Bulls 116-115. He scored 27 points in 26 minutes against the Knicks. He scored a career-high 35 points in 25 minutes in a victory over the Mavericks in mid-March. Two weeks later he scored 40 points in 32 minutes in a victory over the San Diego Clippers.
All this from a guy who averaged 20 minutes a game. In fact, Bates averaged 32.6 points per 48 minutes in 1980-81 — ninth best in the NBA. All eight players ahead of him were starters, and six of them are Hall of Famers: David Thompson, George Gervin, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Adrian Dantley.
He was outplaying some of the best players in the game at crunch time — Erving, Gervin, Larry Bird among them. When Erving hit two free throws to give the 76ers — who had the best record in the the NBA at the time — a one-point lead with one second to play, Bates took a half-court inbounds bass rom Kermit Washington and scored at the buzzer to win it. ‘‘He got mobbed on the floor, and he had already won some big games for us,’’ Paxson said. ‘‘It was another end-of-the-game, fourth-quarter that I definitely remember.
But it was more than just the points he scored that made Bates special.
‘‘When he touched the court, there was an aura for the Trailblazers that occurred,’’ Brewer said, ‘‘because we had a structured offensive system and we very seldom had an individual who would stand out like he did. So instantly when he came in on the floor it was like he would just take over the game.’’
Bates was even better in the 1981 playoffs against the Kansas City Kings. After averaging 13.8 points per game in the regular season, he scored 25 in a Game 1 loss. He overslept and missed practice before Game 2, then scored 26 points in a 124-119 overtime victory to keep the series alive. The Trailblazers lost Game 3 and the series, but Bates scored 34 points — 22 of them in the second half.
Bates averaged 26.7 points in six career playoff games — ninth on the NBA’s all-time list and the best ever among non starters.
Had Bates been playing for the Knicks, he might have become a national folk hero. Even while playing in Portland, the New York writers took a liking to him, referring to Bates as the ‘‘high-leaping substitute’’ who ‘‘looks more like a fullback than a backcourt man’’ and scored many of his points ‘‘in show-time portion.’’
As the New York Times’ George Vecsey put it, ‘‘After the game nearly half the fans [at Memorial Coliseum in Portland] remained to watch an interview show at mid court. The star was Billy Ray Bates, an acrobatic player from Kentucky State and the Maine Lumberjacks of the Continental Basketball Association. … The fans did not go home until Bates had ended the interview y chirping his trademark, a musical ‘‘Zippety-Doo-Dah,’’ which brought cheers as if he had stuffed another shot.’’
‘‘I guarantee you, it would have been a national story a lot quicker [if he played in New York],’’ Paxson said. ‘‘Billy Ray had a great energy about him. I can’t even imagine in New York City all the stuff that’s happening with Jeremy Lin, based on New York and the media.
‘Billy Ray, he didn’t have it to that degree. But it happened really fast for him. In some ways it was great and it was also tough on him to have the notoriety come so fast and the expectations and those type of things. He always had a big smile. He enjoyed life. And he was a fun teammate.’’
Unfortunately, Bates was not a Palo Alto-raised, Harvard-schooled kid when he came to the NBA like Jeremy Lin. He was the eighth of nine children from rural Mississippi — the real-life son of Mississippi sharecroppers who picked cotton and green beans and said he started drinking beer when he was 10 years old. He was the most popular player on the team. But even in Portland, his fame quickly became a burden he could not handle.
‘‘When he came ready to play, he played,’’ Brewer said. ‘‘You would have never known off the court the kind of stuff [he was doing]. The people close to him, even the Trailblazers organization, they knew. They were trying to do everything in their power to help him with his off-the-court antics. And that was probably the toughest thing, because his whole demeanor was, ‘I want to be a pro.’ The people he looked up to, he wanted to be out there playing with them. And now he go the opportunity to do that.
‘‘And the stardom that came with it, he didn’t know how to deal with it. After a ballgame, it would be bad that you followed him, because he would close clubs down. And he was the center of attention in the clubs. Portland is the only professional organization [in town]. When Billy would go into a club or a bar, afterwards, they gave him carte blanche service, because of who he was. He might have 25-30 people in his entourage — and they weren’t his people. they just wanted to be near Billy Ray.’’
It quickly took its toll. Bates missed a game late in his third season with the Trailblazers when he overslept. Two weeks later he scored 16 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Celtics. The next month he scored all 18 of his points in the fourth quarter and nearly beat the Bulls again.
But the drinking and drug use precipitated a steep decline for Bates. He was cut by the Blazers in September of 1982. He was picked up by the Washington Bullets and cut by them after 15 games. He was picked up by the Lakers and cut by them after four games.
That was the last he played in the NBA. He played in Mexico and Switzerland and became a star in the Phillippines in the late 1980s. But he was convicted of aggravated assault robbing a gas station in New Jersey and served seven years in prison.
Bates has been trying to get his life together ever since. But he still struggles with it. He was inducted into the Phillippine basketball Hall of Fame and hired as a coach for a team in the Phillippines league.
But according to news reports, Bates, 55, was fired last week for missing practices and ‘‘acts detrimental to the team,’’ Erick Arejola, manager of the AirAsia-Phillippine Patriots told the Phillippines News Agency.
It sounded like the same, old story.
‘‘We’re sincere to help him but he’s misbehaving of late and we have no other option but to sever our ties with him,’’ Arejola said. ‘‘I already warned him before but he missed several of our practices and made acts detrimental to the image of the team.’’
So much for the idea that Bates’ saga is a cautionary tale for Jeremy Lin. He’s coming back down to Earth. But he’s got his feet firmly on the ground.