Impossible Dream? : Raymond Lewis, the 'Playground Legend' of Long Beach, Clings to Hope of Playing Pro Basketball as He Nears 32

Times Staff Writer

The self-proclaimed best basketball player in the world is pudgy and pushing 32, but the playgrounds' chain nets still beckon him and he responds, as always, with jump shots as soft as summer kisses.

Raymond Lewis is trying to get in shape.

The roundness that his face and stomach have acquired from too much beer and lying around waiting for ankle injuries to heal irritates him.

"You know what I'm gonna do tonight? I'm gonna run two miles and get all this off," he says after a few one-on-one games in which he showed moves as lustrous as they were a dozen years ago when it seemed the 6-foot-1 guard was a cinch for a long, lucrative career in the National Basketball Assn.

It Never Worked Out

He had expected that it would all be his. The dream house, a Rolls-Royce for him, a Mercedes for his wife, a pool, lots of money in the bank.

But it never worked out that way.

Still, Lewis refuses to believe it never will.

"I'm no quitter," he says. "I know I can fill an arena up."

The anger within him churns and his voice grows louder.

"Give me a chance in the NBA. Even now, the way I am (15 pounds too heavy at 195), I can go out and prove I'm the best."

If the nets ever become resistible, Lewis may attempt getting on with the rest of his life, something he has long postponed.

'It Burns Like Fire'

"Of course I'm going to give up someday, when I feel I can't play and no longer have the desire," he says. "Why the desire pops up every now and then is beyond me. I usually don't want it popping up because I would still like to get my degree and get into other things. But right now it burns like fire in me and there's nothing I can do about it."

Four years have passed since Lewis' last unsuccessful pro tryout, which left him bitterly complaining that he did not get a fair chance.

"I'm a realist," Lewis says. "I have to get up in the morning. That's the bottom line. That's what it's all about, going on."

But Lewis has not confronted the reality of being almost 32 years old.

"I'm still a young man. I like to feel I can still fly around those young boys," he says. "Why not give me a break?"

Too Old to Start

How many players can Jerry West, general manager of the Lakers, recall breaking into the NBA at 32?

"None," said West. "I think he'd have a real, real tough time."

Lewis sits in his rented house in West Long Beach, sips a beer and watches pro players on television, glimpsing a world that has always been agonizingly out of his grasp.

"I could be making what Magic, Dr. J and Bird are making, but like they say, such is life," he says.

On the screen are highlights of Michael Cooper of the Lakers and Dennis Johnson of the Boston Celtics. Lewis sizes them up and says:

"If D.J. got on me and the coach said, 'We need 40 from you,' you think I won't get it? I know I'm going to."

Cooper Versus Lewis

Two years ago in a summer league game in Compton it was Cooper, the NBA star, against Lewis, the legend of the playgrounds.

"Raymond had 56 that night," said Lorenzo Romar, an NBA player for four seasons with Golden State and a friend of Lewis.

"I've played one-on-one against World Free, Sidney Moncrief and Isiah Thomas. They beat me more than I beat them, but Raymond is harder to beat than any of those guys. Every player I've talked to said he'd be a great player in the NBA. It's really, really, really sad."

On the TV, Magic Johnson, who has a luxury home, is being interviewed.

"I see that home and I don't say that's supposed to be me," Lewis says. "I say that will be me. I'm not envious of any man in this world. I've always been the type of person who wishes everybody does well."

On days when his anger over the past is dormant, life is OK for Lewis.

"Kids who have had their dreams evade them and think life is a downer can see me still smiling and laughing," Lewis said, "and they say, 'If you can accept what happened to you, maybe I can.' Maybe that's my mission."

At Verbum Dei High School, Lewis says, "God kinda spoke to me. He said, 'You can be a great player.' After that, I started doing great things."

He led Verbum Dei to three Southern Section championships, then went to Cal State Los Angeles where he averaged 39 points as a freshman (scoring 75 in one game) and 33 as a sophomore.

The Philadelphia 76ers drafted him in 1973 and Lewis had a sensational rookie camp, scoring at will against Doug Collins, who later became a star. But a contract dispute followed and the 76ers claimed Lewis walked out.

But Lewis said the coach, Gene Shue, told him to sit out a year and mature.

Says He Didn't Walk Out

"People said I walked out, but I begged Shue to take me back," said Lewis. "And they were writing in the papers negative things about me to make people think I was some kind of a crazy person."

The next year Lewis had just about made the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Assn., but was prevented from playing when Philadelphia told Utah it was risking a lawsuit because Lewis was still under contract to the 76ers.

In 1975, Lewis, carrying a Bible, returned to Philadelphia because 76ers General Manager Pat Williams said watching Lewis made him quiver with excitement.

On the first day of camp, Lewis came down court against Lloyd Free, according to former Philadelphia writer Bill Livingston.

'Couldn't Handle It'

"He threw some stutter steps and four head fakes at Free and Free blocked his shot," Livingston recalled. "He had been bested at the playground game and couldn't handle it. He hung around, then vanished again."

Lewis says, "Lloyd Free didn't block my shot and he couldn't block my shot today."

Lewis said he left because the 76ers "tore up my original agreement and said, 'Now you have to make the team.' There were 12 guys on the team with guaranteed contracts. I said, 'Wait a minute.' "

That ended the Philadelphia story. The big money Lewis had dreamed about amounted only to the $25,000 signing bonus he received.

There have been other tryouts in the ensuing years, but Lewis maintains he was never really given enough playing time to show what he can do.

Lewis grew up playing basketball until 2 in the morning, making the nets swish in the moonlight.

He lived in Watts and those roots, he said, worked against him in later years.

It was always, " 'He's from Watts,' " Lewis said. "I was treated like I set Watts on fire.

"We lived on 103rd Street during the Watts riots (in 1965), the only people in the neighborhood with a swimming pool in the backyard. When they started rioting we were swimming. I remember the shots and people saying, 'Stay down.' My father was on the roof, wetting it down so it wouldn't catch on fire."

If there is a phrase that Lewis is more tired of hearing than, "Oh, he's from Watts," it is "Oh, he doesn't even work."

During the years Lewis has chased the basketball dream, his wife, Sandra, a computer operator, has been the family's main support. They have a son and daughter.

Wife 'Is a Godsend'

"That woman right there is a godsend," Lewis says of Sandra. "Who would have hung with me all these years?"

Lewis said he has had a job every year, but nothing permanent. "I've been bringing money in since 1973," he said. "I worked at my father's store, shipping produce, putting groceries on shelves."

Currently, Lewis is doing delivery work for Long Beach attorney Bob Bergmann.

"What could have been is tough on a young person," Bergmann says. "He's got to get that out of his system before he sets goals someplace else. It's a shame he doesn't have his degree. He would make a good coach. He's great with young people."

Lewis can see himself as an instructor.

"I'm not saying the NBA owes me anything, but I'd like to work for the Lakers, teaching players," he said.

"Or I'd love to be a scout. Wouldn't Raymond Lewis know what talent is?"

Summer is near and that has always been Raymond Lewis' time "to prove I am still me" on the gritty asphalt courts and in the stuffy gyms that he can only pretend are sparkling arenas.

He is known as "The Playground Legend," and although he gets no satisfaction from that title, it is his only one and he is driven to defend it.

"The focus is always on me," he said. "They know I'm a legend, but people are always saying, 'Well, has he still got it?' "

And each summer he tears up the leagues, scoring 50, 60 points a game to let people know he is still Raymond Lewis.

"I refuse to be forgotten," he says.

"I'm a fighter. I'm not going to say I'm not going to make the NBA. That's up to God. Only he will let me know, and until he does, I'll still be shooting my jumper."

With that vow, he heads for the gym at Paramount Park where the young boys and a new season await.

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