On the day last May that Pooh Richardson learned he hadn’t survived even the first cut at the U.S. Olympic basketball trials, his career seemed to have all but unraveled.
In little less than a year, he had gone from being a starter in the Pan American Games to being sent home less than a week after his arrival at Colorado Springs, Colo., unwanted and underdeveloped, it seemed, in some areas of his game.
Walt Hazzard, who lured him west from Philadelphia, had been fired at UCLA.
And Richardson, who only a year before had helped UCLA win the Pacific 10 Conference championship as a sophomore, had endured the slings and arrows reserved for the leader and focal point of a dissension-racked, underachieving team that won only 16 of 30 games.
“I think he was stunned and somewhat disappointed by the sequence of events,” said Ken Hamilton, his coach at Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin High School. “Usually, things seem to go his way.”
What was Pooh to do?
“Deal with it,” Pooh said.
The dealing is done.
Richardson is again recognized as one of the country’s best.
He has put together his most productive season. His game has matured. He is more disciplined and makes brighter decisions on the court, where he no longer forces the action. His defensive ability has surprised even his most ardent supporter, Coach Jim Harrick.
His shooting has improved dramatically, a result of workouts with the Lakers’ Magic Johnson last summer and with Bruin assistant coach Brad Holland through the fall and winter, and his turnovers have decreased.
And he is dealing and dishing the ball as well as ever.
Last weekend, he set a UCLA record for assists, for the third straight season, and overtook former Arizona guard Russell Brown as the Pac-10’s all-time assist leader.
Moreover, UCLA is back in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament. The Bruins, 20-9 and making only their second appearance in six years, will play Iowa State (17-11) here tonight at the Omni in a first-round game of the Southeast Regional.
Forwards Don MacLean and Trevor Wilson are UCLA’s leading scorers, but Richardson has led the Bruins back to prominence.
As Harrick told MacLean and Wilson last December: “You guys ought to put him on your shoulders and carry him around because he’s taken a spoon and fed you.”
Richardson has dished up a portion for himself, too.
He has averaged more than 15 points a game and made 56.2% of his shots while markedly improving his range. Richardson, who made only 47% of his shots last season and had attempted only 15 three-point shots in his previous two seasons, has made 50.6% of his 87 three-point attempts this season and led the Pac-10.
He said that workouts with Johnson last summer made him more comfortable with and adept at stopping and pulling up for jump shots at the end of the fast break, rather than wildly forcing the ball all the way to the basket.
Holland refined Richardson’s shot.
“We broke it down and worked on some things, especially (the placement of) his elbow and his follow-through,” Holland said. “When that was solidified, we worked on the mental side, which is confidence and concentration and (deciding) what is a good shot and when is the best time to shoot it.”
Richardson deserves most of the credit, Holland said.
“He’s been willing to work hard and admit that he needed the help,” Holland said. “It’s been gratifying to work with a kid who’s so coachable and so responsive.”
Those would seem to be unusual traits for a player of Richardson’s stature and experience, but Richardson has suggested that he didn’t receive much guidance in three seasons under Hazzard.
“I don’t know if he was the coach I thought he’d be because I never gave it much thought,” Richardson said of Hazzard, a fellow Philadelphian. “But as a player from Philadelphia, in his mold, I wasn’t allowed to do some things that I thought he would let me do.”
One of the Bruins’ problems last season, Richardson said, was that the players’ roles were not clearly defined, including Richardson’s.
Hazzard told him to stop shooting, he said, after he scored a career-high 25 points in a 116-110 double-overtime loss to Stanford.
“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do and a lot of the other guys didn’t know what they were supposed to do,” Richardson said.
Harrick told them.
Richardson’s role is to control the action on the court, but Richardson wasn’t the leader at the start of the season that Harrick had envisioned.
“He was the jabberwocky leader,” Harrick said. “He led with his mouth and didn’t back it up. But he has truly shut his mouth and let his play do his talking. He says, ‘You’re not going to play harder than me.’ And no one does. You’ve got to respect a guy like that.”
While allowing Richardson to run the team, Harrick also toned down Richardson’s style, telling him that wraparound passes and dribbling between his legs would not be allowed.
“I want clever, not fancy,” Harrick said. “Why make the difficult pass when the easy pass will get the job done?”
Getting the job done has put Richardson in solid with National Basketball Assn. scouts.
Marty Blake, director of scouting for the NBA, projects him as a first-round draft choice.
“Richardson, for a true point guard, is as good as anybody in the country,” Blake said.
Richardson can hardly believe the way things have worked out.
He has returned from obscurity.
“I didn’t think it was possible to sit down in the summer and think about the kind of year you’d like to have, and then have it happen,” he said. “That’s crazy.
“It’s almost gone, step by step, exactly as I planned.”
Tonight’s game will be televised live at 6:30 by Channel 2 and delayed at 12:30 a.m. by ESPN. . . . Iowa State, making its fourth appearance in the NCAA tournament in five years, was 7-7 in the Big Eight and tied for fourth place with Oklahoma State. The Cyclones lost to fourth-ranked Oklahoma in the semifinals of the conference tournament last Saturday, 76-74, on a last-second three-point shot by the Sooners’ Tyrone Jones.
Victor Alexander, a 6-foot 9-inch, 255-pound center, leads Iowa State in scoring and rebounding, averaging 19.8 points and 8.6 rebounds a game. Said Marty Blake, director of scouting for the NBA: “He was a big fat . . . last year, but he’s really toned down. He’s one of the better sophomores in the country. If this guy will make an effort to really get his body in shape, he’s going to be one of the top 10 or 15 guys drafted in two years.” Alexander has lost about 40 pounds since his arrival at Iowa State in the fall of 1987.
Iowa State has lost three of its top six players since the start of the season, including 6-5 forward Elmer Robinson, who was the Cyclones’ No. 2 scorer when he was declared academically ineligible in January. Two days later, backup center Daryl Spinks also was declared academically ineligible. Paul Doerrfeld, a 6-7 junior forward, was a starter until undergoing an appendectomy in December. He regained his starting position upon his return, but was lost for the season in January, when he had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.