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Urban Legend

“What round were you taken in the NBA draft?”

Raymond Lewis held up one finger.

“How many points did you score against Long Beach State?”

He held up five fingers, then three fingers.

“We’re going to leave now.”

He curled his fingers tightly around my fingers.

But he was too sick. The tubes and tape stuck to his chapped lips and withered body were too much. It was too late.

We left. Everyone left.

Five days after my first and last visit with the best basketball player in the history of Los Angeles, Raymond Lewis died alone.

It was a Sunday morning, bathed in sun, then angry and dark.

The 6-foot-1 guard whose legend brushed every corner of a large diverse community died, at 48, in a sterile hospital room the size of a closet.

The man who’d flown died with one leg.

The man with the rich jump shot and priceless dribble died with no car, no phone and no money.

His burial is being paid by the proceeds of a life insurance policy purchased by brother-in-law James Pilcher.

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“I did it because the man is a dignitary,” Pilcher said.

The ruler of a kingdom of shadows. The presider over a congress of ghosts.

Every serious basketball fan in this city, playground runners and gym rats, from Compton to Crenshaw to the corner of Central and 109th, regards Raymond Lewis as the ultimate baller.

Yet he never played one minute of professional basketball.

He played only two seasons of college.

He never held a permanent job.

He never left Watts.

In those isolated spots in the rest of the country where Raymond Lewis is remembered, it is only for his stubborn will, his poor choices, his odd behavior.

Here, it’s about the jumper.

“Without exception, the best player ever to come out of L.A.,” Marques Johnson said.

Here, it’s about the time he scored 52 points in a summer league game against Laker rookies while in high school.

“The best high school player I have ever seen anywhere,” Jerry Tarkanian said.

Here, it’s about the time he took on the city’s 30 best playground stars in knockout games of one-on-one and went 30-0.

“How interesting that Allen Iverson won the All-Star MVP on the day Raymond passed away,” said George McQuarn, his coach at Verbum Dei High. “Because Raymond was the Allen Iverson of his day.”

The legend met the truth Sunday at 11:35 a.m. at County-USC Medical Center.

Lewis, an alcoholic, died after failing to seek medical attention for an infected leg, leading to an amputation from which he never recovered.

He spent his final days at home on a mattress on the floor of his mother’s tiny duplex in Watts, his leg rotting, his body failing, refusing medical help, even once shooing away paramedics summoned by his mother’s 911 call.

When he finally did agree to leave the duplex last month, he was blind and unable to walk because of an untreated stroke.

Once at the hospital, doctors told him he had 48 hours to live unless they amputated the leg, yet he would not consent.

“I can still go down to the corner and shoot the ball,” he told Pilcher. “If my leg is gone, I can’t do that.”

Desperate, Pilcher and Lewis’ uncle, the Rev. Joseph Peay, called the family to the hospital to persuade Lewis otherwise. One by one, relatives visited Lewis, pleading with him to have the amputation.

He finally agreed. But it took them all day.

When Raymond Lewis finally died, it was not as the object of a young man’s dreams, but as the victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.

“My father felt that if he wasn’t playing ball, he wasn’t worth anything,” said his daughter, Kamilah Lewis-Harris.

The tragedy here, for both a man and his community, is that he was right.

If he wasn’t playing ball, he wasn’t worth anything. He played as long as he could, for whoever would treat him like the star that he was.

Then he curled up on the floor and died.

I got the cell phone call Sunday morning while watching my 9-year-old son’s basketball game.

It was from Pilcher, who had held Lewis’ hand with me five days earlier.

“Raymond has passed,” he said.

At that same moment I looked up to see a little boy hit a 15-foot jumper, then dance downcourt ahead of his teammates, one arm raised to the sky, another arm grabbing his jersey, dancing alone.

*

In his last pickup game, Raymond Lewis challenged James Pilcher for $10 and a six-pack of Coors.

Lewis made 15 consecutive shots.

He was 41.

In one of his last public appearances, Lewis agreed to pose for a shoe company billboard for an advertising campaign about playground legends.

While waiting for the photo shoot, he wandered over to a basketball goal in a nearby parking lot.

Marques Johnson, working in a TV studio nearby, walked up and saw Lewis shooting.

“He’s out there in his black slippers and he’s firing,” Johnson said. “Swish. Swish. Swish. At least 15 straight.”

The last vision was an appropriate one.

A parking lot goal, because that is where he was most comfortable.

Jumpers, because that is what he did.

Slippers, because he never left home.

Even when he was given a red Corvette to sign at Cal State L.A. out of high school in 1971, Lewis wouldn’t leave the neighborhood.

“I remember talking to one of his friends two weeks after he got the car, and he said Raymond is doing nothing but driving circles around Watts,” Tarkanian said.

His decision to attend Cal State L.A.--instead of signing with second-choice Tarkanian at Long Beach State--is generally regarded as Lewis’ first mistake.

At the time, he had led tiny Verbum Dei to three consecutive CIF championships. He was so much better than his opponents, McQuarn ordered him not to shoot during the first five minutes of each game, in hopes of teaching him teamwork.

One night in Lewis’ senior year, McQuarn took him to dinner with John Wooden.

But the pyramid of success didn’t mix too well with the star.

“As soon as we got in the car after the dinner, he said, ‘Coach, you know I’m not going to UCLA,’ ” McQuarn remembered. “It wasn’t his type of program.”

Seemingly a legend from age 3--when he kept his parents Ella and Raymond Lewis Sr. awake at night by shooting socks into a plastic hoop by his bed--Lewis wanted to play somewhere that he could still be a legend.

His coach and family pushed him toward Tarkanian, who they believed could let him fly while helping him get to the NBA. He initially agreed.

But when numerous sources say Cal State L.A. offered him the car, and scholarships to several of his friends, at the last moment, Lewis changed his mind.

“I would have loved to have him,” Tarkanian said. “I really think if I had him, things would have been OK.”

At first, it was still OK. His first year, he led the country’s freshmen in scoring at 39 points a game. His second season, he finished second in scoring among all players at 33 points a game.

Walk into any barber shop in the city and somebody there will tell you about his 53 points in a double-overtime victory over Long Beach State that year. Many say it was the greatest game in this city’s history.

Tommy Hawkins, the Dodger executive who used to serve as a commentator with Ross Porter on Channel 4’s weekly high school telecasts, walked into such a shop last week.

Turns out his barber was one of Lewis’ old girlfriends, and the guy sitting in the other chair was a former teammate of Lewis.

“He was an absolute hero to everyone who knew him,” Hawkins said. “And an all-time troubled human being.”

*

So many people loved Raymond Lewis. Yet when he needed them most, he chose to be alone.

His first contract negotiations after being taken as the 18th and final first-round pick in the 1973 draft? He was alone.

“I wanted to represent him, but he thought agents couldn’t help him,” agent Fred Slaughter said. “It was his first mistake.”

The Philadelphia 76ers paid top overall pick Doug Collins more money per year, $200,000, than Lewis was being paid for three years, $190,000.

When Lewis grew angry about the contract after playing well against Collins in summer rookie camp? He was alone.

When Lewis decided not to show up on time for regular training camp because the 76ers wouldn’t renegotiate a deal that had been signed a few months earlier? He was alone.

“The tragedy here is that he received some really bad advice,” said Collins, now an NBA commentator. “When you are going to a team that was 9-73 the year before, you just go play. And he could really play.”

He rejoined the team during his first training camp just in time for an exhibition game in Collins’ hometown, Normal, Ill.

Obviously overshadowed, he left the game at halftime. Alone.

And that was strangely, sadly, the end of the career of Raymond Lewis.

“He was a terrific player,” said Gene Shue, then the 76er coach. “But somewhere along the line, something happened to him.”

He didn’t show up for his second 76er season because he thought he could play for the ABA’s Utah Stars. But moments before his first game, the 76ers threatened him with a lawsuit that literally forced him to leave the bench.

He was invited back to Philadelphia one more time, in 1975, for the third year of his three-year contract, but he wasn’t the same Raymond Lewis.

“Whatever talent he had, he was a shadow of his former self,” said Bill Livingston, a Cleveland columnist who covered the 76ers for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “One day he had a bad back. The next day it was something else. When he got on the court, he didn’t have it anymore.”

Finished, at 22.

Was it drugs? At times there were drugs. Was it booze? There was always booze.

But talk to those close to Lewis at various times in his life, and they will tell you he abused different things.

He was hooked on the drugs of city basketball stardom, demanding the sort of life where everybody says yes and nobody says pass.

He was dizzy on the liquor of athletic self-importance, believing that his ability to make a no-look pass freed him from the responsibility of looking somebody in the eye.

He bounced around in various tryout situations after the 76er fiasco, but each time he either quit, or the team quit on him.

Although some say he was blackballed, in the end, he finally quit on himself.

“He had a lottery ticket worth $80 million, and it just blew away,” Pilcher offered as an analogy. “Now how would you live the rest of your life if it was you?”

By all accounts, there was mostly drinking and hanging out in the plain dark duplex across the railroad tracks from Verbum Dei.

“My father was very depressed the last few years,” Kamilah said. “He isolated himself from everybody. It was hard.”

At the time of his death, his wife Sandra had long since separated from him and moved the family to Oakland.

His son Rashad, 21, had not talked to him since being incarcerated several years ago in a California Youth Authority facility for drug abuse.

Only Kamilah, co-owner of an Oakland promotions firm, and her 9-year-old son Rajon had kept in touch.

“That’s because he taught me to be everything that he wasn’t,” she said.

And what, in the end, was Raymond Lewis?

An hero? A tragedy? A lesson?

These things will be discussed Saturday at his 11 a.m. funeral at the Paradise Baptist Church, 5100 South Broadway.

It will not be only an ending, but a beginning, considering that there are already plans in the works for a documentary about the greatest who never was.

“He almost had to be silenced by death for this to happen,” said the Rev. Peay, smiling endearingly. “If he was on his feet, he would find a way to mess this up.”

At the end of my first and only visit with Raymond Lewis, I told him to hang in there. I didn’t know what else to say. I never really knew him.

For all those who loved him and the hope he represented, I wanted to hug him. But there was hardly anything there.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.


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