ROCK OF A ROOK

Mitch Richmond, strongman for Golden State, is at the top of the NBA's first-year class
February 06, 1989

Mitch Richmond, Golden State's 6'5", 225-pound rookie guard, is blasting up-court, pounding out a dribble with all the daintiness of a heavy-metal drummer. In the first 20 minutes of this game on Jan. 18 against the visiting New York Knicks, Richmond has pumped in 17 points by making bullish rushes at the belly of the Knickerbocker defense. He has driven past grasping Knicks for easy buckets; he has pulled up to muscle in 15-foot jumpers; he has soared, hung, drawn contact, double-pumped and banked in a layup. Now Richmond is on the loose down the lane once again.

He springs off the floor and begins his ascent to the hoop, but he has a slight problem: Patrick Ewing, New York's 7-foot, 240-pound center, has chosen to stand his considerable ground beneath the rim. Richmond tries a righthanded jam, but the ball clangs against the back of the rim and bounds to midcourt. The collision with Ewing and the subsequent thud—both players go down—send a minor tremor through the Bay Area. The whistle blows, and Richmond is nailed with an offensive foul. As a palpable awe spreads through the sold-out stands, Richmond, shaking his head, helps Ewing to his feet.

"That," Richmond said after the game, "was a stupid play." In his mind, perhaps. Others had a different view.

"You have to make a statement," says Warrior swingman Terry Teagle. "He was letting people know, This guy doesn't back down from anybody."

That could be Richmond's motto in his first NBA season. The fifth pick in the draft, Richmond, who is out of Kansas State, has a number of no-nonsense nicknames, including Hammer and Bam Bam, and he may already be the strongest shooting guard in the league. While his fellow Olympians are having all sorts of physical troubles (box, page 22), Richmond is thriving. "I like to call him Rock, as in rock solid. He's a hard body," says Chris Mullin, who, with a 27.1 average at week's end, is Golden State's leading scorer.

Says last season's Rookie of the Year, New York point guard Mark Jackson, of his likely successor, "He's a man with a great deal of heart. He knows how to get in the paint and what to do there. He's going to be outstanding."

Richmond's statistics support these assessments. As of last weekend, he led all rookies in scoring with 20.7 points per game, and he was averaging 5.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists. During the Warriors' recent eight-game winning streak—they had won 9 of their last 12 following Saturday's 114-112 victory at Indiana—Richmond averaged 23.9 points on .578 shooting. His numbers in Golden State's 133-119 bashing of the Knicks were 31 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists. And the way he idly chomps on his Big Red gum and chews on his jersey strap during games suggests that when it comes to the pros, the 23-year-old Richmond is still in his teething stage.

"What I love most about Mitch is that he's raw," says Golden State coach Don Nelson. "He's just starting to blossom as a player and as a human being. It's a wonderful time for him."

Before this season, his first with Golden State, Nelson had started only one rookie, Milwaukee's Marques Johnson in 1977-78, in 11 years as an NBA coach. Not only is Nelson starting Richmond, but also he is using him at everything from point guard to power forward. "Mitch is doing just about everything I've asked of him," says Nelson. "I need him to be dominant, but in the flow of the team, and he's doing that."

The steadfast way in which Richmond has handled himself echoes the style of another nuts-and-bolts fellow from the Bay Area, writer Jack London. "I am not stubborn, but I swing to my purpose as steadily as the needle to the pole," London once said. "Delay, evade, oppose secretly or openly, it's all immaterial, the thing comes my way. Life is strife, and I am prepared for that strife."

Or, as Richmond puts it, "Things have been happening to me all my life. They pop up, and I see if I can handle them. So far, I've been doing pretty well."

Indeed, Richmond's trip to the NBA had included almost as many stops as a BART train. He attended three high schools in and around Fort Lauderdale. His buddies called him Smooth, which he still prefers to his harder-edged sobriquets. In fact, he calls himself Smooth on his telephone answering machine.

He got serious about school after he got serious about basketball, which was almost too late. Richmond had to attend summer school to get his high school diploma. He decided to pursue hoops to the ends of the earth, and he almost did just that, packing off to Moberly Area Junior College in Moberly, Mo. Richmond had another dream too. In one of his first talks with Moberly coach Dana Altman, who's now a Kansas State assistant, he said he wanted to build a house for his mother, Ernell. With the help of a reported five-year, $2.5 million contract, he is doing that now. "Ever since he hit that basketball, he's known where he was going," says Ernell. "Everything has gone so well."

After hitting the weights and the books, and polishing his outside game for two years at Moberly (pop. 13,000), Richmond moved on to Manhattan, Kans. (pop. 35,000). "I can say this," says Richmond. "Every town I move to goes up a little bit." His game has grown too. At Kansas State, Richmond received the ball and orders to create an offense with it. He was toughest when it counted most, averaging 26.7 points and 9.2 rebounds in six NCAA tournament games over two seasons and leading the Wildcats to the final eight last year.

"However far we went," says Altman, "Mitch got us there." Richmond went pretty far in the classroom, too. He graduated with a degree in social sciences last May.

Without much explanation, his coaches invariably call Richmond a "great kid." His teammates invariably call him a "great guy." He charms the former with his willingness to work and to learn, the latter with his easygoing levelheadedness. There is nothing cocky about his manner, just a quiet confidence and a warm, luminous grin. "The biggest compliment you can pay Mitch is to say how his teammates feel about him from Moberly to Kansas State," says Altman. "The guys here all want to watch Golden State on satellite or grab the box scores to see how he's doing. Everyone wants him to be successful."

Last summer Richmond went from exploiting the freedom of Kansas State's motion offense to being a bit player in John Thompson's rigid, revolving-door attack in Seoul. It bothers Richmond that the U.S. lost to the Soviet Union in the semifinals but not that he failed to score at his accustomed rate. "It was just that we had to limit our play because we had so much talent," he says. "We got the bronze, and people feel like that's nothing. But I got a medal to show I've been to the Olympics."

With the Warriors, Richmond's role once again demands creativity, which largely accounts for his 3.5 turnovers per game. Nelson, who has a rare flair for milking his players' talents while masking their weaknesses, is already "icing"—or isolating—Richmond against his defender every so often. As he dribbles near the top of the key, Richmond will survey the shifting landscape of the lane. "Sometimes I'll wait for the big men to turn their heads, and try to make my move before they turn them back," he says. Then, with a between-the-legs dribble, he'll go up for a shot or draw the defense to him for a dish.

Either way, Richmond often ends up on the free throw line, where he is shooting .805. More and more, icing the Rock is proving to be chilling for the opposition. "In that situation I feel I got them in bad shape," says Richmond. "There's no way they can stop me."

When his drive isn't working, Richmond can resort to his jumper or his formidable inside game. "I've seen him take some of the stronger players in the league down low and just overpower them," says teammate Steve Alford.

The only other rookie who's playing almost as well as Richmond is San Antonio's Willie Anderson, who happens to be a friend of Richmond's; they plan to travel together after the season. Anderson, who played his college ball at Georgia, was averaging 17.9 points and 5.0 rebounds at week's end. At 6'1" and a mere 190 pounds, he has had to play small forward because of the Spurs' established backcourt as well as the lack of a true center, but he hopes to move to guard—or maybe even further.

"I admit coach [Larry] Brown and I don't have a smooth relationship," says Anderson. "In college I was given a chance to express myself, but now the style is different." He seems to envy his buddy: "Mitch came into a great situation, a team that fits his style."

Nelson has had one stormy moment with Richmond, whom he prefers to call Rook rather than Rock. After Richmond barked at Nelson in the second quarter of a 104-102 loss at San Antonio on Jan. 7, he found himself riding the bench for the rest of the half. (He came back after intermission and scored all 21 of his points.) "It was a real bad day for me when that happened," says Nelson. "I felt maybe I was losing him."

Little did he know that Richmond was also feeling lost. So Mitch phoned Altman after the game at 1:30 a.m. Richmond and Nelson have since talked out their differences. "Sometimes something like what they went through is good to see just for the fact that you know they both want to win," says Mullin. That combative chemistry helped lift Golden State to its longest winning streak since 1975-76 and a 21-19 record as of Sunday. The Warriors won only 20 games all of last season.

Richmond is not overly self-indulgent. He has some gold jewelry and a black BMW 735, but the main possessions in his two-bedroom apartment in Oakland are a TV and a La-Z-Boy recliner. He'll kick back in one to watch game tapes on the other, or just lie around and think. "I've always wanted a place of my own," says Richmond. He has worked hard enough to have two already: one to live in (his apartment) and another to grow in (the NBA).

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOWhen Richmond took it to the 7-foot Ewing, tremors were felt through the Bay Area. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONRichmond, left, earned a bronze medal in Seoul, but as a professional he's solid gold. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWith a rookie-high 20.7 average, Richmond has given opponents a taste of the future. PHOTOBILL BAPTISTSan Antonio's prize rookie, Anderson (right), is less content than his friend Richmond.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)