His voice is smooth and controlled, a late-night, FM-radio kind
of voice, with a mellow tone that puts you at ease. Isaiah
(J.R.) Rider sees the surprise in people's eyes when they hear
him speak for the first time. It's as though they are stunned to
discover that a player with Rider's reputation--for bursts of
anger and clashes with authority--doesn't growl or breathe fire.
"I'm very intellectual, you know. Very smart," he says, without
a trace of arrogance, one night in mid-November. "People think
I'm this gangbanger, this monster, and I'm not. It's just that
they don't know me, they don't understand where I'm coming from."
He sounds so calm, so logical, that it is easy to see why those
who know him best talk about this disarming side of Rider, why
even some of his harshest critics preface their remarks about
him by saying, "I like J.R." Eventually you realize you are
listening not so much to what Rider says as to how he says it.
And you begin to suspect that he prefers it that way.
With the exception of the Chicago Bulls' Dennis Rodman, there is
no other player in the NBA with a reputation as bad as that of
Rider, the Portland Trail Blazers' notorious shooting guard. No
other player runs afoul of authority with such absurd regularity
as those two. But Rodman is part clown; most of his
transgressions are committed with a mischievous twinkle in his
eye. Rider's persona is far darker. His four-year NBA career has
been marked not only by an assortment of fines and suspensions
but also by the occasional arrest. He was convicted of
misdemeanor assault for kicking a woman during a dispute at a
shopping mall in 1994. He served four days in jail for violating
his probation on that assault conviction. In a later incident he
was charged with marijuana possession.
The fifth overall selection in the 1993 NBA draft, Rider was the
last first-round pick to sign a contract (seven years, $25.5
million), and then he set the tone for his career by arriving
hours late for his first practice as a pro. He said he missed
his flight from Oakland because of traffic on the way to the
airport. Since then he has missed or been late for more
practices, bus rides and flights than his coaches care to count.
"The kid's got a great personality, but even in Minnesota your
pipes can only freeze and burst so many times," says former
Timberwolves coach Bill Blair, referring to one of Rider's
favorite excuses for being late or absent. "He had about nine
broken pipes and about 42 flat tires."
Rider's habitual tardiness has at times escalated into ugly
incidents. That apparently was the case on March 4, when he
missed the Blazers' charter to Phoenix and, according to The
Oregonian, became abusive after charter-service representatives
refused his demand to be flown to Phoenix on a separate plane.
Rider reportedly shouted obscenities, spit at one employee and
smashed a cellular phone against a wall. (The case is being
investigated by Port of Portland police.) Rider ended up taking
a commercial flight to Phoenix the next day, only to miss the
team bus to America West Arena. Portland coach P.J. Carlesimo
benched him for the first quarter of the Blazers' 121-99 win
over the Suns.
Such behavior was not out of character for Rider, 26, who was
such a nightmare for the Timberwolves that on July 23, 1996,
they traded him to Portland for James Robinson, a reserve guard;
Bill Curley, a forward who has spent most of his career on the
injured list; and a first-round draft choice in either 1997 or
'98. That was not even close to equal value for Rider, a
powerful 6'5", 220-pound proven scorer who entered this season
with a career average of 18.8 points. But even at such a modest
price, there were those who thought the Blazers had made a
terrible mistake. Shortly after the trade Blair, now an Indiana
Pacers assistant, saw Carlesimo on a golf course and offered a
warning about his job security. "You better have a nice vacation
spot picked out," Blair told him. "Because by December, that man
is going to get you."
At week's end Carlesimo still had his job, and he remained a
supporter of his troublesome guard. "Do I wish there hadn't been
any of these incidents? Of course," Carlesimo says. "But at the
same time, J.R. hasn't been nearly the distraction that some
people think. On the court he's been fine. He has played hard in
practices and in games, and he has done everything we've asked
of him in a basketball sense."
"J.R. will be fine," says Portland point guard Kenny Anderson.
"Some guys just need to burn their fingers a few more times than
other guys before they get it together. But we know J.R. will be
there when we need him."
To fit into the Blazers' offense, Rider has modified his game
and reduced his shot attempts without complaint. Through Sunday
he was Portland's second-leading scorer, averaging 16.1 points
on 13.2 shots per game, down from his 19.6 points and 16.1 shots
for Minnesota last season. However, he can carry the offense if
necessary: On Jan. 16 he scored 30 points in a 102-98 win over
the Los Angeles Lakers, and on March 9 he led the team with 25
in a 103-93 victory over the Seattle SuperSonics. Rider is a
threat to score from all over the court, and he takes particular
advantage of his size and strength. He's especially adept at
posting up other guards, even bigger ones, to get his hoops.
Like the rest of the Blazers, Rider has been especially hot
lately, averaging 20.0 points during a Portland winning streak
that reached nine games on Sunday with a 106-94 win over the
L.A. Clippers. (Rider missed the last two games of the streak
with what was described as an upper respiratory infection.) At
week's end the Blazers stood at 38-28, giving them the
fifth-best record in the Western Conference.
During his brief time in Portland, Rider has also run up some
impressive stats in the misbehavior category. He has the
aforementioned citation for marijuana possession, which is still
pending. ("The cops don't have a thing on me," he says.) He has
been suspended twice by the Blazers, for one game each time: one
time for missing a preseason game, and the other for skipping a
practice and a shootaround. And he has been held out of the
starting lineup four times, three times for missing practice and
once for missing that charter. It is the same pattern of
behavior he exhibited in Minnesota.
"I like J.R., I really do," says Timberwolves vice president of
basketball operations Kevin McHale. "Ninety-five percent of the
time he's a great guy to be around. But it got to the point
where every couple of weeks it was another incident, and we just
couldn't depend on him. It's like having a friend who's always
late to pick you up. You still want him as a friend, but after a
while you stop asking him for a ride."
Rider has cemented his reputation as a bad actor by spicing his
misdeeds with equal parts menace and sarcasm. Asked in 1995 by a
Minnesota reporter about a missed flight, Rider responded
angrily, "I know people who can take you out."
But none of that sounds like the man seated in the Blazers'
locker room with a different reporter in November. He admits
having made some mistakes but insists that if people knew the
full stories behind most of the incidents he's been involved in,
they would not have nearly as negative a perception of him.
"People don't know who I really am," Rider says. "Sit down and
listen to what I have to say and see if you still think I'm
irresponsible, see if you still think I'm some kind of evil
guy." And so he makes an appointment for the next day to speak
his piece. But when he is approached the next afternoon at the
agreed upon time, his eagerness has disappeared. "I want to do
it," he says. "I just can't do it now. I have to take a nap."
And he is gone.
After a Timberwolves practice last season, McHale was in the
locker room with two of his sons when he realized he was late
for an appointment and couldn't bring the boys with him. Rider
overheard McHale telling someone about his predicament and spoke
up. "He said he would entertain them, buy them lunch, take them
to the movies, whatever I wanted," McHale says. "That's typical
of the kind of person he is. He has a very caring side of his
personality, and he does 10 things like that for every one
mistake he makes, but it's the mistake that everyone hears
about." Still, McHale made other arrangements for his sons that
afternoon. "I'm sure they would have had a better time with
J.R.," he says. "He probably would have given them a hundred
bucks each, turned them loose in the mall and brought them back
Rider is known around his hometown of Alameda, Calif., near
Oakland, for that kind of generosity. He takes children from
economically disadvantaged families on back-to-school shopping
sprees. He treats at-risk teenagers to sneakers and other
athletic gear with the proviso that any slippage in their grades
or attendance at school will result in their being deprived of
"He doesn't send out a press release every time he performs an
act of generosity," says Portland president and general manager
Bob Whitsitt. "He's not doing it with his image in mind, which
makes it even more admirable." In fact, Rider sometimes seems to
go out of his way to make it clear he doesn't care about his
image. When the Blazers brought in a media consultant during the
preseason to help the players in their dealings with the press,
Rider didn't show up.
Shortly after Rider was traded to the Trail Blazers, a Portland
reporter asked him what people would learn about him if they got
to know him better. His immediate response was, "That I come
from the projects." Rider's mother, Donna, raised J.R., his
sister and his two brothers after a 1987 divorce ended her
turbulent marriage to Isaiah Rider Sr. Young J.R. found refuge
in sports. He was a versatile athlete, a catcher on the team
that won the Babe Ruth League World Series when he was 14 and a
star on the Encinal High football and basketball teams until his
senior year, when he was ineligible to play basketball because
of his terrible grades.
"I was lazy," he says. "That's the one rap against me that was
deserved, that I didn't take school seriously." He never
graduated from Encinal, but he later got his GED while at Allen
County (Kans.) Community College, and he was admitted to UNLV in
1991. He starred for two seasons at UNLV but left school without
Rider prides himself on not forgetting the friends he grew up
with in Alameda, even though some of those associations reflect
badly on him. Last summer Rider was in Oakland with one of his
best friends, Donnie Ray Davis, a convicted rapist and crack
dealer, when he was cited for possession of an illegal cellular
phone. "I have a great amount of stability," Rider says. "Why
would I want to run around the streets and sell phones like some
street thug? I was in my [Mercedes] Benz, with my own phone.
They chose to take me. Because it was all in my car, it comes
out looking like Rider had phones. And it's just not true."
According to a 1995 story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune,
Minneapolis police informed an NBA investigator about Rider's
questionable associations in the summer of 1994, after federal
authorities heard what they considered to be a threat against
Rider's life on a wiretap of suspected drug dealers. At about
the same time, the newspaper reported, Minneapolis police found
RIDER R.I.P. spray-painted on a garage.
To outsiders, issues of loyalty and pride seem to get tangled in
Rider's mind. "You get the feeling he thinks he'd be selling out
if he distanced himself from some of the people he came up
with," McHale says. "I used to tell him he didn't have to turn
his back on where he came from, but he had to be strong enough
to say, 'Look, fellas, I can't go with you to this place, or I
can't do that with you. Because if something happens, if the
cops come, it's going to be me getting in the paper.' He'd
always nod his head and tell me I was right, but did I get
through? I'd have to say no."
Rider insists that he has gotten the message. "This summer is
going to have to be different," he says. "I might not be able to
hang out as much with some of the people I used to hang with. I
realize that I have no more room for slipups. Period. No ifs,
ands or buts. No bad luck. No 'I was there, but I didn't
physically have anything to do with it.'"
Like everyone else who knows Rider, McHale hopes that he means
it this time--that what Rider is saying is now more important
than how he is saying it. "Time goes fast in this game," McHale
says. "I hate to think of J.R. a few years from now if he keeps
going the way he's going, looking back and thinking he wasted a
lot of years. Sure, he'll have some money if he's lucky, but
money won't take away the regrets, the thinking of what he could
have been. I just hope that sometime soon he has a
soul-searching night. I hope he really looks down deep."
Maybe then he will allow others to look inside as well. It is
March now, and again Rider wants to talk. He wants to answer all
the questions. He will provide the names of police officers in
Oakland who will support his contention that he has been
unfairly maligned there. He will prove to you that he is not the
unreliable, immature hothead he is made out to be. Just call him
tomorrow at such-and-such a time, he says. When you call the
next day, he says he just woke up, that he will call you back in
a little while. The phone never rings.