Cocaine was the scourge of the NBA in 1970s and 80s, the drug lead to 8 players being banned from the NBA and 3 of them permanently. But no case of drug use, or potential use, is as crazy as what is rumored to have been doing on with the 1980s Knicks.
The Knicks were the main attraction in New York City during the 1970s. The team won their only two NBA championships and made the eastern finals 5 times. But by the late 70s and early 80s the team had fallen on hard times. But things had started to look up, the Knicks had used the 4th pick in the 1978 NBA draft on Montana guard Michael Ray Richardson.
Richardson was going to change the franchise and bring back the glory days of the early 1970s, or so the Knicks thought. Richardson struggled in his first season but was an all-star the next season and the Knicks slowly started to get better and by 1981 they had won 50 games.
The 1981 Knicks had a bright future ahead of them. Lead by Richardson and big man Bill Cartwright the team looked destined to be able to challenge the Celtics and 76ers in the East. But the 1981 season became an anomaly as the team struggled the next season and drugs were rumored to be a big part of it.
The Knicks completely fell apart during the 1982 season. The Knicks limped around .500 for the first part of the season, never really getting over the hump. Players who had played spectacular the year before struggled. Following the all-star game the team completely fell apart and finished with just 33 wins, a 17 game decline from the season before.
Rumors ran rapid of issues with the team. Richardson had a reputation as a partier and was frequently photographed with women at nightclubs. He was also observed wearing expensive clothing and living a luxurious lifestyle which was beyond even that of an NBA star of the time.
This was the early 1980s, well before the massive contracts we see today. Richardson is estimated to have made between 300,000 and 400,000 dollars a year with the Knicks. New York City is also a very expensive place to live. So questions about his financial status rose quickly, not just from the fans and media but from the FBI as well.
It turned out that the FBI was investigating the NBA starting in the 1970s. Not just for cocaine, but for point-shaving as well. The Bureau soon zoomed in on one team in particular: The New York Knicks.
An unnamed drug dealer soon came to the attention of the FBI and he had connections with both gambling and the Knicks. In documents released by the FBI in 2013, it became apparently clear that this unnamed drug dealer had connections with 3 New York Knicks players from the 1981 and 82 teams.
At the time the investigation was not known by the public or the Knicks and the FBI made sure it would be kept under-wraps. But the FBI was so sure that it had a case that it devoted a lot of resources and even interviewed an unnamed player sometime in either 1982 or 1983.
The investigation lead to not just a drug problem in the NBA, which at the time was widely known and was no secret, but also to point-shaving. The investigation also lead the the FBI knowing that three Knicks players all used the same drug dealer. Than a colossal allegation: The New York Knicks were throwing games.
Obviously, there was no proof of the Knicks throwing games. Had there been proof the NBA would have come down hard on the team and the players. In the 1950s the NBA pretty much kicked the Indianapolis Olympians out of the league for a point-shaving scandal the occurred at the University of Kentucky but involved several Olympians players/owners. No such punishment has ever been handed out in this case.
But the allegations are out there, and a few specific games can be pointed to as evidence of players being in on the fix.
There are three Knicks players who are allegedly involved but since no charges were ever filed with the FBI the names are redacted to protect the innocent. But the first suspect is always going to be Michael Ray Richardson. Richardson who by his own tales was out partying most nights, had several high profile issues with drugs and was eventually banned by the NBA for life for drugs, makes an easy suspect. The known drug use and the lifestyle makes it easy to connect the dots, though Richardson has always proclaimed his innocence.
While it is likely that Richardson is one of the three players involved due to his known drug use, the other 2 players are harder to identify. It is thought that the problems, especially the point-shaving and 3 Knicks using the same drug dealer, occurred between 80-82. On the 80, 81, and 82 Knicks teams only Bill Cartwright, Hollis Copeland, Michael Ray Richardson, Toby Knight, Marvin Webster and Sly Williams appeared on the roster for all 3 seasons. A few other players appear in 2 of the 3 seasons, and specifically played on both the 81 and 82 teams, such as Reggie Carter, Campy Russell, Larry Demic, and Dwayne Scales.
Injuries also became a sudden issue with the Knicks at this time and following seasons. Cartwright was injured often, Russell, Copeland, and Webster all had their career pretty much ended by injuries immediately following the season.
The 1982 Knicks is where most the allegations lie. The team had obvious issues you could see just by watching them play and the players made mistakes that professional basketball players rarely make. For example, Richardson air-balled several key free throws in a loss to the Nets. Richardson also had several games where he inexplicably played bad and missed a lot of shots that where out of character.
In the FBI’s investigation it found that the drug dealer with connection to the three Knicks players had placed several large bets on those exact games. If this happened once it would be a coincidence, but it happened six times in March and April of the 1982 season. The dealer was said to have normally made $300 bets but on 7 Knicks games he placed $12,000 bets and won on 6 of those games
The FBI alleges that the problems with drugs and the Knicks players got so bad that several of the players started placing bets themselves that the Knicks would lose. Again, NBA salaries were not like they are today. In 1982 nobody made millions playing basketball and the league was still having financial problems. It would still be a few years before the Magic-Bird rivalry really took off and Michael Jordan was still a sophomore at the University of North Carolina. So money was scarce, especially for the lower tier players. Richardson was making good money, but the NBA salary cap was around 3.5 million in 1982, so a player like Toby Knight would not be making all that much. Add to the lower salary the price of living in New York City and players could have financial issues. Celtics great and league MVP Dave Cowens use to work as a taxi driver in the off-season. Now add drug addition to this combination and it becomes clear why a player would risk it all for just a few thousand extra dollars.
The investigation into the Knicks continued into the 1983 season, but it ultimately fell apart. The reason the case fell apart is due to lack of physical evidence, the FBI was unable to get anyone on tape doing or saying anything illegal and the few witnesses that they did talk to denied any knowledge of wrong doing. In the end it was just rumors and innuendo and by 1986 the case was closed.
The Knicks blew the team up the following season. They traded Richardson to the Warriors for Bernard King. Bill Cartwright continued his downward spiral due to injuries and his production dropped and was eventually traded to the Chicago Bulls for Charles Oakley. Cartwright would have a happy ending to his story as he became a key piece of three Bulls championship teams. Sly Williams left for Atlanta after the 1983 season and was soon out of the league. Marvin Webster contracted Hepatitis and missed 2 seasons before trying a comeback with the Bucks in 1987, that lasted all of 15 games. Campy Russell would miss all of the next two seasons with knee injuries before returning to Cleveland for 3 games. And most of the rest of the Knicks roster would be out of the NBA by 1985.
Perhaps a fitting end to this story is how tragic it ended for Michael Ray Richardson. The player that was likely behind the whole issue. He would only play half a season with the Warriors before they traded him to the Knicks. Drug issues continued to plague his career. He seemed to get better after the NBA implemented an anti-drug policy. In 1985 he had the best season of his career appearing in all 82 games and average 20 points a contest for the New Jersey Nets. He even made his fourth all-star team that season. It looked like he had overcome his addiction, but the following year he failed another drug test and became the first player since the 1950s to be banned for life by the NBA.
The NBA reinstated Richardson in 1988 but he never played in the NBA again, by his own accord. Richardson would turn his life around and had a successful career in Europe where he continued to play throughout the 1990s and retired in 2002 at the age of 47. He even went on to coach in the CBA and NBL of Canada. By all accounts he is doing well now having finally overcome his demons.