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Nets in the 80s: Otis and Sugar, Still Teammates

Each summer, you can find Birdsong and Richardson running a basketball camp in New Jersey

More than three decades after they teamed up at the Meadowlands, Otis Birdsong and Micheal Ray Richardson are still working the hardwood in North Jersey.

They’re at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. school in Paterson, where they’re overseeing a two-week camp for local kids, something they’ve been doing for the last nine years. The camp has been funded by a foundation formed by former Nets owner Joe Taub, who passed away two years ago.

Taub was dedicated to his native Paterson throughout his life, also supporting the community in the name of his good friend Larry Doby, who followed Jackie Robinson as the second African American to play major league baseball. Doby worked for the Nets as well throughout both Birdsong and Richardson’s tenure with the team, and for most the 1980s.

“Micheal Ray and I remained great friends with Joe Taub until he passed,” said Birdsong. “Sugar and I come to New Jersey every year and do camps for kids that were part of Joe’s foundation.

“Micheal Ray and I have been doing basketball camps for underserved kids, and they’re not about basketball, they’re about life skills. As a young kid in high school, you’re not too young to start eating right and resting and taking care of your body. We have professionals come in and speak to the kids and health and wellness, drug and alcohol addiction the dangers of bullying. We partner with police departments around the country because we want kids to interact with police.”

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In addition to maintaining their connection with Taub, the two backcourt mates have remained close since they last played together in the NBA in 1985.

“Even when he went overseas, played for 15 years, we kept in touch,” said Birdsong. “When he moved back to the states we stayed in touch. We talk every day. There isn’t a day that goes by that he and I aren’t in touch with each other.”

Birdsong and Richardson teamed with the Nets for parts of four seasons between 1983 and 1986. Birdsong arrived in New Jersey in 1981 after an All-NBA season with the Kansas City Kings and was part of a 20-win improvement that led to a playoff berth in 1981-82. That was the first of five straight playoff appearances for the franchise. Birdsong played for the team through the 1987-88 season, averaging 15.9 points and 3.6 assists in his seven seasons as a Net, and representing the franchise at the 1983-84 All-Star Game.

Richardson arrived in a mid-season trade the following year, and led the team’s upset of the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers in the 1984 playoffs. In 1984-85 Richardson earned an All-Star Game berth and went on to average 20.1 points, 8.2 assists, 5.6 rebounds, and a league-leading 3.0 steals. But Richardson’s NBA career ended the following season when he was suspended by the league for drug usage.

“One of the best point guards I ever played with,” said Buck Williams. “He made me a better player. He intimidated opposing guards. Before the game he would go on to the other teams opposing power forward, every night he would go down there and start ripping the other power forwards telling them what I’m going to do to them. He had the whole package. He was a little Magic Johnson. I think that’s a good comparison. He went off the rails a little bit but he was one of the best players I ever played with.”

After playing in the USBL and CBA, Richardson headed abroad, where he continued to play professionally well into his 40s. Birdsong stayed in the game as well. After taking a breather following his retirement in 1989, he founded a sports management firm and also worked with former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach’s company.

But he also worked in the front office for several minor league teams, including an ABA franchise in Little Rock, Arkansas that was invited into the NBA Development League, now the G League. Birdsong has remained in Little Rock since, though he’s soon to relocate to Los Angeles. He’s enjoyed working with players at that level.

“Really working with and teaching the players about how to be a professional,” said Birdsong. “Most of these guys don’t understand what it takes to be a professional. You can have a lot of talent, but that doesn’t make you a professional. Professional isn’t just what you do on the court. It’s a lifestyle.”

Along the way Birdsong even reunited with Richardson professionally in Lawton, Oklahoma, where Richardson coached the CBA team that Birdsong was running.

“When we played together we were close then,” said Birdsong. “He and I were close on the court. We had great chemistry and we were close off the court. He respected me and I respected him. He respected me to the point where I never saw Micheal do drugs. He never encouraged me to do drugs. I never knew what he was doing. I never looked down on him or criticized him. All I wanted to do was help him. I knew he has my back and I have his back. Rarely do you have someone these days that you can count on that you’ll do anything.”

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