The Best That Never Was: Shining Light On Raymond Lewis, L.A.’s Legendary Streetballer

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A few years ago Kamilah Lewis was waiting in line at a store in Los Angeles to pay for her items, and she handed the clerk her credit card. The worker asked for her I.D., and her eyes got big when she read Kamilah’s last name.

“Are you related to Ray Lewis?” the lady asked.

Kamilah nodded, letting her know Lewis was her father.

“Oh my god!” the woman behind the counter exclaimed. She started telling everyone who was nearby, beaming like she just met a bonafide celebrity. “This is Raymond’s daughter!” Everyone wanted to come by and say hello, to meet the daughter of a hardwood king.

“When I’m out there I’m treated like royalty for lack of a better word,” Kamilah said. “The red carpet is rolled out. It’s funny because I’m not worthy, but he is an L.A. legend down here. His name is known throughout South Central and that area. If you don’t know him, your dad has told you a story about him or your granddad has. Somebody has told you a story about Raymond Lewis.”

To people in that part of Los Angeles, Raymond Lewis was downright famous. He had his own Nike billboard. He was in Sports Illustrated. He played – and beat – some of the game’s greats, sometimes by himself. And it appears as though everybody has a tale that adds to his mythology.

“Raymond is on the level of folklore,” Lewis’ former Verbum Dei High School and Cal State Los Angeles teammate Adrian Chivers said. “It has been passed down word of mouth that he was actually the best player that ever came out of Los Angeles.”

The Phantom

“He could do pretty much anything he wanted to do on the court. He was probably the best player to come out of that area ever.”

“You’d hear stories about how good of a scorer he was,” former Verbum Dei grad and 16-year NBA veteran Andre Miller told Uproxx. “He could do pretty much anything he wanted to do on the court. I just pretty much heard that he was probably the best player to come out of that area ever. There were a lot of people who can play basketball, but he was way more on another level, and when you bring up his name, everybody knows the area that he’s from and what he did.”

Like a lot of myths, though, this one doesn’t have a happy ending. The best player to ever come out of Los Angeles would never play a minute in the NBA.

Sure the highs are there. A sparkling Little League baseball career. The three straight high school state championships. Those legendary moments that drew huge crowds at the Drew League. Being named two-time CIF player of the year. Leading all freshmen in scoring (38.9 points per game) his first year at Cal State Los Angeles. Scoring 73 points in a game against UC Santa Barbara as a freshman. Finishing second in the nation (32.9 points per game) in scoring as a sophomore. Putting up 53 points in a win over a ranked Long Beach State team coached by Jerry Tarkanian. Being drafted 18th overall in the first round of the 1973 NBA Draft.

But the lows are as tragic as the highs were fleeting. Lewis was reportedly distrustful of agents, who were constantly hounding him from the time he was in high school, and he signed his first pro contract by himself.

There’s a reason agents and lawyers sign those contracts in the first place. The contract Lewis signed was a mess.

From Barry McDermott’s 1978 profile of Lewis in Sports Illustrated:

Finally, after a phone call to his father, Lewis signed what he thought was a guaranteed three-year contract for $450,000. Actually, it was for $190,000. The contract provided for a $25,000 signing bonus, $50,000 the first year, $55,000 the second and $60,000 the third. The rest of the money, payable in the late 1980s, hinged on Lewis staying in the NBA. A newspaper reporter said the contract was appropriate for “a third-round pick with terminal acne.”

In the rookie camp, Lewis dismantled top overall pick and 1972 Olympic team member Doug Collins, leading the Philadelphia press to write clip upon clip proclaiming Lewis’ greatness. He brought a scrapbook of the articles home, and showed his roommate Chivers what people were saying about him. Lewis was a student of the game since he was a little kid, and he could rattle off lists of where a particular player went to school and every pro team he had ever played on.

Philly writers called him the second coming of Earl Monroe. They nicknamed him The Phantom. They said he was the steal of the draft. Nobody could wait to see him play in a regular season game.

“He went there and he proved himself,” Chivers said, “and having done that, he came back very confident. What he had was the voice of the Philadelphia media that had put out all these articles that validated it, and he brought them back for us to see. Raymond knew what cats were out there getting, and he knew that what they signed him for wasn’t right because he kept up with it like he did with all the players and where they’re playing and what college they played for. He knew all that stuff in his mind. Because he kept up with that stuff since he was a little kid. The more he played and got successful – the more his dream was coming into focus – the more he wanted that.”

And just like that the dream blurred and the picture never held. Raymond thought the team would blink first after seeing what he could do and how he performed against the No. 1 pick, but the 76ers weren’t budging. Lewis didn’t win his contract dispute.

The Fall

“He was suspicious of those agents and thought everybody was coming after him.”

The story goes that Philadelphia coach Gene Shue told Raymond to take a year to go mature, but that rookie camp in 1973 would be the closest Lewis would ever come to playing in an NBA game.

“I asked him once, ‘What do you regret?’” former high school teammate and friend Eddie Williams said. “He said, ‘I made some mistakes, man. I thought I could do my own thing.’ He said if he could’ve done it over again, he wouldn’t have done it. He was suspicious of those agents and thought everybody was coming after him. I don’t know how many agents he crossed, but he signed that contract on his own which was a big mistake. I don’t know what happened. Or if Raymond made some demands, but I would attribute it to the foolishness of youth. He was used to having his way, and he was trying to do too much.”

The 76ers still held his rights, and since they never got their full value out of Lewis, they weren’t about to let him escape to play for another team. Raymond was all set to play for the Utah Stars of the ABA, but right before he suited up, Philadelphia threatened a lawsuit since Lewis was still under contract.

Of course there’d be other camps and other close calls, but each time Raymond seemed right there, it would disappear. Either the team would walk away from Raymond, or Lewis would make his own choice for whatever reason to walk away. Whispers were out there that Lewis was being blackballed from the league, but there’s no way to ever prove something like that.

“At the time it was one of the most frustrating times of his life,” Williams said. “He was stuck in limbo. It took a toll on him. He was in purgatory. Not only that, but the impact that his not playing had on all the basketball players and fans he influenced out here. He had a host of players who really admired him and knew how great he was. He felt he would help the West Coast players get on the map even more. When he didn’t play it had a debilitating impact on the West Coast for a minute because everybody was like, ‘What happened to Raymond?’ He went out and played in camps, but he really wasn’t going to make the team. It affected him mentally, he gained weight, and he was depressed.”

“He was stuck in limbo. It took a toll on him. He was in purgatory.”

Instead Lewis took to pickup games and the summer pro-am leagues, where his fable would grow even more. There’s the story about the time he dropped 56 points against Michael Cooper (who would win Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 when he was with the Lakers) in three quarters in 1983. Or the time he played in the Spurs’ summer league and scored 67 in a game. Or the countless people who just saw him out on a court shooting by himself – They’d watch him for God knows how long, and he’d never miss a shot.

Raymond Lewis died following complications from an amputation of his leg on Feb. 11 of 2001. He initially refused the amputation, saying he wouldn’t be able to make a jump shot on one leg. People flocked to Paradise Baptist Church to remember the player, but even more importantly the man who had impacted so many people in the area.

“I compare him to one of my idols in terms of personality – Muhammed Ali,” Kamilah said. “He took a stance on something and there was no way that he would want to change it. If it was something he did not believe in, he did not think it was right, he was going to stand for it whether it was going to hurt him career wise, financially, he was just going to stand for it. It was just the type of person he was, and he instilled those things in us as well.”

Reputation sometimes replaces reality, especially after a person is gone. But those close to him want to set the story straight. They say Raymond didn’t have a bad attitude, he was just very determined. And for as confident and flashy as Raymond was on the basketball court, he was never arrogant.

“His demeanor was basically soft-spoken and quiet,” Chivers said. “Because of his basketball prowess and how well he played, it was easier to paint him as a cocky guy. But it wasn’t a fact. Raymond was really confident in how he could play, and he knew it, but he didn’t try to act like it off the court, especially to the people he didn’t know. He wasn’t a guy who walked around and wanted people to notice who he was and know him. He didn’t mind people knowing him for what he’d done, but he didn’t walk around like ‘everybody look at me.” He absolutely was never that way.”

The Legend

“California doesn’t have a well-told history of its old school basketball the same way places like Rucker Park do.”

The billboard ultimately faded and went away, but people still talk about Raymond Lewis.

Dean Prator was a fan of Raymond from the time he saw him play while he was at Dominguez High School in Compton. Dean later worked with Williams and started asking Williams questions about Lewis after Prator found out that Williams had played with Lewis, and his curiosity turned into a passion project.

Prator started a website in 2005 devoted to keeping the memory of Lewis’ greatness alive. He started talking to anyone and everyone who had seen Lewis do the inexplicable and the uncanny, and it got in his head to start to pull together a documentary about Raymond featuring his ex-teammates, coaches and others who had crossed the playmaker’s path over the years.

As the subjects piled up, from Lorenzo Romar and Jerry Tarkanian to Michael Cooper and Marques Johnson, one thing stood out: just how much of an impact Raymond Lewis had on the Los Angeles basketball scene.

“California doesn’t have a well-told history of its old school basketball the same way places like Rucker Park do,” Prator said. “I wanted to start with Raymond because I wanted to let people know that on the West Coast there were many ball players who were really good but you just never hear about them. With Raymond playing at a time when there was no ESPN, Twitter or Facebook, few people actually got the chance to see him. A couple of his games were televised, but the footage is nearly impossible to find.”

Recently, Prator got connected with director Ryan Polomski, a Philly native who came out to Los Angeles. Polomski fell in love with Hoop Dreams as a freshman in high school and was looking for his opportunity to tell a compelling basketball story. When he heard of Raymond’s story, he was captivated.

Polomski and Prator continued work on the film and made a trailer for the documentary. After searching in houses and attics and all over Los Angeles, the two finally found one game, and then another. There’s more out there, including the 53-point effort against Long Beach State, and the pair have plenty of more interviews to do.

A Kickstarter was started to raise an extra $45,000. The crew is hoping to “do a multi-day shoot at Raymond’s alma mater Verbum Dei and Cal State Los Angeles with current and past players, commission original animation, and secure licensing fees for archival footage. The final sums of monies raised will be used to edit a full rough draft of the film for review by January 2016.”

“As I’m sitting here thinking about it it’s a damn shame this guy didn’t get a chance,” Polomski said. “He could have been in the Hall of Fame. It seemed like he has everything going for him. Of course nothing’s a sure thing in life. You see people that get injured, or they get in trouble. But how many times do you hear about a guy who has Hall of Fame potential never even getting a chance to show it because of a contract dispute? It’s just unbelievable. And we’ll never know. We’ll never know if he could’ve been an Isiah, an Iverson, a Magic. And that’s what drives me to complete this film. Just trying to figure this out.”

“It’s a damn shame this guy didn’t get a chance. He could have been in the Hall of Fame.”

They are out to tell the story of the person – not just the baller – and do so by talking to the people closest to him. Kamilah was recently named a special producer to the project, and she has her own hopes for what they will be able to do.

“He was one of the greatest players arguably to play the game,” Kamilah said, “but he didn’t necessarily have a Plan B. Just to bring that story to life to a lot of the young guys who think they’re going to make it to the NBA and that’s going to be it. Lights, camera, action. For me personally, you can be the greatest basketball player of all time, but you still need to have that Plan B.”

Chivers sees an opportunity to set the record straight on what has been lost about Lewis over the years. The legend has replaced what he sees as the facts about his friend, and his hope is that Prator, Polomski and the rest of the people involved will shine a light on who Lewis really was, rather than the seemingly black and white picture that’s been printed in the years since his death.

“It was kind of interesting what I’ve been seeing and hearing over an extended time since he has passed,” Chivers said. “You’ve got a lot of people who are writing things who didn’t really know about these things when they were going on. A lot of what has been reflected was not the man. People have competing renditions about who Raymond is. I recognize that Dean and them are sincere about trying to come up with as real as possible of a documentary. Those guys are trying to get a true rendition.”

The truth likely lies somewhere in the grey, but there’s no denying that Lewis could play. That much is consistent in anyone who ever watched him on the court.

So how could a guy who never played a minute in the NBA still be compared to names like Pistol Pete Maravich, Isiah Thomas, Allen Iverson, Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry? Simply put, he was just that good.

“When you see greatness like that you can’t forget it,” Williams said. “You can’t forget greatness.”