Wednesday, May 22
Updated: May 23, 1:53 PM ET
Richmond can't get off the Lakers' bench
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
It never ends the way they expect it to end.
They are usually taken away kicking and screaming, playing in a uniform that looks incredibly wrong on them.
Who is the arbiter of diminishing skills? The player? The advance scout? The missis?
Mitch Richmond sits on the Lakers' bench, waiting.
"I know I still can do it," he said Monday morning. "If I get the opportunity, I'll try to help the team. But I can't sit up here and lie to you and say it's not difficult to sit over there and not be a part of it, knowing that I can contribute."
Rock Richmond is five weeks short of his 37th birthday, and he thought this season would be a wonderful victory lap after a decade in the NBA wilderness. For 10 years, he was that most heartbreaking of talents: the best player on a bad team. Sadly, Richmond is defined in part by the awful squads he played on in Sacramento and Washington, a run so squalid you almost forget that he started his career as part of the trio with the best moniker in league history -- Run TMC. How it must torture him to have played so long for so many dreadful Kings squads, only to be the instrument of Sacramento's salvation -- by getting traded to the Wizards for Chris Webber.
Redemption literally flying by him in the night.
But Richmond thought this season would make up for at least some of that. The Wizards bought out his $10 million contract last summer and he was off to play for a contender. A Fort Lauderdale native, he had more than a passing interest in the Heat at first, but the uncertainty at that time about Alonzo Mourning's future helped him cross Miami off the list.
Then, the Lakers came calling, with half of the $1 million veteran's exception, and it seemed perfect. He would replace Ron Harper in the triangle, play 20 to 25 minutes a night, and give L.A. some true firepower off the bench, and he'd be a vital piece of a championship team. Only, it hasn't really turned out that way. The Lakers might well win the title, but Richmond knows he's been little more than a spectator, along for the ride.
He hasn't played a minute in the playoffs.
He's played 50 minutes, total, in the last two months.
And if Phil Jackson didn't play Richmond in Game 2 of the Western Conference semis on Monday, with Kobe Bryant still recovering from a bad room service cheeseburger ("he was doubled over like a shrimp," trainer Gary Vitti said of Bryant's appearance early Monday morning), chances are, he's not going to play.
"I think the whole course of the year was getting prepared and getting ready for the playoffs, and having an opportunity to contribute in the playoffs," Richmond said. "That didn't really happen. (Jackson is) going with a comfort level with the guys that he's playing. The guys that's really played the bulk of the minutes (are) guys that's been here, and guys that's went to the championship and been in that type of situation, and that he feels comfortable with at this particular time."
This season, Richmond shot 40.5 percent from the floor, the lowest percentage of his career. He says it's easily explainable; he never got enough playing time to get any kind of rhythm. But is it even easier to explain? Is Mitch Richmond done?
"I've been analyzing a lot over there, sitting on the bench," Richmond says. "I look at (Devean) George, a guy that really didn't get an opportunity to play this year. George is kind of playing the minutes I was playing last year, and year in and year out. No one, I don't think anyone thought he could really help the team. And when he got 20 to 23 minutes a game, you see that he can perform and he's doing more than an adequate job."
But Richmond won't go to Jackson and lobby for more playing time.
"I haven't done that," he says. "Do I feel comfortable about it? No, I think in this situation, in the playoffs, I don't want to put any added burden on him, or myself. I haven't went to him. I haven't said anything about 'I want to get out there.' I hope he knows that."
Richmond says this without rancor. And Jackson says that Richmond is playing a meaningful role even as he doesn't play.
"I couldn't be happier with the group of guys that I have," Jackson said recently. "We have Mitch Richmond on our team, that is an elder statesman, a comedic kind of value that he brings to the team. He's got a great sense of humor and he knows a role, even though he'd love to be out there playing like he was 10 years ago, five years ago."
Monday night, Richmond sat. And sat. And got his 10th straight DNP. And for a man as proud as Rock Richmond, who was an All-Star six times, who won a gold medal in 1996, who averaged better than 20 per game in each of his first 10 years in the league, it is hard to be on a team to be so close to a championship, and have so little to do with it.
"I want to play. I want to take it year by year, and I'm going to do that again," Richmond said. "But I'm going to play again if I'm asked to. Hopefully I can come back here.
"It's just a little moment. I'll be back."
Extra motivation for Phil
If Jackson wins two more series and captures the title (against the Celtics!?), he'll also tie Red Auerbach's record of nine NBA championships, and that has meaning for him.
"People don't remember Red as a figure of immediacy; they see him as a cigar-chomping kind of genial grandfather that he is now," Jackson says. "He was hell of a competitor, and a nasty guy to deal with, and in New York, the rivalry was tremendous. I still don't see Red when he doesn't try and hit me with a jab somewhere along the line. So there's kind of a wonderful kind of symmetry to it.
"Red Holzman, my coach, always got a thrill out of the fact that we were able to beat Boston a few times in very key series and go on to win a championship. And I know that he would be somewhere, you know, rooting for me a lot to tie him, or at least make it an even stroke at some level. Because in that effect, I'm kind of a godson of Red Holzman, and in our rivalry with Boston, we won a seventh game of a playoff one time. And the four games we played at Boston Garden, we had four different dressing rooms, 'till we were in the fourth one, which was about the size of a closet, and all those kind of mishaps that you always had in Boston. Red came up to me after game seven that we won and said, 'You know, sometimes good does triumph over evil.'"
Around the league
David Aldridge is an NBA reporter for ESPN.