One of the most iconic players in Portland Trail Blazers history made an appearance in the national media on Wednesday. Sports Illustrated Executive Editor Jon Wertheim penned an extended "Where are they now?" article about Billy Ray Bates for si.com.
Wertheim hits all the high points of the Billy Ray Bates story. He recounts Bates' meteoric rise for the Blazers in 1980, as detailed by David Halberstam in The Breaks of the Game, and summarizes the former Blazer's time as THE superstar of the Philippines Basketball Association. Wertheim pulls no punches, relaying the details of Bates' catastrophic fall from grace, lowlighted by an alcohol-fueled arrest for armed robbery of a gas station in New Jersey and subsequent prison sentence about a decade ago.
As a supplement to the familiar narrative of Bates' life story, Wertheim takes the time to paint a picture of Billy Ray as an affable character who relished his relationship with the Portland fans.
Gifted as Bates was at putting a ball though a hoop, he was comparably skilled at winning fans. By popular demand, he would stay on the Memorial Coliseum court after games and, while his teammates were changing to go home, put on dunk displays for the crowd. He gave out his phone number to anyone who asked. When fans called his name during games, he would, reflexively, turn around and wink. He wasn’t cultivating an image; he simply knew no other way. "Man," he says now, "I was just being me."
The article is unique in that the author has a personal relationship with Bates. As a writer for Rip City Magazine in the early-'90s, Wertheim interviewed and established a personal connection with him. The two have maintained off-and-on contact ever since, and Wertheim includes several personal anecdotes about Bates in the story.
We stayed in touch and got together every month or so. Sometimes it was for a specific purpose. Once, he asked for help drafting a letter to Zelda Spoelstra (the aunt of current Heat coach Erik), who ran the NBA’s players Assistance Program. Another time, he needed a ride to physical therapy. One day he called claiming that he’d lost his basketball shoes and asked me to buy him a new pair.
In the end, Wertheim's insight helps the reader understand why Bates is still popular 36 years after initially bursting onto the scene. Bates' supernova-esque career encapsulates two classic sports storytelling tropes.
It’s all a reminder: If one of the happiest sports tropes is the unknown who becomes a star, one of the commensurately saddest is the star who becomes an unknown.
If you'd like to read more about Bates' time with the Blazers check out David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game. Halberstam's book tells the story of the 1979-1980 Portland Trail Blazers and includes a long passage about Bates. It's widely considered one of the greatest sports books ever written. More recently, Rafe Bartholomews' Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball tells of what happened to Bates in the years after he left the NBA. Both books are worth your time.