Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Monday, April 2, 2007

The Legend of Billy Ray Bates

In two weeks’ time, several Korean coaches will be coming over to the Philippines to personally scout the imports plying their wares in the ongoing Fiesta Conference Cup. The Korean Basketball League (KBL) will soon be returning to action.

Obviously we’ve come a long way that our neighbors know there’s quality hoops being played in this corner of Southeast Asia.

While we have some pretty good imports playing right now, gone are the days when these roundball mercs were larger than life figures whose prodigious presence and scoring feats could alter a team’s fortunes.

The world has caught up to the Americans in basketball and has knocked them down a peg or two. Even without our current predilection for Fil-foreigners, the quality of the Philippine game has gone up. All of a sudden we have locals who can match-up quite well with imports.

For their winning record and contributions, Norman Black, Bobby Parks, and Sean Chambers will arguably go down as the best three ever. But in terms of fewer conferences played, I’d give the nod to Billy Ray Bates. He played in four conferences and won three titles in his first three – the first two with Crispa and the last with Ginebra.

In his final conference, he teamed up with Kevin Gamble for four games before they were replaced (by Jumpin’ Joe War and Tommy Davis) as the crowd favorites tumbled to a mediocre record. Gamble’s being cut served him well for he soon worked himself to better basketball shape as he found himself playing for the Boston Celtics on a team that had their Big Three of LarryKevinRobert and eventually starting.

As for Bates, he soon wandered from Switzerland to Mexico and to the now-defunct World Basketball League. The man known as “Dunk” who thrilled Portland Trailblazer fans in the early 1980’s with his manic scoring sprees and aerial exploits slid into the depths of drugs and alcoholism.

When Portland made former Blazer Jerome Kersey its Director for Player Programs in 2005, a position designed to help rookies assimilate themselves into the NBA spotlight where fame and fortune have their pitfalls, Billy Ray Bates was used as a prime example of people who were totally unprepared for NBA life. For a man who should have served notice that dreams can come true when he made the regular line-up after being signed to a 10-day contract in 1980, his name, when mentioned is followed by a shake of the head and the words, “what a waste.”

In two memorable play-off seasons, Bates strapped to his back a Blazers team reeling from the loss of Bill Walton to various foot injuries to pace a team that still had Tom Owens, Ron Brewer, Maurice Lucas, Kermit Washington, and Jim Paxson. During the 1980 Western Conference first round battle with Seattle, Bates averaged 25 points per game against the Supersonics of the late Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, Gus Williams, Paul Silas, and Vinnie Johnson in his pre-Microwave days.

In first round action once more in 1981 against Kansas City, Dunk scored 28.3 in three outings against the Kings that had the high-scoring Otis Birdsong (who was here recently during the Bad Boy Tour), Scott Wedman (who parlayed his scoring days into a Boston Celtics contract years later), an aging UNC Tar Heel great Phil Ford, and later New York Knicks' GM Ernie Grunfeld.

Bates would play one more year in Portland before he was released for substance abuse. He would latch on to a pair of 10-day contracts in the 1982-83 season with the Washington Bullets and the Los Angeles Lakers before he would be out of the League permanently.

He would resurrect his career here in the Philippines with the famed Crispa Redmanizers and come back a couple of years later to team up with the high-scoring Michael Hackett to give Sonny Jaworski his first title as player-coach in the 1986 Open Conference.

Ginebra paced the league in that conference but found a tough foe in the Manila Beer squad that had Yoyoy Villamin, Abet Guidaben, and Atoy Co and imports Harold Keeling and former University of Houston Cougar and Phi Slamma Jamma alum Michael Young.

I remember during game one of the title series, all seemed lost for Ginebra as it seemed that Manila Beer had their number. But in the final minutes, a spirited rally by Ginebra saw them with a chance to pull out a win. And in the game’s final play, Billy Ray Bates hauled down Michael Young’s missed shot and went coast-to-coast with only Abet Guidaben standing in his path and an improbable victory. Bates, elevated and in his own words, “went for the moon to dunk over Guidaben” for a game-winning slam.

Ginebra would go on to win that series in five games and Bates proclaimed, “If you want to win a championship, who are you gonna call? Superman.”

But as ever, the kid from a poor farming community in Mississippi couldn’t handle the rewards of his tremendous basketball skills. He was plagued by demons in bottles and cocaine pipes. Bates would hit rock bottom when he robbed a Texaco gas station in Camden, New Jersey in 1998 and slashed the station attendant’s ear with a knife. He was caught by responding police not far from the incident and would be incarcerated in a New Jersey jail for seven years for stealing the princely sum of five dollars.

Bates was released last year and is said to now work as a janitor somewhere in the East Coast where he -- although now clean and sober -- still harbors dreams of rescuing his beloved Portland Trailblazers.

He went for the moon and came down with shattered dreams.

Thanks for the memories Billy Ray.

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