Before there was Lin-sanity, there was Maine Lumberjacks’ Billy Ray Bates

Posted Feb. 17, 2012, at 9:17 p.m.

SEATTLE — Watching New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin’s explosion into the NBA this month, reading stories about his meteoric rise from nobody to superstar, listening to the talking heads tell us Lin came from nowhere, I couldn’t help thinking about Billy Ray Bates.

Commentators and coaches are saying they’ve never seen anything quite like Lin’s rapid rise.

I have. Thirty-two years before Lin-sanity hit New York, Billy Ray Bates came to Portland from the Bangor-based Maine Lumberjacks of the Continental Basketball Association.

He was the son of Mississippi sharecroppers. When he was growing up in the small town of Kosciusko, Bates chopped cotton. I remember Bates telling stories on the Blazers’ team bus about life in the South in the 1960s and his teammates acting as if he were talking about life on Jupiter.

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Lin came from Palo Alto and Harvard, but Bates truly came from Nowhere.

I was covering the Trail Blazers for The Oregonian during the 1979-80 season, when Portland, which won the NBA championship in 1977, was unraveling. Late in the season, the Blazers signed Bates, a minor-league sensation.

“Jack Ramsay approached us,” Bates’ former agent, Steve Kauffman, remembered Tuesday. “He said he wanted to bring Billy Ray onto the team, but no way was Jack going to put him into an NBA game. He said that would be ridiculous, that Billy Ray wasn’t ready.”

The Blazers’ season was in free fall when Bates arrived in March. They were clinging to the eighth — and final — playoff spot. Nobody was willing to take a big shot.

“One thing about Billy Ray,” Kauffman said, “he never met a shot he didn’t like. While other players were running away from the ball and didn’t want to take the pressure shots, Billy Ray always did.”

On March 14, in the fourth quarter of another disappointing performance, this time in Milwaukee, a disgusted Ramsay cleared his bench and put in Bates.

Before there was Lin-sanity, there was Billy Ray Bates. Before “SportsCenter” and Twitter, sports-talk radio and NBA-TV, there was a kid from Mississippi who could barely read making a seismic impact on the league.

But his is a cautionary tale about a kid from the rural South who got too much fame too quickly and never learned to handle it.

That night in Milwaukee, Bates scored 14 fourth-quarter points and led a late Blazers charge that fell short. The next night in Chicago, Ramsay called on Bates early. He scored 26 in a two-point loss.

At 6 feet 4, 220 pounds, Bates could drain a flat-footed 30-footer on one possession, then hammer a dunk over a helpless center on the next. He practically carried the Blazers into the playoffs in 1980 and averaged 25 points in a first-round loss to the Sonics.

“He couldn’t remember the plays. It used to make Ramsay so angry,” Bates’ longtime friend, Rick Barrett, said by telephone from New Jersey. “But he could win you games.”

But Bates was a lonely soul. I had many lunches with him on the road, listening to him talk about drinking moonshine in his teens and using the outdoor toilet.

Bates didn’t have the life skills that could have protected him from the people who prey on professional athletes. He was an easy mark.

His third season, his life began its downward spiral.

He drank heavily, snorted cocaine and arrived late for practices and games.

“Billy Ray lived for the moment,” said Barrett. “Who knows what he could have been if he had looked beyond the moment and thought about tomorrow?”

Bates came from Nowhere and seemed to be headed back there. The Blazers finally cut him. He went into rehabilitation, returned to the league for brief appearances with the Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Bullets, before disappearing from the NBA.

“With Billy Ray you always think about what could have been,” said Kauffman. “He was a gentle soul. … He was just a very susceptible, very impressionable kid.”

Bates’ career was reborn playing in the Philippines (1983-88), averaging 46 points and winning three championships. He became a star, nicknamed Black Superman, and lived a star’s life, drinking and womanizing like a Roman emperor. The lifestyle finally undermined his talent. He made basketball stops in Switzerland, Mexico and Uruguay, and played briefly in the U.S. in the World Basketball League, before quitting the game.

Bates lost all of his money and finally hit bottom in 1998. He served nearly five years in prison for robbing a New Jersey gas station at knifepoint.

“Billy Ray’s never been a bad person,” said Barrett, who is retired from the Vorhees (N.J.) Township records department. “He would do anything for anybody.”

The last chapters of his story haven’t been written.

Bates, 55, returned to the Philippines last year to be inducted into the Philippines Basketball Association Hall of Fame, and he stayed there. He’s now a consultant with the Philippines Patriots and, according to Barrett, Bates is clean and sober.

“His life has taken so many twists and turns,” Kauffman said. “It was a joke how talented he was. We tried to do everything we could for him, but he was just crazy with the drinking.”

Maybe Billy Ray Bates’ trip from Nowhere to the NBA still can have a peaceful and happy ending.

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