Fallen Rider 

High school basketball phenoms Jason Kidd and J.R. Rider once vied for Alameda stardom. Now, one is playing for an NBA title, while the other's life is in shambles.

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Farah thought: He has no money this time.

They drove up, down, and across Oakland, freeway to freeway, stopping several times at the corner of Mead Street and San Pablo Avenue, where the passenger bought more drugs.

As the sun rose above the Oakland hills, the driver pressed him for money.

"Don't you know who I am?" the passenger responded. "I'm famous."

He handed the driver a mid-Nineties NBA collector's card. The name below the player dunking the basketball: Isaiah Rider.

"That's me."

Shortly after 1 p.m., Rider received a call on his cell phone. He told the driver to stop at the Marriott in downtown Oakland. He jumped into a black Mercedes after telling the cabbie to follow him through the Webster Tube to Alameda. They would meet at a bank, he said, and the driver would get paid. But when the cabbie popped out of the tube, the black Mercedes was gone.


Alameda is a factory. The product is professional athletes. Besides Kidd, the superstars it has produced include a trio of baseball stars: National League Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis, National League MVP Jimmy Rollins, and Cooperstown Hall of Famer Willie Stargell.

Rider was born on March 12, 1971 to Isaiah Rider Sr. and Donna Rossum-Rider. But he was born on the other side of the estuary, in the city that he claimed as his hometown on his basketball card — Oakland. Rider's parents moved to the Bay Area from Texas shortly after they married in 1966. His father took a job as a laborer and they eventually landed in Alameda. The island already had a reputation as a wholesome place to raise kids, heavy on youth sports — but in Alameda, Rider's athletic prowess proved to be almost a curse.

As a star athlete in a win-at-all-costs kind of town, Rider quickly learned he could have his way as long as he hit a home run or dunked the basketball when his number was called. Coaches catered to him. He tested boundaries at every opportunity — showed up late, skipped practice, threw temper tantrums, and often quit on his teams.

Parents resented the special treatment. Word around town was that he was spoiled. Rider was naturally aloof, which left the impression that he didn't appreciate his own talent. Even as a little-leaguer, he was heckled. He could probably hear the whispers from the field: "That J.R. Rider's a brat."

"We would say, 'Don't pay attention to what people say, J.R.; just have fun,'" recalled Tom White, Rider's little league baseball coach. "He would get really quiet when he was hurt. He had so much talent, but he was confused. He must have thought: 'Why am I this good?'"

Some believe that Rider's unruly behavior was a way of seeking discipline — that he pushed the limits because he wanted guidance. Under men like White, who coach to teach, Rider flourished.

Once, when Rider was on the mound, his first pitch got knocked out for a home run. In frustration, he lobbed the next few pitches high over the plate, as though the game were slow-pitch-softball. White yanked him. On the bench, Rider pulled a sandwich out of his bag.

"You're not eating that sandwich in front of the team," White said. "You can go up in the stands if you want to eat that sandwich."

Before the next game, White sat Rider down for a talk: "Play hard, J.R., play hard. Win or lose, just play hard and have fun." That night, White recalled, Rider played one of the best games of his little league career.

At the end of the season, every kid was responsible for making a photo album as a gift to the coaches. In all White's years of coaching, Rider was the only kid who ever signed his book. "Dear Mr. White," the boy wrote, "Thanks for being a friend.""That was his way of thanking me for teaching him a lesson," White said. "That hit me so hard. It breaks my heart to this day."

One other person always seemed to have Rider's respect and admiration: his mother, Donna Rider. She was known to be tireless in raising her four children: She worked full-time, attended classes at Alameda City College, and still made it to most of her children's games.

Few people in Alameda knew J.R.'s father, Isaiah Rider Sr. But one thing is certain: His marriage to Donna was fraught with turmoil.

In 1979, Donna and her four kids, including an eight-year-old J.R., moved into the home of her pastor's daughter, Sherry Matlock. The circumstances that provoked the move are unclear. Matlock sought answers from her father, who often counseled the couple, but he refused to break his oath of pastoral confidentiality.

Throughout their stay, Matlock said, Donna spent much of her time sitting quietly near the window. Her gaze shifted between her kids, who played in the yard, and the empty street. Whenever a car passed, her body stiffened.

"She was really tense," Matlock recalled. "As if she was watching out for him .... I really got the sense there was abuse in that house."

A few years later, Isaiah Rider Sr. vanished. J.R. was only twelve. Without the means to support a family, Donna and the kids moved to Parrot Village, an Alameda housing project where Rider first smoked pot at age thirteen, and was later introduced to crack.

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