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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Rider had little contact with Alameda after he disappeared to Kansas in the winter of 1989. Most of his time at "home" was spent in the heart of East Oakland, in a slouching two-story crack-house on 83rd Avenue.

The summer Rider was drafted into the NBA, one of his friends from Parrot Village got into trouble with some gangsters in East Oakland. The friend had a running debt of more than $20,000. The solution, the gangsters said: Introduce us to J.R. Rider.

They had endless supplies of drugs and beautiful women, and over night, Rider became local royalty. Here, there really were no limits. Every homecoming, every off-season, was a smorgasbord of sex and drugs. But it wasn't the drugs or the prostitutes that hooked Rider on the East Oakland street scene; those aren't hard things to come by when you're an NBA superstar. It was the image, the respect, the credibility associated with the streets.

"The black kids in Alameda are considered squares in Oakland," said a friend who requested anonymity. "From Oakland, J.R. got his blackness."

One summer night in '94, Rider was robbed at gunpoint in East Oakland. The assailants stole his necklace, solid gold in the form of his jersey number, 34. He told a friend. They drove up to a crack-house where they knew the culprit would be hiding. Rider's friend handed him a gun: "Go get it back." After a few minutes Rider returned, the number 34 dangling from his neck.

In Minnesota, Rider had nights where he took over the game completely, reminding the Timberwolves why they had banked the future of the franchise on him. But it never lasted long.

Things deteriorated quickly in the summer of '96. First, Rider was accused of drugging and raping a girl in an Oakland hotel room. Charges were dropped. Then, within a month he picked up a series of charges: driving with illegally tinted windows; disorderly conduct; gambling in public; possession of stolen phones; and possession of marijuana.

Fearing their new franchise player, an impressionable twenty-year-old named Kevin Garnett, would be tainted, the Timberwolves traded Rider to the Portland Trailblazers.

Rider found a home in Portland. He was still late, erratic, unpredictable — he spit in the face of an airline employee, he spit on a fan, he got picked up for smoking pot out of a Sprite can on the side of the freeway — but he also carried the Trailblazers through the playoffs to the Western Conference Finals in 1999. "Big game, big shot, he'd take it, he'd make it," recalled former General Manager Bob Whitsitt.

In Portland, Rider also showed a tender side that was rarely visible. He bought a bus to transport more than thirty underprivileged kids to every home game, paying for their tickets and a meal. And he became the big brother to a teenage girl who lost her mother. At Rider's suggestion, the Blazers made her a ball girl. He put his sister through a master's program at Northwestern and constructed two recreation centers in Oakland's low-income neighborhoods with then-Mayor Jerry Brown.

For Portland, the acquisition of Rider was part of a larger experiment. Whitsitt assembled a team of misfits with the idea that together, facing the world, they'd thrive. It worked. The team was referred to as the "Jailblazers," and Rider was the poster-child. But on the brink of a championship, Whitsitt thought it was time to get serious, to bring in some veterans, some maturity. Rider was a casualty; with a year left on his original NBA contract, he was traded to the Atlanta Hawks in July 1999.

Rider's unpredictable behavior accelerated in his brief stint with Atlanta. He said he got cold feet. And he was AWOL during the first two days of training camp. Then, at the home-opener, he jumped on the PA: "Despite what you may have heard, I'm coming to play, baby!" A week later, he asked to be traded: "Make me the man ... or get me out of here," he told management through the media. By Christmas, he was lobbying for a long-term contract.

"I hope they want me. It's a great situation," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Can't wait to sign a contract."

A few months later, he was suspended for three games and fined $180,000 for showing up late to a game. He accused Hawks General Manager Pete Babcock of trying to steal his money, and asked to be released. The Hawks paid Rider the final $1.4 million of the original seven-year deal he signed with Minnesota, and he walked out of the arena without an NBA contract.

"When he was in the right frame of mind, he was personable and engaging and easy to get along with, but you didn't know what you were going to get from day to day," Babcock recalled. "I felt bad that I couldn't help him .... I just didn't have the psychological expertise to deal with his issues."

During his nine seasons in the league, Rider was called "a coach-killer," "a team-wrecker," "a grenade," "the human migraine," and "a life-long locker room cancer." Still, Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson took a chance on him in 2000. Jackson, known as the "Zen Master" for his Buddhist approach to coaching, had a reputation for managing temperamental personalities; he had even reined in the league's most notorious bad boy, Dennis Rodman, who was also known for impulsive and unpredictable behavior.

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