In October 1997, Micheal Ray Richardson got a ticket through the NBA for the McDonald's Open, a preseason event in Paris featuring the Chicago Bulls.
Richardson, a four-time All-Star guard with the Knicks and the Nets, had been banned for life by the NBA in 1986 for repeated drug use. Richardson then went on to play in Italy, Croatia, Israel and France before he retired as a player in 2001.
That day 15 years ago Richardson had something he wanted to say to NBA commissioner David Stern, who was in Paris to see the Michael Jordan-led Bulls. Richardson had been sober at the time since the late 1980s, and that has continued to this day.
"I sat next to him and I told him that he saved my life," Richardson, who eventually was reinstated but never did play again in the NBA, said Thursday in a phone interview with FOX Sports Florida. "His eyes just lit up. Here was the guy that had ended my career, but I did not hold any grudges. Ever since then, we've had a relationship."
Richardson, who said his banning by the NBA got him to kick his cocaine habit, sees Stern annually at the All-Star game or during the playoffs and says he talks to him regularly. Stern mentioned Richardson, now coach of the National Basketball League of Canada's London Lighting, in New York when he announced Thursday he would be retiring Feb. 1, 2014 after 30 years on the job.
"I haven't enjoyed the responsibility to end careers, which I haven't had to do recently with respect to drug use and the like many years ago," Stern said after having been asked the low point of tenure as commissioner. "One of my preseason phone calls each year, this year was from Micheal Ray. He's up coaching again in Ontario, Canada. (Suspending players for life) wasn't a really great situation for me personally."
But Richardson said Stern should not fret. He said Stern was just doing his job with him and he was the one who messed up.
"I think that goes to show what a compassionate guy he is," Richardson, 57, said from Canada in response to what Stern had said. "But he had to do it, and I took full responsibility for it. He saved my life because he opened my eyes and he got me back on the right track."
Richardson, who has been primarily a minor-league coach over the past decade, said Stern has helped him get jobs. It was Stern who put in a call in 2003 to then Denver general manager Kiki Vandeweghe.
That led to Richardson returning to the NBA as a Nuggets community ambassador for two years. Although Richardson never played with the Nuggets, he grew up in Denver.
"(Stern) and I have a special relationship," Richardson, who averaged 14.8 points in the NBA from 1978-86 while leading the league in assists once and in steals three times. "He understands that there are no hard feelings from me. I wish him good health when he retires. He did a great job with the NBA. He was the best commissioner in all of professional sports."
Richardson wasn't the only player once banned by the NBA for drugs who Thursday applauded the commissioner's career. Center Chris Washburn was barred in 1989 for cocaine use, and said he didn't become sober until 2000.
Unlike Richardson, Washburn never developed a relationship with Stern. He said the only time he met him was when he walked onto the stage at New York's Felt Forum to shake Stern's hand after being taken with the No. 3 pick by Golden State in the 1986 draft.
"That was unique, the statement that he made," Washburn, speaking from his hometown of Hickory, N.C., said about what Stern said Thursday. "You've got to understand the crack thing didn't start up until '86 or '87 and it was new to everyone, the ins and outs of it. Nobody knew how it would affect the NBA. Back then, you could do anything but heroin and cocaine, and it was a trial-and-error period about what would work with guys with treatment. I was one of those guinea pigs going to treatment."
It didn't work for Washburn for more than a decade after he left the NBA. Washburn, a bust who averaged 3.1 points in two seasons with the Warriors and Atlanta, was homeless in the early 1990s and spent three years late in the 1990s in a Texas prison due to a drug conviction.
Washburn, who had stints in Greece, Switzerland, Argentina, Spain and Puerto Rico before retiring as a player early in the last decade, doesn't blame Stern for anything. Like Richardson, he points the finger at himself.
"I was full-blown into drugs," said Washburn, 46, who now in Hickory owns the restaurant Washburn Wings and More and is a program director for a youth recreation center. "(Stern) was doing the right thing. He was a good commissioner. It took a big man to do what he had to do."
After Stern took over as commissioner in 1984, other players permanently banned over the next decade included John Drew, Roy Tarpley and Richard Dumas. Players barred but later reinstated included Lewis Lloyd, Mitchell Wiggins, Duane Washington and Stanley Roberts. Years later, when the drug program was different, Chris Andersen was banned in 2006 and reinstated in 2008.
Players always have been able to apply for reinstatement after two years, when they would need to prove having been rehabilitated. Washburn was unsuccessful in his attempt to be reinstated while Richardson said he opted to remain overseas after he had been reinstated in 1988.
"It's a great story," Washburn said of the relationship Richardson eventually developed with Stern. "I understand what Micheal Ray did (with drug use). I walked the same road as him."
The relationship with Stern came into play after Richardson had left the Nuggets to start a coaching odyssey that began with the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association in 2005. In March 2007, Richardson was suspended for the remainder of Albany's season and eventually not retained for making an anti-gay slur and for being quoted as saying Jews are "hated all over the world, so they've got to be crafty" and that Richardson had "big time-Jew lawyers."
Stern said Richardson's remarks about homosexuals were "inappropriate and insensitive" and deserved a suspension. But Stern, who is Jewish, also said, "I have no doubt that Micheal Ray is not anti-Semitic. I know that he's not... He may have exercised very poor judgment, but that does not reflect Micheal Ray Richardson's feelings about Jews."
Richardson, who went on to coach minor-league teams in Oklahoma before heading last year to Canada, said Thursday he was once was married to a Jewish woman and that the action taken by the Patroons was unfair. But Richardson thanked Stern for coming to his defense.
"He's has helped me before and he has been a blessing to me," said Richardson, who hopes when he's done coaching to do some work for NBA drug programs. "When I talk to him, we just talk about life."
Sometimes they discuss how Richardson believes Stern saved his life.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson