Conclusion of a series
Nolan Richardson once told ESPN that he wasn’t angry anymore.
Looking back on his illustrious Hall of Fame career, one might say that Richardson’s anger is justified: He often faced discrimination as a youngster.
Later, after he coached Arkansas to its first national basketball title in 1994, he was fired in 2002 for being too outspoken about salary disparities between himself and the White football coach. His racial bias lawsuit against the school was dismissed by a federal judge a couple of years later.
Some might say Richardson was Whiteballed, as he never again coached a college game. He didn’t leave coaching altogether, however—Richardson coached a college all-star team to victory at the 2009 Final Four in Detroit, where the MSR was the only reporter to speak with him afterward.
He remembered me several years later as the head coach and general manager of the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock. He invited me to watch his team prepare for a contest against Minnesota and explained his strategy for playing the Lynx the following night.
“I drafted her,” Richardson recalled of his selection of Liz Cambage, a young 6’-8” player from Australia. “We had the second pick and Maya Moore was the number-one pick [of Minnesota]. I got the big girl, knowing she was just a kid… She had a ways to go.
“As the season developed, she was getting better,” continued the coach on Cambage, now an unrestricted free agent who has played five years in the WNBA, last season at Las Vegas. “You could see that the talent was there,” he marveled.
But his one-and-a-half seasons in the W wasn’t Richardson’s best work “even though they are the hardest workers over the boys,” he stressed. “I didn’t think I could last a year. I got at least a year and 11 games” before resigning midway through his second season, and in essence, retiring from coaching as well.
If he came back to coaching women, Richardson said, “I now could do a better job because I understand the players. I enjoy women’s basketball. I used to never watch the women’s game.”
Richardson also coached the Panama national team (2005-07) and the Mexican national team (2007) in international competition.
Mike Anderson, now the St. John’s MBB HC, is among his former players or assistant coaches that make up Richardson’s coaching tree, something that White coaches seemingly are more known for than Black HCs.
“I didn’t care to please everybody because of the way I coach or the way I thought,” admitted Richardson, whose present days consist of being a primary caregiver for his wife, who is bedridden after a series of surgeries. He also has nearly 20 horses and other animals on his Arkansas ranch—and of course, watches basketball as much as he can.
Arkansas, the school that fired him, in the last couple of years renamed the basketball court and a campus street after Richardson. A school and recreation center in his hometown of El Paso, Texas is named for him as well.
“There’s some things I am proud of that I accomplished,” said Richardson. “I faced a lot of things in my lifetime,” including the deaths of two children, his wife’s illness, and racism and discrimination all the way as well, he added.
“I hope I don’t leave this earth regretting that when I had a platform, I [didn’t] use it to help our people to become better,” he said. “That’s the bottom line to me.
“I’ve had great things happen to me that make me feel good.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.