On the evening of June 25 2010, Ryan Richards was sitting in a Chicago bar with eight of his friends watching the NBA Draft – the annual event where teams from the best basketball league in the world pick the top college and international prospects. Richards and his friends were all sinking shots for every draft selection made after the Milwaukee Bucks took Larry Sanders with the 15th pick.
Standing seven feet tall and weighing 260 pounds, it may have taken Richards slightly longer to feel the effects of the alcohol than some of his friends, but what he was feeling more than those around him were nerves. By the time of the second round, 15 picks after they began their drinking game, the words were slurred, and the tension was palpable.
Richards’ worry increased exponentially as each second-round pick was made, continuing right up to the 47th pick came when the Kent native began to fear his dream was over before it had begun.
He said: “I took myself to the toilet, thinking ‘this is it, man, it’s over’.”
Thankfully, his fears were never realised, with Richards emerging from the toilet just in time to hear a massive cheer and see his name flash up on the ESPN broadcast. The voice of the then-NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver rang out: “With the 49th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, the San Antonio Spurs select Ryan Richards, from England.”
With that selection, Ryan Richards became only the eighth British basketball player ever to be drafted in the NBA. There is yet to be a ninth.
However, he and his friends’ celebrations were cut short by the owner of the bar, who, having seen Richards’ picture and age flash up on the screen, proceeded to kick them all out.
The legal drinking age in the United States is 21 – Richards was only 19.
“It was an amazing experience,” he said, “I wouldn’t change a thing, we still managed to party like rockstars that night, then I had a day to recover before heading down to San Antonio.”
Making a name for himself
The 2010 NBA Draft was not only the culmination of years of hard work for Richards but also the summit of a dream he had first envisioned three years prior. In February 2007, at only 15 years old, he was invited to Memphis, Tennessee, to play for the World Select Team in the premiere junior all-star game: the Nike Hoops Summit.
At the Hoops Summit, he appeared alongside the top prospects from around the world and competed against the best talent the US had to offer, with everyone involved hoping this would be their first step towards becoming an NBA player.
“I was the youngest player to participate for the World team, we were going up against guys like [future MVP] Derrick Rose and [future NBA champion] Kevin Love, guys who were four years older than me, and I was holding my own, and even outdoing them in some practices,” he said.
Despite being a relative unknown when he first arrived in Memphis, Richards left there feeling he had done everything in his power to catch the eyes of the basketball brass in attendance.
“If the rule preventing high schoolers from being drafted had not been there, I could have been drafted at 17,” he said confidently.
The same year of the Hoops Summit, to fully focus on his basketball aspirations, Richards left school and moved to the Canary Islands to play basketball for Gran Canaria. In doing so he was following in the footsteps of Joel Freeland, another UK basketball export who wound up being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft.
For some, the idea of moving to sunny Gran Canaria would be a chance to relax by going to the beach and enjoying the food, but not for Richards. He was set on one goal – getting drafted – and so every moment he was there was spent in the gym or on the court, pushing himself as hard as he could. Despite his hard work paying off, Richards knows he could have taken a step back and appreciated the moment.
“I didn’t enjoy it, and that’s what I tell kids now: enjoy every step and every moment because it goes quick. You can embrace the culture and your teammates, something I didn’t do,” he said.
For the kids
Richards’ storied career has taken him from humble beginnings in the UK, to the Canary Islands and San Antonio, then on to the Middle East, Continental Europe and now back to the UK, where he suits up for the Surrey Scorchers of the British Basketball League (BBL).
This is Richards’ third stint with Surrey, and despite his happiness at being able to play basketball back in his home country, he offered a candid assessment of the state of British basketball.
“There’s no culture in British basketball. When you say ‘British basketball’ in Europe or Asia, who says ‘yeah there’s some hard-nosed guys’ or ‘yeah they got talent’? There’s no identity, it isn’t taken seriously.”
He explains how the issues with British basketball start at the top, that if the BBL is to become a league on the level of those in Europe or Asia, structural change needs to happen. This is something above his calling, but what he hopes to do is try to offer young hoopers the same opportunities that allowed him to reach the NBA.
That is why, in early 2020, he established The Ryan Richards Legacy Camp, which seeks to find and nurture the UK’s hidden basketball talent. Richards hopes to give them the same exposure he received as a teenager, which allowed him to participate in the Nike Hoops Summit and eventually get drafted.
“Out of the 20 players that are on the radar in the UK, there is 80 that think they should be, and there are 200 that no one knows, and those are the kids I want to find – the hidden gems that can do something special and shock the world.”
At only 29 years old, Richards knows he has plenty of basketball left in him, but his primary motivation seems to have shifted from on the court, to off it. His dream was fulfilled. Now it is time for him to help fulfil the dreams of the next generation of British basketball talent so that one day they can experience the same joy and relief he did in that Chicago bar in 2010.