The Legend Who Left: Talking To The Makers of "Raymond Lewis: L.A. Legend"

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The basketball that we are sold as consumable entertainment is grounded in a narrative about success, which makes sense. Success is more fun than the alternative, and greatness is more fun to watch than its opposite. But the other story of the game, the thing that sets a hook in people that care early in life, and which ends almost all of our basketball careers earlier than we'd dreamed, is that basketball is hard. All that saleable, scaleable greatness is stolen by miraculous will and talent, and only briefly, from a game that, for all its beauty, is built to resist.

Or this is just me, maybe, as someone who grew up cheering my guts out for a shitty team and earthbound and anxious enough to have my basketball career peak when I was 14 or so. But the near-misses and flameouts and failures were what fascinated me—the legions of Fennis Dembos and Derrick Colemen, who transcended and converged to various extents, but whose stories seemed so much more volatile and contingent and, critically, like my own. I didn't know about Raymond Lewis because he played before I was alive, and because he played in another city, and because his story was so much stranger a miss than any of the successes onto whom I wrote my own conflicts. 

Lewis was one of the most dominant high school players Los Angeles has ever seen, a first round draft pick after his sophomore year of college, and... that's it. That's where it ends. Lewis left the Philadelphia 76ers over a contract dispute before playing a game, was blocked by the Sixers from joining an ABA club, and refused to come back to the Sixers the next season. After that, Lewis worked odd jobs and dominated L.A. playgrounds into his thirties, insisting that he'd been blackballed and carrying a heavy grievance that was also a mystery—no one knows what really happened with Lewis, except that he did not get the life in basketball that his talent would seem to have promised him. He was considered the best basketball player not in the NBA for a while, and then he wasn't considered at all. He died in 2001, at 48.

In 2005, Dean Prator began researching Lewis' life; in 2012, he joined forces with documentarian Ryan Polomski and they began working on a documentary about Lewis' complicated life and legacy called Raymond Lewis: L.A. Legend. The two spoke to coaches and players who experienced Lewis at his zenith, the players he mentored, and the people who saw him play, and started a Kickstarter campaign to finish researching and making the film. I think it seems like a pretty cool project, for the reasons above and some others. I talked with Polomski via email about his elusive subject and the challenge of making a film about a ghost. 

Never-quite-made-it stories like Raymond Lewis' are part of the way we understand basketball—the distance between potential and its actualization just seems more dramatic here than it does in other sports, especially given that even the most unfinished and unrealized player can, for a minute or two, be the player he's supposed to be, and show us what we're missing. But this seems different just because Lewis was so close, was drafted, was going to make a team, and then just... didn't. What makes this story different, and what made it a story that you and Dean were willing to pursue for so long?

Lewis’ story is unique for a few reasons. The first reason is the way he missed out on his dream. I recently read a social media comment related to our Kickstarter campaign that there are “dozens if not 100 guys like this.”

So: how many guys were drafted in the first round as a college sophomore, dominated their rookie camps and walked away never to play in an NBA game? Only one:  Raymond Lewis. There is no other “miss” story like Raymond Lewis. And the real truth of what happened actually has never really been uncovered. That is what drew me to the story in the first place. It seemed like there was a secret to be discovered. What keeps me motivated to complete the film is all of the additional material I’ve learned about the story and the man, which makes it a much deeper, unique and complicated human narrative.

Lewis said he was insulted by the contract the 76ers gave him, and appears to have been more or less blackballed from the game—the Sixers sued to keep him from playing in the ABA, and he never really seems to have gotten another NBA chance. How does this sort of thing happen? And what kind of life in basketball (and outside the NBA) was Lewis able to have?

Your first question is one of the central questions of the film, so it is not easy to answer. The truth is, there are many, many sides to it. There is Raymond’s story; and there is all the other player’s stories, the coaches’, the GM’s, the sportswriters. My hope, as a documentarian, is that the combination of all of the voices will present a broader truth. I don’t expect anyone to have a final say. If anyone could, it would probably be Raymond and he is not here with us to share. But we are going to get as close to the truth as we can. 

The second question is also a big part of our film and one we haven’t really talked about too much yet publicly. It’s been written about Lewis that he struggled after realizing his NBA dream was over. And that may be true. However, Lewis tried out with an NBA team (the Spurs) at 32 years of age... and almost made it. So that tells me he wasn’t wasting away in Los Angeles. Truth was, he was dominating courts here through the 1980’s. That, to me, this is one of the most fascinating parts of the story: how he continued to play the game and mentor youngsters, like the future NBA player and Washington Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar, out of a true love of the game. I do not believe he has been fully recognized for his contributions to the game here in Los Angeles, and that is one of the main reasons I think the film needs to be made.

Lewis passed in 2001, at the age of 48; Dean seems to have gotten started on researching this a few years after that. To what extent have you been able to piece together what he was like and what kind of player he was, given that he's not around to tell his story. What kind of footage could you find from someone who played at a smallish-time college program and who did most of his best work on Los Angeles' various playgrounds?

Sorry, I can’t comment too much on the footage, only to say many folks have looked for footage of Lewis before and came up empty. It’s a central part of our film. The clips I have on Kickstarter and our website are the only publicly seen clips of Lewis since a local L.A. news story in the 1990’s. 

He played during a time before video, and where film was being rarely shot. His high school and college retain NO records of Lewis’ playing days, though Verbum Dei has their main gym named after him. L.A. Cal State claims all of their film was thrown out or taped over. Obviously because he didn’t play in the NBA, there is no film from him there. Philadelphia journalists started calling Lewis “The Phantom” because of his disappearing act from the team. It seems that trait crossed over to his film records.  

When Lorenzo Romar asked Raymond why there was no film of him anywhere, he claimed, “when you are blackballed you are blackballed!” So, there's that. But that is part of the fun part—trying to go back in time, and uncover a truth. 

You've spoken to a long list of basketball people from Lewis' generation, and will talk to a great many more if and when the funding comes through, and they all seem to agree that he was absolutely for real—not just someone who should've been in the NBA, but could've been a star in the NBA. What do you think he represents for these players? He clearly has a legend and a mystique, perhaps in part because he never made it, but what did you sense that Raymond Lewis means to the people you spoke to?

Raymond clearly meant different things to different players, depending on how and when he crossed into their lives. However, friend or foe, everyone who played against him or watched him play live had a respect for his game. I think a lot of guys from around Los Angeles, whether they admit it or not, learned from his mistakes in dealing with the NBA and are thankful it wasn’t them who was left on the outside looking in. 

For his high school and college teammates (many of whom played on both teams), the memories and stories are more personal. I think those are the guys that really knew Raymond and where he came from. For the others who played against him through the years, and there are many big time NBA guys on that list, it seems they just saw his on-court demeanor and what they had read in the newspapers. In a lot of ways, Lewis’ personality helped create that mystique and distance and he just let his game speak for itself. There is a big gulf between those who knew Raymond and those who knew of Raymond. I am interested in both perspectives.

The money you raise on Kickstarter will go to cover production costs, more interviews, and the host of other expenses that go into making a film. How far along are you in the process of making The Raymond Lewis Story? Where do you go from here?

Dean started the website with articles and photographs in 2005, and I started working on the film project in late 2012.  Since then we’ve interviewed over 18 former players, coaches and journalists, and collected rare, never-before-seen footage.  I’ve edited a couple fundraising trailers, including the recent Kickstarter video. I’ve personally spent almost two month in research and pre-production and another two months working with the footage in the edit room. Up to this point, production has been personally funded by Dean and I, though we are hoping to attract a sponsor or partner to help us get over the finish line.  

We launched our Kickstarter campaign earlier this month to see if we could generate enough funds to finish filming our remaining interviews.  So far, we’ve gotten a great response in the press, more than $10,000 in backers and a ton of new fans of the project. Even if we don’t reach our goal o $45,000 by Wednesday, it was totally worth the effort. It’s a fascinating story, and I’ve only told you a small part of it. Hopefully a person or sponsor will see our campaign (or read this!) and want to jump on board with us. Until then, we will keep moving forward with the film the best we can.

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