For a brief moment two decades ago, Alameda was one of the most happening basketball towns in the nation. Night after night, a couple of high school gyms on opposite ends of the island were lit up with blinding spectacles of talent from two of the country’s most revered prospects.
One was a prescient point guard from St. Joseph’s Notre Dame, a kid who made the game look like effortless poetry. Jason Kidd seemed to have a preternatural sense for basketball; he saw plays develop three, four, five seconds before they happened, and like the conductor of an orchestra, he could draw the best out of every player on his team and make it gel. “He just had the vision, you can’t really teach that,” said current St. Joseph’s head coach Don Lippi, who coached against Kidd when Lippi was at Skyline.
Twice, Kidd was named the California High School Player of the Year, and in 1992, his senior year, he won the Naismith National Player of the Year award. After high school, he wowed crowds at Cal for two years before being selected with the second-overall pick in the 1994 NBA draft. In seventeen pro seasons, Kidd has compiled a formidable résumé: ten All-Star games, two Olympic gold medals, and a Rookie of the Year award. Yet even though he’s a lock for the Hall of Fame, he’s missing one important piece, the ultimate prize — an NBA title. But at the ripe age of 38, he has a chance to finally bring it home this week if his Dallas Mavericks can knock off Lebron James and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
Just one year before Kidd started dishing and dazzling at St. Joseph’s, fans were packing the gym over at Encinal High School to catch a glimpse of another freakish talent and his signature slam, a dizzying display of athleticism known as at the East Bay Funk Dunk. Isaiah “J.R.” Rider could have been a Hall of Famer in at least two sports. “All around, he was probably the best athlete to ever play in Alameda,” said Rich Bullock, who has coached youth basketball on the island for years. “Even Jason [Kidd] would probably tell you that J [Rider] was better than he was. I know Gary [Payton] says it.” Payton was another East Bay basketball phenom who went on to NBA stardom.
From his first schoolyard pickup game, it was clear that Rider was an incredible talent. He was dunking basketballs before his thirteenth birthday. By high school he was six-foot-five, and weighed more than two hundred pounds. “Kidd could see the floor like no one else,” Bullock said. “But when J went to the hoop, good luck; he was that big, that strong, that fast.”
Rider could reign from beyond the arc or slash his way to the basket; he could run the court and play above the rim. He was ferocious on the boards, a menace in the paint. “He could leap right out of the gym,” recalled Dave Johns, his high school basketball coach. Michael Jordan once told one of Rider’s childhood friends: “This [the NBA] could be his league.”
And it was, for one chilly night in February 1994. It was Rider’s rookie year, and with a who’s who of the league watching, he unveiled his locally-famous Funk Dunk — a mid-air-ball-in-between-the-legs thunder jam — at the NBA’s annual beauty pageant, the slam-dunk contest. “Oh my God,” Charles Barkley told a national TV audience. “That might be the best dunk I’ve ever seen.”
But unlike Kidd, Rider never became an All-Star. Instead of piling up stats, he compiled arrests, bounced around the league, and then faded from the sports world, popping up only when he broke the law or violated his probation.
Although Kidd and Rider both played on the Alameda hardwood, they came from completely different worlds. Kidd wasn’t an island native; he grew up in the Oakland hills, went to private schools, and was raised in a seemingly stable home. Rider, on the other hand, had a much more troubled upbringing. To an outsider, he had everything; but he lived in one of Alameda’s only housing projects and his home life was consumed by chaos. “Jason had the support,” Bullock noted, adding: “Everyone thought J [Rider] was a real chump, but he wasn’t a real chump. He was a good guy underneath all of the crap.”
Today, as Kidd attempts to guide his team to the pinnacle of his sport, an NBA championship, Rider’s life is in shambles, his fall from grace one of the steepest in Bay Area sports history.
For most of the fourteen-hour cab ride, the passenger in the back seat was silent. He smoked crack cocaine and spit sunflower seeds on the floor. When he did speak, he repeated iterations of the same words: Pull over. Stop there. Turn around. Someone is following us.
“You need help, man,” the driver, Abdi Farah, recalled saying. “You’re fucked up.”
The passenger had a hulking frame and a patchy three-to-five-day stubble. He sat with his shoulders slouched forward, wearing jeans, a hoodie, and a solid black baseball cap.
The passenger was notorious to Oakland cabbies. Bobby, cab No. 103, drove him often; Ricky, No. 86, used to drive him across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, where he would spend thousands on prostitutes. Usually, he’d throw down several hundred dollars up-front. But after ten hours on this November 2007 ride, his fare was running over $600.
Farah thought: He has no money this time.
They drove up, down, and across Oakland, freeway to freeway, stopping several times at the corner of Mead Street and San Pablo Avenue, where the passenger bought more drugs.
As the sun rose above the Oakland hills, the driver pressed him for money.
“Don’t you know who I am?” the passenger responded. “I’m famous.”
He handed the driver a mid-Nineties NBA collector’s card. The name below the player dunking the basketball: Isaiah Rider.
Shortly after 1 p.m., Rider received a call on his cell phone. He told the driver to stop at the Marriott in downtown Oakland. He jumped into a black Mercedes after telling the cabbie to follow him through the Webster Tube to Alameda. They would meet at a bank, he said, and the driver would get paid. But when the cabbie popped out of the tube, the black Mercedes was gone.
Alameda is a factory. The product is professional athletes. Besides Kidd, the superstars it has produced include a trio of baseball stars: National League Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis, National League MVP Jimmy Rollins, and Cooperstown Hall of Famer Willie Stargell.
Rider was born on March 12, 1971 to Isaiah Rider Sr. and Donna Rossum-Rider. But he was born on the other side of the estuary, in the city that he claimed as his hometown on his basketball card — Oakland. Rider’s parents moved to the Bay Area from Texas shortly after they married in 1966. His father took a job as a laborer and they eventually landed in Alameda. The island already had a reputation as a wholesome place to raise kids, heavy on youth sports — but in Alameda, Rider’s athletic prowess proved to be almost a curse.
As a star athlete in a win-at-all-costs kind of town, Rider quickly learned he could have his way as long as he hit a home run or dunked the basketball when his number was called. Coaches catered to him. He tested boundaries at every opportunity — showed up late, skipped practice, threw temper tantrums, and often quit on his teams.
Parents resented the special treatment. Word around town was that he was spoiled. Rider was naturally aloof, which left the impression that he didn’t appreciate his own talent. Even as a little-leaguer, he was heckled. He could probably hear the whispers from the field: “That J.R. Rider’s a brat.”
“We would say, ‘Don’t pay attention to what people say, J.R.; just have fun,'” recalled Tom White, Rider’s little league baseball coach. “He would get really quiet when he was hurt. He had so much talent, but he was confused. He must have thought: ‘Why am I this good?'”
Some believe that Rider’s unruly behavior was a way of seeking discipline — that he pushed the limits because he wanted guidance. Under men like White, who coach to teach, Rider flourished.
Once, when Rider was on the mound, his first pitch got knocked out for a home run. In frustration, he lobbed the next few pitches high over the plate, as though the game were slow-pitch-softball. White yanked him. On the bench, Rider pulled a sandwich out of his bag.
“You’re not eating that sandwich in front of the team,” White said. “You can go up in the stands if you want to eat that sandwich.”
Before the next game, White sat Rider down for a talk: “Play hard, J.R., play hard. Win or lose, just play hard and have fun.” That night, White recalled, Rider played one of the best games of his little league career.
At the end of the season, every kid was responsible for making a photo album as a gift to the coaches. In all White’s years of coaching, Rider was the only kid who ever signed his book. “Dear Mr. White,” the boy wrote, “Thanks for being a friend.””That was his way of thanking me for teaching him a lesson,” White said. “That hit me so hard. It breaks my heart to this day.”
One other person always seemed to have Rider’s respect and admiration: his mother, Donna Rider. She was known to be tireless in raising her four children: She worked full-time, attended classes at Alameda City College, and still made it to most of her children’s games.
Few people in Alameda knew J.R.’s father, Isaiah Rider Sr. But one thing is certain: His marriage to Donna was fraught with turmoil.
In 1979, Donna and her four kids, including an eight-year-old J.R., moved into the home of her pastor’s daughter, Sherry Matlock. The circumstances that provoked the move are unclear. Matlock sought answers from her father, who often counseled the couple, but he refused to break his oath of pastoral confidentiality.
Throughout their stay, Matlock said, Donna spent much of her time sitting quietly near the window. Her gaze shifted between her kids, who played in the yard, and the empty street. Whenever a car passed, her body stiffened.
“She was really tense,” Matlock recalled. “As if she was watching out for him …. I really got the sense there was abuse in that house.”
A few years later, Isaiah Rider Sr. vanished. J.R. was only twelve. Without the means to support a family, Donna and the kids moved to Parrot Village, an Alameda housing project where Rider first smoked pot at age thirteen, and was later introduced to crack.
Alameda has grappled with racism over the years. The community’s core is so deeply rooted that some refer to it — the island, the city, the culture — as “The Alameda Family.” Old-timers fight to preserve the rural enclave established by their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. This means keeping trouble — often equated with the predominantly black sections of Oakland — off the island.
The first wave of African Americans came to Alameda after the Naval Air Station opened in 1942. Most lived at the end of a dead-end street on the island’s west side, completely segregated from the rest of town, in the Estuary Projects. By the time the Riders moved into Parrot Village, constructed in 1980 atop the Estuary Projects’ ruins, Alameda’s racism had receded, but tension still arose from time to time — fights at high school football games, references to blacks as “those people” at city council meetings, and in 1990, a scandal over anti-black racial epithets overheard on Alameda police car radios.
In a first-name-basis kind of town, Parrot Village is an island on the island. The complex existed only because California law mandates that every city have a set number of low-income housing units. The tenants traditionally have been mostly African American and Latino, and the kids who grow up there tend to move to Oakland when they leave home.
“In Parrot Village, you’re isolated,” said “Papa” Nick Cabral, whose grandmother was among the first blacks to live in Alameda, coming in 1907. “It’s a world within itself. Socio-economically, it’s so different from the rest of town.”
Still, Parrot Village is a world away from East Oakland neighborhoods, such as “Devil’s Playground,” where gangs and murder are a part of everyday life. “Parrot Village, compared to some parts of Oakland, is condo living,” Cabral said. “The kids think they’re tough with their sags, their grills, and their caps, but they ain’t. It’s just show.”
At Encinal High — a school so ethnically diverse that its demographics are divided almost equally among blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos — everyone gravitated toward Rider. But after practice, he rolled with his boys from Parrot. “He had two circles of friends,” recalled Johns, Rider’s high school basketball coach. “He was a follower with the other group.”
By his junior year, Rider’s name was being tossed around with that of five-time NBA MVP Bill Russell as one of the best high school basketball players ever to have played in the Bay Area. Expectations were high for his senior year. In an early practice, Johns asked the team to state their goals for the season. “We’re going to State! We’re going to State!” Rider shouted.
But a few weeks later, when the team headed into the locker room to suit up for its first game, Rider stood at the entrance as the team took the court without him. Tears streamed from his eyes: “I’m sorry. I wanted to be there with you guys. This is our last year. I apologize.”
Two Fs stood between Rider and the basket. Over the summer, he had reached an agreement to play Division I NCAA college basketball, after graduation, with Kansas State after graduation. But when classes resumed in the fall, Rider didn’t turn in most of his assignments. He skipped school and smoked pot. He had a reputation for being a bright and capable student when he wanted to be, but teachers said he expected to breeze through school on his athletic talent alone. California has a simple rule for student athletes: more than one F and you don’t play. But Rider continued to practice with the team through the first half of the season. “I’m doing good, coach,” he’d tell Johns. “Don’t worry, I’ll be eligible in four or five weeks when mid-term grades come out.”
Benched and temporarily disgraced, he nevertheless attended most of the team’s games that winter season. On the road, as he sat in the bleachers behind the team bench, the crowd would often chant: “Ineligible. Ineligible. Ineligible.” Around town, stereotypes were evoked: another black kid who can dunk a basketball but can’t pass a test. Some of the parents who had resented him in little league seemed to revel in his strife.
“That’s when he got that tough skin,” said Tim Canalin, Rider’s childhood friend. “If you weren’t with him, you were against him. He would say, ‘If Alameda doesn’t want to claim me, I won’t claim them.'”
Had Rider bumped just one of his Fs to a D, he would have been crashing the basket. Instead, he disappeared at the end of the school year on a red-eye to Kansas, leaving behind a message in the yearbook:
“1st I want 2 thank God 4 granting me scholarship with. Next I want to thank my brothers Lamont and Dave for being friends too. Mom I Love U and when I make the NBA U will have you house. … I’m out of here boyyee! Yall will see me again just watch channel 5 or 7 ATP in full effect.”
Rider’s basketball career was resuscitated in a small farm town in the Midwest. He slam-dunked his GED test, enrolled in a Kansas community college, and made it to class first semester with the help of his coach’s son, Eric Crane, who was assigned to pick him up from the dorms every morning. On the court he was unchallenged. All he needed was an associate’s degree, and he’d be off to Kansas State.
But then things deteriorated. Calls started coming in from Las Vegas: Legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian wanted him to join his national champion University of Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels as soon as Rider gained eligibility. Rider started to cut classes. And with a week left in spring semester, he had Fs in fifteen units. So he dropped out again, and fled, this time to Southern California.
On October 15, 1990, at his first team practice at Antelope Valley Community College, Rider took a vicious elbow to the mouth. In anger, he stormed into the locker room.
“You’ve got about thirty seconds to get back into practice,” yelled head coach Newton Chelette. He phoned Tarkanian, Rider standing at his side: “If he does this again, he’s done here. He’ll never make it to UNLV.”
Under Chelette’s guidance, Rider would be a Runnin’ Rebel in less than a year. Chelette kept him under tight supervision, forcing him to check in with academic advisors at 8 a.m. Rider led all college basketball players in the nation in scoring that season, averaging 33.6 points per game. And, for the first time in six years, he graduated. Years later, when Rider was drafted into the NBA, he told a Minnesota radio station that Antelope Valley was the only place that cared about him enough to make him go to class.
“With that lack of self discipline, I couldn’t see him being able to manage the money and fame of the NBA,” Chelette said. “It’s a really sad, sad story. I would have liked to have managed him day-to-day, but I guess that’s not the answer.”
Whatever progress Rider made under Chelette was swiftly negated in Vegas. At UNLV, Rider joined a team already marred in scandal. The Runnin’ Rebels were coming off a 1990 national championship and a Final Four appearance in ’91, winning 45 straight games in between. But Tarkanian, who embodied the team’s rebel image, was suspected of numerous recruitment violations. After one of his recruits was caught buying cocaine from an undercover police officer, and several players were pictured on the front-page of the Las Vegas Review-Journal soaking in a hot-tub with a notorious sports fixer, the Rebels were finally put on probation.
Rider’s arrival in 1992 only fueled the controversy. He burst onto the national stage at UNLV, dropping an electrifying 44 points in his first nationally televised game against Georgetown. But before the end of the 92-93 season, in which he was the nation’s second-leading scorer, averaging 29.2 points-per-game, he had also made headlines for fighting with a police officer and throwing a strawberry milkshake in the face of a Jack-In-The-Box employee.
People also grew suspicious of Rider’s academic achievements. One of the courses on his transcript was entitled “Prevention & Management of Premenstrual Syndrome.” He was finally suspended for the post-season in 1993 after the school determined that a tutor had written a term paper; the name “Isiah” atop an essay was conspicuously missing an A. Regardless, Rider was selected with the fifth pick of the 1993 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves, and with the cameras rolling and a microphone in his face, he told the world: “The dunk contest is mine.”
Minnesota was a new beginning. Now that he was a professional ballplayer, J.R. wanted to be called Isaiah Rider, his legal name — a symbol of maturity, rebirth.
But then he missed his first practice with the Timberwolves. He had already missed training camp and the preseason while holding out for a seven-year, $25.5 million contract. The day after he signed, the Wolves moved a 10 a.m. practice to 5 p.m. so that Rider could join the team. But he missed his flight out of Oakland.
That night, Timberwolves head coach Sidney Lowe told the media, “This will be the last time he’ll be late for anything.”
Rider missed another practice a month later and another one a month after that. In three seasons in Minnesota, Rider missed at least six practices and three team flights, and showed up late for four morning shoot-a-rounds. Coaches heard every excuse: car trouble; his cab driver got lost; his car was broken into; traffic; frozen pipes in his house started a water leak; he didn’t know where practice was being held. One practice he just flat-out denied missing: “I was there but my shoes just weren’t tied,” he told the press.
He also made headlines for spitting on the court, venturing into the stands to confront a heckler, throwing a tantrum in a hotel lobby, assaulting a sports bar manager, and telling a reporter, “I know people who can take you out.”
Steve Aschburner, a former reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, doesn’t think Rider was as hard as his persona. In Aschburner’s direct experiences, Rider was polite and charming; he showed a lot of sensitivity toward children. His downfall, Aschburner said, was that “he wanted to be an All-Star gangster more than he wanted to be an All-Star player.”
The real problem, Aschburner continued, was Rider’s friends. “He never left the knuckleheads behind,” he said. “He took that as a badge of honor — that he never sold out.”
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.
Rider showed signs of improvement under Jackson, but the NBA suspended him for five games just a month before the playoffs for refusing to take a marijuana test. Jackson left him off the playoff roster and the Lakers went on to win the NBA title without him, the second of the team’s three consecutive NBA titles.
Rider joined the Denver Nuggets at the beginning of the 2001-2002 season, but he was released after ten games. It was the last time an NBA team would take a chance on him.
Rider’s life spiraled out of control after his forced retirement. In 2005, his mother was put on life support after falling into a coma due to an enlarged heart. His drug use increased and his rap-sheet grew exponentially. In 2006 alone, he picked up charges for possession of stolen property, evading a police officer with disregard for safety, disobeying a court order, possessing a narcotic-controlled substance, and obstructing a police officer.
In the summer of 2006, Tim Canalin bumped into his childhood friend at the Alameda Art and Wine Festival. Rider was walking hand-in-hand with a three-year-old boy; he had a son, Isaiah Rider III. Canalin approached his old friend: “Where have you been?”
For hours they walked up and down Park Street, talking, laughing, sharing memories. It had been years, but nothing seemed to have changed.
They ducked into a Mexican restaurant for a drink, but soon several Alameda police officers stormed the building. They handcuffed Rider and stuffed him into a cruiser while a few women on the street screamed and yelled at him. Little Isaiah was left behind with Canalin.
An hour or so later, Canalin received a phone call; Rider had been released: “Thank you for being there,” he said to Canalin.
In November 2006, Rider was sentenced to serve nine months in the Marin County jail for kidnapping an ex-girlfriend. In court, Rider told the judge he wanted to get his life together. “I just want to get out and give my mom a funeral,” he said.
But the day he was released, a childhood friend drove him to Las Vegas. When they arrived, Rider asked to borrow $50, and then jumped into a car with some people his friend said he probably shouldn’t have been hanging around with.
On November 30, 2007, Rider was arrested with six outstanding warrants for violating conditions of his probation. A statement by the probation officer summed up the concerns of Michelle Rider, his sister. “She is very concerned regarding his safety, as he is using drugs and appears delusional …. He has coped with this incident and his mother’s two-year coma by using drugs …. [H]e is in need of treatment and if he is released, he will not return to court.”
Rider was released on bail soon after, but then in 2008, he was picked up in LA’s Skid Row district for allegedly driving a stolen car. In 2009, he violated his probation in Alameda County after trying to buy crack from an undercover cop. And in October of that year, he grabbed headlines for launching a comeback campaign with the North Texas Fresh, a semi-pro team, but was reportedly released after just one game.
In April 2010, he allegedly stiffed a cabbie in Mesa, Arizona for $150. According to court records, Arizona police were called that same month to a domestic dispute in which he allegedly ripped his fiancé — the mother of his child — out of her car, threw her down, and tore away her purse. His fiancé told cops that he’d spent $2,000 that week on drugs and wanted money to buy more. A few days later, he was picked up by Mesa police for driving erratically. He had three small children in his car, including his three-week-old son.
Since then, he’s violated his probation at least twice by not checking in with his probation officer within 72 hours of being released. His probation lasts until March 29, 2014.
I’ve seen J.R. Rider in person only once. It was at the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland on March 3, 2008. Rider was facing charges stemming from the incident involving cabbie Abdi Farah. Rider was still big, but his body had turned soft.
In late 2009, I talked to him on the phone and asked if he would be willing to be interviewed for this story. He declined.
There are numerous explanations for Rider’s fall. Some people interviewed for this story pointed to his troubled home life and the challenges Donna Rider faced as a single mother. Others blamed Alameda’s competitive sports culture, and the undercurrent of racism on the island. A troubled teen without a father, Rider needed more coaches like Tom White, they said, mentors who promoted values of teamwork and discipline. Instead, he was exploited for his athletic talent and turned away at a pivotal moment in his maturation.
“Alameda got everything they could get out of J.R., and then they spit him out,” said an Encinal High teacher who declined to be named, out of concern for the teacher’s relationship with the school. “If he had [a] basketball coach … who really cares for the kids, it wouldn’t have turned out that way.”
Others said Rider is simply a product of his environment. Drugs are common in Parrot Village; without mentorship and guidance, Rider was doomed from the outset. “That’s who he was, those are his friends; you can’t just drop it and separate yourself from it,” said Vicki Smith, a former leader of the Alameda County chapter of the NAACP, who grew up in the Estuary Projects decades before it became Parrot Village. “When you are the biggest thing and they give you everything you want, what do you expect, coming from where he came from?”
Kumea Shorter-Gooden, director of International-Multicultural Initiatives at the California School of Professional Psychology, a leader in the field of multicultural identity development, said it’s common for African-American men to assume cool, stoic, hyper-masculine personas to establish self-importance after perceiving racism in predominantly white societies.
It’s difficult to assess Rider’s experiences with racism, but he made comments throughout his career that suggest he may have encountered it. In Portland, for example, he told a reporter, “We can go forty miles down the road; they’re probably still hanging people from trees.” After a game in Dallas, he accused a fan of making a racial slur: “Make sure you get this down,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “He called me a boy. You don’t call a black person a boy. Fans can taunt and talk all they want. That’s part of the game. But I’m not your boy. Those days are over. You don’t call me a boy.”
According to Shorter-Gooden, black teenagers often develop oppositional identities as they gain an awareness of the historic exclusion of African Americans in white societies. Oppositional identity development is the process of absorbing the cultural stereotypes of what it means to be “black” — talking “ghetto,” dressing “thug” — as a shield against feelings of racial inferiority imposed by the dominant culture. Friends often serve as enforcers; nobody wants to be accused of being “white-washed.”
If this model were true for Rider, it could explain his attraction to East Oakland. Growing up, he was caught in a tug-of-war between two worlds: “The Alameda Family” and Parrot Village. Any racism he perceived would have only strengthened his bond to Parrot Village, setting up a life-long confrontation with the larger world he was being absorbed into as a star athlete.
“Academic success equals being white,” Shorter-Gooden said. “Being black is hanging out in the ‘hood and using drugs with gang-bangers. Our society promotes that message. I can’t comment on Rider specifically. But it sounds like he was caving in for a long time, but he was propped up because he was an athletic genius.”
Still, other black athletes from Alameda have thrived in professional sports. Dontrelle Willis, the affable former major league pitcher, became a poster child for African Americans in baseball’s big leagues upon his arrival in 2003. Willis’ toothy smile, playful demeanor, and infectious love for the game made him an instant fan favorite and a role model.
Like Rider, Willis was raised by a single mother in Alameda. But they lived in a small house on the west-end of the island — not Parrot Village. Willis was also a gifted athlete, but unlike Rider, playing pro sports was never a given.
“My goal was to get him through high school, send him to college, and get him a job,” said Joyce Guy, Willis’ mother. “I never dreamt that he could play pro sports. That was just unrealistic to me. People get so caught up in the grandeur that they often forget to prepare their kids for if that dream doesn’t come true.”
Guy said her son experienced overt racism as a little leaguer. In the upper-middle-class towns the Alameda boys traveled to, opposing parents told Willis that he looked like a “little monkey” and called him the “N-word.”
“You have to think of where they play,” she said. “When Dontrelle was playing, they were going to Marin, Corte Madera. They didn’t go to Oakland, because Alameda wasn’t going to Oakland. Too many of those people were over there.”
Guy said it was important to teach her son about racism in a way that kept him from being swallowed by it. “It’s hard to tell your kid, ‘Don’t hear it. Just do what you do,'” she said. “You have to make them aware of it so they have enough confidence not to make bad decisions because of it, so they don’t lose their self-esteem.”
Sunlight splintered across the pews at the Alameda Church of Christ on October 18, 2008. Michelle Rider stood at the pulpit, elegant and beautiful, sharing tearful memories of her and J.R.’s mother, Donna Rossum-Rider, who had died four days earlier. In the front row, Michelle’s child sat quietly next to their uncle, David Rider, who was slumped with his head hung low, the brim of his backwards San Francisco Giants baseball cap pointing upward. His sobs echoed through the church. J.R. Rider and his younger brother Lamont were absent.
Glassy tears filled Michelle Rider’s eyes, but she spoke of her mother with a luminous smile: “Mom died for the first time three years ago when she slipped into a coma,” she said. “In a way, this is bittersweet because now she is whole.”
At some point in the eulogy, the church door swung open. Heads turned as a tall, beautiful woman in a short, black dress walked in. Holding her hand was a young man no more than four feet tall — Isaiah Rider III. He wore a checkered shirt, a blue tie, and a little black sports coat. He skipped to the front and filled the empty space in the first pew next to his cousins.
After the service, David Rider swallowed little Isaiah with a bear hug. His cousins gathered around him. They hugged and patted one another on the back. A cheerful smile was stuck on Isaiah’s face. As the adults stood outside the church talking, consoling and remembering, Isaiah Rider and his cousins laughed and played in the sunlight.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the date of Donna Rossum-Rider’s funeral. It was October 18, 2008 — not November 24, 2008. Also, the story should have said that Michelle Rider’s child was sitting in the front row at the funeral — not her children.