For an eternal optimist who always believes that tomorrow is going to trump anything that could possibly happen today, Chris Richard has a hard time believing anything he will ever do can top those back-to-back NCAA basketball championships (2006, 2007) at the University of Florida. “I think back on those two years every day and I think we had the perfect team,” Richard says. “There might not ever be another team like that one.”
Richard dreams of a day when he’ll get an NBA ring but no matter what happens in a pro career that shows promise for the future, it will take something monumental to top what he experienced as a Gator. He was never a starter but he was the big, strong guy off the bench that served as the perfect complement to Al Horford and Joakim Noah. As a senior, Richard was the Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year.
He showed enough as a low post scorer and tough rebounder that the Minnesota Timberwolves selected him in the second round of the 2007 NBA Draft. He stuck with the T-Wolves his rookie season and averaged 10.7 minutes in 52 games. He was sent to the NBA Developmental League last year to give him a chance to play on a regular basis and he was selected first in the D-League draft. He was averaging in the neighborhood of 15 points and eight rebounds a game for the Tulsa 66ers in the D-League when he suffered a fracture of his L-4 vertebrae.
“I had just made the All-Star game, too,” Richard said Wednesday night after he and former teammate Lee Humphrey spent an evening playing pickup games with most of the veterans from the 2009 Florida team.
This is where the optimism kicked in. Rather than dwell on what might have been — several teams were looking at him as a potential late-season pickup in the NBA — he spent his time rehabbing his injured back and when he wasn’t doing something to further the healing process he was studying film or else watching some big guy in a game, trying to learn something new that he could incorporate into his own game.
He’s now way ahead of schedule on his rehab — “All I got to do is get in shape now,” he said — and he’s getting his game geared up for Summer League games with the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks have high hopes for the 6-9, 265-pound Richard, who has added a left hand and a couple of new spin moves to his offensive repertoire since leaving the University of Florida.
“They tell me they [the Bucks] think I can make the team and contribute,” Richard said. “I know I can make the team. I don’t just want to make a team and sit on the bench wearing a uniform. I want to contribute and do whatever I can to help us win.”
Richard believes his time in the D-League has gotten him ready to play in the NBA. When he left Florida, he was somewhat one-dimensional in that his offensive game consisted of dunks and quick one-bounce moves that got him to the rim. His offensive game improved some while he was in Minnesota with the T-Wolves, but when it really took off was last season in the D-League where he was given a chance to show the full range of his skills.
Wednesday night, he looked quicker and more explosive off the floor when he posted up and he showed range up to 15 feet on his jumper. He says the development came naturally because the Tulsa coaches ran the offense through him, which forced him to work on new facets of his game.
“They made me the guy and I haven’t been the guy since I was in high school,” said Richard, who was Florida’s Mr. Basketball his senior year at Lakeland Kathleen. “They ran the whole offense through me and it gave me a chance to be kind of creative. I was in there all the time so I had to run the floor. I did all the things you know I’m going to do like play defense and rebound, but I had to make decisions passing the ball, take some outside shots and put the ball on the floor.”
Basketball has given Richard a chance to take care of his family in Lakeland and his Florida degree has prepared him for life after basketball. He hasn’t thought about what he will do when his playing career comes to an end but he says he would coach if the situation is right. “There’s something cool about telling one of these young guys how to do something and then seeing them take what you told them and do it just like you said,” Richard said with a grin.
But coaching will have to wait. For now, he’s determined to make it back to the NBA where he hopes to join former Gator teammates David Lee, Anthony Roberson, Corey Brewer and Horford and Noah next season. From a health standpoint, he says he’s as pain free as he’s been in a long, long time. His once sore knees still get iced down after every workout but that’s more of a precaution than a necessity.
The back injury has healed and he says he’s pain free once again.
“I’m feeling better than I’ve ever felt,” he said. “I’m healthy. I just have to get into game shape for the Summer League.”
Getting into game shape means there will be plenty of conditioning and weights with Matt Herring plus the nightly pickup games. He likes what he sees of Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin, a 6-10, 245-pounder who has two years of eligibility after sitting out last year. Macklin showed speed running the floor and explosiveness getting off the floor where he used a baby hook effectively.
“I think he’s really going to be good,” Richard said. “He’s strong, really quick … good rebounder … does a lot of nice things when he’s got the ball. I like him a lot.”
Since winning those NCAA titles in 2006 and 2007, the Gators have spent the last two years in the NIT. To get back into the NCAA Tournament, they’ll need solid contributions in the post from Macklin, Kenny Kadji, Eloy Vargas and Alex Tyus along with incoming freshman Erik Murphy.
Richard acknowledges that the Gators have talent to be a very good team again, but if they’re going to take that leap from good to exceptional, they’ll have to find the chemistry. Chemistry, he says, is what separated those championship teams from the rest of the pack.
“We had the right players … the right amount of talent … the right coaches and the right chemistry to be special,” he said. “You put it all together and we might have been the perfect team.”
A team like no other?
“I think it would be hard for anybody to come up with a team that just fit together like we did,” he said. “Man, that team was special.”