FROM SCHOOLYARD LEGEND TO KID ON THE RUN : RICHIE ADAMS, EX-UNLV STAR AND AN NBA PROSPECT, NOW HIDES OUT FROM DRUG DEALERS.
Richie Adams sat in the stands at Madison Square Garden three weeks ago with the bill of his baseball cap pulled low over his face, his eyes darting back and forth as the New York Knicks and his buddy Larry Johnson scrambled across the court.
He wasn't hiding from his fans that day, the people who might have remembered him as a star basketball center, a jaw-dropping leaper with tireless legs who played for Jerry Tarkanian and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas during the early 1980s.
Instead, Adams said, he was ducking drug-running killers who were tailing him around town, accusing him of murdering a teen-age girl.
``I'm on the run,'' Adams, who admits using cocaine and hanging out with neighborhood gangsters, said after the game. ``I can't go home because drug dealers there want to kill me.''
Six days later, Adams, 33, was arrested and charged in the killing of Norma Rodriguez, a 14-year-old girl who was found dead Oct. 15 in the Melrose section of the Bronx, one floor below Adams' mother's apartment. She had been bludgeoned to death near the elevator. A bloody Adidas sneaker, size 13-1/2, was found just outside the building.
Adams turned himself in Oct. 23 and pleaded not guilty to murder the next day. Family and friends of Ms. Rodriguez, who lived across the street, said Adams had been stalking her.
Adams' tumble from pro prospect to suspect in a gruesome killing was slow and incremental and, to his coaches and teammates, heart-breaking. Adams, they say, did not miss just one opportunity to play with the Johnsons and Jordans of the NBA. He missed a string of them.
There was an offer from the Washington Bullets, international league contracts, a casino job in Las Vegas, and the pleas and affection of his UNLV coach, Tarkanian.
``Everybody in Las Vegas loved him, but every time he went back to New York he got in trouble,'' said his coach, Tarkanian, holding back tears. ``We tried real hard to get him not to go back to New York.''
New York, though, was Adams' haven. On the streets of Harlem and the South Bronx, he understood instinctively what to say and when to say it. It didn't matter that he couldn't read or write well.
What mattered was his prowess on the court, and in the end, the steady supply of cocaine and easy adulation it brought him, friends say. Despite the streetwise veneer, Adams was also a man more malleable than tough, a willing follower who never considered taking a lead position off the court.
``When he was around good people, he did the right thing,'' said Danny Tarkanian, the coach's son and Adams' friend and former teammate. ``When he was around the wrong crowd, he messed up.''
On the hardwood, Adams seemed to float above it all. He was gifted, a 6-foot-9-inch player who was nimble on his feet and rebounded with confidence and precision.
In New York City, his size and agility turned him into one of the most sought-after summer tournament players. The Animal, people called him. In Las Vegas, his talent made him a celebrity.
In each of his last two seasons at UNLV, in which the Runnin' Rebels finished with a combined record of 57-10, he was the conference player of the year. He finished his college career with 1,168 points and 623 rebounds. Some say that in his prime, Adams could have outrebounded Dennis Rodman.
In 1985, he made the ultimate leap, becoming a fourth-round draft pick for the Washington Bullets. The day after the draft he was arrested for stealing a car in the Bronx. It was the beginning of his free fall.
``Richie was a great player,'' said Tarkanian, who was ultimately forced out of UNLV amid controversy and a feud with the university president. He is now head coach at California State University at Fresno.
``What made him such a special person,'' Tarkanian said, ``is that despite his greatness, he was never cocky or self-assuming. He never boasted about the things he accomplished on the basketball court.
``He was one of the quickest jumpers I have ever seen. He was like a pogo stick, he was so quick off of his feet, and he could jump just as high the second time as he did the first, and just as high the third time as he had jumped the second.''
Adams was at his best from 1981 to 1984, while he was at UNLV. He warmed to his teammates quickly and worked hard on the court. Toward the end of his career there, he was always the first to volunteer to speak to elementary-school children about staying off drugs and graduating from high school, advice Adams never took to heart.
At one Rebel party honoring the players' parents, Adams brought seven local children as his guests. During his off time, he took children no taller than his kneecaps to the 7-Eleven for Slurpees.
``He loved talking to the kids,'' said Paul Brozovich, a former teammate. ``And the kids really loved him.''
But Adams, who had not yet learned to read or write at 14, could not shake off the lure of New York City's streets. At times, he so missed hanging out with his ``get-high'' buddies in New York that he isolated himself from the team. Coaches and teammates thought he was manic-depressive.
Adams was convinced he just needed to go home, and he did that, when his grandmother died, taking a year off in 1982 before returning to play for the next two seasons.
That year, Adams ambled around his gritty neighborhood in high style, a star admired even by rich drug dealers. It was a feeling he had always coveted, one he first tasted in 1978 as a hotshot player on the top-ranked Benjamin Franklin High School team in East Harlem, teammates said.
``He never wanted to leave his neighborhood,'' said a Franklin High School teammate and lifelong friend, Gary Springer, who now lives in North Carolina. ``He was just a street kid like the rest of us.''
From an early age, Adams had a penchant for trouble. The people around him chalked it up to poor upbringing, simple-mindedness and dangerous friendships, but they held out hope that his talent would prevail. At school, he was a truant with a reputation for using drugs and stealing, said Stan Dinner, a former basketball coach for Franklin High, now closed, who recruited Adams.
``Every now and then, he would shock you by doing something stupid,'' Dinner said. ``He would get caught stealing apples from the cafeteria when all he had to do was ask for them.''
Dinner recalls picking up the phone in his office one afternoon and hearing a police officer tell him Adams was in custody. ``Richie had stolen my car,'' Dinner said. ``He went on a joy ride. Of course, I dropped the charges.''
At home, after he left UNLV and squandered his shot at the NBA by being arrested, Adams sought refuge on the asphalt playground courts of Holcombe Rucker Memorial Park in Harlem, where the city's best players face off every summer in a brash and brazen display of skill.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Stephon Marbury were among the best who made it. Many more did not, like Joe Hammond, dubbed the Destroyer; Herman (the Helicopter) Knowings, and Earl Manigault, called the Goat, who dunked a ball backward 36 times in a row to win a $60 bet.
The Rucker League summer tournaments, which have no official sponsors, also earned a reputation for bending the rules, and sometimes the law, former players and coaches say. High stakes gambling on games, under-the-table payments to players and team sponsorship by drug dealers are not uncommon. It is no secret that the best players are paid well for these ultracompetitive tournaments. Victory at Rucker Park is a matter of honor to drug dealers.
``There is definitely a drug element in the Rucker League, and a few teams are run by drug dealers who are looking for their own fame,'' said James Ryan, who has coached Adams in summer tournaments since he was a teen-ager. ``They love saying, `I have Richie Adams on my team.' ''
Adams found he could make a comfortable living playing in local tournaments.
``A lot of basketball teams I play for in different tournaments are run by drug dealers who pay me to play for them,'' he said after a recent Knicks game. The dealers, he said, often dropped him off at home at the Andrew Jackson Houses in a gleaming Mercedes-Benz or Lexus. He had a steady paycheck and his ego was being stroked. He was needed on the court.
``In his prime, Richie made a ton of money playing in the summer leagues,'' said Lenzell Vaughn, who played with Adams in tournaments and was known as the Predator on the court. ``People would do anything to have him play for them. They would buy him clothes, sneakers and even food, if he was hungry.''
But Adams, who Ryan said was probably making $1,000 a game during his best years, spent most of his money on drugs, especially cocaine, friends said. Even after he fathered two children with different women, he kept draining his wallet to get high, they said. Not even the drug dealers approved, Ryan said.
``Of course it was drug money he was being paid, but no one told him to buy drugs with it,'' Ryan said. ``Heck, if these dealers wanted to see Richie get high, they would have paid him in drugs, not cash, because that would have been a lot cheaper. Believe me, no drug dealer, especially the ones who bet big money on some of those games, would want to see one of their players show up high.''
When his money ran out, Adams turned to crime. Between 1988 and 1989, he was convicted three times. He snatched two purses and held up a woman at an automated teller machine, placing a gun to her jaw. In April 1989, Adams was sent to an upstate prison, where he played ball behind barbed wire as shotgun-toting guards watched.
Through it all, his teammates and coaches tried to help him see past the easy money. Tarkanian sent him airline tickets to Las Vegas. Adams cashed them in. He lined up a job for Adams at a casino, a route many former UNLV players take when they graduate, but Adams ignored the offer.
After Adams was sent to prison, Tarkanian and his son, Danny, tried unsuccessfully to get the governor of Nevada to permit him to enter a work-release program in Las Vegas. Teammates and friends encouraged him to play basketball abroad, and he did, briefly, in Argentina, but New York never failed to tug him home.
``Playing in those summer tournaments in Harlem,'' said Dinner, Adams' former high school coach who now owns a restaurant, ``Richie was a legend here in New York, and that's one of the reasons why he always wanted to go back. It was a safe, comfortable place for him.''
When he got out of prison in April 1994, Adams returned to his mother's apartment in the Bronx. People in the neighborhood pulled for him once again.
``There was a lot of love out here for him, but he just went back to it,'' said James Howard, who grew up in the same projects and remembers when Adams came home.
Eventually, it became common knowledge in his building at 3050 Park Avenue that little had changed. Adams still used drugs, friends said. He was still unemployed.
But one thing was different: his game. No longer a young man with a marquee name, Adams was paid considerably less for his time on the court. Fewer games came his way. Neighbors said he again turned to stealing to finance his habit, sometimes in his own building. The crimes were not reported, they said, because residents were afraid.
``People stayed clear of him,'' Howard said. ``He was a smooth operator. He never stayed long here.''
His basketball buddies also noticed that he had taken another downward turn. ``I was aware that Richie had drug problems,'' Vaughn said. ``He'd show up before games and say, `I'm so tired.' He was real dragging and his eyes looked so droopy. I knew right there he was getting high.''
Dinner remembers Adams coming into his restaurant last year. ``He looked horrible,'' Dinner said. ``His hair was matted and his clothes did not look fresh. I gave him an order of chicken wings and a bottle of beer. He said, `Coach, can you spot me a few bucks?' ''
Still, the people who know him best said they are astonished that Adams, a man never seen fighting, not even after taking an intentional elbow to the face on the court, could have committed murder. Most said they never heard him mention Norma Rodriguez, the girl he is charged with killing. As for the size 13-1/2 sneaker found nearby, Adams says he wears a size 15.
``I don't know if Richie did this,'' Dinner added, ``but anything is possible. Drugs do strange things to people, and Richie is a very strong guy. What a shame. What a waste. Here's a guy who really had a chance to go places.''
Photo: Jerry Tarkanian