It was New Year’s Eve, the day before the calendar switched to a wretched 2020, and Emmanuel ‘Book’ Richardson took a long walk after church service. For reasons he still cannot fully explain, darkness settled inside his brain. Richardson didn’t know why he stood over the Harlem River contemplating suicide. Depression is hard to understand.
“I went to church on 116th Street and I walked to the 145th Bridge and I got tired,” he tells the Daily News. “And I just said, 'This is it. And I said, ‘If I jump, I’m not sure this is high enough.’ And I wanted it to end.”
Richardson, a longtime prominent figure of grassroots NYC basketball, made a few desperate phone calls and talked himself out of the leap. Thoughts of his son sprung to the forefront. He stepped back, decided to live.
Richardson lived to carry on as the director of the Gauchos, continuing a legacy that had carried him to the highest levels of NCAA basketball as Arizona’s assistant coach – only to have it all crumble as the target of a sloppy FBI investigation. But this isn’t a redemption story for Richardson. Not yet, at least.
He still has a lot to figure out.
Depression arrives in waves for the 47-year-old, who, on a recent Sunday afternoon, is hosting a tournament inside the Bronx’s Gauchos Gym. Within 10 minutes of our first meeting, he’s overwhelmed by an anxiety attack, breaking down in tears while retreating to the exit. The trigger was recalling that the day prior – Sept. 26 – marked the three-year anniversary of the FBI arriving at his door with a battering ram.
Everything since that 6 a.m. shock has felt like a downward spiral. Richardson lost his job. His freedom. His health deteriorated. His marriage to Erin, the love of Richardson’s life, ended because of his infidelity.
“It is Year 3 for me since the arrest, and I don’t want to be a weak guy, I don’t want to be the guy that’s crying. You’ve known me for 10 minutes and I broke down,” he says. “And I have this anxiety because I don’t want to be crazy.”
Before his arrest and incarceration for federal funds bribery, Richardson was a success story of NYC basketball. He won a city title in 1991 as St. Raymond’s small point guard. In between stints coaching small college programs, he linked with the Gauchos and demonstrated a knack for connecting with star players, an invaluable tool for NCAA programs. To Kemba Walker, for instance, he was Uncle Book. To Lamont (Momo) Jones, he was a godfather. Richardson took on the persona of the assuring, relatable, funny uncle.
Sean Miller understood his worth as a recruiter and brought Richardson to Xavier as an assistant, then to Arizona. In his eight years with the Wildcats, Richardson brought three recruits from New York – Jones, Kevin Parrom and Rawle Alkins – along with a slew of top prospects from across the country.
“I got the job because my relationships allowed me to get pretty good players,” he says.
Of course, there’s a ceiling attached to the ‘relationship’ coach, and it is a system that perpetuates racism because the role typically falls on the Black coaches. It helped Richardson land a gig paying $250,000 per year at Arizona, but also kept him in a restrictive lane. Only recently, through his work training top prospects like Cole Anthony and guiding Gauchos' youth programs, has Richardson rediscovered his greater potential as a coach.
“I didn’t want to upset anyone at Arizona. Sean Miller is arguably one of the top 10 coaches in the country in terms of X’s and O’s. And I’m like, how can you help him? Well, shut your mouth and get some players. That’s how you can help him,” says Richardson. “The issue was I didn’t believe I could be a coach. If I believed I was good, then you know I would’ve slimmed down, and I understand perception is reality and now I now have to look the part. I just thought I’ll be the drunk uncle that’s funny, and I’ll bring everyone together. And Sean, who’s the dad, he’ll get the credit because no one ever talks about the funny uncle, what they talk about is how firm and stern that dad was. But they didn’t talk about the guy who put the sh-- together for him to do that.”
The Wildcats were a powerhouse during Richardson’s stint, advancing to three Elite 8 1/4 u2032s while boasting a remarkable seven first-round picks in eight years: Derrick Williams (2nd pick, 2011), Solomon Hill (23rd pick, 2013), Aaron Gordon (4th pick, 2014), Stanley Johnson (8th pick, 2015), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (23rd pick, 2015), Lauri Markkanen (7th pick, 2017) and DeAndre Ayton (1st pick, 2018).
Then Richardson’s world shattered over $20,000.
In the summer of 2017, Richardson, while secretly recorded by the FBI, accepted two payments as part of an agreement to steer players to a sports agency when they turned pro.
As detailed in HBO’s 2020 documentary, ‘The Scheme,’ the FBI’s investigation was a botched flop. The Feds promised a hurricane that would drown college basketball. They warned cheating programs, ‘We have your playbook.’ But the indictments landed in a light drizzle: no blockbuster names, no bombshell charges. The targets were NCAA coaches but the only convictions were of four Black assistants on plea deals.
Richardson was caught on wiretaps claiming, among other things, he was paying recruits or their families out of his own pocket. Miller was implicated in a conversation between Richardson and sports agent Christian Dawkins. However, the only federal charge that stuck involved the $20,000 payments to Richardson from undercover feds. The penalties to Arizona’s basketball program are still pending.
“I do [feel as if I was scapegoated],” Richardson says. “I do in the grand scheme of things. When they tell the world that you have our playbook, and you only get four Black assistant coaches and two of them go to jail. What playbook did you have? Was that the audible playbook? Was that the freshman playbook? The JV playbook? Which playbook did you have?'”
Richardson is still grappling with the shame of his conviction. By the letter of the law, he committed violations. He was sentenced as a felon so he feels like a felon. He spent three months at federal prison in Otisville, NY, where he chatted with fellow inmate Michael Cohen, and still can’t leave the State without permission. On the other hand, he doesn’t feel like his moral code was sacrificed.
“I was helping kids when they got on my campus, yes, I was,” Richardson says. “And with that being said, if I was recruiting your son and they came on my campus and was hungry and needed something to eat, needed something to get someplace -- and they couldn’t get there? How would you look at me? And you know what they would tell the next parent (of a player I’m recruiting)? ‘That guys a liar. It’s just about him.’ Because I told you on your coach in your house, ‘I would do anything for your son.’”
Regardless, the sentence destroyed Richardson’s clean record, a point of pride for a Harlem product who could’ve easily slipped into the system a long time ago. His mother was 15 when she had Richardson. His aunt was murdered when thrown off an overpass in Queens. All four of Richardson’s uncles were incarcerated.
“That’s the one thing that I tried to run away from. And that’s why this is sickening to me, that’s why my gut hurts because I tried my hardest to never go to jail. And in my 40s I felt like I escaped,” Richardson says. “Not only did I not escape, I was sent to jail by the highest court in the land.”
Richardson took his punishment and served his time, but the NCAA is still trying to extract information. Richardson already met with NCAA enforcement in December, leaving him with the impression “they didn’t just want to get Arizona, they wanted me to give up all of college basketball.”
In June, Richardson was contacted again by NCAA enforcement about scheduling an interview for a “notice of allegations.” He said there’s an order to “show cause,” but Richardson already served his prison time and believes any further conversations or punishments are akin to “beating a dead horse.” He isn’t interested in cooperating. There’s no job offer or incentive from the NCAA, and Richardson’s against snitching, regardless.
The NCAA declined to comment about Richardson or his status.
“I’m not this tough guy, but I grew up with some morals and code of honor and code of conduct,” he says. “Maybe that means nothing. Maybe that’s my foolish and selfish thoughts and innuendos of what I think loyalty is. Maybe I watched ‘The Godfather’ too much.”
Even with his continued loyalty, Richardson feels like he let down the program and the Tucson community. It weighs on his already hemorrhaging mental anguish. As it turned out, prison was the easy part of Richardson’s punishment.
After three years and considering his connections, Richardson expected a job opportunity from a college program, or from an NBA franchise. He feels uniquely qualified to assist as a mentor to young players or as an official advisor to an NCAA committee. After all, he knows how the sausage is made. But there’s nothing brewing. He’s almost given up. Richardson’s now living off the $2,000 per month stipend from Gauchos, in clear need of therapy but without health insurance. Due to poor eating habits, Richardson also developed Stage 3 kidney disease.
It’s obvious his divorce in January was the most crushing blow to Richardson’s will.
“The one thing I never want to lose in the world was my wife,” he says. "But it’s like, ‘Book, you didn’t act like that.’ But I always thought that. This is my rock. And as she was trying to heal me, I was breaking her.
“I took her for granted.”
Richardson’s escape is inside the Gaucho’s gym, where he essentially resides when not asleep. He coaches a middle school team, and oversees tournaments, among other things, at the famed court that has hosted countless New York basketball greats. Cole Anthony, an expected lottery pick in the upcoming draft, has also been training with Richardson.
“I get a lot of comfort here,” he says.
Since Richardson’s incarceration, the NCAA has moved towards allowing athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. It’s the first concession from an organization that understands it can’t continue to promote sham amateurism and earn billions off its unpaid star athletes. It’s also a bit of vindication for Richardson, if only because there’s acknowledgement from the NCAA that players should earn money while in the NCAA. Richardson was allegedly paying these players out of his own pocket.
Still, the NCAA’s reversal isn’t helping Richardson cobble his life together. He’s on a painful journey of self-discovery and decided that honesty and removing the facade is an important step.
“All my life, I was able to tell people what they want to hear. I was very good with words. And I read people and I said, ‘Okay, I want to make them feel good,’ and that that’s got me here,” he says. “And now I’m able to try my best to be honest because, again, as I fight back tears, I don’t want to feel like this but also I don’t want to walk around with this clown mask on like the Joker like I’m laughing but I’m hurting inside.”
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