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September 19, 2014

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Adams faces life behind bars

You can hear the cheers two blocks away at Yankee Stadium. But at the Bronx Supreme Courthouse, the cheers are drowned out by sobs.

A teenager's life has been snuffed out and her family demands justice. The jury, in their estimation, comes up short.

Thus the sobs.

But Richie Adams used to hear only cheers.

The one-time UNLV basketball star was the toast of the town from 1983-85 as the two-time Pacific Coast Athletic Association player of the year.

Today, he no longer hears the cheers. Instead, he hears howling and crying, some of it his own, depending on how bad his day behind bars is going.

He sits in protective custody in a cell on Rikers Island, awaiting sentencing Oct. 26 after being convicted of first-degree manslaughter for stomping 15-year-old Norma Rodriguez to death in his South Bronx apartment building on Oct. 15, 1996.

The district attorney will ask for life. Jerry Vasquez, Adams' attorney, is hoping for 15 years or less. It'll be Judge Gerald Sheindlin's call.

Given his prior record, including a five-year stint in Sing Sing for armed robbery and grand larceny, Adams isn't likely to catch a whole lot of breaks.

But then again, he looks back on his 35 years and he finds that has been the case all along.

"I'm a person who seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," Adams said from a holding cell in the courthouse. "Sometimes when trouble is occurring, I feel like I was meant to be there."

He doesn't talk much about the events of Oct. 15, 1996. His alibi was that he was in his mother's apartment watching television at the time of the attack on Rodriguez. However, a bloody sneaker, allegedly his, was found at the scene. A neighbor testified that she saw the entire incident through a peephole in the door of her apartment.

The defense made an O.J. Simpson-style claim that the size 13 1/2 sneaker wasn't his, that Adams wears a size 15 1/2. The jury didn't buy it. At least not enough to acquit Adams.

Vasquez said after the verdict the people had a strong case against his client.

"It was against him from the start," Vasquez said. "There were too many things. Too many bits of circumstantial evidence."

Vasquez, who came on the case last summer, said it was tough to play catch-up. He managed to get his client acquitted of second-degree murder, which likely would have sent him away for life, or for 25 years at the least.

Was Adams capable of committing such a heinous act?

"Personally, I think anyone is capable of killing someone," Vasquez said. "But in Richie's case, I didn't get the impression he was capable. I thought he was a personable, pleasant person."

That was the impression people had of him when Adams attended UNLV.

"Everyone loved Richie," former coach Jerry Tarkanian said. "He had so much talent. When he was in Vegas, he was wonderful. Had he stayed in Las Vegas, his life would've been so different.

"But every time he went back to New York, something bad happened. Twice, I sent him tickets to come out after he finished and both times he cashed the tickets in. They had a job set up for him at the Palace Station. But I think the environment got him. The drugs got to him."

Adams has always fought the lure of the streets going back to his days as a kid growing up in Spanish Harlem. He was 13 when he discovered basketball and went to Hawaii to play in a tournament one summer with the New York Gauchos.

Byron Strickland, the brother of Washington Wizards guard Rod Strickland, had gotten Adams involved with the Gauchos. Adams was developing a new set of friends, basketball players.

"When I went to Hawaii, I thought, 'I can do something with this,' " Adams recalled. "I grew up with a lot of ballplayers and the more I played, the more I thought I could do something with basketball to give myself a good life."

He would star at Ben Franklin High and was a teammate of Walter Berry, who went on to play in the NBA with San Antonio. The school, like so much of Adams' distant past, no longer exists. But as good as he was, Adams didn't have the burning desire, the passion, to escape the streets.

"I loved basketball," he said. "I wasn't forced into but pushed into playing. I did it to please other people, not so much to please me."

Despite the contradictory impulses, Adams, a 6-foot-9 center, was good enough to make it to UNLV in 1981, and he put up nice numbers his junior and senior seasons. He averaged 12.7 points and 6.7 rebounds his junior year and 16.1 and 7.9 as a senior.

There were nights he absolutely dominated. Like the time he scored 26 and grabbed 16 rebounds against Nevada-Reno. Or the night where his 37 points and 18 boards carried UNLV past Utah State. He even held his own against the likes of Patrick Ewing.

He was receiving all sorts of accolades. He was an honorable mention All-American. He was player of the year in the PCAA. He led the team in scoring his senior season.

But trouble was always just around the corner.

Adams admitted he did drugs during his UNLV days, though he never played a game while he was high. He also had a few traffic violations while in Las Vegas.

But his woes in Vegas were nothing compared to what awaited him back in New York.

Every time Adams returned home, whether it was to attend his grandmother's funeral or just to hang out during the summer, it meant the streets were calling. And he heeded the call.

"It was out of habit," Adams said. "I'd go back because of my mother (Flora). To play in the summer leagues. Friends. That sort of thing. I wanted to be involved with it.

"Back then, Vegas was the limelight. They treated me like family, but it wasn't my real family."

Adams said he wanted to move back to Las Vegas years ago, but his mother wasn't ready to move and he wasn't leaving New York without her. So when he was taken by Washington in the fourth round of the 1985 NBA draft, Adams wasn't in Las Vegas with Tark, assistants Tim Grgurich and Mark Warkentien and his college teammates. He was hanging out in the South Bronx with his buddies.

And how did Adams celebrate the news? He went out and stole a car.

He needed to get to Long Island, where he was playing for a United States Basketball League team and had to pick up his paycheck. He tried to get a cab to take him, but the cab never showed. So he decided to drive himself to the Island, using someone else's car.

That short-circuited his NBA career. He was cut by the Bullets in rookie camp and had a couple of opportunities to play overseas to play. But he never got on the plane. He'd always cash the ticket in.

He did manage to get down to South America for a couple of brief professional stints. But his basketball was basically confined to playing in a Pro-Am league in Brooklyn and some pickup ball in the parks.

"I felt I could've made it," he said of his shattered NBA dream. "My attitude took me away from it."

People still tried to help him. Grgurich, who would get up at 6:30 a.m. to make sure Adams got to his classes while at UNLV, stayed in touch. Joe Bostic, a neighborhood friend, tried to mentor him. But Adams didn't accept the help.

"Joe tried, but I was lazy," Adams said. "He'd invite me to his house in Queens to work out, but I didn't want to ride the train from the Bronx to Queens."

So the trouble Adams said routinely followed him continued.

In 1988, he stuck a gun in a woman's face while she was at an ATM Machine. A couple of weeks later, he snatched a purse from a woman in his building.

And a few months later while out on bail, he stole a 68-year-old woman's purse in Grand Central Station. He was wearing his UNLV letterman's jacket.

This time, the court wasn't lenient. He was sentenced to five years in the state pen.

Those who know Adams say he has always been a follower, not a leader. Adams himself admitted he couldn't manage by himself. Especially dealing with drugs.

"I felt abandoned. I needed guidance," he said. "I'm a very sensitive guy and my self-esteem went down."

Grgurich would try to help from a distance. He'd send Adams books. He'd write encouraging letters. Once in a while, he'd send along a few bucks.

After his release in 1994, Adams showed up at the Meadowlands where UNLV was playing Seton Hall. He had an emotional face-to-face reunion with Grgurich, who was back with the Rebels, this time as head coach. Adams was hoping to jumpstart his fading basketball career at age 31. But that was doubtful.

"I saw him a couple of years ago and he looked like he was 50," Tarkanian said. "The drugs must've taken their toll on Richie. He looked so old."

Try as he might, Adams could never shake the temptation to smoke a joint or take a drag on a crack pipe.

As for the drugs, Adams simply said, "I tried to stop."

He couldn't.

And during the moments of Oct. 15, 1996, as Norma Rodriguez struggled for her life after resisting Adams' alleged romantic advances for several weeks, the streets won again.

It took nearly two years for Adams' case to come to trial. In New York City, the wheels of justice grind slowly. He had been left to contemplate his fate in the hellhole that is Rikers, an overcrowded prison near LaGuardia Airport that houses a variety of criminals awaiting trial.

"It's hell," Adams said of his time in jail.

"I've been trying to deal with it, but it's been tough. Outside, I try not to show anything. But internally, it's nervous for me."

His life has been threatened by the Latino Kings, a Hispanic prison gang. He has spent much of his time in protective custody, away from the general prison population. At 6-9 and a celebrity of sorts given his basketball background, he's an easy target.

For Adams, a veteran of incarceration, it makes it tougher.

"A younger generation (of inmate) is coming in," he said. "It makes it worse."

He has also had run-ins with the corrections officers. There are two counts of assault pending against Adams for incidents at Rikers. Adams said he has been mistreated. The cops obviously beg to differ.

Meanwhile, Vasquez said an appeal is in the works. Once Sheindlin, who is the husband of television show justice "Judge Judy," pronounces sentence on the 26th, Adams will head to a transfer correctional facility outside of New York City where he'll be evaluated for 90 days. Once a determination has been made as to what kind of prisoner he can be expected to be, he'll likely go to a maximum security facility in upstate New York.

For Adams, the game is over.

At 35, Adams' only connection to basketball are his UNLV memories. Had he been acquitted, he hoped to return to the game in some capacity. He talked about coaching somewhere.

He even talked about returning to Las Vegas and once and for all getting his life straight.

That obviously won't happen.

And as he sat in the fourth-floor courtroom Sept. 26 and heard the jury of eight men and four women pronounce him guilty of manslaughter, Adams listened in stunned silence, numb from the news he had just received.

Two blocks away, cheers were emanating from the Stadium as the Yankees were beating the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on a sunny, pleasant early-autumn afternoon.

Norma Rodriguez's family probably wanted to cheer, too. But they couldn't bring themselves to it. They wanted justice to hit a home run, but had to settle for a ground-rule double.

Instead of cheers, it was sobs.

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