Raymond Lewis: The one

In conjunction with the Boost Mobile Elite 24 on Aug. 28, ESPNHS is profiling California's 24 greatest streetball players. Some went on to become NBA stars, some were high school stars and pro flameouts, while others were beset by unlucky breaks or tragedy. The countdown concludes with the top streetball legend ever from California -- 1971 Verbum Dei (Los Angeles, Calif.) graduate Raymond Lewis.

Editor's Note: L.A. streetball legend James "Arkansas Red" Allen would have been a top five selection in this countdown had he attended a California high school. Allen attended segregated and now defunct Roosevelt (Palm Beach, Fla.)

When ESPNHS took on the task of naming California's streetball legends in celebration of the Boost Mobile Elite 24 (Aug. 28, 7:30 p.m. EDT, ESPNU), digging deep was a must.

Names were easy, placing them in order was
another matter. But in interviews with those in the know, all the conversations led to one name: Raymond Lewis.

Despite the hundreds of names thrown around -- some well known like Marques Johnson and some hidden gems like Jason Works -- Lewis was always at the top.

"I've seen Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, and Michael Jordan and I've never seen anyone better with the basketball," said former Lynwood (Lynwood, Calif.) coach Bill Lee, who watched Ray Lew in pick-up games. "Offensively, there is nobody like him."

Added Reggie Morris Sr., who coached street icon Dwayne Polee: "The first time I saw him play, my mouth dropped. Someone would have to start
playing everyday at three years old to be that good."

The stories -- and superlatives -- are endless. But why that story ended without an NBA minute is a mystery for the hoops record books.

Lewis' quickness was as legendary as his trash-talkin' and ego. His signature crossover, stepback jumper was as great as the story of him dropping
52 points on a group of L.A. Lakers in a summer league game -- while still in high school.

Even in the late-1970s and early-1980s when he was a bit pudgier than while at Verbum Dei (Los Angeles), the legend grew from performances like
his 56-point outing in three quarters against NBA defensive stopper Michael Cooper.

At Verbum Dei, 6-foot-1 Lewis led the Eagles to three consecutive section titles between 1969-71 as his Watts neighborhood was recovering from civil unrest.

"Raymond Lewis was one of the greatest players I've ever seen ... nobody can change my mind about that," said summer ball pioneer Sonny Vaccaro, who was on hand the night Ray Lew dropped 53 points in Cal St.-LA's 107-104 double-overtime victory over Long Beach State, ranked No. 3 nationally. "The difference between Raymond and some other high school standouts that became legends is he played against pros."

Added Lee: "Pros would defer to him in pick-up games. Gus Williams, an established pro, would give the ball up to Raymond to watch him work."

Unfortunately, that memorable game Lewis' sophomore year in college was the zenith of his basketball career. He left school in 1973 as the greatest high school guard in SoCal history was the youngest player ever drafted.

But why didn't he play in the NBA, despite being a first-round draft choice of the Philadelphia 76ers? Bad decision-making, some of it Lewis' own and some of it from people robbing him of his ability.

In the end, Raymond Lewis listened only to Raymond Lewis. That cost him his pro career, and after succumbing to alcohol, he died in 2001 from a leg infection at age 48.

So why is Ray Lew revered on blacktops throughout Los Angeles 40 years after his prime?

His talent, for one. But it was the euphoric feeling about his game – and Lewis' standing amongst the all-time streetball greats – in an era of social upheaval that paints a prettier picture than the world in which he lived that immortalizes Lewis' legacy.