**This piece first appeared in print on pages 16 – 19 of issue #308 (Jan. 1 – 15, 2020)**
IT WAS OCTOBER 30, 2019. The Kings were at home facing the Charlotte Hornets. After a feisty 2018–2019 season that saw the Kings as surprise contenders for a playoff spot, the team had stumbled out of the gates to a 2-6 record opening this year. Many blamed the team’s preseason trip to India for the sluggish start, but coming in with the second-longest playoff drought in NBA history at 13 seasons, patience was at a premium. They needed a jolt. Enter Richaun Holmes.
Holmes had been playing well in a reserve role on the young season, his trademark infectious energy, tenacious rebounding and ferocious finishing quickly winning over the Sacramento faithful, but new coach Luke Walton still had to be convinced. It was nothing new to him.
Holmes was a surprise announcement during starting lineup introductions that night. He provided an immediate spark, scoring 17 points on an efficient eight of 10 shooting, along with 9 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals. The Kings would lose again, but Holmes had solidified his spot in the starting lineup. The Kings would go on to win eight of their next 10 games.
IT WAS 8 A.M. ON A SATURDAY in Lockport, Illinois, the southside Chicago neighborhood where Dr. Richard and Dr. Lydecia Holmes were raising their four sons Ray, Richard Jr., DeAndre and Richaun. That meant Dr. Richard was waking up everyone to go bowling, as he did every Saturday morning.
Dr. Richard had begun bowling when he was 9 years old, and was captain of his bowling team in high school. He decided bowling would be a good way to keep his boys active and out of trouble.
“Bowling was real. It was a serious game when it came down to bowling in that household,” says Richard, Jr., who at 35 is Richaun’s older brother by nine years. “Couldn’t nobody compete with us when we played with each other. We all wanted to beat our dad, because he could have been a professional bowler. I could have been one. Richaun could have been one.” Richard, Jr. pauses and laughs. “We’re thankful that he stuck to basketball though.”
As the youngest, Richaun lost often. But it didn’t stop him from competing.
“The first time he ever beat my dad, he came yelling in all of our faces and he never let us live it down,” says Richard, Jr.
“I probably beat him thousands of times,” says Dr. Richard. “But the time he beat me, he let me know.”
It was a fitting end for Richaun’s bowling career. One Saturday, Dr. Richard remembers, Richaun woke up with a new goal.
“I don’t wanna bowl anymore,” announced Richaun. “I wanna play basketball.”
BOWLING AND BASKETBALL were passions in the Holmes household, but school always came before sports.
Drs. Richard and Lydecia Holmes run Morning View Word Church in Chicago, where Dr. Richard works as senior pastor and Lydecia serves as “first lady.” Both have earned Ph.Ds in divinity.
“I always just wanted to play ball,” recalls Richaun. “My dad always had me studying. When I came home from school, I had to read for two or three hours before I could go outside.”
The three hour rule was non-negotiable for Dr. Richard, nor was Richaun’s performance in school.
“He was a mean dad,” jokes Dr. Lydecia. “He told Richaun he had to do well in school. Richaun was acting up, clowning around in school one year. He [Dr. Richard] said, ‘If you don’t do well in school, you’re not gonna get anything for Christmas.’ Richaun didn’t believe him. Christmas came around, Richaun came downstairs looking for his presents, and there was nothing. Ohh, that hurt me so bad!
“Of course, the next day he [Dr. Richard] went out and bought him some presents,” continues Lydecia. “But he did not get anything that day. He cried and went upstairs to his room.”
RICHAUN HOLMES DID NOT TAKE a traditional path to the NBA. Whereas many players at that level took scholarships to schools with powerhouse programs, Holmes received none before committing to Moraine Valley Community, a junior college near his hometown. The experience would help morph his mentality.
“It was a different game,” says Richaun. “You have to be a dog down there. It put a chip on my shoulder. Every night they were gunning for you, but it changed my mindset as far as how I played, and the shape I was in to deal with some of the contact.”
The league itself stood in stark contrast to more prestigious college programs.
“A lot of guys there don’t even really care about basketball, they’re just looking for something to do to stay off the street,” explains Richaun. “It gets rough. If you play well or make a little name for yourself, they’re coming after you.”
Holmes transferred to Bowling Green University for his sophomore season, a Division I school in the Mid-American Conference. There, he improved his numbers every year, while adding a 3-point shot to his arsenal, shooting 42 percent from behind the arc in his senior year and leading his team to a tournament berth before graduating.
TOUGH LOVE wasn’t solely his dad’s game; Richaun’s brothers were good at it, too.
“A lot of his grit and grind comes from the things we instilled in him,” says Richard, Jr. “Games with no rules just to make him tough. Going out into the backyard throwing the ball at him as hard as we could, telling him, ‘Don’t drop this pass!’”
The Holmes brothers’ favorite game was a creation they conceived of on their own. They called it Hackball, and it took place in a basement which doubled as a so-called “battlefield for basketball.” There was only one rule: Whoever could dribble the ball from one side of the basement to the other won.
“You could tackle, you could get hit, you could get pulled,” recalls Richard, Jr. “No matter how much bigger we were than Richaun, he got there. Whenever he got his mind on a goal, he could do it.”
Dr. Richard and Dr. Lydecia only recently learned about Hackball, the only evidence having been a broken pool table in the basement. But Lydecia remembers the game of “throw the ball at Richaun” well.
“His brothers took him in the backyard and said, ‘Catch the ball,’ and he looked like he didn’t see it until it was right up on him,” she says. “I took him to the eye doctor—turns out he needed glasses. Richaun just said, ‘Oh my God, I can see!’ That night he played so well!”
In addition to the new eyewear, a rapid growth spurt transformed Richaun’s outlook on his game. In one summer, he grew from 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-6, and eventually finished high school standing at a towering 6-foot-9. Suddenly, the footwork and ball handling ability he’d developed as a guard came attached to a forward’s frame.
“He played against [now NBA player] Frank Kaminsky one game, and Frank was already 7 feet tall then,” recalls Dr. Lydecia. “And Richaun blocked about five of his shots. And then he ran down the court and dunked one. I said, ‘This boy’s got a chance.’”
IT WAS JUNE 25, 2015, and Richaun and his family were in a hotel room, watching the NBA Draft on TV. After hours of waiting anxiously, they celebrated the news. Richaun was selected in the second round by the Philadelphia 76ers as the 37th overall pick. It was just two weeks after the birth of Richaun’s first son.
The Sixers were in the midst of a rebuilding project famously known as “The Process,” engineered by general manager Sam Hinkie. They lost a lot of games Richaun’s rookie year.
“It was a unique experience,” says Richaun. “Coming into the NBA, I don’t know if I would have had the opportunity to play right away if I didn’t go to the Sixers. Sam gave a lot of guys a chance just to show what they were made of.”
While The Process offered him a chance, it also placed him at the bottom rung of a positional battle. The Sixers had drafted centers in their last three drafts in Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and franchise cornerstone Joel Embiid. Richaun would have to work to get any playing time. By his second season, Holmes had already been sent down to the NBA Development League several times, before injuries to Noel and Embiid gave Richaun the window he needed to crack the Sixers’ rotation. But whether he was playing or not playing, he impressed.
“He just sat there and accepted whatever we gave him: Go to the D-League, sit there and clap, start, play behind Joel—whatever it was, he accepted,” Sixers coach Brett Brown told NBC Sports. “And he did it where it didn’t diminish his work ethic. It didn’t diminish his ability to coexist within a team. He found ways to improve individually, and he did it with a great level of maturity.”
Holmes had long been a fan favorite in Philly. But Hinkie’s resignation had the Sixers under new management during Richaun’s third season. Sean Rooks, the late Sixers’ player development coach, had also recently passed away the season prior.
“Coach Rooks was one of Richaun’s mentors,” explains Dr. Lydecia. “When Sam Hinkie left and coach Rooks passed, it became tough for Richaun.”
Embiid’s return from injury and Richaun’s own fractured wrist diminished his playing time once again.
“Just compete,” says Richaun of his mindset during that period. “I feel like I should be on the floor, but I just control what I can control. How hard I’m working, how much film I watch, offensive schemes, defensive schemes, there’s always things within my control I can do to make myself better. How many shots I’m getting up. That’s always my mentality.”
“I WOULD DRIVE THEM TO SCHOOL EVERYDAY,” remembers Dr. Richard. “And every day we would pray in the car on the way to school. And Richaun used to pray the same thing every day: ‘Thank you, God, for the day. And I pray that you would make me an NBA basketball star.”
Shortly after the 2017–2018 season, Richaun Holmes was traded to the Phoenix Suns for cash considerations. It stung. Being traded for cash is thought of by many players as an ignominious label. It wasn’t one Richaun planned to wear forever.
“For me as a competitor, you just want to go out there and show you’re worth more,” he says. “I just used it as motivation in my workouts. Just get better. Show that I’m better. Show that I’m improved, my defensive instincts, whatever things they said I didn’t do in Philly.”
Richaun spent the 2018–2019 season in Phoenix, once again playing for a struggling team and a rookie coach and fighting for playing time. This time he was staring up the depth chart at No. 1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton and veteran Tyson Chandler. Again, Richaun responded by putting up improved numbers, especially on the defensive end. And again, he became a fan favorite, receiving a warm ovation in his return to Phoenix in a road game earlier the following season.
On draft night 2019, the Suns traded for veteran center Aron Baynes, leaving Richaun looking elsewhere for a bigger role. The Kings ended up signing him to a two-year, $10 million dollar contract, which now looks like one of the savviest deals of the offseason.
Richaun again entered the season third on the depth chart behind sophomore center Marvin Bagley, last year’s second overall pick and fellow free agent signing Dewayne Dedmon. But Bagley’s opening night wrist fracture and Dedmon’s early struggles cleared the path for what is now undeniably a breakout season.
THIRTY GAMES INTO THE SEASON, Richaun is putting up career highs in minutes, points, rebounds and blocks, and he ranks second in the league in field goal percentage. On a nightly basis, he has frequently been the Kings’ best player. But what he contributes can’t always be measured in the box score.
“Toughness, grab rebounds, defend, finish at the rim, screen setting, physical on the inside, fight for offensive rebounds and energy that I bring to the team,” says Richaun. “I think that’s important to us and it’s something that I take pride in. Just being undeniable.”
Sacramento has welcomed Richaun and his family, in particular Dr. Lydecia and her hilarious, upbeat Twitter feed. This, too, is nothing new to Richaun.
“They’ve been bringing that same type of energy since I started playing basketball in my AAU days,” he says. “It’s great to see this city embrace that.”
For her part, Dr. Lydecia is just trying to bring balance to what can be a tense, stressful NBA environment.
“There’s a lot of negativity when the team doesn’t do well,” observes Dr. Lydecia. “I’m just expressing my joy.”
Dr. Richard and Dr. Lydecia come to games as often as they can leave Chicago, while Richard, Jr. serves as Richaun’s business manager and DeAndre directs his social media. With an eye on giving back to the Sacramento community, they collaborated with Buckhorn Grill to create the “Stay 22ned” burger, with proceeds going to Richaun’s charity of choice.
With the team finally healthy and the Kings back in the chase for a playoff spot, the positivity seems to be paying off. And the more time the Holmes family spends in Sacramento, the more it feels like home. But for the family that saw Richaun fight through everything from Hackball to JUCO to The Process, his breakout is a surprise to everyone but them.
“We just wanted him to be in a place where he’s valued,” says Dr. Lydecia. “Richaun is exactly where he’s supposed to be.”
See Richaun Holmes in action at the Golden 1 Center when the Kings face in-state rivals, the Golden State Warriors, on Monday, Jan. 6; Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday, Jan. 10; the Orlando Magic on Monday, Jan. 13; and the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, Jan. 15. For more info, go to NBA.com/kings.