Seated on the bench, Billy Richmond watched and waited while the young ballplayer first dribbled, then rolled, and finally carried the ball toward him. Without hesitating, Richmond swiped the ball from the boy's hands. The young Memphis Tigers fan was, after all, only 4 years old. Richmond, the personable Tiger sophomore, then added his signature to the rest of the team's autographs on the ball, eliciting a large grin from the child -- and himself.
Seated next to his aunt, Bettye Hilliard, a 25-year employee of Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center, Richmond knows the hospital halls well. To be here again -- this time as a Tiger -- and hand out posters, backpacks, and wristbands as part of the team's January 17th visit brought out Richmond's trademark mischievous smile.
"This was fun to be able to be with the kids and the nurses and their parents. We brought a lot of excitement to the hospital today," Richmond said. "It was a fun experience for all of us."
Richmond smiles a lot, and easily. But Monday, in the Larry O. Finch Center, Richmond, who turns 21 this month, was humbled, and most assuredly not smiling as he delivered a message to anyone who would listen: "I just want to apologize to the people of the city of Memphis for how I handled myself," Richmond said. "I take full responsibility. I hope everyone out there will forgive me. I was out of line."
"It's something that I have to change," Richmond added. "I feel like the players follow my lead, and if something is not going right, I take full responsibility."
Richmond felt compelled to apologize for a heated verbal exchange with freshman teammate Jeremy Hunt that almost turned physical Saturday in St. Louis, where the Tigers lost for the third time in four games, 69-66. The brief struggle occurred near the end of the first half, when a frustrated Richmond (who scored zilch in only seven minutes) and Hunt engaged in a shouting match.
But now that Richmond has apologized, will it help?
There is growing gossip in Memphis about internal turmoil among the Tigers. Some say Richmond is the culprit. This supposition is based on Richmond's public history -- his dismissal from Vanderbilt, his suspension for fighting during the Arkansas-Pine Bluff game, and the rift with Hunt.
Only a few people witnessed Richmond and the rest of the Tiger team reaching out to children at Le Bonheur. His detractors didn't see him and Hunt, the two hometown stars, seated like towering Santa Clauses as children lined up to visit them. The moment wasn't highly publicized, and few saw the two friends joking with each other, walking around the hospital lobby, playing with kids, and talking with parents, nurses, and doctors.
But Anthony Thomas did.
Thomas, a 13-year-old from Turrell, Arkansas, was at Le Bonheur being treated for a serious sinus condition that has caused inflammation of his eye cavities. He had a Polaroid picture taken with Memphis coach John Calipari, whom he graded as "good."
Tameka Burts also visited with Richmond, Hunt, and the other Tiger players and coaches before gathering armfuls of signed memorabilia and heading off to the Intensive Care Unit, where she has worked for six years.
"I thought it would be a nice thing to do because a lot of these kids in ICU are in critical condition," Burts said. "I thought the souvenirs would be a nice thing to see when they wake up. This visit is just wonderful. It's wonderful," Burts added.
The children in the hospital's dialysis room also received posters, and then a group of Tigers -- including Hunt -- visited each child.
"I like watching them on TV when I have a chance," said 13-year-old Jerika Coleman, who spends hours in the room, ridding her blood of impurities due to kidney failure. But most people don't have her perspective on the team.
The focus on the Tigers by the media is something Calipari accepts. He knows it can be a love/hate relationship. "These are young kids. They make mistakes," Calipari says. "Billy says dumb things. He's not a bad guy."
Of course, the children at Le Bonheur already knew that.