In the summer of 1976, Sugar Ray Leonard became famous when he won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Montreal. This excerpt describes what happened soon after he returned to his home in Palmer Park, Maryland.
Over the next few days, I received mail from fans throughout the world, and our phone rang off the hook, many callers claiming to be "friends" when the truth was that I barely knew them. Strangers rode by the house hoping to get a peek at the local boy who had been on TV. Chalk it up as my first lesson in the Price of Fame 101.
Some lessons were harder to learn than others, such as the one that began with an article in The Washington Star a few days after we returned from Canada.
The headline said it all: COUNTY STUNS SUGAR RAY WITH A SURPRISE BLOW.
It was a surprise blow, all right, the sobering news that the Prince George’s State's Attorney’s Office had filed a paternity suit against me in court as part of a general crackdown against welfare cheaters all over the country. I was informed that the filing was standard procedure because Juanita had applied for public assistance, requiring authorities to verify the identify of the father and determine if he could provide financial support. Without the suit, a woman would not be eligible to receive the help she needed for herself and her child.
The assurance meant nothing. People would still believe I was no better than any other member of the supposedly lazy black race, eager to shirk my responsibility at any cost. I found the timing of the story -- a low-level county bureaucrat must have leaked the suit to the press -- bizarre, to say the least, and then it made perfect sense: a deliberate reminder from the ruling white class that, gold medal or not, I still was, and always would be, a n----. To be treated with such disrespect after helping U.S. boxing recapture the prestige it lost in the 1972 Olympics was inexcusable. Plus, I never tried to hide the fact that I was the father of a two-year-old boy. I was proud of Ray Jr., and everyone knew it.
As usual, I kept these feelings of betrayal to myself. I was not an Ali or a Jesse Jackson, who confronted racism whenever they saw it. Just because, thanks to Pepe, I knew many of the words of Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech didn't mean they resonated deeply in my soul. I may have been articulate, but I was still wary of confrontation. The feelings did not go away. They helped me understand the barriers I would need to overcome in whatever career path I chose.
Other reminders of my place in the world followed in the weeks ahead, especially in the singular issue that has long epitomized the wide gap between the two races, the almighty dollar.
As the days wore on, the story did not blow over. Nor did the emptiness in my soul since returning from Montreal. I wanted to believe that the void was directly related to the suit, and the negative reaction among the fans of mine who felt betrayed.
I knew better. The truth was that, without chasing the gold medal as a distraction, I was lost.
I didn't realize how lost until the night I almost made the worst mistake of my life. I get chills when I think about it.
The first thing I did wrong was to call up a friend from D.C. who hung around with a much different crowd -- the crowd I spent my high school years doing all I could to avoid. I knew they committed crimes. I just didn’t know which ones. I didn’t want to know.
I could have called a lot of friends to be with, but for once I didn’t give a damn about doing the right thing. I had done the right thing in representing my country, in bringing home the gold, and what good had it gotten me? I wasn’t a hero. I was a nigger. And if I was a n----, I might as well hang out with the other n----s.
I drove to an apartment in the northeast part of town where a friend of his lived. About ten people were already there listening to music and smoking weed. I knew a few of them.
"What's up, Sugar?" they said when I arrived. I could tell they were a little surprised to see me.
After exchanging small talk for about a half hour, I noticed several guys heading toward the bathroom. They were gone for a while before I began to investigate.
The door was closed. I knocked.
"It's me, man," I said. "Let me in."
When the door opened, I saw them brushing against one another, handing a long needle down the line, from one to the next.
They were doing heroin. I was naïve about drugs but I wasn’t that naïve.
"Do me, man," I pleaded. "Do me."
Almost immediately, one of the guys prepared to tie a piece of rope around my arm. The needle was slowly headed my way.
Just then, my friend realized what was happening.
"Ray, I am not going to let you (f---) up your life," he said. "It is too late for us. Our lives are already (messed) up. You are somebody. You're an Olympic champion."
Those words hung awkwardly in the crowded bathroom, but they were exactly the words I needed to hear. No, I was not going to (mess) up my life. I took off as fast as I could, my arms spared the needle marks that would have done more damage than I could ever contemplate.
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