Raymond Lewis could’ve been the best in the NBA if he’d been truly given a shot. He made a name for himself on the streets of Watts, California, in the 1960s, earning a local reputation that carried him through high school and college before an infamous contractual flameout with the Philadelphia 76ers. Lewis’s basketball abilities were legendary among those who saw him play, but his downfall came in the form of a system designed around business rather than basketball. Despite years of trying, he never had a chance to play in the NBA.
Raymond Lewis: L.A. Legend is a thorough look at Lewis’s tragically short career and the myth that grew around him in the half-century that followed. Even for someone unfamiliar with basketball history, it makes an interesting case that players like Lewis arrive once in a generation, leaving their mark on the sport even if they never end up on the national court.
In 1973, Lewis walked out of training camp for the Philadelphia 76ers after a dispute over the contract he had negotiated without representation. He felt he had undervalued himself. The team’s management disagreed and refused to budge on their terms, which he had not properly vetted before signing with them. After leaving, Lewis was never given another chance to play by another team.
Directors Ryan Polomski and Dean Prator conducted over 20 interviews for their film, with subjects both personal and professional from across Lewis’s life. The stories they tell about Lewis give a wide-ranging look at his life and what led him to become essentially blackballed from professional basketball. Although Polomski and Prator argue Lewis’s story ultimately changed the way players were valued as athletes, it definitely seems to be the case (based on interviews) that Lewis also entered into the world of professional basketball without fully understanding what that entailed beyond being good at the sport. Lewis’s level of focus on the sporting aspect ultimately meant he was unable to become part of the NBA, which asks for more than simple talent.
L.A. Legend is also a love letter to the sport itself and Lewis’s unique presence on the court. Rare archival footage of his games is accompanied by friends and family putting his achievements into context. As someone with little investment in basketball, I never felt lost or left behind.
There’s an argument to be made that Lewis could’ve been a Michael Jordan-level talent if he was ever allowed to play. It gives the audience reason to consider how many other legends might be left by the wayside by a system designed to exploit talent rather than nurture it.