Former Golden State Warriors guard Raymond Townsend was the first player of Filipino heritage to play in the NBA.
Townsend developed his exceptional basketball skills at UCLA under the tutelage of the legendary coach John Wooden. As a Bruin, Townsend credited Wooden, the 10-time NCAA basketball champion coach, for teaching him how to play fundamentally-sound basketball.
“He goes (on in practice and says), ‘You know my expectation.’ That’s who he was. Coach Wooden had the expectation to do things right. He had an expectation to run the offense correct, to execute correctly, to take good shots, to play defense. He had expectations that all his players understood and you play to his expectation which is greatness,” Townsend said in a conversation with An Eternity of Basketball on Saturday.
Though he was already an impressive young talent in high school, Townsend admitted learning a lot from Wooden in their first encounter.
“Coach Wooden came to my house, and when he knocked on door, as a young kid, I had 125 different scholarship offers from all over the US, and in the back of my mind, if I do have a chance to play pro basketball, I want to be on TV as much as we can and UCLA, at that time, was one of the top 5 schools every year,” explained the 64-year-old former NBA guard.
“When he came in, he sat down and said, ‘Raymond, we run a program of honesty and integrity. I want to let you know right from the get-go you’re not my no. 1 pick. I kind of looked at coach because I was kind of cocky back in the day. ‘What do you mean coach?'”
Townsend recalled that Wooden had a different no. 1 pick in mind and had plans of bringing in 14 other All-American players as part of his recruitment binge for UCLA. To him, that was a challenge.
“From that standpoint, I caught his eye. I knew who he was, but little did I know he would make the greatest impact in my basketball career than any man could ever make,” he said.
Townsend was known as a solid scorer, but he shared that Wooden made sure he would play the UCLA way.
“When I got to practice, he said, ‘Okay, I want you to shoot, crossover, either way, shoot jumpers. It’s tough to shoot fall-away jumpers to your right, so I went to my left all the time because everybody forced me to my left,” shared Townsend.
During one practice, Townsend remembered making 22 out of 25 attempts, but despite the impressive work, Wooden insisted he wasn’t “fundamentally sound in UCLA standard.”
“‘I want fundamentals,'” Townsend recalled Wooden saying during one of their conversations. “He broke my shot down and he started with my feet, went to my legs, went to my knees, went to my knees and my elbows, went up, landing in the same spot.”
“He made me change my jumpshots. I never stopped having fall-away (shots) so it still helped, but I had to be what he called a ‘fundamentally sound’ shooter so my mechanics changed when I went to UCLA,” he added.
Former UCLA Bruin Raymond Townsend gets emotional recalling the time when John Wooden told them he was coaching his last game for the team.
High respect for Wooden
Townsend won his first US NCAA men’s championship with UCLA in 1975, which turned out to be the last title under Wooden’s watch. He said many of the players who played under Wooden held the American legendary coach in high esteem.
“The great things I remembered was every player stood up, they put their hands behind their back in such esteem and honor for Coach Wooden and whatever he said about you didn’t matter, you just laughed because that was coach,” Townsend recalling one of their UCLA reunions.
“It was amazing how every player stood with such esteem and honor before him and it was 10 tables of national champion teams and I was on his last one.”
Townsend remembered shedding tears when he learned that Wooden would be retiring from coaching after that 1975 season.
“At the end (inside the locker room), he gave us his normal Xs and Os, motivational thing. It was never too high and never too low. Never a lot of emotions. And he goes, ‘I just want to make sure all of you know this will be my last game I coach UCLA,'” Townsend recalled. “Man, everybody just looked at each other, put their heads down… It was a quiet, quiet moment, you can hear a pin drop… and then David Meyers goes, ‘That way, we have to win it for sure because this is your last hurrah.'”
“I actually remember that day, I went to the bathroom and shed a tear because he was the reason I went to UCLA. It wasn’t anything else, I wanted to play with the greatest mind that basketball ever created. I’ll never forget that time when he said that,” he added.
Townsend said he has nothing but great memories with the late Wooden: “I was so respectful and I honored him and had so much love for the game because of this man. I used to sit down before a game and talk basketball all the time.”
Raymond Townsend, the first Filipino-American to play in the NBA, shares two stories about his encounters with former NBA players Steve Kerr and Kevin Johnson
Inspiring Steve Kerr and Kevin Johnson
Townsend had a brief stint with the Warriors before he played for the Indiana Pacers in the 1981-82 season. Yet, his cage exploits and his unselfish approach in sharing his knowledge of the game eventually influenced future NBA players Steve Kerr and Kevin Johnson.
“Steve Kerr was in high school and he used to come and rebound for me,” Townsend recalled. “I didn’t know until I saw Steve about two or three years ago. I was doing a Filipino Heritage Night event when he came through and he gave me big, old hug.”
Townsend said Kerr, who at the time of their conversation was already an NBA champion coach, shared a story how he got inspired by Townsend.
“He said, ‘Man I was gonna tell you, when I was growing up, when I was rebounding for you at Pauley (Pavilion), you were my idol. You had a stroke, your stroke was pure, I wanted to shoot like you. You were lights out.’ And he gave me a big, old hug,” Townsend recalled.
Townsend said he was touched by what Kerr, who eventually became a three-point shooting champion and won championships with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, told him.
“You don’t realize whose life you’re impacting during your journey. And when he gave me that hug, it was genuine and it made me feel good. For somebody who had great career that honored my work ethic.”
During another Filipino Heritage Night at Cal Berkley, Townsend said he had a chance to chat with Kevin Johnson.
“Johnson said, ‘I’m gonna tell you, you came to the park, this light-skinned black dude with an afro and everybody was talking about who you were,'” Townsend shared. “‘We played up and down and you just dominated everybody,’ Kevin said, ‘And after I asked if I can shoot with you, you told me the bank shot is the best shot ever, that you should really learn how to use the bankboard,” Townsend continued.
Retired Filipino-American NBA player Raymond Townsend talks about how he helped launch Filipino Heritage Night in the NBA.
Townsend said Johnson reminded him of the basketball shooting tips he got while they were at the park.
“‘This was a half-moon backboard, and you went out and started at 10 feet, 12, then you went to 15, then 18, and next thing you know, you’re standing outside the three-point line, and you must have hit 36 straight,'” Townsend continued about his conversation with Johnson.
Johnson went on to star for the Suns, earning three All-Star appearances and playing in the NBA Finals in 1993. He also won a gold medal in the 1994 FIBA World Cup in Toronto, Canada.
“In your journey, you just never know how God will use you to lift somebody up beyond their capabilities,” he said. “That’s the greatest part of our journey, that when you’re successful and you finally get there, the people you impacted and you don’t know about keep your legacy moving on.”
Townsend said he is also glad that the Filipino Heritage Night, which he helped conceptualize, continues to be celebrated in the NBA.
“So I started with this prototype of what I did which I think was back in 2007, and now, you look at the NBA with 20 cities. I get invited to most of them,” he explained. “I wanted to get to Brooklyn, and it’s carried on and it’s still going strong as Golden State is doing it two times a year. And I’m very grateful to have been in the initial planning stage, and whether I get credited or not, it doesn’t matter to me. I know Filipinos are up close and personal with NBA players.”
After Townsend’s stint with the Pacers, he went on to play overseas in Brazil and Italy before retiring for good. He owns NBA career averages of 4.8 points, 1.4 assists and 1.0 rebound in 154 games.