Tell Me When It's Over is an interview series in which we ask former athletes about the moment they knew their playing days were over. Today: Ricky Blanton, undersized postseason hero for the 1986 LSU Tigers.
In the 1986 NCAA tournament, injuries to taller teammates forced six-foot-six sophomore Ricky Blanton to play the post for LSU, the No. 11 seed in the NCAA Southeast Regional. With Blanton playing out of position, the Tigers managed to beat four straight higher seeds—No. 6 Purdue, No. 3 Memphis (with William Bedford), No. 2 Georgia Tech (with John Salley), and No. 1 Kentucky (with Kenny "Sky" Walker)—before losing to eventual champion Louisville in the Final Four.
Three years later, Blanton, after injuring his knee during basketball combines, was selected by Phoenix in the second round of the NBA draft, but never saw action with the Suns. Nearly four years after that, in 1993, Blanton played two games for the Chicago Bulls, the only two NBA games of his career, scoring a total of six points.
Between Phoenix and Chicago, Blanton played basketball in Grand Rapids and Wichita Falls and Italy. After the Bulls he played in Sioux Falls, Rapid City, France, and Argentina before retiring at the age of 30. Following four less than successful seasons coaching at the Division I level, Blanton started the Ricky Blanton Insurance Agency in Baton Rouge. For the past three years he has served as the color commentator on LSU basketball radio broadcasts, as well as hosting weekly talk shows with Tigers head coach Trent Johnson.
He has climbed to the top of Peru's Machu Picchu exactly once in his life.
I grew up in Miami when there was only the Dolphins. I used to sleep in a Paul Warfield jersey. There was no Marlins, there was no Heat, so I grew up with only the Dolphins. And the University of Miami, when I was at that age, they had stopped basketball after Rick Barry. So there was no basketball in Miami. Actually, the year I graduated from high school in '84 they announced that they were reinstating basketball and I would've had to sit out a year until it got going.
I was a wild kid with a dream, I think like most. Probably everyone would've told my family it was unrealistic. I think I was too naive to listen, and I just kept chugging forward. And, you know, my decision to come to LSU, I think, was probably the majority of the reason I was able to become a pro athlete. Everything fell into place in my college career, because I got identified as a sophomore as a hard-working, tough, hard-nosed player. But then after that, my following two years, I transitioned back to my normal position as a perimeter player. You know, I was able to shoot 40 percent from the three-point line my junior and senior year, be All-SEC and dot, dot, dot. So I think, you know, my decision to come to LSU jumpstarted that whole pro ambition.
I was the underdog all my life. And I think people have identified with our '86 team and with me in particular because I was the overachiever. I was the underdog that everybody pulls for. Six-six center got thrown into that, and they said "Okay, go get 'em, guy." I was that guy. I kind of represented a certain group that always dreamed and always had that want to, but never could. Until this day, people identify with me. They don't forget that.
Before my ACL injury, after playing in all the All-Star games and everything, in the mock drafts that came out, I was anywhere from an 18 to a 25 pick in the first round. That was based on all the interviews, the individual workouts, watching me play, again, at the All-Star games and all that. And so I think consistently in all three or four of the mock drafts that they put together, I was a late first round pick prior to the ACL.
They used to have the Desert Classic for the top 40 players. But prior to that it was in Orlando. They brought in the top 35 seniors, but they excluded the top picks, like Danny Ferry and those guys. So I was injured in Orlando, last game, first half. Slipped on a wet spot driving baseline, tore my ACL. Up until that point, you know, I had played very well.
Maybe three days before the draft, I was down in Miami with my family, and I got a call from the NBA office. They asked me to go over to the local hospital to take an MRI. And I took it and it showed my ACL.
I had a non-dependable ACL, which we see often. Kids can play with a torn ACL if they wear a brace. I had that non-dependable-ACL-type knee, and so I could function. I mean, I could walk, and jog, and do those things, I just couldn't cut. So the MRI revealed that I had a torn ACL, so that bumped me all the way down to the 46th pick by the Phoenix Suns [laughs].
We see how these kids bounce back, and at high levels, now from ACL injuries. Sometimes better. I wasn't good enough. I wasn't good enough to come back to the level that I was playing at before my ACL. Some of these guys are so good they can come back just at that level or better. But the reality was, I wasn't the same player after my ACL.
I end up playing seven years. I end up playing until I was 30. Professionally. A little more than a year and a half in Phoenix. I was there, but I was hurt. And I didn't get on the floor because I wasn't probably good enough [laughs].
Jerry Colangelo was very good to me. Cotton Fitzsimmons and Paul Westphal, both those guys. The Colangelo family, Mr. Colangelo and Brian, who wasn't where he is now, but Brian was cutting his teeth under his dad's watch, as part as the management.
I got voted in for a full share of the playoffs. My first year in Phoenix is when we went to the Western Conference finals and we lost to Portland. We beat Utah in the first round. We beat the Lakers in the second round. Lost to Portland in the Western Conference finals. Dan Majerle, Jeff Hornacek, Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers. Great, great guys. Those guys were just super to me.
I get a chance to play for the Bulls. That's my cup of coffee. I go to preseason camp, get cut. I go to preseason, play all the exhibitions, get cut. That's the year John Paxson and Rodney McCray had some injuries. I get called back for a couple 10-days in the spring, in '93, and play a couple games. I get called up the day Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan get into an incident in Market Square in Indianapolis. I fly into Indianapolis from Sioux Falls that morning. That incident went down and I got called up that day.
I turned down an abundant amount of money to go back to Europe to play on two occasions, to prove to myself that I could become an NBA player again. And thank you, many times over, to Phil Jackson and Tex Winter. Both those guys.
I was in preseason, and I wasn't the player I was prior, but I worked hard. I was a team player. I did the triangle. I could do all that. I played behind McCray. The reason I didn't make the team was because I was behind McCray and Pippen and those guys.
But when they had injuries and they needed a body during that February-March stretch, they reached out to me, and they solidified the fact that I would have no regrets the rest of my life, because I got back into an NBA game.
The whole conversation with my friends and colleagues, and family, as you can imagine, was about Michael. Michael was great. He treated me like a king. We have a mutual friend, Eric Martin, who played receiver at LSU. I had summer jobs with Eric Martin, and before I got up there Eric Martin made the call to Michael. You would've thought I was an All-Star the way Michael Jordan treated me when I came to Chicago.
That moment in Chicago was for me. The Final Four run that I had when I was a part of LSU was about a collective group of guys. I understood the professional ramifications of pro basketball when I got into the NBA. And I cried like a baby when I was told that I was being cut by the Suns, because I had been there a year and a half. Dan Majerle and I had become good friends. You know, I was settled.
Well, I got slapped in the face about pro sports, so by that time when I got to Chicago it was a different dynamic. In Chicago I was 26. I was 19 years old when we made our run to the Final Four. I was a sophomore in college. And that was about as pure as it gets.
After Chicago, I went and I finished in the quiet South American league that was up and coming with all these young players. Oberto, Sebastian Ginobili, Wolkowyski, and the list goes on. I was on the cutting edge of Argentina taking off, you know? Scola. I knew all these kids when they were 14, 15 years old on the junior team. But yeah, I got my cup of coffee in the NBA, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could play a season or two after that.
When I was 30 and I finished my seventh season as a pro, in Argentina, I knew it was time. I had had hand surgery. I broke my fourth and fifth metacarpal. I'd had my nose broken. It was time. I knew. I fulfilled the dream for seven years. I didn't need to go on. I didn't need to chase anything.
Probably the last six weeks of my last year, I knew, when I was out there doing two-a-days with a bunch of 17-, 18-year-old juniors. And my coach had us doing drills that I did in high school, and our team was a part of that. We were doing two-a-days. I said: "You know what? I need rest. I don't need more reps."
I wasn't getting back into the NBA, I wasn't going to play in the CBA, so if I had to continue playing, I would be in another country. I had been in three countries—France, Argentina, and Italy. I would have to play in another country, and I wasn't going to go through two-a-days for another six months during the course of the season when I needed rest. So that's when I knew. It was about six weeks out. The light went off real quick.
We were in an elimination playoff. You win, you advance, You lose, you go home. We were in the second round. And if memory serves me correctly, we may have lost by five points. The reality set in after. When it's done, it's done.
But I didn't think like that going in, because I thought realistically I'd play until I got a championship, and that would be the last game. If we got that championship then I would know. Being the ultimate optimist, I thought we would win that game that, in reality, was my last game.
The Latin culture is festive, and we had a little gathering two days later, and then I got on a plane from Buenos Aires to Miami. That send-off, everybody having some toasts, and a few tears. When I went back to my apartment after the send-off, which was about 3 a.m. and I had to leave for the airport at 6., I think that's what it was. I mean, a really good group of guys and that camaraderie. It's not going to be there. That's probably when it hit me pretty good.
All I do for exercise is I jog now. My competitive juices are no longer around. I left all those as an NBA player. My friends laugh at me, because I'm kind of a laid-back guy. I don't get too high, too low at sporting events. I exhausted all my competitive nature in what I had to do, so I was fine when it was done. I was thrilled. It was a peace of mind. I just knew that I had zero regrets when my basketball career was over and I was 30 years old.
The reality was, I wasn't playing like if I was still in Italy making a quarter of a million dollars. I wasn't good enough to get there. And I saw my friends moving forward in corporate or moving forward in business and establishing themselves. I'm not the brightest candle, but I'm not the dimmest. I'm somewhere in between. I could do that math quickly in my mind and say, Look. Enough of this. Get back to the States.
I'm bilingual. I speak Spanish, growing up in Miami. I knew Spanish before I got to Argentina, even though it was a different dialect. I had no problem living in other countries, but I just saw the light of day. It was a wonderful life. Everything was great. But all those variables added up and it was easy math.
It was hard to find a direction, because I had lived the dream. And it's hard to explain that to people. But I had fulfilled something I had been dreaming about since I was 12, 13 years old. I didn't know what direction to go, other than, okay, I'll do some stuff with basketball, because that's easy. Having my insurance agency right now is the best thing that ever happened to me. To be honest with you, I kind of fell into it. But I feel so fortunate, and, I tell everybody this, I wish everybody could have the experience I had at LSU and as a pro. Maybe not the best, maybe some bumps in the road, but to experience it the way I did, I recognize, especially now that I'm a little bit older, how lucky I was.
I am who I am because of two things: my parents and because of what basketball has provided.
Thanks to Dr. Stephan Moran for the ACL primer.
Last year Rob Trucks interviewed current and former D-I basketball coaches Jay Wright, Mike Adras, Charles E. Ramsey, Murry Bartow, and Kevin Stallings as part of his oral history of 49-year-olds. His other work for Deadspin includes interviews with former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk and the late Dave Duerson, and an oral history of Big Star co-founder Alex Chilton's time in Tuscaloosa. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @tusktusktusk. Theme music and video courtesy Steve Wynn.