Earlier this week, the L.A. Lakers’ Jordan Clarkson was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team, the first Laker to earn the honor since Eddie Jones in the 1994-95. In the ensuing news cycle, Clarkson had sometimes been erroneously singled out as the NBA’s first player of Filipino descent. That distinction actually belongs to Raymond Townsend, who was a first-round pick of the Golden State Warriors in the 1978 NBA Draft.
Townsend’s career was short, playing just three seasons between the Warriors and Indiana Pacers, but his legacy of being the only Filipino-American player to have played in the league stood for 36 years until Clarkson suited up for the Lakers this past season.
Like Townsend, Clarkson hasn’t been bashful about his Filipino heritage. Both have been outspoken about their Pinoy roots as soon as their respective careers started.
Townsend, whose mother is from Balayan, Batangas, came into the league after a season at UCLA in which he was named an All-American guard. In his freshman season playing under head coach John Wooden, Townsend was a part of a Bruins team that won a national championship in 1975.
Townsend retired from the NBA in 1981, but basketball has remained a presence in his life. It now serves as the avenue Townsend has used to fulfill what he believes is his true passion: reaching and inspiring young people.
Dat Winning caught up with Townsend to reminisce about his historic distinction and pro career, comment on why there hasn’t been more Filipino players in the league, as well as catch up with what he’s doing now.
DW: You are the first Filipino player to have ever played in the NBA and up until recently, you were the only one. How has the passage of time and hindsight shaped how you view your legacy?
Raymond Townsend: When I was younger and I got drafted in the first round, I promoted my Filipino heritage, but the majority of the league was black. There wasn’t a whole lot of international players, maybe one or two. I had a big afro, I was dark-complected. Everybody assumed I was black. The funny thing is the impact wasn’t like it is now. The game is so globalized, and now you have 95 international players or so, and now your ethnicity is important. There’s some controversy out there, people who say Jordan and I are not Filipinos. My mother is from the Philippines. I promote my heritage and bottom line, I did something that was never done before. I’m very grateful for the opportunity.
Basketball is the most popular sport in the Philippines. There is a great passion for basketball among Filipinos and Filipino-Americans. Does it surprise you that almost four decades separates the time when you played and when the next Filipino-American played in the NBA?
You know what, it doesn’t surprise me. I think there’s a lot of ability, but it’s very hard. You know how hard it would be…just imagine you are a PBA (Philippine Basketball Association) athlete. You have a legendary history and you come over to America and you get cut by the Phoenix Suns or some other NBA team. To have your whole career lead to that. There won’t be any players to risk that.
As an avid rec league basketball player, I know for me, there are plays that I never forget: big shots I made or layups that I blew. I can only imagine that as a professional player, you have so many of these. Can you tell me some of the NBA memories that have stayed with you?
There are two of them: the first day I started. It was my second year with Golden State. Running out with the spotlight on me was everything I dreamed of in my dreams. I was playing in a league with 225 of the best players in the world and running out as a starter, it was one of the biggest moments. That meant I finally made it. During that time, I averaged about 12 points and five assists. It solidified the fact that I really did belong. And the second one is my career-high night scoring 29 points against the Clips.
What would you have done differently in your pro career? I understand that while you were at UCLA, there were two paths you could have gone down — basketball or baseball. Looking back, how do you think your life would have turned out if you had taken the other route? What made you choose basketball?
I wasn’t going to go to UCLA unless Coach allowed me to play baseball. I asked Coach Wooden, I said, “Coach, I want to play for the baseball team.” He said, “As long as you don’t get hurt.” I played for Gary Adams. I was the 120th pick in the nation as a 2nd baseman. I hit .310 as a switch hitter, .356 my senior year. I could have made money. They didn’t offer me enough money. Golden State offered me almost five times what the Cincinnati Reds were offering. The NBA would never let anybody play two sports. There wasn’t a players’ association then. I wanted to play for both the Reds and Golden State. I had a great baseball career. I had a great coach in Gary Adams. If I had to do it all over, I would have played pro baseball. I was good enough to do that.
What was the biggest takeaway from your career?
If you ask a young person, “What would you want to be?”, they would say entertainer, whether it’s television, film or sports. That’s what young people aspire to. Those are professions people think are impossible. Something I learned is once you’ve attained that status, now once you speak, their heart is open to receive whatever good seed you want to plant. It comes with automatic respect. With that, you can inspire, motivate, give them something to last and impact their life. That’s what I took away from the NBA.
What are you up to these days? What drives you now?
Jesus called me a long time ago to work with children, and I didn’t know in what capacity it would be. I just knew I was going to work and touch lives of a lot of children because it was my calling and basketball was a stepping stone. Since then, we’ve serviced over 30,000 kids in the Bay Area. I basically ran a special needs school for 15 years. As much as I wanted to be a college coach and NBA coach, I was a dad. I had my daughters, and I could never travel. So, I started RT basketball, but I retired about five years ago. We ran clinics, camps, private tutoring and leagues. I’ve been in the business in inspiring and teaching and helping others. God blessed me with allowing me to live my dream, and it’s now time for me to open doors for others to live theirs.
Featured image from Inquirer.net.