After many years of digging for game footage and conducting candid interviews, the highly-anticipated documentary film on the life and mysterious story of L.A. basketball legend Raymond Lewis is set to be released. The documentary about the 1971 Verbum Dei (Los Angeles) graduate and 1973 first round NBA Draft choice is set to be shown at the 2021 Pan-African Film Festival in March. The full film can be viewed beginning March 14 on raymondlewis.com and is currently available for pre-order on RaymondLewisLaLegend.com. Read below for a doc review and background info on its production.
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As a result of COVID-19, this year’s Pan-African Film Festival will be virtual. The first digital screening for the “Raymond Lewis L.A. Legend” documentary will be shown on March 6. The full feature film is available for purchase on raymondlewis.com. For business inquiries, please contact Director and co-Producer Ryan Polomski at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 2005, Cal-Hi Sports received an email from aspiring film producer Dean Prator about a basketball documentary he was beginning to work on. If you know anything about SoCal basketball, the name Raymond Lewis resonates. “Ray Lew” is a known name, but few know his game or have seen footage of him at Verbum Dei (Los Angeles) in the early 1970s or at Cal St-Los Angeles. In 1973, he developed into the youngest player ever drafted (at the time) by the Philadelphia 76ers as the No. 18 overall pick.
The stories passed down about Lewis are endless: how he led a group of his Verbum Dei teammates to a win over the Los Angeles Lakers’ summer league rookie team, while still in high school. Or the unforgettable night when he dropped 53 points on top three in the country Long Beach State his sophomore year at Cal-St-Los Angeles. If you been around long enough, you’ve heard about Ray Lew tearing up the L.A. Summer Pro-Am League at Crenshaw High School or Compton College and the memorable early 1980s summer league game where he lit up L.A. Lakers ace defender Michael Cooper.
The legend behind those stories have grown the past five decades, but few have seen any footage.
That is about to change.
As Prator built his assets for the doc, he grew frustrated by the dead ends he ran into with regards to obtaining footage. We simply told Prator “don’t give up, there is definitely footage out there.” We were pretty confident because Lewis led Verbum Dei to three consecutive CIF Southern Section titles in the late 1960s and early 1970s during a time when NBC broadcasted a “high school game of the week” in Southern California. Doing the color commentary on some of those games was legendary L.A. Dodger Sandy Koufax, along with former L.A. Laker Tommy Hawkins. Lewis’ All-American career at Cal St. L.A. was also well chronicled, so we confident footage was out there.
When Cal-Hi Sports was part of ESPN from 2008-2012, we were proud to help spread Lewis’ fame and notoriety by naming the one of the teams for the Under Armour Elite 24 high school event the Raymond Lewis squad. (The opposing team was named for former L.A. Crenshaw great Marques Johnson). Still, without quality footage, it was hard to get big media entities on board with the Lewis doc.
In 2014, Prator and co-Producer Ryan Polomski, (whom Prator brought on to direct the film in 2013) finally tracked down game film of Ray Lew at Verbum Dei and in college. That re-vitalized their efforts to get the documentary completed and later Lewis’ daughter, Kamilah Lewis-Kent, was brought on to help produce the completed product, enhance the story of one of basketball’s best kept secrets and answer the question as to why Lewis ultimately never played a single minute in a regulation NBA game.
After a grant from the Mervyn Dymally Institute at Cal-St. Dominguez Hills, the final interviews and production was completed in recent years. The completed film was chosen for the 2021 Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles and we were recently able to view the completed documentary.
The footage solidifies all the stories we’ve heard. Ray Lew’s explosive first step jumps out on the film, plus he’s a straight line player and terrific jump shooter off the dribble. There is just something about Lewis’ confidence in his offensive abilities that made defenders always seem off-balance. It will be easy for younger basketball fans to evoke images of a Steph Curry type who dominated the SoCal high school ranks 50 years ago. We also like comparisons to former NBA guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, another terrific shooter who had an uncanny ability to get open on the perimeter. We liken Lewis to a more explosive Mark Price and if you don’t know how good Price was for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1990s before injury problems, go watch some YouTube clips.
As far as the interview subjects, this documentary knocked it down from long range with the likes of Cooper, the late Hall of Fame college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian (who unsuccessfully tried to recruit Lewis to Long Beach St.) in his final, recorded interview, former basketball sneaker executive Sonny Vaccaro (whom helped Lewis broker a tryout and deal with the ABA Pittsburgh Condors out of Verbum Dei), current college basketball coach and friend Lorenzo Romar, noted sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards, highly-respected high school and junior college coach Reggie Morris Sr., former Cal-St. L.A. coach Bob Miller and family members who gave insight on Lewis’ background and line of thinking. Lewis himself also speaks in an extensive interview from his college days and in a 1985 interview regarding what he feels went wrong and why he maintained he was “Blackballed” from the league.
Lewis’ upbringing in Watts is mentioned and former 76ers coach Gene Shue and former NBA executive Patt Williams are important interviews as they try to explain what went down in negotiations with Lewis, who negotiated his rookie contract at 20 years old without any true legal representation, and the team dynamic surrounding him. While it comes off that the 76ers took advantage of a street-smart, yet somewhat naive, young man, we don’t get a true sense of what compelled Lewis to distrust those not in his inner-circle, most of whom were basketball teammates from Verbum Dei who joined him at Cal-St. LA. Was it his upbringing in post 1965 riot-torn Watts? Was it his breath-taking basketball talent that usually got him what he wanted that he felt would eventually straighten out his contract situation? What compelled him to shun UCLA and other basketball powers? Did anything besides basketball and the quick, mighty dollar make him tick?
The doc does do a good job of drawing parallels to Lewis’ mysterious career and the NBA’s boom in what should have been Lewis’ prime in the early 1980s. Shue’s and Williams’ commentary also provide the audience with a good idea of what the NBA was like before and during the time of its merger with the ABA and well before it became a globally prosperous league. Let’s just say it’s nothing like the player-driven league that LeBron James has ushered to a new level in the past 20 years. Nowadays, star players have all the leverage and are multi-millionaires. Unfortunately, Lewis had no such leverage in pro negotiations and never achieved the fame and fortune many must have thought was a given when he was a senior at Verbum Dei High School in 1970-71.
Overall, this is a well-done and “must-see” documentary that sheds light on Lewis’ mysterious career and the game footage shows Lewis, who passed in 2001 at 48, had all-star caliber talent. That is clearly evident.
“Raymond Lewis: L.A. Legend” is also an excellent learning apparatus for the value of formal education (which Lewis lacked) and how talent is manifested, used and ultimately destroyed. Lewis’ basketball talent made him an authority around his peers and around those that could benefit off his talent, but that authority wasn’t gained by experience or tangible credentials. When Lewis ran into resistance during an era when players didn’t benefit from the leverage today’s star athlete does, things predictably went sour. Lewis didn’t have anything else to fall back on and unfortunately, the 76ers and the league as a whole, moved on to prosperous times without him.
For documentary ordering information, please visit raymondlewis.com. Also make sure to follow its social media handles on Facebook, Twitter (@raymondlewisdoc) and Instagram (@raymondlewisdocumentary).
Raymond Lewis high school accolades (via Cal-Hi Sports)
Sophomore season (1968-69): 385 points/25 games (15.4 ppg), 28-1 (CIF Southern Section AA champions), All-CIFSS AA First Team, Cal-Hi Sports State Sophomore Player of the Year, Cal-Hi Sports 2nd Five All-State (retroactive)
Junior season (1969-70): 594 points/28 games (21.2 ppg), 26-3 (CIF Southern Section AAA champions), All-CIFSS AAA Player of the Year, Cal-Hi Sports Div. II State Player of the Year, Cal-Hi Sports State Junior Player of the Year, Cal-Hi Sports 1st Five All-State (retroactive)
Senior season (1970-71): 696 points/29 games (24.0 ppg), 28-1 (CIF Southern Section AAAA champions, No. 1 ranked team in California, Cal-Hi Sports State Team of the Year), All-CIFSS AAAA Player of the Year, Cal-Hi Sports Div. I State Player of the Year, Cal-Hi Sports 1st Five All-State (retroactive), Scholastic Coach All-American, Parade All-American
Career totals (1968-71): 1,675 points/82 games (20.4 ppg), 82-5 (three CIF Southern Section titles, one state No. 1 ranked team), two-time CIFSS Player of the Year, two-time Cal-Hi Sports Divisional State Player of the Year