OLYMPIA — By any standard, Richie Frahm is a success story.
He starred as the most unstoppable scorer in the Greater St. Helens League as a senior at Battle Ground High. He lived the fairy tale as Cinderella when his Gonzaga advanced to the Elite Eight in the 1999 NCAA tournament. And his NBA highlight, the one he could tell over and over now that he’s in retirement, came on a cold and weary night in Denver when the millionaires on the Seattle SuperSonics roster felt like they needed a day off, but Frahm picked up their slack by scoring 31 points.
Still, Frahm’s fire won’t go out.
So he filled his garage with five expensive bicycles and brought a 1993 Dodge camper van to drag his wife, their little dog and the ever present competitive companion that never leads his side five hours from their home in Spokane to this race headquartered at an elementary school in Olympia.
Frahm — the 36-year-old version of that legendary
captured image of the young man jumping into the arms of a teammate after Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 upset over Florida — has taken to competitive cycling. It’s been a year now. He’s lost some early races, peddling as nothing more than a 6-foot-4 windshield for the opponents smart enough to draft behind him. He’s also won a few, climbing up the points system to become a Category 3 cyclist.
He once described retirement for a professional athlete as a first death. So, this feels like a rebirth.
Frahm needs this new hobby.
His long and circuitous ride in basketball may be over, but his overpowering urge to compete just won’t take a seat in the rocking chair.
“I just look for something to do and get back that competitive desire,” Frahm says. “I was very, very fortunate to get the three and a half years in the NBA. That’s what I’ve come to accept. That’s better than a guy who was good enough to play but never got a chance to play.”
“So I look back at that, it was fun. Now let’s try cycling and who knows.”
A world of stories
Living as a basketball gypsy for 11 years, Frahm built a career on battling against the next guy. That’s how he earned all of those one-year, non-guaranteed contracts in international leagues as well as the NBA.
The man could write a book. He survived a tsunami while playing in Japan and the end of the Jailblazers era at the end of the bench in Portland. Frahm played for five NBA teams, most recently the Los Angeles Clippers during the 2007-2008 season.
He always seemed to find his way onto a roster, somewhere in the world, until his knees couldn’t take it anymore.
After getting 70 cc’s of fluid drained from his knee almost daily while playing with the Aisin Seahorses in Japan, Frahm entered his post-basketball life in 2011. He tried coaching with the NBA Development League Reno Bighorns but the job just didn’t fit him.
“I told my wife, maybe when I’m 50 and I can barely walk, I’ll try to coach or try to do something,” Frahm says. “I still love it. More so than the love of basketball, I just love to compete.”
Then, the Frahms settled back in Spokane. He hosted a basketball camp. Only six hoopers signed up. Seems that kids today don’t remember 1999.
“I thought to myself,” Frahm recalls, ” ‘No one knows who I am.’ “
“Hey, let’s do something else.”
So, last year Frahm borrowed his older brother’s bike. He showed up to a ride with a local cycling group wearing basketball shorts. Three weeks later, he entered his first race as a beginner, Category 5, and finished last.
“My competitive desire just kicked in,” Frahm says, snapping his fingers. “I went home and started Googling race tactics.”
First, Internet searches, then shaving gel. Frahm has committed himself to the sport so much that his once hairy legs could star in a Nair commercial. The more aero, the better, he explains.
He studies “The Rules” by Velominati — a group that takes cycling as seriously as the Skull and Bones do secrecy. He has slimmed to 190 pounds — tanned and toned, Frahm no longer looks like a wonky basketball player on a tiny, 17-pound carbon fiber bike.
“At first, I just thought he was going to take it up casually,” his father Doug Frahm says. “Had no idea he was going to go so gung ho.”
Just as he did over a decade ago while trying to make the Trail Blazers’ Summer League team, Frahm threw himself into training. This time, only fighting against the competitor inside.
“It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air,” Frahm says. “Well, if you’ve got to move on from being a basketball player, with these guys it’s a good fresh start for me.
Wife warily watches
The cowbells have quieted, so have the screams from the small group of onlookers that cheered on their loved ones in the Boston Harbor Circuit Race in Olympia. So now Joanie Frahm can relax. She tenses every time she sees the spinning spokes of the peloton. Packed so closely together and buzzing by like a chorus of hissing cicadas.
“This is what makes me nervous here,” she says, caressing Prince the dog.
Earlier this summer, she watched in Walla Walla when her husband was slingshotting his way to the finish line. Just 10 feet from glory, Richie tried passing one cyclist whose own competitive companion must have been riding shotgun that day because he wouldn’t let his 6-4 rival off so easy. An elbow escaped and Frahm went crashing to the concrete, bloody and dazed, the race officials went to save his bike first.
This sport, it can be ruthless. And Joanie thought it was hard watching her husband get waived by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
From the time when the Gonzaga sophomore basketball star noticed the pretty blonde selling Costco muffins on campus for charity, Richie and Joanie have been a pair. She graduated and landed a job but six months later, the young wife decided to follow Richie and support his dream, thinking it would be a couple years of traveling.
“It’s been a lot the last 10 years,” Joanie says, laughing.
Together, they learned a bit of Italian. She loved the exotic excitement in Turkey. He reunited with old friend Dan Dickau as they formed an all-Clark County backcourt during his 10-game stint with the Clippers.
These days, many of those memories from his professional career are stowed in Adidas duffle bags or hanging in the basement closet. Much remains unpacked, to be dealt with on another day. The plan for life after basketball, however, called for immediate attention.
“All of a sudden, one day it’s over. Very few athletes leave or retire on their own terms,” says Dr. Doug Gardner, a sports psychology consultant who operates ThinkSport in Northern California. “The ‘now what?’ question. For a lot of people, it is a termination of something you’ve devoted a life to.”
Very few things in life can replicate the thrill of 20,000 fans screaming your name and Gardner believes that several former professional athletes struggle in post careers because of that void. However, the successful ones find their outlets, and Gardner instructs his clients to discover new competitive challenges.
Frahm found his on the bike.
“I think that’s probably part of the reason why he took up cycling,” Joanie says. “It’s just kinda given him something to do while he was figuring out what he wanted to do for a career and to take some time off.”
“He never really had the ability to just relax.”
Not done when race is
This competition is over. Six miles on the rolling hills and done.
The men in the Cat 3 senior division have all screamed past the re-purposed cardboard box doubling as the “laps to go” marker. Now, everybody can pack up and go home. Frahm, however, isn’t done.
He removes his helmet and wraparound sunglasses as the seventh-place finisher. No crash at the finish line on this day — though he still wears the road rash from his nasty spill in Walla Walla — and so Frahm returns to the van. Skin and bones in tact.
He pours a powdery substance into a water bottle. It’s a funky taste of orange and vanilla but he must down it to restore his glycogen levels and carbohydrates. These next 35 minutes after the Olympia race will be critical in recovery for the next day. A time trial in out-of-the-way Tenino where he will push the 25-mile per hour speed limit posted on Crowder Road and finish fifth among his Washington state peers. He wanted to do better. The competitive companion is hard to satisfy.
“Take no prisoners, I guess,” Frahm says, then goes silent as his thoughts race.
“I guess I can take out all my extra energy from basketball and cynicism on the bike. Does that make sense?”
He takes a swig from the bottle.
“Because it was hard to retire. Obviously, nobody wants to retire. So, just take all that energy and put it on the bike. So when I’m done with the bike, I think I’ll be good. All the aggression will be out of me, man.”
Life after basketball has also led Frahm to another interest, real estate. He plans to take the realtor test soon. The job will allow Frahm to set his own hours and continue the chase on the bike. Wherever that may lead.
“I don’t want to put limitations,” Frahm says about pursuing the sport more intensely.
As he sits near his camper van, Frahm explains how he plans to recover for the 25-mile time trial the next afternoon when a boy walks by bouncing a basketball. The sound of the leather smacking the concrete court echoes and drowns out his words. Frahm doesn’t seem to notice it and tries to continue.
He speaks about working hard, but the rhythm of the bounce reverberates. He says something about building up strength in the spring to compete all summer, but the sounds continue to grow louder.
Finally, Frahm surrenders.
“I still love the sound of a basketball,” he says.