The rule is the rule. It's down there in black and white, and even if, sadly, Micheal Ray Richardson could not read it, it surely was read to him. Often.

He understood that he was on probation for as long as he played in the NBA. He understood what would happen if he was found using cocaine one more time. He knew the score. "They've given me all the rope I need to hang myself," he said, all too prophetically.

Early last year, when Richardson was drug free and on an inspirational path to becoming the NBA's "Comeback Player of the Year," Bill Brubaker wrote a full profile of Richardson for Sports Illustrated, detailing Richardson's protracted involvement with cocaine. The last paragraph of that story quoted an optimistic Richardson as saying: "It's a question of whether a person wants to be a winner, or wants to give up. I'm a winner. I'll be playing basketball until, you know, until the day they kick me out."

They found him using again, and they read him the rule.

Then, on Tuesday, they kicked him out.

This was the third time he had tested positive for cocaine in the last two years. Three strikes and you're out in the NBA's ball game. The rule says he's banned for life but can apply for reinstatement in two years. He's 30 now. He won't be back. You can only hope that what he threw away he didn't need in the first place.

Knowingly and willfully, Richardson broke the rule. If you're not going to punish people for breaking the rule, what's the point of having the rule?

But this rule, like all drug rules in professional sports, was made of the need to do something to combat the nightmarish public perception of a league full of drug-crazed athletes. This rule isn't written for the public welfare, as it might be for police officers or air traffic controllers. This is to preserve an image of sports as clean and wholesome. Drug takers are bad for the idol business -- not to mention the car business and the beer business, which pay for the whole thing.

"We took three years to give him all the support and guidance. We sent him to the best rehabilitation center in the nation. We had all the support systems here," said Lewis Schaffel, executive vice president of the Nets. "Ultimately, we all failed."

I don't like the word "failed." It's absolute. It implies that the case is closed. Sports does this all the time. By placing so much value on winning and losing it forces everyone involved to think short-term. This case shouldn't be closed. Life isn't that neat.

Alcoholics and addicts of all kinds are encouraged to take sobriety one day at a time. Often an alcoholic will refer to himself as still "recovering," even after 30 years of not taking a drink; it's that fragile a grace. When an addict gives in to the torturous urge, isn't it "slipping," not "failing?" Isn't each "next time" the potential "last time?" We say we believe in redemption. We can show it by not being so rigid.

Richardson missed work because he was sick. He disappointed the fans and, worse, abandoned his teammates. But when he's better, and we're satisfied that he's truly better, then let him play. This is a basketball player we're talking about, not a pilot.

Micheal Ray Richardson is a drug addict. In his short, bittersweet life he has been in and out of four different rehabilitation programs in four different states. He is the product of a broken home. He has had two failed marriages. Sonny Werblin, who ran the Knicks when Richardson played for them, characterized him in the Sports Illustrated article as barely literate. He has been bought and sold many times, too many to list. The only place he ever excelled was on the basketball court and now that, too, is lost. His self-image was bad before. What is it now?

He was as unprepared, as poorly equipped for the easy money, bright lights and big city of professional sports as anyone you can think of. And even as he is responsible for his predicament, so was he victimized by it.

"The lifestyle of a pro athlete isn't conducive to being sober, there's no question about that," said Calvin Hill, the former NFL running back who helped conduct a drug and alcohol treatment program for the Cleveland Browns. "It's a very superficial situation. People without strong values to begin with may not be able to resist the temptations. When you finally go for rehabilitation, you usually come out feeling very good about yourself, gung-ho, much like a person coming out of a revivalist church service. The fervor may last three or four days, but when you get out there with the sinners you find that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak."

Since May 1983, Richardson went to four different rehabilitation centers -- four -- and didn't stay at any one of them for more than three weeks. Even if he truly wants to, how can an addict get straight that quickly? Was Richardson too expensive a commodity to be allowed to remain somewhere long enough to be cured, too valuable to himself and too valuable to the Nets? He was making $750,000 a year. He wanted the money. And the Nets, paying him to play basketball, wanted him playing. Both took the quick fix. Four times.

You want to know what's wrong with sports, look no further than Micheal Ray Richardson. He went through life on an athletic scholarship. At each stop along the way he learned to equate his self-worth as a person by his performance as an athlete; if you don't win, you're a loser. And the more money they pay you, the harder it is to walk away -- even to save your own life.

Someone familiar with addiction told me that the way it works, everyone has to hit a bottom before they can start coming back. The thing is, you never know what your bottom is. For some people, the bottom is dying.