Once, Billy Ray Bates held the world in his hands as surely as he held a basketball.

After signing a 10-day contract with the Trail Blazers in 1980, the high-flying 6-foot-4, 210-pound guard slam-dunked his way into league history. During his rookie year in the NBA, he led the Blazers in scoring, taking it to the hole for an average of 25 points per game.

It was a heady time for a Mississippi farm boy, the eighth of nine children, who got his start shooting hoops at Kentucky State University, followed by the Maine Lumberjacks of the long defunct Continental Basketball Association.

Throughout 1981, Bates--nicknamed Dunk--continued his rise to stardom, thrilling fans with his aerial exploits. Then, one day in September 1982, his agent called. He'd been cut from the team.

Bates checked into a Portland hospital, where he sought drug treatment.

Bates played briefly with the Washington Bullets, before they let him go. He had a 10-day trial with the Lakers, but at 25 pounds overweight, that didn't work out either. In fact, he never played in the NBA again.

He did play for two seasons in the Philippines, where he recaptured his former glory.

"Those people, they loved me," he later told The Oregonian. "There, I was like Michael Jordan. I could have anything I wanted. All I had to do was snap my fingers. I had my own condo, my own car and my own bodyguard with an Uzi. Had to fight off the women."

It didn't last. Bates later played in Switzerland, back in the U.S with the World Basketball League, the Philippines again, a few seasons in Mexico--even a season in Uruguay. But he never seemed to prosper for long.

Bates hit bottom on Jan. 17, 1998, when he robbed a New Jersey Texaco station at knifepoint, slashing the ear of attendant Philip Kittel in the process.

The crime netted Bates a grand total of five bucks--and seven years in prison.

Today, Bates is an inmate at Hope Hall, a 164-bed halfway house for adult male offenders in Camden, N.J. During his stay, he has taken part in classes designed to mend damaged cognitive skills, ready himself for the workplace and learn how to manage his emotions.

"This is one of the best facilities for...what's the word? Recovery!" says Bates, now 48.

In the past, Bates has been vague about the root of his difficulties. In a 1992 interview with The Oregonian, for example, he denied having drug problems. But he now blames the gas-station robbery on cocaine and alcohol.

"I went to play the lottery," he says. "And that's when the devil got inside me."

According to Bates, he'd been hanging out with some younger friends that day, "trying to help them with their lives." Instead, he wound up drinking vodka, snorting cocaine, and holding up a Texaco.

"That's not my character," he explains. "I was doing cocaine and drinking."

At Hope Hall, Bates juggles church attendance, AA meetings and shifts at Aluminum Shapes, an aluminum extruder, where he readies products for shipping.

In the evenings, he studies reading and writing at Camden Community College. In fact, he says, he's written a book, Born to Play Basketball, which he hopes to publish when he's released.

But his burning ambition is to get back on the boards as a Portland Trail Blazer.

"I'm trying to reapply myself in the NBA," he explains. "I been watching for the last 15 years, and I haven't seen anyone who can put the ball in the hoop like me."

At the time of his arrest, Bates weighed only 26 pounds more than in his rookie year. "I'm in great shape," he insists. "Prison basketball is a lot more physical than the NBA. There's no whistle out there."

Though his checkered past seems in keeping with the Blazers' tarnished image, it remains unclear whether he will get a chance to don the red-and-black. Authorities peg his current release for March 23, 2005, just three days after the regular season ends.

Nevertheless, Bates is looking to the future. "I'm rehabilitated," he says. "I'm stronger than I've ever been. To all the Blazer Mania fans, I'll see you in 2005."