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Steve Aschburner

Clifford Ray is passing on the tricks that helped him win a title to today's big men.
Dick Raphael/Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Clifford Ray: Big man 35 years ago, big man now

Posted Jun 12 2010 1:15PM

BOSTON -- Large as he is, Clifford Ray isn't always easy to spot on the Boston Celtics' sideline. He doesn't have a seat in the front row with the other assistant coaches, generally squeezing into a chair somewhere behind them. And we do mean squeeze: Ray was 6-foot-9, 230 pounds when he played 10 seasons in the NBA with Chicago and Golden State, and he's thicker now, sturdy still, right in line with his old nickname "Mule."

But if you look on the court in the 2010 playoffs and The Finals, you can find Ray, or, more precisely, his influences on the Celtics' big men all over the place. He is there in the defensive labors and footwork of Boston starter Kendrick Perkins, coping with Shaquille O'Neal in the Eastern Conference semifinals, containing Dwight Howard one round later and now planting himself against Andrew Bynum and the Los Angeles Lakers' alternatives at center.

Ray is there in the soft hands and bonus offense that the Celtics get from backup Glen "Big Baby" Davis. He's out there, too, in the old-school words of wisdom offered at some casual moment that might pop into a Boston veteran's head at an opportune time.

"Well, he's terrific," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "He was with me in Orlando ... and then I brought him here because we had so many young bigs when I first took the job. But he's not only good with young guys, I think he's a good voice for the veterans as well, a good guy to bounce things off of."

Like most coaches, Ray filters the Celtics' game through his area of expertise. Rivers is a former point guard, a coach on the floor relocated to the sideline. Assistant Tom Thibodeau is the defensive guru, defining everything by stops. For Ray, the NBA is a big man's world.

"He's biased. He loves his bigs," Rivers said. "He's the guy in my ear on every possession. Ray Allen could make 10 shots in a row and you could hear Clifford Ray saying, 'Get it to the bigs!' on the next possession. That's why you love him, though, he believes in his bigs."

And they believe in him.

"Clifford Ray does things the old-fashioned way," Davis said the other day. "Sometimes you don't understand them until you're in the game and that situation happens to you. He's been totally a big help to me in understanding the game and what the coaches want me to do. I've learned a lot from him."

Big Baby? More like Big Duh. If an NBA center or power forward can't learn something from Clifford Ray, he's snoozing in the back of the classroom. Because this burly but gentle fellow -- who can be seen in a bright green beret in Boston's postgame locker rooms -- has been where these guys want to go.

It has been 35 years already. And even though Ray knows that, he didn't know that, because so many of the memories are as vivid and as fresh as what he had for lunch yesterday. "I didn't know that, that it was that many years!" he said with a laugh earlier in these playoffs.

Please note that Rivers does not allow his assistant coaches to do interviews, a quirk in the league's most personable head coach owing to some sort of "one voice" strategy. But he lifted the embargo on Ray for this story, because this is a big, fat anniversary year of something special for the man, and a fellow who often got overlooked back then shouldn't get overlooked again.

In 1975, Ray was the starting center and the guts of the Golden State Warriors team that won the NBA title in one of the biggest upsets in league history. Golden State hadn't made the playoffs the year before and was no cinch to get there in '75 either. Yet the Warriors, after a 48-34 regular season, managed not only to reach The Finals but to sweep the heavily favored Washington Bullets (60-22).

"I defy anybody to find another team in any of the major sports that was such an underdog at the start of the season that wound up winning the championship," Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry said. "We get to the Finals and we sweep the team that was supposed to sweep us? Please."

Barry was the star of that Warriors club, an 11-time All-Star in the NBA and ABA who was driven to win -- this was his only championship as a pro -- and whose demanding style often pushed teammates a little too hard, a bit too far. These days, stars such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant are lauded for their intensity and abrasive competitiveness, but Barry apparently rubbed people raw in ways that skip nostalgia.

Ray, meanwhile, was the soul of the Warriors that season, his first of seven with Golden State. He had been traded there in September after three seasons in Chicago, where the native of Union, S.C., and 1971 third-round pick from the University of Oklahoma learned the game from coach Dick Motta and a team of veterans (Chet Walker, Jerry Sloan, Bob Love, Norm Van Lier).

Smaller than some of the NBA giants roaming the Earth back then -- Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Lanier, Walt Bellamy -- Ray relied on toughness, hustle and positioning to carve out his career mostly as a defender and rebounder. The Warriors craved both, trading aging Hall of Fame center Nate Thurmond for the younger man. But they got more than they bargained for in the deal that would bite the Bulls eight months later.

"He and Rick Barry ran the best pick and roll in the league. Up until that time, probably in the history of the league!" said Hubie Brown, longtime TV analyst who had begun his pro head coaching career that season with the ABA champion Kentucky Colonels. "Mainly because you had Barry, one of the great scorers in the league coming off the screen, and then when Clifford would roll, he had great hands and he could finish in the paint. Rick Barry never missed a free guy when a guy was cutting to the basket."

Said Barry: "I told Clifford I thought we could do wonders with the pick and roll. We had used it with Nate Thurmond, and Clifford was willing to come out and work on it.

I almost throw up now when I hear broadcasters say, 'Wow, what a great screen so-and-so set.' Men, you don't 'set' screens. ... It's the big man's responsibility to put himself in the right position, at the right angle, where his teammate can run his man into him. That's what Clifford and I did."

Making the most of the opportunities that play generated, Ray averaged only 9.4 points but it was his career high. He also contributed 10.6 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and made 52.2 percent of his shots. Barry finished second in the NBA in scoring (30.6 points per game, behind Bob McAdoo's 34.5), with 5.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists and a league-high 2.9 steals per game.

The rest of the Warriors were role players, solid NBA laborers who came together for a very special season. Forward Jamaal Wilkes would win two more titles with the Lakers and play in three All-Star Games, but he was a rookie in 1974-75, averaging 14.2 ppg. Butch Beard, Charles Johnson and Derrek Dickey got the most minutes among the others, with fellows such as Phil Smith, Jeff Mullins and George Johnson in reserve.

"I don't know how many times it's happened in the history of the NBA where the championship team didn't have two star players," Barry said. "But we went 10 guys deep and, if somebody wasn't playing well, Al [Attles] had no qualms about putting somebody else in."

Attles, the Warriors coach, has a fondness for that group behind the hardware it won. "Every coach should have at least one team like that," he said Friday in a phone interview. "They reminded people of a college team. We had that kind of camaraderie. Nobody was concerned about who did what. All they wanted was to win."

Well, they got to that point anyway. All three of the principals interviewed for this story -- Ray, Barry and Attles -- recalled a turning point in the Warriors' chemistry. It came when Ray, unprompted, talked to the other players about some growing disenchantment with Barry. His personality was grating on several of them, it seems, and something needed to be said.

"Clifford knew that I had a great bark but not much of a bite," Barry said. "I was very demanding about things because I wanted to win. I guess he recognized that some of the guys were getting on edge about me being on them."

Said Attles: "Rick was one of those players with an unwavering need to succeed. What they do goes against the grain sometimes of people."

Ray, relatively new to Barry but clicking with him off the court as well as on, asked Attles and assistant Joe Roberts if he could hold a meeting. "They all looked up to me for some reason and I was the new guy," Ray said. "I figured I might as well speak my mind. So I asked each one of them, 'Can anyone in this room average 30 to 40 points a night, other than this man right here?' Of course nobody could raise their hand. 'So if you come in here and he's sitting up on the [trainer's table] reading the paper, maybe because he needed the rest, why would you think he thinks he's better than you, when he's doing for you every single night?'

"That kind of made everybody look and accept Rick. He was my best friend by this time. When I first came there, he was the first person who befriended me. If people went to Roselle Park, where he's from, they would understand that all the New Jersey people from there have an edge about 'em. ... And some people take it the wrong way because he is highly competitive. It ticks him off when he can't do something well and he'll want to do it over and over. And he's sort of demanding about it. So it will make him look like he's an ass."

Said Barry: "So the guys realized I was kind of nuts when I played and if I yelled or said something, it didn't mean anything. Once I said it, it was over. Don't take it personal."

The Warriors, in fact, took it all the way to an NBA title. Their deep roster and strong bench got better late in the season, then toughend up with a six-game series against Seattle in the first round, followed by seven grueling games against Ray's old Chicago club in the Western Conference finals.

"It was ironic, it was sentimental, I felt terrible," Ray said. "I felt great because we won. But I felt bad because I loved those guys too. I knew that was their one window."

Arena scheduling problems fiddled with the Finals. Washington only got Game 1 at home before the series had to shift to the Bay Area. The Warriors had to play at the old Cow Palace. Two of Golden State's four victories were by 1 point, and its total margin of victory was 16 in the sweep. But the Warriors were the better team, at least for those eight days, as well as one of the NBA's truest "teams."

Ray's stats dipped in the '75 postseason -- 6.1 ppg, 9.8 rpg -- but then he never was defined by them. As Brown recalled: "That team needed a horse in the background. ... It's a lot like what Perkins does with Boston, it's a lot like what Bynum does with the Los Angeles Lakers. Underappreciated as offensive players, but they do everything else and they take up space and then they set a physical tone to the game."

Said Ray: "A lot of these players don't realize until they see you in the games on ESPN or wherever. They'll say, 'Coach, I didn't know you was that good!' Or sometimes a family member will tell them, 'He would have kicked your butt.' I always thought winning a championship was going to give me a sporting immortality."

What it gave him, too, was an unlikely friend. He and Barry -- the mellow role player and the snarly star -- talk by phone weekly, sometimes more. They take annual fishing vacations; last summer they went to Alaska together and they're scheduled to go again this year. Their sons each call the other fellow "Uncle." Barry is Ray's biggest booster for a more fulfilling, more lucrative role on an NBA bench (he would love to see Thibodeau take Ray back to the Bulls to work with Joakim Noah). And Ray sees in Barry a guy rarely glimpsed by others, those put off by the prickly personality.

"Clifford's like a brother to me, and I love him," Barry said.

Said Ray: "People say to me, 'You're his only lifetime friend.' But I'll tell you what, he would give me the shirt off his back. And I would give him the shirt off my back."

Thirty-five years ago, Barry, Ray and the rest of the Warriors did that pretty much on a nightly basis.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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