Get an in-depth look at the storied playing and coaching career of Clifford Ray. Plus, the Kings assistant dishes on traveling the world, saving a dolphin’s life and his friendship with a legendary musician.
Almost two hours before the team tips-off at home, Kings Assistant Coach Clifford Ray – sporting a trim gray beard, long-sleeve gray shooting shirt, purple shorts and knee-high NBA socks – is hard at work on the near empty court with forward Jason Thompson.
His gravelly voice echoes throughout the arena as he yells instructions to the Rider product upon receiving a pass on the low block and finishing with a left-handed hook shot.
Soon after, eighth-year veteran Chuck Hayes is on the floor for his pregame workout with Ray, as the assistant coach mimics an up-and-under move he wants No. 42 to practice repeatedly.
Using every ounce of insight and wisdom the 63-year-old has acquired from a highlight-filled 10-year playing career and remarkable coaching record, the long-time mentor to many of the League’s stars commands the undivided respect of every Kings player.
“He’s a guy who has experience winning championships – one as a player and one as a coach – so he knows what it takes,” says Thompson. “He’s a guy who is well-respected around the League from back in the day until now. He’s a guy you definitely want to listen to … and hopefully it (translates) onto the floor.”
“(He has) so much experience, so much understanding of the game – he helps us out a lot,” adds Hayes. “He’s built great relationships with guys he’s played with and guys he’s coached, (and when) we’ve played against one of his protégées, they’ve always come up and showed their respect to him. You can just tell – he’s earned it.”
Working closely with rookie Thomas Robinson since the start of training camp, Ray has made an immediate impression on the Kings draftee, who believes the coach will help him reach the next level in the NBA.
“He’s been there for me, helping me out with everything,” says Robinson. “(He’s advised me) just to stay focused and helped me get my finish right around the basket.
“He has a good track record,” adds No. 0. “And hopefully I’ll become part of that (elite group).”
A year ago, Ray – who’s been instrumental in the development of numerous star big men, from two-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard to Utah Jazz center Al Jefferson – thought he was done with the game for good. After countless knee operations and various surgeries, Ray officially filed for retirement and permanent disability benefits.
Then, however, came the pivotal call from Kings Head Coach Keith Smart, who asked for his assistance last March. The University of Oklahoma product didn’t have to think twice, immediately advising the government he was going back to work.
“(Keith is) like my son, and when he said he needed my help, I couldn’t turn it down,” says Ray beaming. “If I could help him do anything in his life to be successful, then I would like I would for my son.”
Ray’s longstanding ties to Smart extend back to their days in the Continental Basketball Association with the Fort Wayne Fury in the mid-1990s, as well as the 2000-03 Cleveland Cavaliers, where Smart gained his first NBA head coaching experience.
“I’ve known him since he first started … and I told him, ‘You have the material and the organizational skills to become a great coach,’’ says Ray. “So, I came and helped him in the CBA and I’ve always admired his work ethic, what he brings and how enthusiastic he is about the game.”
For Smart, Ray has served as an inspirational figure and longtime mentor for whom he holds an inordinate amount of respect.
“Clifford is like a father to me – when I started my coaching career, he was right by my side.” says Smart. “He’s one of the guys that can put his hand on my shoulder and say, ‘Coach, don’t do this today’ or ‘Coach, back off a little bit here’ because he knows me inside-out.
“When I coached in the CBA, every big guy I had (was) either called up to the NBA or signed to a nice, lucrative deal in Europe,” continues Smart. “He just has a way of talking and communicating with (players).”
Ray’s understanding of what it takes to achieve greatness as a big man comes from his own experiences manning the middle as a 6-foot-9 starting center. Lacking a consistent outside jump shot, he relied on guile and hustle to beat his opponent on a nightly basis.
“I was a great athlete – I ran a 10-flat 100 (meter sprint) – but I didn’t have great shooting skills,” says the Union, S.C. native. “But what I could do, I dominated at it. I was a tenacious defender, a great rebounder, a great team-player and a great pick-setter – I’d get Rick Barry open any time he needed someone to get him open.”
Placing a premium on boxing out and cleaning the glass, of the 213 players in NBA history to record at least 5,000 points and 5,000 rebounds, Ray is one of only 18 to average more boards (8.9) than points (7.4) over the course of his career.
“My mentality was single-minded – I was like a Dennis Rodman,” he says with a chuckle. “In this era, I probably would’ve been a star, because a guy like Dwight Howard – he’s a good basketball player, but he doesn’t have the skill of a DeMarcus Cousins or a Tim Duncan but because he can jump, has great timing and likes to play defense – he’s become an All-Star.”
At the onset of his playing career, Ray spent three seasons with the Chicago Bulls, averaging 8.3 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, twice leading the League in total rebound percentage.
“He was an old-school type of defensive center,” says fellow Kings Assistant Coach Alex English, one of the League’s all-time leading scorers. “(He was) more of a post-up, around-the-rim, in the paint shot-blocker and rebounder.”
The 1971-72 NBA All-Rookie First Team selection was later traded to Golden State and helped lead the Warriors to a title in 1974-75, tallying 6.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 blocks per game in 17 Playoff contests.
“Any time you go to the pinnacle of a sport, any time you win a championship, you just know that unit and that group of men were together and a family,” says Ray. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t be possible.”
When Ray retired as a player in 1981, he traveled the world, working his way around China, Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, ultimately discovering a passion for coaching in an unexpected place.
“(Then-owner of the Warriors), Franklin Mieuli was a sailor and he had a ship – a 70-foot catamaran,’” recalls Ray. “We went to a lot of different places, but we spent one summer in Port Vila in (Vanuatu). I helped them form the first basketball team there, and they actually went to the Finals in the South Pacific Games. It was great to see the enthusiasm from people when (they were able to get) something organized, and that was probably the one thing that really made me interested in being a teacher.”
Ray recalls fishing on a riverbank when he received a call regarding a part-time job offer from Dallas Mavericks founder and then-owner Don Carter and his wife Linda in 1987. While the opportunity came with its share of adversity and hardships, the assistant coach credits the Carters for not only allowing him to get his foot in the door, but also treating him as a member of their family and helping him find his way.
“(Don) told me, ‘You’re probably going to have to do some things you really shouldn’t have to do,’ because they’d already hired people to run the organization,” says Ray. “When I first started, I had to clean the floors and clean the practice facility – bathrooms, laundry, windows.
“It was frustrating to me, but (I did it) because of them, how they talked to me and how they treated me,” he continues. “My father and mother were very instrumental, too. They’d say, ‘How are you going to teach if there’s nobody in front of you? So whatever it is that you have do to accomplish this, then this is what you have to do.’”
After six seasons in Dallas, Ray’s NBA coaching journey took him to N.J., Cleveland, Orlando and Boston, where he won a title in 2008. The results have been remarkable throughout the course of his career, as he’s routinely helped transform nearly every team he’s coached into the League’s best in rebounding, from the 1987-88 Mavericks (first) to the 1995-96 Nets (first) to the 2004-05 Magic (third).
A few of the tactics Ray has enforced throughout his career include being vocal and communicative, keeping arms up on defense and fighting for position in the post.
“He talks more about positioning – how you should be positioned to make a midrange shot,” says English. “He likes to teach them the little jump-hooks and different things to get open in the paint. A lot of (fundamental) big man stuff that’s important for (players) to learn – how to hold people off, boxing people off the glass.”
More than teaching rebounding tactics, Ray advises his pupils on the importance of being professional and the focused mental approach it takes – on and off the court – to triumph in the NBA.
“I try to get them to understand there’s no easy way to being a great player – having the God-given ability and just going through the motions is not going to make you a great player,” he says. “Even being a great player, there are times when things happen that you don’t have an answer for, but if you have a great foundation and you’re able to handle your situation, then you will always stay the course.”
Described as an incredibly motivational coach by Kings players, Ray, similarly to his previous stops, has found ways to maximize talent, uncover potential and find common ground with big men nearly three times his junior.
“What he does behind the scenes, he really doesn’t get enough credit for,” says Cousins, adding he’s been inspired by the coach’s tutelage and vigor.
“We act like we’re best friends – I call him ‘O.G.’ and he helps with my game every day,” adds Cousins with a chuckle. “He’s full of energy – for an old guy, he has the spirit of a 19-year-old.”
Since Ray’s addition to the coaching staff on Mar. 7, 2012, Cousins has taken a sizable step toward emerging into one of the League’s top young centers and Thompson has noticeably improved his efficiency, a testament to not only each player’s work ethic, but also Ray’s impactful guidance.
|Before Ray (37 G)||16.2||43.2%||11.4||1.2||1.1||1.2|
|After Ray (35 G)||20.0||45.8%||10.3||2.1||1.9||1.0|
|Before Ray (38 G)||7.9||50.4%||6.0||1.0||0.4||0.5|
|After Ray (36 G)||10.8||55.6%||8.0||1.4||0.9||1.0|
*Statistics from 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons
Smart is hardly surprised by the invaluable impact the Sooner alum has already made in a short amount of time.
“Every big guy he’s put his hands on has gotten better – (either) better than what they were or they made a huge jump to becoming an All-Star,” he says. “He’s a guy who’s worked with All-Pros in all leagues, MVPs and All-Defensive Players, so when he talks and he puts his rings out there, he has a lot of power behind what he’s talking about.”
The Kings leader says Ray is constantly in each player’s ear, stressing the importance of patience, positivity and making a lasting impression.
“His biggest phrase he uses all the time is, ‘Leave a legacy,’” says Smart. “Once you walk away from this game, leave something behind that says, when you played, you had something that was really positive that the next person in line is willing to follow.”
Ray explains the meaning behind the powerful phrase stems from his own title-winning experiences and ongoing harmonious relationships around the League.
“No matter how many years go by, somebody will pick up the phone, call me and say, ‘I saw you on TV, that great team you played with when you won the championship in ’75,’” he says. “That’s a legacy – that’s what you’re trying to do.”
Reflecting on his career, Ray says he’s most proud of what he’s accomplished with his teammates.
“This is what I preach to these (players) – they have an abundance of talent, they’re a really great, young team, and if they pull together as a unit, love and care about one another and want each other to succeed, then they will be successful,” he says.
“You’re trying to grow a legacy, and that legacy lasts a lifetime – your children’s children will know. That’s what life is about.”
– In addition to using his long arms to corral rebounds and swat shots, in 1978, Ray – an outdoor enthusiast and conservationist – helped save the life of Dr. Spock, a Marine World show dolphin who swallowed a three-inch bolt inside his tank.
“To that dolphin, it looked like a fish so he just ate it,” recalls Ray. “That screw had a sharp point on it, and if it punctured the lining of his stomach, he’d die.”
At the time, the veterinarian didn’t have instruments long enough to perform surgery, leading then-public relations director Mary O’Herron, a close friend of Ray, to half-jokingly suggest enlisting the NBA star’s help.
Ray, who was on the verge of boarding a flight to join his teammates in Washington, volunteered for the operation. Possessing 45-inch arms, the big man cut his fingernails, lubricated his arm and reached down the dolphin’s throat to pull out the screw.
“The top physician for the L.A. Zoo was over the intercom and instructed me on what to do,” recalls Ray. “Next thing I knew, there were hundreds of photographers … I always tease everybody that it was my 15 minutes of fame.”
Following the heroic feat, Ray was named Man of the Year by National Geographic and invited to the White House. His efforts also prompted a children’s book, “Saving Dr. Spock.”
“It took off and became a phenomenon,” says Ray. “I’ve received stuff from all over the world (from) people thanking me.”
– Ray, who graduated college with a degree in fine arts and plays the clarinet, reveals he’s had close friendships with some of the biggest names in entertainment, from director-producer Alfred Hitchcock to numerous musical legends.
“I know a lot of great musicians – Fourplay, Harvey Mason, Marty Wolf, who managed The Grateful Dead,” reveals Ray. “I was great friends with Marvin Gaye and he was one of my favorite human beings. He used to call me up and sing songs to me, saying, ‘I’ve got a hit!’
“I’ve been trying to (tell) young people something about the journey, (for them to be) able to understand that whatever you have in your dreams, if you work toward them, you will definitely succeed. There’s not been one thing in my life I made as a priority I did not accomplish without hard work.”