With the news coming out that Clifford Ray is leaving the Celtics, I started to think about what a big loss that is (no pun intended). Clifford Ray has been with the Celtics since 2006 and is responsible for the development of the Celtics' big men including Al Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins. The fact that Perk has improved every season is in part due to his own exceptional work ethic, but also because he has had one of the best big men coaches in the league guiding him.
But, it isn't just the Celtics big men who have benefited from Clifford Ray's guidance. When you watch Dwight Howard play and dominate on the boards, think Clifford Ray. Dwight and his dad credit Clifford Ray with his development when Cliff was an assistant with the Magic. When you watch classic Celtics games from the 80's and see Parish dominate in the middle, think Clifford Ray. Parish credited Cliff with helping him to develop his game when they were teammates on Golden State. When you see the emergence of Al Jefferson as one of the best young big men in the league, think Clifford Ray, who worked with Al as he was developing from a raw high school draftee into a legitimate NBA big man. Clifford Ray has succeeded everywhere he has been and one thing is agreed across the league - Clifford Ray is the best big man coach in the NBA.
Ray played his college basketball at the University of Oklahoma. In 1971 the Chicago Bulls selected him in the third round of the NBA draft. He spent three seasons with the Bulls, his best being 1973-74 during which he averaged 9.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per game. Ray is a man of many talents as he is also a musician with a degree in fine arts from Oklahoma and plays most woodwind instruments. He sees similarities between a well-played concert and a well-played basketball game.
After the 1973-74 season Ray was traded to Golden State for center Nate Thurmond. At 6'9", Clifford Ray was one of the shorter starting NBA centers to ever win a title. Without a lot of athleticism, and being under sized for a center, he manned the center as Golden State won a championship in 1975. Ray is one of a handful of players to have played at least ten seasons in the pros and to have recorded more rebounds (6953 over 784 games for an 8.9 average) than points (5821, for a 7.4 average) for his career.
After his playing career, Ray worked as an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks. He also coached in the Continental Basketball Association, where he landed his lone head coaching job with the Fort Wayne Fury. Later, he worked as a New Jersey Nets assistant before returning to Golden State as an assistant coach. He had also worked as an assistant coach with the Orlando Magic where he was credited with being responsible for the development of Dwight Howard.
As an assistant coach who specializes in teaching big men, he has had wonderful results wherever he has worked. If you follow his career, teams where he has been an assistant have been among the league's best in rebounding, in spite of being among the worst before he arrived. That's a huge fact since as the old adage goes "offense sells tickets, defense wins games and rebounding wins championships. . He has molded a long list of players including P.J. Brown, Adonal Foyle, Roy Tarpley, Erick Dampier, and Nazr Mohammed. In his first year as a part-time coach in Dallas, in 1987-88, the Mavericks led the league in rebounding. When Ray was an assistant in New Jersey in 1995-96, the Nets led the league in rebounding. In Ray's two years at Golden State (2000-01 and '01-02), the Warriors ranked first and second in rebounding. In Cleveland, Ray had the Cavs up to second in the league in rebounding. The Magic, which ranked 23rd in rebounding the season before Ray arrived, ranked second the following year.
Celtic legend Robert Parish has credited Clifford Ray for lifting his game to another level as well. For years Parish and Ray have held big men camps together in Florida. Robert Parish has also been working for the Celtics as a consultant and has been a mentor to the Celtics big men. With the departure of Ray, it might be a good move to promote Parish to the assistant coach position. Having worked with Cliff all these years in developing big men around the league, Parish would be a natural replacement.
Clifford Ray was also responsible for saving the life of a dolphin. In 1978, Mr. Spock, the dolphin at Marine World, had his tank repaired. The diver dropped a large stainless steel screw. They assumed that Mr. Spock had swallowed this screw. So, they took him to the local hospital for an x-ray. They couldn’t do surgery and could not get the screw. The doctor exclaimed, if only my arms were 9” longer, I could reach down his throat and pull it out. Mike Demetrius then remembered Clifford Ray whose arms are 3 feet and 9 inches long. Clifford Ray volunteered to try. He cut his fingernails, greased his arm and reached down through the dolphin’s mouth, grabbed the screw, and pulled it out."
Cliff was diagnosed with prostate cancer while coaching in the CBA and underwent chemotherapy while coaching with the Cavaliers. He still has his blood checked every 60 days and works hard to keep his energy level up. "One thing about cancer, though," Ray says. "It makes you realize you don't have time to sit around and feel sorry for yourself."
We know for certain that Clifford Ray hasn't been sitting around and feeling sorry for himself. Ray has been a regular at the Celtics' practice facility working with the Celtics young bigs throughout his tenure with the team. He has a sense of urgency about him that is catchy to the players fortunate enough to be taught by him. On the sidelines, he is often heard yelling instructions to the players. The Celtics will certainly miss Cliff and the intensity he has brought to working with the young bigs on the team. As a Celtics fan, I want to say "Thank you" to Cliff for the years he has given the team and "Good Luck" in whatever his future holds. He will be missed by players and fans alike.