An intense competitor whose non-stop hustle belied his lack of size, Cliff Hagan is the sort of Hall of Famer you probably you don’t know much about. Or didn’t, until now. In this Old School feature from SLAM 102 (November ’06), Alan Paul catches up with the hoop legend. —Ed.
by Alan Paul
Contemporary Kentuckians could be forgiven for thinking Cliff Hagan is as much of an historical relic as his old coach Adolph Rupp. After all, like Rupp, Hagan has an arena named after him (University of Kentucky’s baseball stadium) as well as a large Boys & Girls Club (in his hometown of Owensboro). His legacy is secure, but the 74-year-old Hagan is very much alive and well, and more than happy to discuss his own stellar basketball career, which saw him win titles in high school, college and the NBA.
Hagan arrived at UK in 1950 and teamed with fellow Hall of Famer Frank Ramsey to lead the team to a three-year record of 86-5 and the ’51 NCAA title. They went 25-0 his senior year, as the 6-4 forward averaged 24 ppg and 14 rpg. The Celtics drafted the two-time All-American in ’53, but Hagan never played for Boston; he entered the Air Force for two years and was then traded, along with Ed Macauley, to the St. Louis Hawks for the Draft rights to Bill Russell. A five-time NBA All-Star, he played with the Hawks for 10 years, averaging 18 ppg and helping the team win the ’58 title.
Hagan retired in ’66, then returned a year later as player-coach of the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals and became the first player to play in both the ABA and NBA All-Star games. Hagan, who served as UK’s director of athletics from ’75-88, was elected to the Hall of Fame in ’78. He lives in Lexington and Florida.
SLAM: Your Kentucky team won the ’51 national championship; a year later the team’s season was cancelled by the NCAA. You all returned in ’53-54 to go 25-0, only to be barred from the Tournament. How did that all come about?
CH: It was reported that some of our players from the back-to-back championship teams [’48 and ’49] were involved in the point shaving scandals that hit Long Island University, Bradley and other places. They didn’t lose any games, but apparently some guys had accepted money though they insisted they didn’t do anything to alter a game. The year we were banned, we still practiced together, playing four intra-squad games that sold out Memorial Coliseum. We came back the next season really ready to go and feeling like we had something to prove. We opened with Temple; I got 51 and we never looked back. We went 25-0, then were told we couldn’t go to the Tournament because three of us had entered graduate school. It was disappointing. LaSalle won the Tournament, and we had beaten them.
SLAM: What made Adolph Rupp a great coach?
CH: I think he was brilliant. He was a tremendous motivator and speaker, someone you had to pay court to. He was commanding and no one questioned him. He was a good game coach, but it wasn’t that complicated. He devised an offense and you had to fit in. Also, he didn’t have any other duties or jobs, unlike most other coaches at the time. He was full time on basketball.
SLAM: You were drafted by the Celtics but never played for them. How did that go down?
CH: I knew Red Auerbach from my freshman year in college from playing at Kutshers Country Club in New York in the summer, and I was excited to go to the Celtics. Then I got a call from Red Holzman, whom I had never heard of. He was the coach of the Hawks and he said I was coming there. I was disappointed. Then I got to training camp and he told me that due to the depth in the frontcourt and my size, I was a guard, which I had never played before. I barely played the first half of my rookie year and may have never had a career if there hadn’t been a coaching change. Alex Hannum came in as player-coach, Bob Pettit broke his wrist and I got a chance to play. I had some success and stayed in the lineup when he returned.
SLAM: That season, ’57, the Hawks played the Celtics for the title, a series many consider the best Finals ever. It began and ended with double-OT 125-123 games.
CH: For Game 1, there were about 5,000 people in Boston Garden and we beat them. They had five or six Hall of Famers—Russell, Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey—and they were about to go on that incredible roll [11 titles in 13 years] but they hadn’t won anything yet. We were not intimidated. We had to go back there for Game 7, and it was an incredible, up-and-down game. At the end of the second overtime, we’re down two and have the ball with less than two seconds left. We call a timeout and Hannum puts himself in the game and says the play is for him to inbound the ball, throw it fullcourt off the backboard—there was no advancing it to midcourt—where Pettit would get the rebound and put it in. Everyone thought he was nuts, but lo and behold, he puts the ball off the board, Pettit gets the rebound…and the ball rolls off. They won their first championship and we were dejected. I had a real good playoff run and came back the next season really ready.
SLAM: And the next year, you beat the Celtics to win the title. Did you realize how special it was?
CH: No. I really didn’t. And until someone recently wrote a book about the Hawks [Greg Marecek’s Full Court: The Untold Stories of the St. Louis Hawks] I didn’t realize that I led the team in scoring for the playoffs. I scored 30 points per game in the first round, and 27.7 in the second. All you ever hear about is Pettit’s 50 points in the deciding game, but I actually led the team in the entire playoffs.
SLAM: You were a 6-4 forward. What was the key to your success?
CH: I could run, jump and hustle. I got out on the break, filled the lanes and rebounded well. I could put the ball on the floor, go either way and hit a jumper or a hook. I once took Russell in the pivot and got 39, because while he was very effective helping others, one on one he would back off and I could go across the lane with either hand and take him under the basket. But generally I scored by moving. The secret in basketball is the ability to get off a shot in traffic. If people have to set screens for you and all that stuff, you are limited.
SLAM: In your third year, Clyde Lovellette arrived and you guys were considered one of the best frontlines in the history of the game—three Hall of Famers. What was each of your roles?
CH: Pettit played inside, Clyde could shoot from outside and I would get my points off offensive rebounds and fast breaks. But we all played together as a team, and I don’t think we looked at it like that. We were always looking to fast break, and you just hustled your ass off. You came to play every night and rested when you weren’t playing. There were just eight teams with 10 players, so only 80 players were in the NBA, and there were no guaranteed contracts. It was extremely competitive because we all had a mindset that you were playing for next year’s contract every game. It was always insecure. They were always drafting a big forward or two to take my spot for less money, so I had to earn my position each year, whether I was an All-Star or not.
SLAM: After briefly retiring from the NBA in ’66, you returned as the player-coach of the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals a year later. How did that come about?
CH: The Chaparrals were the last ABA team formed, and I was excited for the challenge of coaching in a new league. I had no intention of playing, though the owners wanted me to. I ran in scrimmages to stay in shape and saw that I could still run and jump and make a contribution. I scored 40 in the first game and played in the first ABA All-Star game. Midway through the next season, I decided not to play any more after a knee injury. The only way I could control myself was to not put my uniform on under my warm-up. Otherwise, I knew my competitiveness would get the best of me and I would put myself into a tight game.
SLAM: You were successful as a coach. Why not pursue it further?
CH: I decided I was from the old school and was too demanding to succeed. For instance, I had a player eating popcorn in the dressing room, and I came from the school where you ate a meal at 4 and then rested for the game. And I had no problem coming off the bench, because I could contribute right away, having been sitting there mentally involved in every play. I just couldn’t understand someone lounging on the bench, unprepared to enter when called upon.
SLAM: You were reputed to have had quite a temper and to have gotten in a lot of scuffles while in the ABA. In the book Loose Balls, you’re actually described as having a split personality—nice Christian family man off the court and a wild brawler on it.
CH: That’s greatly exaggerated. I’m a pussycat. Sure, I got into a couple of scuffles, but no more than other people. Now, I do think it’s true that I had a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde thing. When I got on the court, the adrenaline gets going and I was all business. I think you’ve got to have that. You’ve got to come ready to play every night and have some personal pride in everything you do, from the team’s performance to your stats to your free throws.