“Go not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
UNION — Clifford Ray didn’t set out to be an NBA superstar. In fact, he didn’t even play organized basketball until his sophomore year of high school in 1965. Ray was a music man who led the band and sang in the choir at Sims High School.
“Clifford had a beautiful bass voice,” Faye Robinson, Ray’s former music teacher, recalled. “He was the drum major and he also played an instrument, I think it was the clarinet.”
Mickey Gist, a Union resident and former free agent for the Washington Redskins, was a classmate of Ray’s. He remembered attending parades and seeing his friend high-stepping down the streets.
Music was the career path that most of Ray’s peers suspected that he’d pursue. However, when Victor Blue arrived at Sims in 1965 to coach basketball, he had other aspirations for the colossal band major.
Blue was looking for a post player and at 6-foot-9 Ray appeared to be the ideal candidate. The fact that Ray had never played was only a minor technicality.
“Clifford didn’t have the opportunity to particpate in the Junior Olympics program or AAU basketball because, like me, he had to work in the summers,” said Gist. “We were just determined to do something with our lives so we were hard workers. We had a lot of mentors and good role models in our lives.
“Blue worked with him that first year and really got Clifford into basketball. With that height and all, it didn’t take long before he became an outstanding player, a good rebounder and scorer.”
His junior year at Sims, Ray was named Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. He was voted to the All-State team his senior year by every coach in the Upper State division after averaging 26 points and 15 rebounds per game.
In 1967, Ray accepted a full scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, playing for four years and leading the Big Eight Conference in rebounding. He was selected in the third round of the 1971 NBA Draft by Chicago and was later traded to Golden State where he proved to be one of the best interior defenders in franchise history.
His name can be found throughout the Warriors record book, ranking among the team’s all-time leaders in offensive rebounds. He was a key component to Golden State’s 1975 NBA Championship team averaging 9.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.
Ray is one of a handful of players to have played at least 10 seasons in the pros and to have recorded more rebounds (6,953 over 784 games for an 8.9 average) than points (5,821 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 first head coaching job with the Fort Wayne Fury, replacing former teammate Rick Barry as head coach at the end of the season.
Later, he worked as a New Jersey Nets assistant before returning to Golden State as an assistant coach. Ray also worked as an assistant coach with the Orlando Magic and from 2005 to 2010 he was an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics, with whom he won an NBA championship in 2008. He was hired by the Sacramento Kings in 2012.
Over the years, Ray kept in touch with many of his Union friends, including his Sims music teacher who made trips to Washington to watch him play.
“We kept in touch for quite a while,” said Robinson. “When he calls some of his classmates now he’ll often ask about me or send a message. I hope that during his time at Sims that I had some type of influence on his life and his career and I think he feels that I did. He loved his school and he loved his teachers.
“There are so many other avenues he could have chosen but Clifford decided to take the right one and he’s really contributed something positive to the world.”