By Rick Bozich
WDRB Sports

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — He was taller than Rodney McCray, wider than Charles Jones and quicker than Felton Spencer.

If you’re making a list of the best big men to play basketball at the University of Louisville the last four decades, Pervis Ellison is the only guy I would rank ahead of Clifford Rozier.

Hands? Large, soft and certain.

Footwork? Rarely an issue.

Shooting touch? Better not to foul him. Ask Eastern Kentucky.

Clifford Rozier had it all — and then he had nothing.

When the news spread Friday that a heart attack had taken Rozier, it was the final cruel reminder of how impossible his life had become after Rozier left U of L for the NBA in 1994. He was just 45.

Rozier was not yet 22 when he was off to the Golden State Warriors, taken 16th in a draft that featured Glenn Robinson, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose, guys who made huge money, played in all-star games and made their way into television.

That was supposed to be Rozier’s destiny, too, all the way back to when he played at Southeast High School in Bradenton, Fla., the same school that sent halfback Anthony Shelman to U of L.

Rozier did not start his career at U of L. Dean Smith did not let that happen.

Clifford Rozier started his career at North Carolina, arriving in the same monstrous recruiting class with Derrick Phelps, Brian Reese and Eric Montross, McDonald’s all-Americans who lined up to bring Smith his second national championship in 1993. Vintage Carolina blue-blood recruiting. 

Rozier got to the Final Four, the 1991 Final Four, sitting on the bench when Smith got tossed from a national semifinal game against Kansas.

Rozier was not there when Smith got his second ring.

Not many guys left Dean Smith and North Carolina after one season those days — and eventually you wondered if that was the first sign that Rozier battled demons that would never allow him settle into a persistent peace.

He sat out his one mandatory transfer season, moving into Denny Crum’s starting U of L lineup in the fall of 1992, right when people were starting to wonder why the proud program was not bouncing into the Final Four as consistently as the Cardinals delivered for Crum in the seventies and eighties.

Rozier did his part. His numbers were routinely terrific — 15.7 points and 10.9 rebounds in 1993, eclipsed by the 18.1 and 11.1 averaged in 1994. Two Metro Conference Player of the Year awards — and a spot on the Associated Press all-American team with Robinson, Hill, Kidd and Donyell Marshall.

Plans? Rozier had plans. In the U of L media guide, Rozier stated that his goal was to own a business one day. He enjoyed camping and playing tennis. He listed his father, Clifford, as the best athlete he ever faced as well as the person who had the biggest influence on his athletic career. Music, movies, TV shows. Just another college kid trying to figure out who he was.

What an unforgettable day June 29, 1994 had to be for father and son. The Golden State Warriors selected him with the 16th pick in the 1994 NBA draft after Rozier decided it was time for his first season in the pros instead of his final season in college. He was the big man the Warriors intended to plug into the lineup with Latrell Sprewell, Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin to pursue a championship.

That’s not the way the story unfolded. Not at all.

I remember talking to a Warriors’ assistant coach in the summer of 1995 at the end of Rozier’s rookie season. He did not put up numbers like Robinson, Hill or Kidd, but Rozier started in 34 of 66 games and put up seven double doubles in the final three weeks of the season. Very encouraging signs.

The assistant coach loved that, but he did not love the way that Rozier ended the season. The coach said that Rozier blew off the team’s mandatory exit interview to discuss setting goals for the following season.

Rozier asked a locker room attendant to tell the coaching staff that he was headed back to the beach in Florida. If they wanted to talk to him, they could call him or fly down for a pina colada.

You know where this story was headed. Rookies don’t do that. Rozier was racing his way out of the league.

In those days, anybody who was 6 feet 11 and could run, shoot, set screens and block a few shots could play in the NBA for at least a decade.

Rozier played less than four full seasons. Golden State gave up on him. So did Toronto. So did Minnesota. The double-doubles stopped. His salary chart at reported that Rozier earned about $3.55 million — and was waived out of the league for good on Nov. 25, 1997.

Louisville fans wondered what happened to Cliff Rozier. Why wasn’t he still in the league? He had every tool a player needed to be in the league longer than four seasons.

Rozier moved back to the Florida Gulf Coast but was difficult to reach. I tried. Several times. Talked to his former coaches. Talked to former teammates. Talked to Dick Vitale, who lived in the area and was one of the first to recognize Rozier’s skills. They weren’t sure how to reach Cliff.

He gained weight. He lost weight. He played recreation ball and pledged to make a comeback. It never happened. It couldn’t happen.

The story finally came out eight years ago in this remarkable piece written by Chris Anderson for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Cliff Rozier was dealing with serious schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and drug addiction.

The first paragraph said everything:

“The only NBA player from Manatee County, Clifford Rozier once lived in a $1.2 million home. Now he’s broke and living in a Bradenton halfway house.”

So did the last, which was a quote from Rozier about the joys of sipping a soft drink from the porch of a halfway house every evening:

“You know something,” he says, “I ain’t never looking back at the turmoil and chaos behind me because right now I’m looking at paradise.”

Rest easy, Cliff.

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