Cliff Hagan: In the Twilight, 1970

[A few years back, I interviewed a lawyer who was involved in getting the ABA off the ground in 1967. He told me several little-known anecdotes, including this one about Cliff Hagan, the NBA great who unretired to serve as the founding player-coach of the Dallas Chaparrals. According to the source, Hagan and George Mikan were in Los Angeles and stopped by his house for a chat. By chance, the source’s young son and his neighborhood friends had gathered outside to shoot baskets in the driveway. The source greeted these two NBA giants and told his son, “I want you to meet George Mikan and Cliff Hagan. They used to be two of the greatest long-range hook shooters in the game.”

“What do you mean ‘used to be?’” Hagan glared back. He asked for the ball and proceeded to knock down about 10 hook shots in a row from free-three distance and sauntered into the house.

That should tell you plenty about Hagan and his ultra-competitive nature. If you’d like to know more, then read this excellent profile, which ran in the 1970 Pro Basketball Almanac. The piece is written by Bob St. John, then with the Dallas Morning News, who went on to author several sports books, including his nice 2004 memoir. As you’ll read, St. John tagged along with the Chaps on a 1969 roadtrip and recounts vividly the rigors of ABA travel and the psyche of the ultimate competitor, Cliff Hagan. Enjoy!]


It was Sunday, and the early March sun kept pushing its yellow face out from behind a heavy brow of the dark clouds. The Los Angeles area had been drenched by rain for weeks. Cliff Hagan got out of a rented car near the Los Angeles Sports Arena and did not particularly notice the sun. He was carrying a uniform bag with a picture of a roadrunner—a Chaparral—pasted on it. For Cliff Hagan, a former 10-year man in the NBA and one of the league’s more distinguished performers, it was just the start of another day as player-coach of the Dallas Chaparrals of the American Basketball Association.

Cliff Hagan in New York

The ABA had lured Hagan out of retirement in 1967, waving a three-year, $100,000 contract at him. Cliff had quit basketball the season before after spending his NBA decade with the St. Louis Hawks. He took that retirement heavily. He worked as a color man on the Hawk broadcasts, but he found that being inactive-yet-so-close-to-the-action was too much to take. He had always been one of the NBA’s most-intense competitors. Smallish for a forward at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Hagan had overcome the deficiency by aggressiveness and desire. He overcame it so well, in fact, that he was named to the all-star team five times. For his NBA career, he averaged 18 points a game in regular-season play and, when it got hotter in the playoffs, he did even better, a 20-point average. 

Every one of his 836 games in the NBA was like a war for Cliff Hagan. And, after his retirement, the old soldier couldn’t even fade away. When the ABA offer came along, he jumped at the chance.

But he found life in the ABA as a player-coach quite different than the NBA. All his players were young and inexperienced and made mistakes that Hagan, a perfectionist found difficult to accept. “For Cliff Hagan,” said Chaparral general manager Max Williams, “perfection is par, and anything else is failure.” 

Hagan himself recalled something Adolph Rupp used to tell his University of Kentucky teams. (Hagan was a two-time All-America at Kentucky.) “Before a game,” said Cliff, “Rupp would tell us, ‘We’re going to war!’ He meant it.” Hagan took this not only literally, but personally, too. 

Besides his players’ mistakes, there were other things about Hagan’s ABA life which caused problems. This particular Sunday in Los Angeles was the midpoint of a roadtrip invented by Dr. Strangelove. The Chaps were scheduled to play the Los Angeles Stars. They had played in Dallas Friday night, caught a plane early Saturday morning for San Francisco, and then had driven over to Oakland for a night game with the Oaks. After that one, it was back into rented cars for the drive back to San Francisco airport and a midnight flight to Los Angeles for this afternoon’s game, the third in less than two days.

But wait, there’s more. After playing the Stars, the Hagan horde would immediately fly 2,500 miles to New York for a game with the Nets on Tuesday. Then it was on to Indiana for a game on Wednesday and finally, if lucky, back home on Thursday.

After the drive from the airport to his Los Angeles hotel, Hagan entered a restaurant. It was 2:30 a.m. He ordered his meal and sat patiently for an hour waiting for his food. Not so patient was the reporter with him. He got up to leave.

“The food’ll be here any minute,” Hagan said. “They’re understaffed. It can’t be helped.”

The reporter looked at Hagan, wondering if this was the same terrible-tempered Cliff Hagan that people thought they knew. After a two-hour wait for a sandwich, the reporter was sure it couldn’t be the same man.

Hagan got to bed at 5:30 a.m. and was up at 10. He had trouble sleeping, but it didn’t show. At age 37, Hagan looks younger than most of his players. He always had trouble sleeping before a game or after a defeat. Added to his troubles this night was a nagging back injury that he had first received a month before.

It was still bothering him when he got up, and it continued to bother him as he walked into the LA Arena. He wasn’t sure when or if he could play again, but he suited up. He took warm-ups, and then decided he couldn’t play.

“I think sometimes the uniform must be symbolic for him,” said Terry Stembridge, the Chaps’ publicity director. “He can’t give up the uniform. I asked him about it, and he said a coat and tie were too uncomfortable.”

The LA Arena seats 15,000 and housed the Lakers until Jack Kent Cooke, a one-man conglomerate, decided to build his own stadium. He moved his Lakers to the Forum, and the Stars took over the Arena. This afternoon, there were approximately 11,500 empty seats.

Before the start of the game, Los Angeles coach Bill Sharman, another ex-NBA star, talked about Cliff Hagan. “He had big games,” said Sharman. “But he was at his best in the playoffs. When I was with the Celtics, we played St. Louis in four playoffs, and Hagan was always terrific. I know Bill Russell used to say Hagan was the toughest guy for him to handle in the pivot. Cliff could palm the ball so well with either hand. He’d use the basketball to shield Russell off—or one hand to push Bill and the other to throw up a hook shot.”

As Sharman was talking, Hagan was down by the scorer’s table. Two amateur teams were playing, and one club had an old man with a bad leg who could neither shoot, run, nor pass. Hagan watched him and said, without a trace of a smile, ‘There’s Cliff Hagan in 15 more years.”

Then he added, “You know, this is where I played my last game in the NBA. Right here. He looked out across the floor, which was waxy, shiny, and showed a reflection, a looking glass, perhaps.

It was a Friday night, April 15, 1966. The Hawks and the Lakers were tied 3-3 in the Western Division playoffs, and there was no ABA, no Chaparrals, and no empty seats. St. Louis had no business being in that final game. The Hawks had been down, 3-1. Hagan, then 34 years old, scored 22 points, just missed landing a right hook on Rudy LaRusso’s nose and fired the Hawks to a 122-110 win over the Lakers. St. Louis then won at home, and the final was played in the Arena. The Lakers won, but it hadn’t been Hagan’s fault. He scored 29 points.

As he was leaving the court that night, feeling as low as he had ever felt in his life, broadcaster Harry Caray called him over to the mike. Hagan, clay god of the poker face, was touched. “I got to the mike and couldn’t breathe,” said Cliff. “It was a big emotional experience for me. I had played a long time. I got through with the interview and started to the dressing room. My eyes were burning. 

“A kid, a teenager, came up to me and said, ‘Hagan, you’re the worst player I’ve ever seen in my life.’ I stopped, then walked off. I didn’t say anything. I thought if I walked away from that, I can walk away from anything.”

On this Sunday in Los Angeles three years later, Hagan was no longer the compleat philosopher. He was pacing up and down. He sat for a few moments, then got right up, pacing. The crowd yelled for him to sit down. He did not or would not. He screamed at the officials, he questioned them. He screamed at his ballplayers. 

The Chaparrals’ leading scorer, John Beasley, failed to pick properly and Hagan screamed, “Block off! Block off, dammit!”

Beasley said, “I’m sorry”

“Don’t be sorry,” yelled Hagan. “Just block off!”

Hagan had been burned twice in two games, losing one by a point when goaltending wasn’t called and the other in overtime. In the latter, his team had already left the floor, an apparent winner, when an official called a foul. The opposition tied the game on a foul shot and won in overtime. Hagan had not forgotten these things. He never will. 

Coach Hagan works a referee.

He continued his yelling, now at the officials. “What is this? What is this? I want to know what a pick is. Can you tell me?” Before the game was over, both officials seemed to be running up and down the opposite side of the floor from Hagan . . . Dallas led, 110-93, with 53 seconds left, and Ron Boone of the Chaps was called for traveling while driving up the key and passing off. 

“Whaaaat!” he screamed. “They haven’t called that since Bob Cousy came into pro basketball.”

Finally it was over, and Dallas had won, 112-95. Hagan smiled, poker chips falling. When he headed for the dressing room, people who remembered him from another time crowded around for autographs. The philosopher returned, Cliff Hagan signed them patiently.

Hagan walked into the dressing room and announced: “There’s 26 inches of snow in New York, and we have to leave immediately. So, hurry.”

No night off. Three games in less than two days, flights two days in a row, and now one cross-country. But then he smiled, and everyone knew the flight was still scheduled for Monday. Nobody but Hagan went to bed early Sunday night. His players might have been bushy-eyed, but Hagan was not. Dallas had won, so Cliff Hagan slept. 

The next morning, the trip to the airport with Hagan driving was nerve-racking. With Stembridge giving directions, Hagan seemed to point the car in different directions at the same time. At the airport, he bought a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint, the best seller by Philip Roth. He settled back in his seat and read, while others on the plane talked of Cliff Hagan. 

Two seasons ago, Hagan was the amulet of the NBA, the one big fish fed into the new stream. Now it is Rick Barry, Sharman, and Alex Hannum. The ABA does not hold Hagan in the awe that they did that first season when he was terrorizing officials, the opposition, and most of his own players. He felt that he should show no compassion in his first season as a coach. He considered it, a sign of weakness. And he still does.

“Coach is hard to play for,” said one of the Chaparrals. “He expects your best and sometimes gets furious when you don’t give it. But you have to remember one thing about that first year, the league was just starting. He didn’t know us, and we didn’t know him. Sure, we were a little in awe of him, and we were a little scared, too.”

“I used to resent it when he kept yelling at me,” said another player. “Some of the things he’d say. But I found out he didn’t mean it personally. When he yells at me, I know he’s just trying to get me to do my best.”

Still another player compared Hagan to a drill instructor. But the same player added, tempering his criticism ever so slightly, “I don’t dislike him.”

Last season, at a Chaparral luncheon, Hagan was behind the podium answering questions. A lady asked, “Why do you always look so mean on the court?” Hagan answered: ”I am mean.”

In the quiet, pressurized cabin of the jet traveling to New York, Hagan was again asked why he was so mean. He looked up from his book, “I’m not mean,” he said. “I think ‘intensely competitive’ would be more accurate. I know I come off completely hard-nosed, but I’m not all that bad. I know the rigors of pro ball. I know what it takes to be successful. I’m hard on my players, but I’ve let up since the first season.

“I guess I expected too much. You draw from your own experiences. I supposed when I was in the NBA that I’d go hard even in practice. Now, this may sound funny, but I was very insecure. St. Louis was always going to draft that 6-foot-9 forward to replace me. I had to always make the big plays. My job was never set, and I could never stop working.

“No, mean is not the word,” said Hagan, “Look, pro ball is tough. You get used to taking care of yourself, and you react. You don’t win for the Gipper. You win for yourself, your team, and your coach—in that order. It’s still a team game, and I played it that way. But you go out every night and whip that man one-on-one or you won’t stay around. Sure, I’m aggressive. But I like to think I retaliate, not initiate.”

Cliff Hagan coaches the way he played. And it’s starting to become contagious on the Chaparrals. Said one player: “I’m a fairly quiet guy. Yet, out there on the court, I find all of a sudden I’m screaming at the ref. The game does that to you. I think everybody likes him (Hagan) better now because we understand him.”

Vince Cazzatta, who coached the Pittsburgh Pipers two years ago, said of that first ABA season: “Dallas is a much better club than its record shows. What the team needs is a little love.”

Love is there now, and it shows through more and more. Cincy Powell, a player Hagan had a great deal of trouble with early in his first season, made a winning basket. Hagan bolted on the court to kiss him. Charley Beasley made a steal to seal a victory over Oakland, and Hagan raced onto the court and picked him up. This is not a put-on. This is real, and a cold man doesn’t do these things.

Yet, The Game can make him cold. Any game, any court. Once last summer, Cliff was in a three-on-three game with Max Williams, a former All-Southwest Conference player at SMU and a guy who still stays in pretty good shape at age 32. Williams probably knows Hagan better than anybody. They play golf together, they work together. They’re friends.

However, when it came down to the winning basket in the pickup game, Max drove in for a layup, and Hagan bumped him, causing him to fall out of bounds. Williams sustained a badly cut brow, and blood began to flow. Hagan walked over, looked down, and said, “You all right?”

Then he walked away, looked at an idle player and yelled, “Come on in and play. Let’s finish the game. We’re a man short.” Jack Palance couldn’t have played the part better. Williams picked himself up, wiped the blood with the towel, and drove to the hospital, where he collected eight stitches.

“I guarantee you that Cliff will do anything to win,” said Williams. “There was never a more-fierce competitor born than Hagan. When we play one-on-one, I have no doubt that he’d break my arm to keep me from making the winning basket.” Then Williams adds, “I also know that off the court, he’s the sweetest guy you’ll ever meet.”

“No,” said Hagan again, “mean is not the word.”

But for his two ABA seasons, Hagan has coached, screamed, played, and literally fought his team into the playoffs. In the regular season, Dallas finished second in the West in 1968 and fourth in 1969. His ABA opponents learned that first season that you can shove and get shoved by Hagan, but there is a breaking point. The ABA’s premier fight concerned Hagan and Les Hunter, who was with Minnesota.

Hunter is 6-foot-7, 235 pounds, and the trouble started under the Minnesota basket. Errol Palmer of Minnesota went up for a rebound with Hagan and smashed an elbow into Hagan’s mouth, splitting his lip. Soon Hunter and Hagan were jockeying for position. Les slammed an elbow into Cliff’s stomach. “Cut it out, or I’ll let you have it,” said Hagan. 

Hunter was not impressed. On a rebound, Hunter came down with a forearm across Hagan’s neck. Cliff set himself, smashed a right to Hunter’s ear and a left to his nose. Hunter, dazed, tried to grab Cliff and scratched him with his fingernails. Both benches emptied, and both Hagan and Hunter were ejected. Hunter was impressed. [Editor’s Note: There was another version of this story circulating around the ABA with a different ending: Hunter followed Hagan down the court, threw another elbow, and then decked him. Not sure which version is true.]

Early last season, Rick Barry annihilated the ABA. Oakland came to Dallas, and Barry ran up, through, and over the Chaps in the first period. A number of people tried to guard him, but he scored 19 points. Hagan suddenly got off the bench, threw his warm-up suit down, and went into the game. They are still talking about what happened. Hagan fouled Barry three times, caught him in the ribs with an elbow, shoved, pushed, and refused to let Rick drive unless he wanted to pay the price. Barry finished the game with 43 points, but got only eight while Hagan was guarding him.

“Hagan is the worst hatchet man in the league,” Barry was quoted as saying after the game. Hagan resented the remark and worried about it for a long time. “Good players like Barry try to drive the ball down your throat,” Cliff says. “You either let them or you stand your ground.”

Hagan only played in key situations last season and was idle for over a month with his back injury. But if there was ever any doubt about Cliff being able to play his usual game, it was shelved on the final day of January against the Miami Floridians. Dallas was in the midst of a 10-game losing streak, and Hagan jumped off the bench about two minutes before halftime.

He scored two points before the intermission, but played the entire second half. Though Dallas lost, Hagan scored 36 points that half. He got 25 in the last quarter—an ABA record. These 38 points were the most that Hagan has ever scored in such a short span of time. Then, the next two games, Hagan played only the second half in both and scored 17 and 21 points.

But now, Hagan was on his way to New York, relaxing and reading his book. When the plane touched down, Hagan led his charges into a bunch of rented cars. As Hagan climbed behind the wheel, he said, “I guess I’ve set all sorts of records for being in air terminals.”

Throughout the trip into the big city, Hagan spoke about his past. There almost was no Cliff Hagan in the NBA at all. Due to his size, Cliff was first tried at guard, but the position didn’t fit him—and vice versa. But Hawk star Bob Pettit broke his wrist midway through the 1955-56 season, and by the end of February, Hagan was a fixture at one of the forwards spots.

Cliff Hagan unfurls his deadly hook shot.

“The hook saved me,” said Cliff as he darted the car through the New York traffic, “The first time I saw it was when I was a junior at Owensboro High School, and I went to see Western Kentucky play. A guy named Bob Lavoy was terrific with the hook. I was called “Big Cliff” in high school, so I didn’t need the hook. But I went home after that game and practiced it anyway. It paid off later in the NBA when I had to use the shot.”

It is believed that most people are shaped by their environment and background, and Cliff Hagan makes a good example of it. He always had to scrap when he was young, and that’s the only way he knows now. Life is not easy when you are one of nine children. Hagan’s father worked on furnaces, and his grandmother also lived with the family.

Strangely enough, life can be lonely in a large family and, to this day, Cliff says that a grade-school teacher of his still has had the greatest influence on his life. Her name is Mary Nancy Wilson, and she’s still a guidance counselor in Owensboro. On the wall of Hagan’s den, in a place of honor, is a plaque he won in junior high for leading his team to a tournament victory. The victory was for Miss Wilson.

“Sometimes Cliff is so quiet around the house, we don’t even know he’s here,” said Martha Hagan, who met Cliff in elementary school and married him just after college. “Look at that plaque—he’s very sentimental.

“Oh sure, sometimes he’ll yell at one of the kids (Lisa, 12; Laurie, 11; Amy, seven; Cliff, Jr., four). Who doesn’t? But mostly, he’s easy-going around here. Some of our neighbors in the past have wondered if the Cliff Hagan they meet at home can be the same one they saw on the court.”

It is, to be sure. It’s the same man his players say is a Marine drill instructor. The same guy who’ll do anything to win a ballgame. The same guy Max Williams says is the sweetest in the world.  And the same guy who says he believes the ABA is here to stay.

He can’t say how long he’ll go on coaching. “I stay so keyed up and tense when I play that I can’t get to sleep till 4 or 5 a.m. But coaching is certainly emotionally demanding, too. I’ve tried not to get so keyed up while coaching. I tell you, it’s difficult to be a player and coach at the same time. You play well, and there is nobody to pat you on the back. 

“As a coach, you must think about everybody. You’re responsible for everyone and what they do. A player can go out and, if his team loses, he can say, ‘Well, at least I did my part. I got my 20.’ A coach can’t. But I’ve found I love coaching. I love what I’m doing.” 

So, Cliff Hagan is starting again after an ending of something else, somewhere else. Watching him and being with him, you see him through a kaleidoscope. He is enigmatic, but anybody really worth getting to know is enigmatic. Hagan must be painted in abstract because to do otherwise would be to meet yourself going and coming.

Cliff Hagan came into the ABA because he could not watch from the sidelines. Times change, people change—and leagues change. The ABA is the only game in town for him now, and Hagan knows only one way to go about that game. It’s always been this way, and for Cliff Hagan, it always will be. 

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