Anderson: Clifford Rozier’s best friend remembers the late NBA player

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Terry Green looks back at the life of the best high school basketball player in Florida

A bishop shot a free-throw at a funeral last Saturday afternoon. He stood near the pulpit, championship game on the line, and pretended to bounce a ball. Then he looked above, to the imaginary basket, to the person perhaps watching, raised his arms, and let it go.

Some gasped, others cried, everyone sat transfixed, their eyes following his fingers as they released the ball and then fell towards the floor, mimicking the arch of a game-winning shot, of a person’s life, eventually stopping and pointing to the man in the casket no one could believe was gone.

“The final shot of Clifford’s life is good,’’ the bishop declared at the end of the imaginary free-throw. “Game Over.’’

Clifford Rozier, the man inside the casket, was not allowed to play in the annual students vs. teachers basketball game in middle school and this devastated him, so he began shooting underneath the porchlight in his driveway each night until he was the best high school player in Florida, until he played for North Carolina and then Louisville, until he was an All-America selection, until his name was called in the first round of the 1994 NBA draft, until …

Man, just look at the photo on the cover of the memorial booklet at his funeral. It was taken the night of the NBA draft. He was so young then, resplendent in that tailored suit, his face sleek and angular beneath his Golden State Warriors hat, the team that selected him 16th overall.

He was so rich then, worth millions, going from his painful snub in middle school to guarding Michael Jordan in sold-out arenas and certainly he was going to be a star for the next decade. What was there to stop him?

Terry Green kept looking at the photo during the funeral. He met Rozier at the Bradenton Boys & Girls Club when they were third-graders. In high school at Southeast Rozier once said to him, ‘Green, when I’m in the NBA you won’t have to worry about a thing,’’ and wouldn’t you know that’s exactly what happened?

Rozier shared the whole wild ride with his best friend. He brought Green to the draft in Indianapolis, first time he’d been on a plane. He took Green to California to live with him in a $1.2 million mansion in the hills, introduced him to Jordan, and it was hard to tell who felt like the biggest star that night. Green still remembers how Rozier would walk into a store, pay for everyone ahead of him in line, and then walk out signing autographs and smiling.

“I had dreams of being in the NBA too,’’ Green said. “It wasn’t meant to be, but I was still there. Cliff took me on that journey.’’

Rozier played four years in the NBA with three teams before he returned to Bradenton, his career never living up to the promise. Soon he was a drug addict, a shoeless, shirtless giant wandering the streets. But it wasn’t until 2010 when the depths of his problems were revealed and he became much more understood.

On a cold January morning he was sitting on the cement steps of a halfway house in Bradenton, smoking cigarettes, when he opened up and gave an interview to the Herald-Tribune so extraordinary it may have been the most honest, engaging and insightful any professional athlete has ever granted.

Homeless and broke and suffering from schizophrenia, Rozier went into excruciating detail about how he would hear talking green snakes with red eyes as he walked around Manatee County while carrying a gun. The snakes tried to convince him they were god, and if he jumped off buildings, or ran in front of police cars, the snakes would save him. They told him he could fly.

He came to realize the snakes were really the devil, he said, and this was the torment he dealt with on a daily basis for several years. At one point the man who dunked on Charles Barkley and played against Patrick Ewing in Madison Square Garden actually jumped off a Bradenton apartment building because a snake told him to.

And yet, with as horrible as it all became, he still popped into Green’s barber shop in Palmetto just to say, “Green, don’t worry, I’m OK.’’

On the morning of July 5, Green received a call at the barber shop from Rozier’s son. Green rushed to the hospital, where he found Rozier in a coma. It was a heart attack. The man nicknamed “June bug’’ as a kid was now on life support. Rozier’s eyes were open, though, and his mother said he could hear people.

“Hey man, I’m here,’’ Green said to Rozier. “Keep fighting.’’

Clifford Rozier, the only person from Manatee County to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft, and likely to be the last, died on July 6, 2018. He was 45.

It wasn’t until Bishop Raymond Trice shot the poignant final free-throw at Rozier’s funeral on July 14 that Green realized the enormity of what was lost: His best friend, their youth and the dreams that were ahead of them, some of which were fulfilled, some of which were not.

“I thought, ‘Dang, he’s dead?’ Green said. “I guess that’s when I knew the ride was finally over and I was on that ride with him. Then I started thinking, ‘Why was the trip like that? Why was his life like that?’ ’’

Green has a copy of the memorial booklet from the funeral on a shelf at his shop. On Wednesday, he pulled it out and looked it over. Green is perhaps the nicest and most gregarious man in Palmetto, but you could see — no, you could really feel — the sadness on his face. Green is 48 now. He was sitting next to Rozier at the draft when that photo was taken. Rozier was so happy, one of the best nights of his life, maybe the best. But if you look a little closer you can see a tinge of disappointment too, and maybe this partially explains why Rozier’s life turned out the way it did:

He always felt he should have been selected higher that night.

It always bothered him.

Last Saturday afternoon, at the Happy Gospel Church in Manatee County, another draft was held.

And Green, just like the last time, was sitting in the audience when the name of Clifford Rozier, a 6-foot-10 forward from Bradenton, Florida, was called by the Commissioner.

“He might have wanted to be the No. 1 pick in the 1994 NBA draft but he sure was the No. 1 pick on July 14, 2018,’’ Green said. “That’s when he was drafted by the best team in the world.

“He finally became the top pick and that’s all he ever wanted to be.’’