Cliff Hagan

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Cliff Hagan

Postby rlee » Fri Feb 12, 2010 4:53 am

Dallas' first basketball star was ready to mix it up

by Kevin Sherrington

On a weekend when basketball's biggest stars come to town to investigate any parties that might break out, it's only fitting to remember Dallas' first pro basketball star. Cliff Hagan left a mark. Maybe a couple of concussions, too.

When Max Williams hired the 36-year-old, five-time NBA All-Star as player-coach for the Dallas Chaparrals of the new ABA in 1967, he had a pretty fair idea what he was getting. A clever 6-4 forward who could hook with either hand from as far out as 18 feet, Hagan starred on an undefeated Kentucky squad and then 10 years with the St. Louis Hawks, averaging more than 27 points during their '58 title run.

He was also a devoted father of four, faithful member of First Baptist Church, a collector of antiques, polite, soft-spoken, handsome as a Neiman-Marcus ad, "clearly the class of the gentlemen present," as Blackie Sherrod would write.

Tougher than a $5 steak, too.

Williams learned this other side of Hagan during a pick-up game. A former star at SMU himself, Williams was going in for a winning layup when he felt a shove in the middle of his back. When he came to, bleeding above one eye, he heard Hagan ask if he was all right.

The next thing Williams knew, Hagan was waving in a high school kid to finish the game, and he was driving himself to the hospital.

"And I was his boss," Williams said.

It was nothing personal. Hagan was tough on everyone: his own players, officials and opponents in particular. Neighbors asked his wife, Martha, who that scary guy was. Newspapers printed letters. The Chaps got complaints.

A woman at a Chaps luncheon asked Hagan why he always looked so mean on a basketball court.

"Madam," he replied, "I am mean."

No one on a basketball court had any trouble understanding. When the Pittsburgh Pipers' Art Heyman jostled him once before the opening tip, Hagan reached back and slapped him.

"The rest of the game," recalls Terry Stembridge, the Chaps' radio voice, "Art was trying to shake hands with him."

Hagan's most celebrated encounter came almost 42 years ago to the day, before the biggest crowd the Chaps had ever entertained. Kids' Day, on a Sunday afternoon. Hagan, who would average more than 18 points a game and finish second in the league in assists, had already scored seven points in the first quarter when Les "Big Game" Hunter, 6-7 and 235 pounds, elbowed him for the last time.

Hagan threw three punches before Hunter knew what had hit him, and down the Big Game went.

In the melee afterward, no one came off the bench in defense of their coach. As the Chaps' Cincy Powell once told me, "We thought, 'Let 'em kick his butt.' "

Meanwhile, in the broadcast booth, where he'd been providing color commentary until Hagan was ejected, Williams whispered to the play-by-play man, "You'll have to excuse me. I'm also the assistant coach."

Afterward, Minnesota's coach, Jim Pollard, told reporters Hagan had been "asking for it for a long time."

"Now that's a great comment," Hagan responded. "I didn't get it. I gave it."

He gave so freely and so often the league threatened to suspend him. The Chaps couldn't have that for a couple of reasons. Not only was Hagan their coach and best player, the owners didn't think it good marketing to knock out people in front of a Kids' Day crowd.

Hagan told Williams if he couldn't fight, he couldn't play. Williams told him the next time he was ejected, it'd cost him $2,500. Gradually, he played less. He stopped wearing his shorts under his warm-ups, just to resist the temptation.

Late in a game against the Anaheim Amigos, it got to be too much. When he started to pull off his warm-ups, Williams nudged Stembridge.

"He's got his shorts on."

Hagan cut across the lane, took the ball and was rolling a hook when a foul took him to the floor. As Hagan walked to the free throw line, the offending player said, "Hey, old man. You come across here, I'll do it again."

And boom, down the guy went. Hagan had been in the game eight seconds.

"Fortunately," Williams said, "neither of the refs saw it because they were at the scorer's table.

"Saved Cliff twenty-five hundred bucks."

Unfortunately, the fights and the raw intensity eventually cost Hagan his job. Even though he'd led the Chaps to two second-place finishes and was two games out of first on Jan. 14, 1970, the owners had had enough.

Ever the gentleman off the floor, Hagan took it well. He told Williams he figured it was coming.

"You guys don't know anything about basketball."

He was probably right about that. One of the Chaps' best players, Glen Combs, said firing Hagan was the biggest mistake the club ever made. Considering the owners eventually sold the team to a couple of San Antonio businessman who changed the name to "Spurs," that's saying something.

As for Hagan, he went back to Kentucky, where he served his alma mater in the athletic department until 1988. Now 78, retired with Martha to a gated community in Vero Beach, Fla., he plays tennis four days a week. His nine grandkids call him "Puh-paw."

He once said his two-year-plus run in the ABA was "no fun." He explained that it was tough, taking abuse both as a player and coach. He conceded he went "overboard" with his own players, but as for the rest, it's all been "greatly exaggerated."

Just the same, the toughest pro basketball player Dallas has ever seen had a request.

"Be gentle," he said, softly.
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