RICK REILLY : Seeing Cliff--Encounters of Growing Kind

In Utah the other day, a teen-age boy with braces pulled a gun on his orthodontist and said, "Take 'em off."

Having worn braces myself, I feel for that kid. For at age 13, many a snubnose revolver I yearned to pack. I'd give it to the mousy receptionist, too. Go ahead, Nurse Dalrymple. Schedule me next Thursday. Make my day.

Losing my braces was one of only three things I asked out of the world in those days. The second was to commit a venial sin. This was not easy, since I was not exactly sure what a venial sin was, but I knew anything the nuns at school were campaigning so hard against must be a worthy pursuit.

The third was to live just long enough to see Cliff Meely play his next basketball game.

As things turned out, I finally got my braces off without the use of firearms. I'm still not sure if I've sinned venially, but I did live long enough to see Cliff Meely play every game at home his senior year for the University of Colorado.

That was 1971, the last year of my naivete.

Last week, Cliff Meely, 37, was officially charged with possession of cocaine and two counts of selling cocaine to an undercover officer. After an NBA career with the Houston Rockets and with the Lakers, he had taken a job as a prison guard.

My idol, the prison guard.

Cliff Meely was the biggest event to hit Boulder, Colo., since the day the county clerk married a man to his horse (you can look it up). Cliff was cool. Cliff was from Chicago. And Cliff was averaging 28 points a game. The problem was you couldn't find tickets to watch Cliff do it--a first and last in Buff athletic history, demand over supply by a nose.

And even if there had been tickets, buying them was far beyond the fiscal limitations of most 13-year-olds. Fortunately, money was no object.

We snuck in.

There were dozens of ways, never before revealed, but the most foolproof was the Pepsi-Cola smock. All you had to do was show up two hours before the game wearing the smock and walk in with the rest of the Pepsi-Cola vendors. Just like that, you were inside, Scot free, no charge, an intoxicating feeling almost as chilling as the game itself.

Of course, you never went ahead and sold Pepsi, since that might mean turning your back and maybe missing Cliff doing something ungodly, like hanging in the air for a minute and 32 seconds.

The trouble with the smock was that while the real vendors made ice and filled glasses and did whatever real vendors did two hours before the game, you had to sit in a bathroom stall with your feet up so they couldn't see you from the outside. Of course, for Cliff, we would risk communicable diseases.

You could march in with the ROTC guys if you were short enough (I was, unhappily), or you could scale the ivy wall outside the old, rumpled fieldhouse and squeeeeeeeze through the little vent window above the stands. That required being not so much small enough, but dumb enough, since the climb was at least 25 feet and you were never quite convinced the ivy was as committed to the wall as you were.

Then again, we'd have tunneled up from underneath wearing scuba fins and holding live chickens if it meant we could partake of that loveliest of sights: Cliff palming a basketball, plotting his next move, ready to make some poor guy from Iowa look like rigatoni.

We may have all ate fish on Fridays, but Cliff was our religion and we worshipped at his feet. The night he scored 47 points is quite nearly the happiest I've been in my life, next to getting my braces off.

And so it was that hearing that news about Meely last week was like finding out Superman not only wears a toupee but has been seen hanging around West Hollywood with some guy named Denise.

You and me, we do not even blink anymore when words such as cocaine and prosecutor and arraignment swindle their way into our sports page. We figure they are with us for good, kind of like eczema. But you get numb to it, like a rattle under the hood. You figure everybody famous these days has either checked in or out of the Betty Ford Center and you stop caring about it.

But then comes the day you are picking your way through the debris and you come upon your own personal immortal and it physically slaps you in the face and you are given pause.

If it's true, I will not be smart enough to divide the blame. Me and my friends risked our young necks for Cliff. Were we betrayed? Then again, perhaps Cliff was betrayed by us. Life, after all, requires enough whistles and mirrors just to get through it as Joe Six-Pack, much less as somebody's living, breathing icon. Besides, Cliff never promised us anything more than a floating, spinning bank shot with the game on the line. He held up his end of the deal. What else did we want?

Maybe heroes should be more like braces. We should eventually outgrow them both.

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