CLIFF MEELY : Here’s a Textbook Case of a Professional Athlete Who Turned to Drugs
Justice was dispensed, bartered and postponed with almost mechanical efficiency. Finally, only one defendant remained in the courtroom. For more than an hour, Cliff Meely sat almost motionless in the back row, silent yet conspicuous in the way athletes tend to fill up a room, feeling the legal system build to a crescendo around him.
Shortly before 11 a.m., he was summoned before the bench. Counsel argued that Meely’s celebrity stature should have no bearing on the severity of his sentence for selling an ounce of cocaine to an undercover officer last January, a charge to which Meely already had pleaded guilty. The prosecution agreed. So did the judge. Meely got 90 days in jail and three years’ probation.
His sentence may have been delivered without consideration to his standing as one of the most talented young man ever to play basketball at the University of Colorado, oblivious to his first-round selection in the National Basketball Association draft and without deference to the once-lofty salary of a professional athlete; but it escaped no one in the room that the problems and pitfalls encountered by Cliff Meely are symptomatic of the lives of men who are so dependent on their sport that they are quite unprepared to deal with the world that awaits them outside.
The back spasms that plagued Meely through most of his professional career, that took him from Houston and the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA and finally to two European teams, forced his retirement in 1981. Shortly thereafter he returned here and took a $22,000-a-year job as a guard at the county jail, where an avalanche of personal problems and the difficulty of severing his ties to basketball combined to lead him to cocaine addiction. He was arrested Jan. 31 after selling the substance to an undercover officer, lost his job and ultimately found himself standing before Judge Michael Enwell for sentencing.
“I look back on it now and the way it happened to me is still not clear,” Meely says. “When I was involved in cocaine, my personality was not me. I look back now at certain things and it’s a shock.”
Meely does not blame basketball for his mistakes, but he cannot deny that the game contributed to the ultimate disillusion and confusion that pointed him toward drug abuse. Once hooked on freebase, a seductive cocaine derivative, he began dealing drugs, not to reap profits but to further his own habit.
“It was just something that happened, and I don’t really know how it happened,” Meely explains. “It wasn’t a thing where I said to myself, ‘I’m going to go to cocaine for relief.’ I got involved with it, and when I got involved with it, the problems I had I just didn’t think about.”
Among his concerns were his father’s illness and slow physical decline. At one point, his father spent about six months on a life-support apparatus. His mother suffered a stroke. He went through his second divorce, which left him with children in Chicago and San Antonio, Texas. On the job at the jail, his constant association with inmates amplified his own anguish.
He resisted the urge to seek help through counseling because law enforcement officials “had the attitude that if someone would seek help, go to a psychiatrist, that something major was wrong.” He feared for his job. Several times he went so far as to make appointments with a psychiatrist through his own health plan, but invariably he would phone at the last minute to cancel the appointment or else fail to show up altogether.
And within a year after injury ended his playing career at age 34, he felt withdrawl pangs from the game he had been playing competitively for 20 years.
“I found out that basketball was a part of me,” he admits. “I miss it. It’s been involved in my whole life. Partly, my problem with the drugs came about because of my missing basketball. I also missed my dad a lot when he became seriously ill. That’s when it really started affecting me -- just the thought of missing my dad and being out of basketball along with being divorced. It seemed like all at once all kinds of problems built up on me. I worked at a jail, where I listened to problems. I got to a point where I didn’t want to deal with those problems. I got involved with cocaine, and it became an easy way to forget.”
The drug drained his finances to the point where the only solution was to deal. That way, he could save some of his inventory for himself. Ironically, the illegality of his actions never occurred to him until he was busted. The overpowering urge to freebase rendered all other considerations inconsequential.
“I was thinking more in terms of using,” Meely says. “I wasn’t dealing with it to make a profit. It was a conflict with myself, working at the jail, never having a moving violation or anything dealing with law enforcement. But when you freebase, things could be wrong, but you really don’t deal with things in those terms. Your one thing is to try to get some cocaine. Sometimes you lie. You don’t have any values.”
Cliff Meely learned his basketball on the playgrounds of Chicago before moving to Colorado, but his abilities became near-legendary once he migrated to Colorado University after a year of junior college. He sits unthreatened atop the list of the school’s career scoring and rebounding leaders. He averaged 24.3 points and 12.1 rebounds over his three-year career. The number that puts his stay on the Boulder campus in sharpest focus, however, is the number 20, which Meely wore from 1968 to 1971. It is the only number CU has ever retired.
“He was just outstanding for three straight years,” recalls Sox Walseth, who coached Meely. “He wasn’t just a great scorer, but he was a great defensive player and rebounder, too. We played him outside half the time and then moved him inside his senior year.”
Professional basketball was not nearly so kind, despite his selection in the first round of the draft. He never averaged double figures with the Houston Rockets and played only sparingly for the Lakers. But elements of the pro basketball dream began to crumble in his rookie year, when his signing with Houston was preceded by an acrimonious bargaining battle. That, he felt, destroyed any chance for harmony with Coach Tex Winter.
“As a rookie, I’d have something to say in the huddle and the coach would fine me for saying anything -- he’d tell me, ‘Every word you say is $100,”’ Meely recalls. “Me coming in the way I did, there was no doubt my coach had certain resentments because of the money I was making as a rookie. The club expected me to be happy and sit on the bench because they were paying me a large salary. I was never happy with the idea of sitting down, whether they were paying me $100,000 or $25,000. My whole thing was to play basketball and be a competitor. It got to the point where I wasn’t confident in myself.”
Seeds of discontent and frustration were sown early, and when Meely’s NBA career sprouted little more than mediocrity, the frustration slowly fermented into a poisonous regret that would haunt him after he called it quits. By that time, he was playing in Italy. Now, when he analyzes the weakness that made him turn to cocaine, he sees his unfulfilled potential as a significant component.
“The game didn’t put me in a position like this, but things that occurred during my life while I was involved in basketball had some cause and effect,” he explains. “In the pros I didn’t achieve certain goals I had set for myself. Not obtaining those goals gave me sort of a bitter taste in my mouth about how I was dealt with in professional ball. I had a personal goal of being one of the best ballplayers to play the game. Coming out of col lege, I felt I had that capability. But circumstances and situations dictated otherwise.
“I never played basketball for money. Money wasn’t the most important thing to me, and it’s still not. The most important thing to me was basketball. There was an inner drive in me to perfect my basketball game. People sometimes think money solves all problems, but I never had any problems until I started making major money. I let the wrong people get up on me, for the wrong reasons. That’s what happened with the cocaine. It cost me.”
After Meely serves his jail sentence, the battle with cocaine will begin anew. Even since completing his rehabilitation program, traces of marijuana and barbiturates have been found in a urine sample. The barbiturates, claims Meely, were to offset pain in his back and help him sleep. The marijuana is evidence that rehabilitation will not be easy. The urge to succumb poses a constant threat to his probation. Judicial leniency is for first-time offenders only.
“The next time you appear before the court,” warned Judge Enwall, “you can safely assume it’s all over.”