BOULDER – Cliff Meely could never be described as a stranger to Colorado basketball, but as the Buffaloes’ recent ascent began three years ago Meely became a more frequent visitor to practice.
Having retired last spring from his post-basketball work of instructing and counseling in the Denver Public Schools system, Meely appeared at Tad Boyle’s practices “at least once a month,” CU’s coach recalled on Wednesday.
Moreover, Meely, who lived in Boulder and was a passionate season ticket holder, rarely missed a game.
Next season will be different; Meely won’t be there.
The CU icon – arguably the best basketball player the school has produced – died on Tuesday night. He would have celebrated his 66th birthday on July 10.
I never saw Meely play, and neither did Boyle. But those who were treated to any of his minutes in a CU uniform (1968-71) swear there were none better before Meely or since.
Meely was aware of the debate, but never immersed himself in it. “Whatever I did, I did it so our team could win,” he told The Denver Post in one of his last interviews. “They retired my uniform (one of only two at CU), and that was a great honor. I don't decide how good I was compared to others. Somebody else will have to decide that.”
I turned to Dan Creedon, the longtime former sports editor of the Boulder Daily Camera who told me Wednesday morning without reservation that Meely “is the greatest player CU ever had . . . he was such an unbelievable scorer and rebounder.”
Boyle deferred to Creedon, as well as Meely’s numbers: “I would trust Dan’s judgment on that . . . he’s seen more than most. I certainly wouldn’t argue against that. I never had the opportunity to see Cliff play. But I look at the numbers and they’re pretty eye-popping.”
Eye-popping to the point of being nearly unreal. The 6-8, 215-pound Meeley played before freshmen were eligible, so his career stats encompass his final three seasons. He still holds the top two single-season scoring averages in school history – 23.8 as a sophomore, 28.0 as a senior. His career scoring average of 24.3 points remains a school record. His career rebounding average: 12.1.
More Meely numbers of note: 54 double-doubles in his 80 career games. And in a 30-point blowout of Oklahoma in 1971, he punched up 47 points with 25 rebounds.
Said Boyle: “When you look at those numbers over a three-year period, they’re even more impressive.”
Ceal Barry had no problem weighing Meely’s numbers and eventually nominating him for the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Hall of Honor – a duty she had as a CU associate athletics director overseeing basketball and SWA (senior women’s administrator).
But until 2005, when she was doing color work for FSN at CU men’s games, Barry had never met Meely.
“I kept seeing this big, tall guy sitting behind me in the front row (at the Coors Events Center) and he always got there early,” said Barry, who now is serving as CU’s interim athletics director. “We had to be there early too (for FSN) and during the course of this game, that game we started talking.
“Eventually, I go, ‘Duh, that’s Cliff Meely.’ I started asking him what he thought about the night’s game and we started to get to know each other. He was just delightful, an awesome guy.”
When the paperwork crossed Barry’s desk to nominate a CU alum for the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Hall of Honor, “Of course, I had to nominate my new best friend, Cliff Meely.”
Boyle’s introduction to Meely was less by chance, and Boyle said he got to know the former CU star “pretty well, although we never did anything together socially.”
But Meely’s place in CU basketball was never lost on Boyle. When Meely showed up at practice last season as the Buffs worked toward a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, “I always tried to make him feel welcome,” Boyle said. “It was always good to see him.”
As Boyle’s young team searched for cohesion, unity and leadership, Boyle asked Meely to address the Buffs. “It wasn’t about him, it was about us coming together and being a team, one unit,” said assistant coach Rodney Billups.
Meely, said Boyle, also urged the Buffs to maximize their college careers: “He talked about how special a time this is in their lives, how they had to make the most of their opportunities as student-athletes and play for each other.”
"Basketball is what I love, always have," Meely told the Camera. "One of the hardest things is when you can`t play anymore. But I can go up to CU and see some of the best players in the country up close and personal, and also support the young men that attend school here at CU. I`m always very positive with them."
Boyle said Meely emphasized that the majority of CU’s players wouldn’t play at the next level and that they should “take their time on this campus seriously and enjoy it.”
Rodney Billups might have been more well-acquainted with Meely than most of CU’s coaches. Meely steadfastly supported Rodney’s older brother Chauncey – a verifiable contender with Meely for CU’s top all-time player.
Chauncey, said Rodney, “was devastated” Tuesday night when he was informed about Meely’s death. “Cliff always supported Chauncey’s career,” Rodney said. “Every time they saw each other they gave each other a big hug and laughed. He came to all the games, knew everybody by name . . . he was unbelievable.”
Although Meely was from another generation of basketball, Boyle wanted his players to be aware of what Meely meant to CU. He said he believed the current Buffs respected Meely’s accomplishments: “In today’s game, if there’s one thing about the players, it’s incumbent on us as coaches to make sure they respect the history of the game.
“And Cliff Meely was a big part of the game of basketball and certainly Colorado basketball. I don’t know if our players appreciated him as much as I did, or our coaching staff did, and the numbers he put up and the impact he had on this program. But I know true Buff fans, the fans who were around when Cliff played, certainly appreciated him and what he meant to this program.”
Meely, who was born in Rosedale, Miss., was a first-round draftee (No. 7 pick) and played six years in the NBA (Houston, Los Angeles). Life after pro basketball toughened, with a battle against substance abuse presenting a difficult hurdle to overcome.
Meely, said Rodney Billups, “didn’t talk about that to our guys . . . but I’ve heard through different sources that he came through a lot and prevailed.”
And he didn’t try to hide his past. In a 1985 interview with the Post, he said, “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.
“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 college, I felt I had that capability. But circumstances and situations dictated otherwise.”
In that interview, Meely’s genuine love for basketball was evident.
"I never played basketball for money,” he said.
“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.”
Rodney Billups called Meely “the epitome of a Buff for life . . . he brought himself to tears talking about his experience here and how he came here. He said (CU) was a family the day he got here and it’s still a family.”
Today, the family mourns.