Former NBA player Clifford Rozier- Super Sad Story
Lightning cracked near the rooftop as a talking black snake with hypnotic green eyes implored him to jump.
The snake claimed to be God and promised he would fly.
Clifford Rozier, standing two stories high, screamed through the darkness in a desperate rage.
How did he get here?
He was once the best high school basketball player in Florida, an All-American in college, a first-round draft pick in the NBA.
Then the voices started.
Now he was a man on top of an apartment building, his mind tormented by a snake speaking as God, yet wishing for death.
Satan cackled and slithered away.
THE ONLY NBA player from Manatee County once lived in a $1.2 million home near a canyon in northern California.
It had six bedrooms, a guest house by the pool, a Mercedes in the driveway and a closet full of thousand-dollar suits and snakeskin shoes.
The Southeast High grad was 23 and making so much money he would hand out $100 bills to needy strangers on the street.
Rozier is 37 now, essentially broke and on heavy medication for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
He is a recovering crack addict who spent five years wandering the streets, sometimes carrying a pistol, often hearing voices. Voices telling him to jump in front of cars, confront police so they would shoot him, or jump from a building to see if he could fly.
After spending time in jail cells and psychiatric wards, Rozier lives in a Bradenton halfway house with nine other men. He likes it there, likes the structure and familial feeling the house provides.
"Ain't nobody heard from me in almost 10 years," Rozier says as he sits on the cement porch, smoking a cigarette. "I don't go nowhere. I keep to myself. I want to stay here."
At 6 foot 11 inches tall and 300 pounds, Rozier is an imposing figure. His job at the halfway house is to provide security. He is the only resident with his own bedroom. It has an air-conditioning unit, a lock on the door, a DVD player and an extra-large bed from Bill's Discount Center.
On a small dresser is a report card from one of his five children. They range from an 18-year-old son to 11-year-old twin girls.
Rozier takes six pills a day and gets two shots a week for his mental illness. For two years, counselors came to his house and placed the pills inside his mouth.
Rozier is drug tested three times a week and has never tested positive, says Craig Smith, president of the program that runs the halfway house.
There are no reminders of Rozier's stardom. There used to be a photo of Rozier dunking on NBA hall of famer Charles Barkley but he gave it away. Rozier lived that life once, but that was ages ago.
Why keep living it?
HE DOES NOT remember what he got into trouble for, but it was a turning point in his life.
Rozier was in eighth grade at Bradenton Middle School and he could not wait to play in the annual game against the teachers.
He lived in Palmetto the first 10 years of his life and learned early he had basketball skills. He spent hours working on his bank shot from 10 feet, the shot of his favorite player, Julius Erving.
The family eventually moved to Bradenton, off 15th Street. "The lights stayed off," recalls Rozier. "We didn't have any food. The water was always messed up."
He was 5-foot-10 in the eighth grade but there was no organized team to play on, which is why the game against the teachers was so important.
"I got a (reprimand) and I couldn't play against the teachers and it snatched my heart out," Rozier says. "The whole school was watching.
"And I said, 'You know what? They're going to pay for this in high school.'"
He was 6-foot when he played for Southeast High's JV team as a freshman. He grew 6 inches over the summer and made the varsity as sophomore.
In high school, Rozier would go with his mother at 4 a.m. and clean offices. After school it was team practice for two hours.
"When I'd get home I'd play six or seven hours on my goal, by myself, shooting, with my music on," Rozier says. "They had to call me in from the basketball court at night and tell me to go to bed. I loved the game like that."
By his junior year his legend was growing.
Longtime friend Terry Green remembers an argument between Rozier and a teammate over a seat on the team bus before an away game. Rozier was so mad he did not talk to anyone the rest of the night. Rozier took it out on the other team, scoring 49.
"To me that game let me know that this guy was special," says Green, "that this guy was the best junior in the state of Florida that year. He might have been the best player, period."
As a senior in 1990 Rozier was remarkable, averaging 35 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots a game. He was named Florida's Mr. Basketball and a McDonald's All-American.
"His senior year of high school he might have been the best player in the country," says Bob Carroll, his coach at Southeast. "His mind was always working. He was always planning and setting goals. He didn't just talk about it like some kids do. He made himself the basketball player he was in high school."
It was not uncommon for Rozier to go home after a game and work on the shots he missed, even if his team had won.
"There was no better feeling than showing up in Southeast's gym and everybody's jammed-packed, standing around the place, cameras everywhere, screaming and hollering," Rozier says.
Rozier would go on to play in the NCAA Final Four and in the NBA.
Which was better?
"Basketball-wise," he says, "it was high school."
THERE WAS A green Ford LTD parked in the driveway on the day Dean Smith visited Rozier's house.
Once the legendary North Carolina coach saw the muffler hanging down he knew he had the right player.
"I like the fact you have this raggedy car," Smith told Rozier. "It's going to push you."
Rozier was part of a 1990-91 recruiting class so good Sports Illustrated wanted to put the players on its cover. Smith would not allow it.
The greatest class in college history at the time -- Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps, Brian Reese, Pat Sullivan and Rozier -- would eventually win a national title. Just not with Rozier.
Though he played in the Final Four his freshman year, Rozier transferred to Louisville after the season. He was unhappy with his playing time.
As a sophomore, he was named the best player in the Metro Conference. The following season he averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds a game and was a first-team All-America selection.
"He was probably the best rebounder I ever had," says Denny Crum, who won two national championships during his 30 years as Louisville coach.
Crum says he never had a problem with Rozier, although in later years his mother would call seeking advice on Rozier's drug problem.
"I told her I wished I could snap my fingers and come up with an answer but she needed to find him professional help," Crum says.
SCHIZOPHRENIA IS a complex illness that affects more than 2 million people in the United States. A counselor at Manatee Glens mental health center in Bradenton says one of five patients being treated there suffers from it.
Schizophrenia generally appears in early adulthood. Theories about possible causes abound: genetics, brain chemistry, brain abnormalities and complications at birth.
There is no cure, though with proper medication and support, people can live meaningful lives.
Schizophrenics may suffer from delusions, or a false idea of themselves. Or they may have hallucinations. They may see, hear, feel, touch or taste something that is not there.
"Hallucinations are very common and usually they are voices tormenting, persecuting or commanding," says Dr. Andrew Cutler of Bradenton. "One guy said if someone looked at him the wrong way, he had a voice that said, 'Kill them before they kill you.'"
Not all hallucinations are the same. Every one is "highly personal" and usually has some meaning or connection to something in that person's life, Cutler says.
The snakes Rozier kept seeing represented evil, and perhaps appeared in his head because of an event in Rozier's past, Cutler says.
"The battle between good and evil is very common," Cutler says. "I almost always look for them or assume they're there. God vs. the Devil. Good vs. Evil. There's often a war going on."
Rozier says he started hearing voices in his early 20s. In those early years, basketball was his sanctuary -- once on the court he was free. But by the time he was 25, the voices inside his head were so relentless, so driving, that he stopped loving the game.
"I was like, 'How can you just be 25 years old and then you start hearing people talking to you in your head?'" Rozier says.
Rozier says he made $5 million in his career, and about half went to taxes. He gave away much of the rest, including donating $500,000 to his mother's church and buying her a $500,000 house.
That is typical for people struggling with bipolar disorder, says Melissa Larkin-Skinner, a licensed mental health counselor at Manatee Glens.
"When people are manic they have a tendency to think they are invincible and they have all the money in the world at their disposal and there's more where that came from," Larkin-Skinner says.
Another trait is a lack of pleasure or joy. Schizophrenics may exhibit a cold, bland stare.
"Think about it," Larkin-Skinner says. "If you got no joy from anything every day of your life, what reason would you have to go on?
Though Cutler has not treated Rozier, he says he has talked with him on several occasions at Manatee Glens. Rozier was always engaging and bright, he says.
"It's a horrifically sad story," Cutler says. "Here's a guy who literally made millions of dollars and you can't imagine the horrors he probably experienced."
IN 1994, ROZIER was chosen by Golden State as the 16th overall pick in the NBA draft.
He bought $250,000 worth of clothes and a $100,000 Mercedes. Rozier would pull his new car into the parking lot before games and step out wearing a $3,000 suit and $700 shoes, size 17.
His rookie season was his best -- he averaged 6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 22.6 minutes per game.
The following year he struggled and his playing time waned. One game into his third season, Rozier was traded to Orlando.
The lack of playing time at Golden State hurt Rozier, but he suffered in silence.
"Cliff kept a lot of stuff inside," says Green, the childhood friend who lived with Rozier his second year at Golden State.
"If he had a problem with coaches, he wouldn't say. He would just show it. They might be practicing over here, and he might walk down to the other end of the court."
He was cut by Orlando. Minnesota signed him in 1997, but released him after six games. Two years later, after brief stints with semi-pro teams, including a couple of games with the Bradenton Sun Dogs, his basketball career was over.
"It's extremely sad," says Chris Ward, a former high school teammate. "You're talking about a kid who should be playing right now. He should have had a 15-to-20-year stint in the NBA. He was good. I mean really good."
No one knows if failure as a pro contributed to Rozier's mental condition or drug use, but everyone agrees it stung.
"I knew how badly he wanted to play and be successful in the NBA, but it got to a point where it was not going happen and it was hard to face," says Carroll, his coach at Southeast High.
HE WALKED INTO the locker room that night with great trepidation. How would they react? Would they shun him? Would they tease him? Would they judge him?
A team from New York was taking on Rozier's former teammates from Southeast High for a charity game at the Manatee Civic Center.
Rozier turned down the invitation to play months earlier, but surprised everyone when he walked into the locker room unannounced.
"You going to play?" someone asked excitedly.
"Yeah, I'm playing, I'm playing."
By then, early in 2002, everyone had heard the whispers: Clifford was on drugs. He was homeless. He was hearing voices.
It was not hard to spot Rozier on the street. He was a 6-foot-11 man in a basketball jersey who would walk miles a day in search of drugs.
He lived in the woods and got money where he could. He had a string of run-ins with the law, including one arrest on charges he assaulted his mother.
There are some things Rozier saw on the street that were so bad he will not talk about them.
Sometimes he would stop by Green's barbershop in Palmetto. He never really looked unkempt but he always looked tired, Green says.
Rozier would make jokes like when they were 10 years old and hanging out at the Bradenton Boys Club.
"He used to tell me, 'Green, it's OK. Don't worry about me,'" Green says.
"It used to hurt me. This was my friend and I can't do anything to help him."
That is why Green was so happy to see Rozier at the charity game.
Rozier squeezed his 300-pound frame into the only extra uniform. His shorts were "stripper tight" and the jersey looked like his "little brother's shirt," says Ward, his former teammate.
When he walked onto the court, some in the crowd pointed and laughed, but Rozier quickly quieted them.
"He threw some no-look passes like he still had it," Green says.
"It was vintage Cliff," Ward says. "The footwork, the moves, everything. It was like he hadn't lost a step."
But he had and he knew it. When the team returned to the court after halftime Rozier remained behind. He had peeled off his tight blue uniform, left it on the floor and slipped out of the arena in search of something else that could quell the voices inside his head.
DEATH BECOMES irrelevant. You just want the voices to stop. Please make them stop.
And so the next thing you know, you are on the roof of an apartment building in Bradenton, two stories up, lightning flashing, and you decide to jump.
But you do not fly. You land on your feet, unhurt, alive.
This is what schizophrenia is like.
"The thing in my head was, 'I don't like looking at snakes telling me they're God,'" Rozier says. "I didn't like snakes talking to me like that. I started seeing snakes everywhere. They were all around me.
"They would say, 'I bet you won't run out in front of that car. Don't worry about it. God will save you.'
"And I'm like, 'Why do I have to run out in front of a car because you said God will save me?'
"And I'm just having questions and battles with this person on ways to kill me.'"
After that night, Rozier said he immersed himself in the Bible, reading it back and forth.
The Bible, and the medication he would later receive, helped him out of a place so dark he once did not even recognize his own mother, best friend and high school coach.
The voices subsided, and he no longer hears them, he says.
In 2006 Rozier was arrested on an assault charge and ordered into a lockdown mental health facility.
A year later, he moved to the halfway house where he lives today. Though he is free to leave following an April court hearing, he is welcome as long as he pays the $540 monthly rent. Unable to work, he relies on Social Security and disability payments.
Even when Rozier was completely lost and on the streets panhandling for drugs, he told others that his former lifestyle was meaningless to him. It was gone. He had already lived it.
He says the same today.
"If you ever got $5 million you'd enjoy yourself," Rozier says. "I did. I lived the life. I had the cars. I had a wife. I have children. I went out and shopped. I did everything that I wanted to do in my life.
"And right now, I am happy with what I'm doing."
Rozier says he is happier now than in the NBA.
"You talk about the NBA, but you forget one thing," he says. "I worked to get there. Nobody just put me there and said, 'Hey you're in the NBA now and I think you owe me one.'
"There's nothing you can take from me. Whatever happens in my life, I'm content.
"I'm happy. I have joy. I have understanding. I have knowledge. I'm learning. I'm becoming friendly. I'm submitting myself and being subdued. I'm being humbled."
The person who once played in the Final Four and guarded Michael Jordan in the NBA is content sipping soda on his porch and going to bed each night at 8 p.m.
"You know something," he says, "I ain't never looking back at the turmoil and chaos behind me because right now I'm looking at paradise."
damn man, that is sad, and realy scary at the same time
I hate that this happened, but I'm glad this story was written. Mental illness is a problem that can affect people regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic status and is still one of the most misunderstood problems facing our world today. Hopefully some understanding can come from something like this. I've been around the mentally ill and they are mostly good people who just have some problems functioning. Great post.