Cliff Hagan played for Owensboro one week, UK the next

January 26, 2017 FieldsColumn

Owensboro’s Cliff Hagan grabs a rebound against Lafayette’s Bob Adams in the 1949 state finals. Hagan had 41 points in Owensboro’s 65-47 win over the Generals 65-47. (Louisville Courier-Journal photo)

Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis wrote a column last week stating the case for high school (and prep school) basketball players getting the jump on their college careers by enrolling in college at midseason. It’s hardly a new idea, as Cliff Hagan will attest.

BY MIKE FIELDS

Cliff Hagan made his debut as a University of Kentucky basketball player on this date 67 years ago. On Jan. 26, 1950, Hagan had 9 points in 19 minutes of action as UK’s freshman team beat Xavier’s freshmen 59-46 in Cincinnati.

What’s remarkable about that bit of trivia is that only five days earlier Hagan played his last high school game. On Jan. 21, 1950, he had 27 points to lead defending state champion Owensboro to a 58-39 victory over Manual in Louisville.

Hagan graduated from Owensboro at mid-term and became one of Adolph Rupp’s most prized recruits.

“I realized all at once it was my last high school game, and then went on immediately the next week to Kentucky and started practicing with the freshman team,” Hagan recently recalled.

Cliff Hagan posed for a photo in his UK uniform. Five days earlier he had suited up for Owensboro High School. (Lexington Herald photo)

He had to adjust to a different, stricter coaching style, too, going from Owensboro’s Lawrence McGinnis to UK freshman coach Harry Lancaster. “It was quite a change of personalities,” he said.

Hagan helped UK’s freshman team, which also included Frank Ramsey and Lou Tsioropoulos, go undefeated the rest of the season.

Hagan didn’t become eligible to play for UK’s varsity until January 1951. Rupp was excited about getting Hagan in the lineup, saying the 6-foot-4 sophomore had “the greatest touch and greatest hands of any player I have ever seen.”

Hagan’s varsity debut came on Jan. 27, 1951 against Vanderbilt. He had 13 points off the bench in UK’s 74-49 victory.

The Cats went on to win the NCAA championship that year, and Hagan became a star. He was twice named an All-American. 

Hagan also shone on the pro level. He helped the St. Louis Hawks win the 1958 NBA title, and after 10 years in the NBA (during which he averaged 18 points) he became player-coach for the Dallas Chaparrals of the newly formed ABA.

Hagan was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1978, the first UK player so honored.

Despite all the acclaim and fame he enjoyed at UK and in the pros, Hagan still most cherishes Owensboro’s state high school championship in 1949.

Cliff Hagan’s all-state photo in the Courier-Journal in 1949.

“It ranks at the top,” he said. “I guess because I was young and it was the first huge success that I had. I scored 41 points in the championship game (against Lafayette), which was a record at the time.

“It was singular moment for me because winning the state tournament was so important. It was played in the old Louisville Armory, which seemed huge at the time. I remember seeing pictures of it, and you could hardly see the scoreboard for the smoke in the place.”

After Owensboro beat St. Xavier in the Sweet Sixteen semifinals Saturday afternoon, the Red Devils went back to their hotel to rest up for the finals. Hagan remembers lying on the floor and then getting a cramp in his leg when he tried to get up.

“They lifted me up on my feet, but I was still hurting. I didn’t know if I could play that night. But then when the game started, I felt OK and everything went in the basket.”

Just about everything went in the basket for the rest of Cliff Hagan’s basketball life.