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Cliff Anderson, St. Joseph’s University basketball legend, dies at 76

He remains the all-time leading St. Joseph's rebounder and top scorer over a three-year career.

Mr. Anderson (right) with the late former Hawks coach Jack Ramsay.
Mr. Anderson (right) with the late former Hawks coach Jack Ramsay.Read moreCourtesy of St. Joseph's athletics

Any conversations with longtime Big 5 basketball fans talking about the best player at a particular school, there was always a name you heard associated with St. Joseph’s University. The same name. Cliff Anderson.

Eventually Jameer Nelson came along to join the discussion, and there were several others who had a case, but Mr. Anderson’s name never left the pantheon of Big 5 greats.

Mr. Anderson, 76, died Monday of respiratory failure. His hoops legacy borders on staggering, starting with being the all-time Hawks rebounder, averaging 14.6 a game over three seasons from 1964-67. For a 6-foot-4 forward, those numbers gain greater resonance.

“He would shoot the ball from the outside with the idea he would beat the ball to the basket and lay the ball back in,” said former Hawks teammate Bill McFadden, who believes Mr. Anderson was probably the best ever in the Big 5 at that skill.

His rebounds led to a lot of points. Mr. Anderson averaged more than 20 points a game for his career, and 26.5 points a game as a senior. Mr. Anderson led St. Joe’s in scoring and rebounding all three of his seasons, powering the Hawks to two NCAA appearances, after two MAC titles and two Big 5 titles. He still is the school’s all-time leading scorer over three seasons, with 1,728 points.

His unique skill, said former teammate Matt Guokas, was playing as if he was five inches taller than he was.

“He was skilled around the basket,” Guokas said. “Catching tough passes, finishing in traffic, drawing fouls, lots of them. Great rebounder at both ends.”

Also, Guokas said, “He had that special intangible of giving us confidence that he was going to be there and leave it all out there every game. The signs of a great player: Make the game easier for your teammates, and make them better. That was Clifford Anderson.”

Mr. Anderson was not the first Black basketball player at St. Joe’s, but, according to former athletic director Don DiJulia, he was in the second class that included Black players.

“He was truly the first great Black athlete at St. Joe’s,” said another teammate, Bill Oakes, who compared Mr. Anderson to Moses Malone in possessing a special skill. “He would shoot the ball and know where he missed and get the rebound to put it back in.”

“In his junior year, he had 26 points and 24 rebounds against Temple,” said teammate Steve Donches. “But that wasn’t his best. In our senior year against La Salle, he had 32 points and 32 rebounds. I assume that record still stands.”

Mr. Anderson had been a Philadelphia high school star at Edison High.

“The high school coach there called Jack Ramsay, ‘I’ve got this guy who is being overlooked,’ ” said DiJulia, another former teammate of Mr. Anderson. “They met, and he became the stalwart. Winning was the only thing with him.”

DiJulia said he later thought about how much of a trailblazer Mr. Anderson was, “I guess, at age 20, who talks about serious things? We see that more with our kids. But at the time, no.”

DiJulia points out that St. Joe’s was the last Big 5 team to integrate, then, he believes, within 10 years became the first Big 5 team to start five Black players.

Mr. Anderson was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pipers in the 1967 ABA draft and went on to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Rockets of the ABA, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the 76ers, all over four seasons, always in a bench role.

Whenever his alma mater called Mr. Anderson for a gathering, DiJulia said, he was there. He wasn’t the type who needed to tell everyone what he had done on the court.

His post-basketball career was as a probation officer in the Philadelphia court system.

Mr. Anderson is survived by his daughter, Carla Anderson; ex-wife, Jeanne Williams; brother Clifton Hassan Anderson; sisters Cleopatra Anderson Wright and Cleora Anderson Levetter; and other relatives. Sisters Carmen Anderson and Anna Anderson died earlier.

Burial will be private, but plans for a memorial service are to be announced. There will be talk about rebounds, and how they impacted Hawk Hill.