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Mind in prison

Today, after years of personal and legal trouble, he is in jail, accused of car theft. His family says a mental disorder has put his ...

By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 20, 2001


BRADENTON -- His cell at the Manatee County central jail is depressingly bare and dark, its walls chipped and dirty, and the air stale and damp. It is perhaps not unlike the prison that resides inside Clifford Rozier's head.

Rozier, a former Bradenton Southeast High basketball star, has been incarcerated since May 2 after he was arrested and charged with grand theft auto. He has been imprisoned much longer, family and friends say, by a mental disorder that ruined his NBA career and plunged him into depression and isolation.

In recent years, Rozier, 28, has been cut from the NBA, arrested five times, filed for bankruptcy and withdrawn from many of his friends and family members, who blame a chemical imbalance in Rozier's brain.

He remains locked up while awaiting his Oct. 22 trial because "we don't want him to disappear again," his mother, Diane, said.

"It's really sad," said Colorado assistant basketball coach Larry Gay, an assistant at Louisville when Rozier played there for two seasons after leaving North Carolina. "I want to reach out, and I think people should reach out to Cliff because he was a good guy and a good teammate. I would love to help Cliff if I can because I think that much of him."

A 1994 first-round draft pick of the Golden State Warriors, the 6-foot-11 Rozier lasted a few seasons in the NBA, with Golden State, Orlando, Toronto and Minnesota, which cut him in 1997.

He finished the 1997-98 season playing in the now-defunct CBA, then returned to Manatee County, where he played for the now-relocated Bradenton SunDogs of the United States Basketball League for one season, 1999.

To everyone who welcomed him home, "Bug" looked like the same imposing but likable ballplayer who left this coastal town as a prep star. But he didn't act the same, friends and family say.

He got married but became depressed and withdrawn, shunning many people he had been close to. He distanced himself from his wife early into their marriage, which ended in divorce last year.

Some days he would disappear, wandering off without telling anyone. Other days he would build a wall around himself, keeping everyone at a distance.

After a lot of convincing, Rozier's family got him to seek professional help. Doctors determined he had a chemical imbalance in his brain.

With treatment and medication, they said, he would be fine. But Rozier didn't stick with it, eventually refusing further help.

His ex-wife, Trina, had him committed at various times to a psychiatric care facility under Florida's Baker Act, but Rozier always left after a few days.

"He's way out there," Diane Rozier said of the older of her sons. "You get nothing. Just silence. Or he's talking five different conversations at one time. About people. And stuff.

"Sometimes I'm unrecognizable. He doesn't know me. He's so way out there he doesn't know anybody. It's like an autistic person. They are in their own world on the inside. Their body is there, but you're shut out."

Dr. Martha Brown, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of South Florida, said one in five Americans is afflicted with a chemical imbalance, which typically induces depression. The imbalance is often triggered by a "major depressive episode," such as a friend's death or by abusing alcohol and drugs, Brown said.

"Sometimes we never can find a trigger," she said. "It just happens to people."

Family and friends say Rozier does not have a drug or alcohol problem. Under advice from his court-appointed attorneys, Rozier hasn't talked to reporters.

Court records show he has had a few brushes with the law in the past few years, for bounced checks, retail theft and a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery stemming from an argument with his mother (the charge (later was dropped).

Rozier is in jail because he is accused of stealing a Manatee County sheriff deputy's personal car March 28. He was on the run for about a month before police apprehended him in Orlando.

"The hardest days I ever had was those 35 days that I didn't know where he was at," his mother said.

In July 1999, Rozier, who reportedly once had a $4-million contract with the Warriors, filed for bankruptcy, claiming $255,208 in liabilities and $35,550 in assets, which included $50 in cash and $500 in clothing, according to court documents.

His liabilities included $16,727 in credit card debt, $10,105 in sports agent fees and $7,875 in child support to three women, including his ex-wife. He had three vehicles repossessed, including a 1997 Mercedes-Benz S500V.

He has had little income since his NBA days except disability payments from the NBA and the government. He tried finding work through temp agencies, but his mental condition hasn't allowed him to stay employed for more than a few days, friends and family say.

Brown, the USF professor, said people who are depressed sometimes have difficulty supporting themselves after a major episode.

"If I've had a major depressive episode, I may not get out of bed for weeks at a time," Brown said. "I really can become quite disheveled and not take care of anything."

Rozier's behavior has caught many people by surprise. Officials at Bradenton Southeast and Louisville said Rozier never seemed depressed or irresponsible. At Louisville, where he was a consensus All-American and averaged 18.1 points and 11.1 rebounds as a junior, Rozier was described as outgoing and personable, a favorite among the media, which found him easily quotable.

There were questions about his work ethic, but "there was nothing in the past that I ever saw that would lead me to believe that his life would end up this way," Gay said.

Back then, Rozier was all basketball. With an eye-popping combination of quickness and muscle in high school, he had few equals in the Tampa Bay area and beyond, dominating the voting for Florida's Mr. Basketball award in 1990 as a senior. That year, he averaged 34.5 points and was a prep All-American.

In college, he was part of North Carolina's Final Four run as a freshman and was the Metro Conference player of the year his sophomore and junior seasons at Louisville, which hasn't had a first-team All-American since Rozier.

But Rozier didn't appear to be the same well-adjusted person in the NBA, his agent and family said. Rozier never really fit in with the Warriors, who made him the 16th overall pick. He averaged six points and 7.4 rebounds as a rookie, but he didn't mesh with teammates or management, which traded him in 1996 one game into his third season.

Los Angeles-based agent Fred Slaughter said Rozier had credit problems when he retained him before the 1997-98 season, and he noticed Rozier seemed peculiar at times. Slaughter said he urged Rozier to hire a financial adviser, but Rozier opted to handle his money with help from his mother.

"He was a very different kind of guy," Slaughter said. "He just acted differently."

Slaughter said he shopped Rozier around the NBA during the summer of 1997, but the Timberwolves were the only team that wanted him. And they weren't eager to get him, rejecting anything beyond the one-year guaranteed deal Rozier eventually signed, Slaughter said.

"He had some sort of checkered background where people wanted to make sure about him before they invested oodles and oodles of money for a long period of time," said Slaughter, listed as one of Rozier's creditors in his bankruptcy case. "People seemed to question where he was coming from. Like I said, he was viewed as a different kind of person."

Rozier played in six games with the Timberwolves before being released.

Diane Rozier thinks her son became sick just before then. She remembers hearing about Rozier getting into a "violent argument" with a coach while playing for Toronto and getting into a fight (she thinks it was with then-Cleveland center Vitaly Potapenko) while playing for Minnesota.

"They told me he would be on one end of the court while they'd be having a team meeting (at the other end)," she said. "I said that's not him. There's something going on there."

These days, Rozier's friends and family struggle to be a part of his life, determined to help him but not sure how. They don't excuse the problems he has created; they try to explain them.

They say he is not the menace he appears to be. And, they say, he doesn't deserve to be made the butt of jokes that have made the rounds of local radio stations and office water coolers.

They talk about a Clifford Rozier who was always above everyone in height but never acted like it. They talk about a Rozier who regularly donated money to charities and who generously helped friends, family members and sometimes strangers in financial need.

"Now, when he needs a friend more than ever, no one wants to step up and say Cliff is a good guy," said Raymond Woodie, the football coach at Bradenton Bayshore High, who grew up with Rozier and played alongside him in middle school and high school. "The same people who are spreading negative things about him are the same ones who had their hands out asking for money when he was in the NBA."

Diane Rozier said her son's tribulations have changed how she views the world.

"It makes you go home and appreciate your wife or your children or your mother," she said. "There are a lot of street people you see and you think they are doing this because they are on drugs or because they're losers. These are not losers. These are people who have problems. A lot them are educated people. But they have just fallen along the way through illness."

Rozier's attorneys likely will ask for a competency hearing. If Rozier is deemed incompetent to answer the charge, he will be treated until the courts deem him competent. That could take months, maybe years, meaning his basketball career is likely over.

Not that it matters to Rozier's friends and family. They simply want him free again. Free from the county jail. And free from the emotional chains shackled to his mind.

"I know I'm going to see my son one day. He's going to come back, not only to me, but he's going to come back to what he was and who he is," Diane Rozier said. "I want to see my son walk through the door and say, "Hey, Mom, cook me something.' Not this person in total silence."

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