Over the course of his decade-long career as player in the NBA, Clifford Ray earned a reputation for being among league's best defenders, using his exceptionally long arms to block and rebound shots. But it was off the court, one fateful day in 1978, that Ray's 45-inch reach came in handy for a much nobler purpose -- to save a bottlenose dolphin.
Although the tale of his strange dolphin encounter has nearly passed into legend, Ray, a former Golden State Warrior and now an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings, recently sat down with a local news station to set the story straight.
According to Ray, while getting ready to rejoin his team after recovering from a knee injury in the Spring of '78, he got a call from Marine World in nearby Redwood City. As it turns out, one of the park's dolphins, named Dr. Spock, had swallowed a large metal bolt, and vets feared it could do internal damage if left in place. Not wanting to risk surgery, they decided seek out to someone with arms long enough to fish it out -- and naturally, Clifford Ray came to mind.
"It is a very unusual request," Ray recalls the conversation going. "We are asking you to put your hand down a dolphin's throat."
Soon enough, Ray found himself at Marine World, where veterinarians lubricated his arm and instructed him on intricacies of reaching one's hand into a dolphin's stomach(s).
"They explained the breathing capacity of the dolphin, how many minutes I'd actually be able to keep my arm and hand down his throat. They told me what I would experience. They said a dolphin has two stomach -- well, I didn't know that." says Ray. "I got through the first stomach and into the second stomach; and on the first attempt, I actually got the bolt -- a big screw. I got my hand on it."
Since the dolphin was not sedated, vets were initially worried that the NBA player's arm might get bitten. But Ray says the dolphin was calm throughout the procedure and seemed to understand that he was there to help -- a gesture Dr. Spock didn't soon forget.
"Whenever I would go to the park, he would always come up and acknowledge that I was there," says Ray.
Despite his long and successful career in basketball, which includes winning the NBA championship as both a player and a coach, Ray looks back on the experience of saving a dolphin as one of the major highlights of his life.
"I tell people all the time that that was my 15 minutes of fame."