Cliff Levingston Embraces Community as BobKats Head Coach
Photographer / Justin Sicking
Cliff Levingston has many fond memories from his time on the court as an NBA star, having played for the Detroit Pistons, the Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls among others. He recalls his second year in the league when, in 1983, his Pistons team faced off against the Denver Nuggets – a game that went into three overtimes and still holds the record for the most points ever scored in an NBA game: 186 to 184.
“We ended up winning by one bucket – I fouled out with two points so I like to say I’m the reason we won that game,” Levingston says with a chuckle.
Prior to his first championship game with the Chicago Bulls in 1991, Levingston recalls his nerves kicking into high gear.
“That morning I threw up,” he says. “Then I got to the arena and threw up again. But the moment I stepped inside the arena, the hairs on my neck stood up. It was an electrifying moment.”
The high-octane anxiety was all about unknown anticipations.
“We didn’t know what to expect because none of us had gotten that far before,” Levingston says.
After losing in overtime to the Lakers, Levingston recalls trying to give his fellow teammates a pep talk.
“I said, ‘Fellas, we OK. We played a good game and still have a chance to win it. Let’s sweep them,’” he says. “Michael [Jordan] walked up to me and said, ‘You need to win the first game to sweep them.’”
The Bulls did the next best thing by claiming victory in the following four games, making them NBA champions in 1991. The following year, the vibe was different. Queasy stomachs and apprehension were replaced by intense hunger and a definitive mission.
“[In 1992] it was never about losing,” Levingston says. “It was about how bad we were going to beat the other team.”
Despite a crushing finals loss in Portland, Jordan told his team, “Don’t worry. When we get home, we got this.” Lo and behold, he was on fire, hitting three pointer after three pointer in game six to clinch back-to-back NBA championships.
“Michael was a teacher,” Levingston says. “He taught guys how to maximize their talent with less effort and more skill. Sometimes people called Michael a selfish ball hog, but he was the exact opposite of that.”
Levingston knows that in order to win, one must surround themselves with talent. He likens the game to an operating room or an assembly line.
“A doctor is only as good as the nurses around him,” he says. “An assembly line is only as good as the person in front of you who makes your job easier. If everyone does their job right, we all get the glory.”
It’s what he preaches now as a coach. He began his coaching career in 2000 and through the past two decades has coached a number of teams. From 2003 to 2004, he coached the Harlem Globetrotters. Though it was fun, he compares it to the Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day.”
“You wake up in a different city every day, but it’s literally the same thing over and over and over,” Levingston says.
He also coached a minor-league team in Dodge City, Kansas, where they won three championships in seven years. In March of 2021 Levingston became head coach of the Kokomo BobKats. He loves the community aspect of the program.
“Going to a city, playing, and going home does a disservice as far as learning people skills and being involved in something that connects all people,” Levingston says. “If you’re not involved in the community, understanding the heartbeat of the community, it’s not going to work.”
The team practices from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday so that they have time to make appearances at area schools, nursing homes, grand openings and community events during the day.
“If anyone wants to see the BobKats, we will make it happen,” Levingston says. “What I love about Kokomo is how the community is behind the team. The mayor is supportive, and the players are all involved in the community. That’s a winning recipe for success.”
Levingston’s favorite aspect of coaching is helping these young men obtain their dreams of playing pro ball.
“These guys come in with a twinkle in their eye,” he says. “They know they want to play basketball, but they don’t know how to get to where they want to go. Getting them to understand what it takes to be a professional athlete – what you have to do to get there, the kind of dedication you have to have – and to see that twinkle become a steady flame, that’s my reward.”
Levingston and his wife Valerie have four children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild. The couple lives on a farm in Michigan City, and started a community-oriented foundation called Legends Leaving Legacies that helps other nonprofits get notoriety so that they can raise money. In his free time, Levingston participates in a lot of celebrity golf outings.
“I’m not good, but my team and I are always the clowns of the golf course,” he says. “These outings take four to five hours, so we have fun.”
Levingston feels the pandemic has made many people realize they should slow down and enjoy life.
“Everyone has been locked up for so long and they want to get out, laugh and enjoy themselves,” he says. “We want our team to bring smiles to the community.”
For more on the Kokomo BobKats, visit kokomobobkats.com.