Erich Murphy's Sez MEE column
Keon Clark played high school basketball at Danville. He went to junior college, to Division I major university and to the NBA. It was basketball and the fact that the 7-footer could it well that allowed for such a great opportunity.
But what Clark got out of all that was certainly not what one might expect. He didn’t get his high-level college degree. He didn’t have a hall of fame career and he didn’t a place to live the rest of his life on that avenue known as Easy Street.
Nope. Instead, Keon Clark got free housing courtesy of the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Clark spoke to an OK-sized crowd at Pontiac basketball Coach Durrell Robinson’s shootout Saturday. Although the basketball provided entertainment, it was Clark’s straight-forward talk to the people in the stands that could be the highlight.
Robinson introduced his former prep teammate, and Clark pointed out one omission — “I’m a four-time felon.”
“I played it in high school to get a free education,” Clark said of the game that was a blessing and a curse. “That free education lost its importance to me once I gave up on basketball. I went to junior college in Irvine, Calif. The only things I saw were sand and palm trees. I wasn’t worried about school, I wasn’t worried about basketball.
“When I went back to Danville, (the coach) at Danville Area Community College called me and said, ‘Keon, you want to come out and play?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll come out and play, I got no money.’
“I got a call from UNLV — University of Nevada-Las Vegas. They said, ‘Hey, we want you. Are you still playing ball?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I play ball.’ They acted like they wanted to recruit me. I said I ain’t got no money.”
It would seem his height and talent were paving the way to a career that could be bright, except for one thing. He was seeing basketball in a light other than a game.
“I say the NBA chased me because every time I tried to stop playing, basketball brought me back. In Danville, I had hung up my shoes. There was no reason for me to continue to play basketball,” Clark said.
Clark was a lottery pick, going 13th to the Orlando Magic in 1998. He was then traded to the Denver Nuggets, where he started his pro career. He also played for the Toronto Raptors (where he still holds the team record for most blocks in a game at 12 against Atlanta), the Sacramento Kings and the Utah Jazz.
“Every time I step on the floor, I tried to destroy the person in front of me,” he told the audience. “When I got to the NBA, I played everybody I called good in my mind one on one. I recall playing Muggsy Bogues, about 5-foot nothing, one on one. I couldn’t go in the paint, he couldn’t shoot the ball. Muggsy Bogues was one of the best defenders in the world.
“I went to the NBA acting like I was still at the local parks.”
He pointed out that he never pushed himself to be the very best he could when playing basketball was like a job. He did play his best when he was enjoying the game.
“It hurts me to know I miss used my talent physically,” Clark said. “But I know for a fact that this, what I’m doing today, will be the next step in the next part of my life. Everything I have to offer is for everyone here, I just want to help people.”
The biggest benefit Clark received in prison was finding Toastmasters. It has helped him develop into a public speaker.
“When I was in prison, the warden asked me what I’m going to do,” Clark said. “I said I’m ready to talk. He opened up the door to speak within the institutions and the next thing you know, I’m going to different institutions across the state of Illinois.
“They had Toastmasters and that allowed me to hone my speaking skills. It was a blessing in disguise. If I would have stayed in that prison, I wouldn’t know what it is to speak properly.”
His philosophy on life was the focal point of his talk.
“I follow my blueprint and my blueprint is telling me to encourage these kids,” Clark said in an interview after his speech.
“I’ve had too many journeys not to share. I’ve had too many journeys. There’s a special place for people who have experiences and don’t share with the next person. If you have taken it upon yourself to keep what can help another person out, there’s a special place for you. It might not be in Hell, but there’s a special place.”
He didn’t say he was a Christian, but he did admit to being a believer.
“I believe the universe is what Christ is, there’s no part of the universe that He’s not in. I found the universal law to be true that He’s for everybody.”
There was a genuine sparkle in Clark’s eyes when he was speaking to the audience, and some emotion. It was this aspect that might have been captured by those in the audience who can see that it takes more than just being great at something to be successful.
That’s what Keon Clark seemed to get across to the audience, that success is achieved through oneself. He seems to be on that road to achieving his success that is greater than his basketball glory.