Duquesne's resurgence keyed by maturation of senior star Clark (cont.)
The next year he moved across the country to spend his senior year at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, where his cellular service was so spotty he swiped phones from sleeping teammates to call home. After that came a post-grad prep year at Worcester (Mass.) Academy, where he became so close with a friend's family, who treated this tattooed kid from California like their own son, that he thought it was only fair they know his story. He began to slowly let his past unfold -- his father's incarceration, how he never knew the man, the struggles of his mother -- but as he watched the tears stream down his friend's cheeks, he resolved not to tell the story again. "For what?" he asked now. "I wouldn't want people to feel bad for me. I didn't do that. It doesn't affect me at all."
Clark has heard from his father just twice over the years -- two isolated connections prompted by RhyAnne reaching out for answers when she got to college and her brother was at prep school. The last time was a brief phone call, which caught Bill by surprise on the way home from a coffee shop and found him with little to offer in the way of conversation. The other was in the form of a 16-page letter. In it was a tracing of his father's hand, a mark against which Bill could measure himself. "I put my hand to it," he said, "and it was just as big as his."
When he arrived in Pittsburgh in the fall of '07, Clark was an immediate contributor, starting nine games and averaging 8.3 points. But away from the court he kept habits picked up on lonely prep school campuses, eating meals alone and eschewing team outings in favor of watching DVDs in his dorm room. His stats steadily improved, but Clark never fully integrated with his teammates, even clashing with them at times -- another factor that led to Everhart suspending Clark last spring.
That was when the change started. Clark got the message, owning up to his transgressions with his coach and family and smoothing things over with his teammates. The Dukes voted to reinstate their co-captain and Everhart, enlightened by conversation with Rhonda and impressed by Clark's new attitude, did so. Now Clark calls the suspension "one of the best things that ever happened to me."
He immediately validated his teammates' faith in him. Even while juggling an 18-credit course load that enabled him to graduate last summer (he has, fittingly, started a graduate program in sports leadership this year), Clark stayed late at offseason workouts to see teammates finish their reps and set the pace by finishing first in conditioning drills. Once-rare social outings with teammates have become the norm. "This year he makes it his business to say, 'What are you guys doing?' " junior B.J. Monteiro said. Now Clark takes teammates to his favorite local food joint, The Chinatown Inn, so often that when he walks in with McConnell, they're greeted with a question: "The usual?"
Where Clark would once duck blame for blown assignments or misplays in practice, this season Everhart has seen him accept responsibility even for miscues made by others. When McConnell has an off night, Clark and Saunders pick him up with tales of their own rookie struggles. "Now Bill Clark is the coach in that locker room," Everhart said. "He's accountable, they're accountable, and we're accountable to each other."
"If you're having a bad day, Bill's that guy that will charm you up and make you forget about your problems," Saunders said. "If you're not going as hard as he is, you're gonna hear a mouthful about it. Guys like that are the guys you need."
It's the first Tuesday in February, a day after Clark paid thanks in Everhart's office, and the Dukes are lined up in two rows on the floor of the Palumbo Center, one sitting and one standing, as they prepare to take a team photo. The timing was never right before; first the jerseys arrived late, and once the season got underway there was never a time when all the players and staff were on campus at the same time. But now they are camera-ready and Clark is seated front and center with ball in hand.
The next night he will post a double-double -- the fourth of his five this season -- in a double-digit win over George Washington. He will do it while absorbing hard fouls, elbows, sudden collisions he never saw coming, and after the game his teammates and coaches will marvel at his restraint and Clark's left brow will be swollen like a prize fighter's. Across the country, a mother and sister will watch the action on computer screens, noticing how he walks away from the paint when a defender plants an elbow in his ribs, seeing him beam with delight after a key three-pointer. They know he's anxious to earn a pro contract somewhere and provide for his family in a way his father never did, but they keep reminding him to focus on enjoying his final collegiate season.
"We're statistics," said RhyAnne, who is working on her honors thesis at UC-San Diego. "The state, the government, whoever you want to call it -- they expect us to fail. He's already proven everybody wrong." RhyAnne runs her brother's name through search engines every week, and when she finds stories about his leadership and his positive impact on the Dukes, she sends them to her mother. "Mom, this is a big deal," she tells her. "You've done your job."
But now Clark is sitting for the team photo, Dukes all around, as two athletic department employees walk past and stop to look on. Clark is hamming it up, squeezing the ball between his legs, going through a series of poses, ignoring pleas to cooperate for the photographer. One of the staffers lets out a laugh and shakes her head. "Oh, look at Billy," she says, and the man next to her grins. "Look at Billy Clark smile."
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