Former NBAer Keon Clark had a promising career infamously railroaded by addiction. The 13th overall selection of the 1998 draft was a lottery pick in the same draft that produced Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, and Antawn Jamison, but Clark’s career only lasted six seasons, split between four teams.
He had early success with the Denver Nuggets and became an integral rotation player for the Toronto Raptors after he was traded to the team during the 2000 season until his departure for free agency in the summer of 2002. As a member of the Raptors he stood out for his shot-blocking and athleticism in the post and averaged 10.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks over 127 games.
In the 2002 playoffs, he started all five games for the Raptors, posting 13.4 points, eight rebounds, and 1.6 blocks in 34.8 minutes per game. Clark holds the franchise record for blocks in a single game with 12.
And he did it all while under the influence of alcohol. In a 2007 court hearing, Clark admitted that he “never played a game sober” and would even drink at halftime during games throughout his career.
In 2013 Clark was sentenced to eight years in prison stemming from a weapons and DUI charge.
This past summer, after serving 50 per cent of his sentence, Clark was paroled. Now 42, he spoke to Chicago’s The News-Gazette about his experience while incarcerated and how it ultimately helped him get his life back on track. “I don’t wish prison on anybody,” he told the News-Gazette. “But I see my time away, my sabbatical, as the education of me. It was time well spent.”
A native of nearby Danville, Ill., Clark has returned to the basketball court and is a fixture at the local YMCA, where the paper’s Noelle McGee caught up with him for an illuminating and incredibly honest interview about his battle with addiction, how he drank to “numb the pain”, and how he plans to use his experience and renewed lease on life to help those around him.
Clark calls the accident that led to his DUI arrest, in which his car flipped over after hitting a telephone pole once he blacked out behind the wheel, the “turning point” of his life:
“I’d had a few accidents that had gotten progressively worse. This one, I totalled a vehicle and walked away with 13 stitches. That was my moment of clarity when I said, ‘I’m going to die if I continue down that path.'”
So while he could have bonded out of the Vermilion County Jail, as he’d always done in the past, he stayed and got sober.
“When I went to prison, alcohol wasn’t on my mind. I was on my mind.”
While incarcerated, Clark vigorously read what he calls “self-opening material” and took up a daily meditation and regular yoga practice that he says helped him centre himself and clear his mind. He also took on a role helping those around him:
When newcomers arrived once each week, Clark gave them information about programs and services they could take advantage of — GED courses and tutoring, Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous groups and worship services, among other things — to prepare them for successful community reintegration.
Clark also developed a passion for public speaking. At [the Jacksonville Correctional Centre, where he spent over one year] two different wardens encouraged him to share his story.
…Clark spoke to inmates in Jacksonville’s drug program and those at other facilities.
“It felt good,” he said. “I was helping others as I was helping myself.”
At [East Moline Correctional Centre, where he spent two years], he joined the Hilltop Toastmasters Club 7889, recognized by the international organization as one of the highest-ranking clubs in the world — there are 16,400 in 141 countries — based on the number of academic awards it has achieved.
Clark researched, wrote and delivered speeches, anywhere from three minutes to 20 minutes long, on race, the Black Lives Matter movement, his life experiences and other topics. His presentations were critiqued by Toastmaster members inside the prison and out in the community, and he earned the Advanced Communicator’s Silver Award for giving more than 20 speeches.
Clark seems to be in a good place following his release, and shared some interesting, heartfelt perspective on his twenty-plus years of alchohol abuse and adjusting to a new chapter in his life. “Plenty of people think they know me and will continue to see me through the pigeonhole they created for me. But nobody truly knows me because I just got an understanding of myself these past four years. All I can be is myself, and I think I’m pretty damn cool.”
The whole story is fascinating and well-worth checking out in full here.