Clarke gives it all he's got
After playing in the Final Four, senior point guard plays through injuries into final A-10 tournament
By Aaron Saykin, The Massachusetts Daily Collegian Staff, 3/3/1999

Have you ever had a broken foot? Or tendinitis in your knee? Had rehabilitative surgery, lately? How about a stress fracture?

Try recovering from only one of them. Just try it. Then try to return to organized basketball, and while you're at it, try having the weight of the entire college hoop world on your shoulders, pressuring you to lead you're team.

Then try to be UMass senior captain Charlton Clarke. But you'll have to try hard, damn hard, because it's just about impossible to do what he has done.

It's also damn unfair, too. Damn unfair to utter a single unkind word about him. In a season that he could have abandoned long ago, the captain decided to stay with his ship. If it sinks, he'll go down with it. But make no mistake about it, Clarke will not go quietly, nor will he let his teammates.

Perhaps you've noticed him with a bit of a limp lately, or perhaps you haven't, since he usually plays through injuries anyway. This limp of his isn't from a sore ankle, or a sprained pinkie toe, or even a shin splint. It's from a stress fracture - a broken bone - in his foot, which prevents him from doing the many things a point guard needs to do.

It also prevents him from playing without pain. Just watch him wince when he steps on it the wrong way. Just watch him grimace as he tries to ignore the pain and drive to the basket for the good of his team. Just watch him.

"No pain. You have to go out there and say no pain," Clarke said. "It's going to hurt after the game. Let it hurt after the game because you're going to have a chance to rest it. Before that, you're playing until the horn goes off and you're winning."

And Clarke refuses to take a seat. Not in his final days as a member of the Maroon and White. The doctors had recommended that he rest. But Clarke said no. With little proven guard depth on the UMass roster, Clarke decided to suck it up, and finish the season on a broken foot. The ironic part is that, despite his pain, he doesn't want the season to end anytime soon. In fact, he wants his team to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament and qualify for the NCAA Big Dance.

"I had nothing to lose when [the stress fracture occurred] with about nine to 10 games left, so I felt I might as well play [on it] until it breaks," Clarke said. "That's the attitude that I had because I wanted to go out and win. I knew I wasn't having the best year, but I made a commitment from the beginning to start it off, and I'm going to finish it."

He is a competitor in every true sense of the word. As a high school star at St. Raymond's in the Bronx, he was one of the most explosive players to emerge from the New York area. As a freshman at UMass, he was the second Minuteman off the bench for John Calipari's Final Four team. The 1995-96 season also marked his first major collegiate bout with an injury - a broken foot.

"I can't use [injuries] as an excuse," Clarke said. "I've still had the opportunity to go out there and play. I'm a little slower than I used to be. I'm more hurt, but I can't use that as an excuse, I'm still out there playing 40 plus minutes. I've just got to make the best of my opportunities."

By his sophomore year, Clarke had become a dangerous scorer in Bruiser Flint's new three-guard offense. When his junior season began, the team was finally his. He had passed his two-year course under the tutelage of former UMass guards Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso.

"They just told me to keep [the spirit] going, play as hard as you can and get [the other] guys fired up," the senior guard said of his predecessors. "[They told me to] go out there and be a leader, and do the things we used to do. Just carry it over and make sure these guys understand that."

And this season has become Clarke's opportunity to pass his knowledge on to the younger members of the back court. But he's still stubborn, and isn't quite ready to pass the proverbial torch until his playing days are finally over. But that doesn't mean he hasn't taken a stab at coaching during practice - at least not one large enough to completely disrupt Flint.

"I'll leave that up to Bruiser. It's something I'll probably think about doing later down the line," said Clarke, who speculated on a future coaching career. "For now, I feel like I've got a lot of basketball left. I still want to play. When I feel like it's time for me to give it up, then I'll probably get into coaching, and [Bruiser] will probably be the first person I turn to to help me out. I'll probably come back and stay local."

Some people also like to compare Clarke to Flint. Both have a similar charisma for dealing with the media, both smile as if they're biting their tongues, and both aren't afraid to point out instances in which the team captain, Clarke, doesn't play well.

"Some people say we look alike, some people say we smile alike," Clarke said. "A lot of people say everything. I don't know, but he's a great guy and I love him a lot."

It's true. Clarke does love his coach very much. He loves the fact that he is given the opportunity to lead his team. He loves the fact that he's allowed to serve as a spokesperson of sorts. But he really loves the idea that Flint holds a high degree of respect for him - respect which allows Clarke to make his own decision on how he wants to end his collegiate career.

But try competing in a Final Four your freshman season. Then try becoming you team's most clutch player by your junior year. Then try breaking your foot before the final stretch of your senior season.

And if you'd like, try watching your final games for UMass from the bench.

Charlton Clarke thought about trying that last one... and then he reconsidered when he found out just how much he actually resembles a coach.

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