What if Keon Clark never became an alcoholic? It’s a far more serious question than the usual ones Raptors fans have asked themselves over the years.
We’ve contemplated a plethora of what-ifs before, of course, from Vince Carter to Tracy McGrady to Andrea Bargnani to Kawhi Leonard. I could reel off at least 50 more names before getting to Keon Clark. To tie this all together, here’s another name from the what-if factory: Paul Pierce. What if Pierce didn’t block Kyle Lowry’s last-second shot in Game 7 of Brooklyn’s first round series with the Raptors in 2014? And yet, the Clark what-if feels even heavier than that.
Clark moved away from his hometown of Danville, Illinois and played Junior College basketball for a pair of schools in California. With his family on the other side of the country, and being naturally introverted, Clark turned to alcohol and substance abuse... a lot. He was recruited by UNLV and made the All-WAC team in his first season with the school. His senior season was marred with more substance abuse, leading him to be suspended twice. Despite only playing 10 games in his final collegiate season, his UNLV averages (14.8 pts, 9.6 rebs, 3.5 blks) and natural skill provided enough upside for him to be considered a lottery selection.
The Boston Celtics GM at the time, Chris Hammond, was enamored with Clark and had him pegged for the tenth overall selection. However, concerns over his alcohol and marijuana use, as well as questions of his maturity, gave Hammond just enough pause to pass on the lanky 7-footer. Instead, he drafted Pierce!
His Raptors Run
Long before the Raptors pried Masai Ujiri from the Nuggets, one of his predecessors, Glen Grunwald, fleeced the Mile High City. On January 12, 2001, the Raptors traded Kevin Willis, Garth Joseph, Aleksandar Radojevic, and a 2001 second round draft pick (Ousmane Cisse) for Keon Clark, (a reunion with) Tracy Murray, and Mamadou N’Diaye.
Willis was the biggest name involved in the trade but, at 38 years old, not the biggest prize. That title belonged to Clark.
Keon was coming off a breakthrough sophomore season with the Nuggets, ranking in the top-20 in True Shooting and block percentage. After joining the Raptors, he instantly made an impression. Only nine days after the trade, Clark came in off the bench and dropped 23 points, eight rebounds, and four blocks in a huge road victory over the conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers. By season’s end, Clark would finish third in Block percentage and 14th in blocks per game.
If Chris Boucher is Swatterboy, then Clark was Swatterman, the high-energy, shot-blocking, lanky reserve, who energized the crowd and his Raptors teammates all the same. Similar to Slimm Duck, Clark was buried behind veteran big men (Antonio Davis, Charles Oakley, Jerome Williams) and saw very few minutes during Toronto’s epic 2001 playoff run.
Clark’s only full season with the Raptors was another positive one though. He went on to average career-highs in minutes, points, rebounds, steals, and games started. Clark would finish the season in the top-20 in FG%, rebounding and block percentage, and defensive rating. Overshadowing the best season of his career, however, was a season-ending knee injury to Vince Carter. While VC’s absence from the Raptors was a large reason why Clark saw increased usage, the team was doomed to fail without their superstar, eventually falling to the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the 2002 playoffs.
Due to concerns over paying the luxury tax in the summer of 2002, Toronto did not re-sign Clark.
Wikipedia Basketball Reference Fun-Fact Deep-Dive
The Wikipedia page for Keon Clark was filled with not-so-great personal information that will remain in other sections of this post. Let’s stay positive and highlight what made Clark so memorable.
On March 23, 2001, just over two months after being acquired, Clark produced one of the best halves in Raptors franchise history. Midway through the first quarter of a home game vs. Atlanta, Keon checked into the game. Over the remaining 18 minutes of the first half, Keon Clark would amass ten blocked shots! He had five over the remaining six minutes of the first quarter, then another five while playing the entire second quarter.
Clark would go on to swat two more shots in the fourth quarter, setting a franchise record with 12 blocks! It’s a record that still stands and may end up being one that never gets passed (at least not 10 blocks in a single half)!
When you’ve got Kevin Harlan broadcasting, no additional words are required.
“He just sucked the gravity right out of the building!”
Where Are They Now?
Keon’s playing career ended in 2004. From 2006 to 2017, saying Clark went on a downward spiral would be a gross understatement. Here’s an unfortunate recap of his prison sentences:
2008: Six months in prison after driving with a suspended license.
August 2010-January 2012: driving after revocation and driving after suspension convictions.
December 2013-July 2017: DUI and weapons charges.
According to Clark, he was arrested 60 times in his hometown of Danville, Illinois. He (in)famously admitted that he was an alcoholic that “never played a game sober.”
Despite all of the above facts and events, there’s a happier ending (so far) to the life story of Clark. During his last prison sentence, Keon had an awakening of sorts and committed to turning his life around. He started meditating and doing yoga several times a week. Clark also discovered an untapped skill of public speaking. He joined a Toastmasters Club and started speaking out about his battles with alcohol and substance abuse.
Since being released in July 2017, Clark has continued spreading his message and opening up about his past, visiting prisons, basketball camps, and high schools.
Equally important, Clark has remained sober. His play on the court definitely inspired many Raptor fans — myself included. However, it may be his words off the court that ultimately provide an answer to the question of what Keon Clark’s impact would be like without alcohol. His basketball career took a wrong turn, but his life eventully took the right one.