One step at a time: Crisshawn Clark's journey back on the court
Crisshawn Clark sees the play start to break down. He immediately calls for the ball. He takes two dribbles in from the left wing, one step back. He takes the shot.
“The shot going in was the big part for me,” Clark said. “That’s when I felt that ‘this is real.’”
That was Clark’s first basket of the season, a step-back jumper from the left wing while the team was down 30-22 against BYU on Jan. 10. The Portland Pilots would go on to lose that game 79-56, but for Clark, the game meant more than the final score.
Clark is a redshirt junior for Portland, but this is his first season playing for the Pilots after sitting out for the last four years due to injuries and NCAA transfer rules. Now he’s back on the court, looking to improve one game at a time.
The story is “like clockwork,” Clark said. He’s been asked to talk about his journey so many times that retelling it is almost routine for him.
Crisshawn Clark said he never considered himself that great of an athlete in high school. He played two years of JV at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio before finally making the varsity squad.
“I wouldn’t say I was an outstanding athlete in high school,” Clark said. “I think I was a great role player, but skill-wise, I didn’t think I was even that good.”
Clark averaged 11.1 points per game and 5.4 rebounds as a senior at Wayne. But after high school, Clark didn’t get a lot of looks from colleges. Instead of going to college, he decided to go to work full-time and got a job working in the Meyer’s Distribution Center, which Clark describes as like a Walmart in Ohio.
But he knew he could be doing more. His high school coach knew that, too, and that’s exactly what he told Clark when he went back to his old high school to watch his former team play.
“He kind of told me that I needed to get back involved with basketball,” Clark said. “He thought I had a talent that I shouldn’t waste.”
His coach had a connection that he could use, and Clark’s college basketball career began.
Clark visited Cañada College, a community college in Redwood City, California, and fell in love with it immediately. He developed a close relationship with his coach there, Mike Reynoso, who was key in building his confidence.
“I think the most important part was that I found someone who believed in me more than I believed in myself,” Clark said when describing Reynoso. “He gave me a lot of confidence that I never had which helped me shoot the ball better, my IQ level went up higher, which I think it predicted that successful first year I had.
Clark thrived at Cañada. His freshman year, he led the team to a 24-7 record, taking them to the CCCAA state semifinals. He averaged 15 points a game, 5.2 rebounds and 3 assists. He reached double figures 26 times and scored 20 or more eight times. He earned All-CCCAA First Team Honors and the All-Tournament Team. He was even named 2015 NorCal Freshman of the Year. He was playing the best basketball of his life.
Major colleges started to take notice also. All of the sudden, basketball powers such as University of Arizona, Arizona State, University of Oregon, University of Pittsburgh and more started throwing scholarship offers his way. He struggled to remember all the schools that offered him the opportunity to play for them.
At first he didn’t know if he wanted to take an offer from a big time school like Pittsburgh or Oregon. He liked the idea of going to a smaller school like Cal State Fullerton, another college that offered him a scholarship. But after talking to coaches, he knew that he had to take the opportunity to a bigger school.
“I had a lot of people in my ears saying ‘you’d be crazy to turn this down,’” Clark said. “I actually wanted to go to a little school where I could create my own destiny because the North Carolinas, the Dukes, that’s a lot of history in those environments. But that was an amazing experience.”
But right when things were going great, that’s when the setbacks began.
Clark had a partial tear in his ACL that he was playing on throughout his freshman year at Cañada. After the season, he went to the doctor who scoped his knee and cleaned it up. After four months of rehab Clark was back and playing basketball.
He then went on visits to prospective colleges, including University of Pittsburgh, where he would eventually commit to. His last visit before the start of his sophomore year was at the University of Oregon, where he worked out multiple times for coaches.
At one workout, however, Clark fully tore his ACL. During the drill, an Oregon coach had him practice finishing through contact. He got hit awkwardly, landing on his leg the wrong way, and was forced to sit out his sophomore season.
the University of Oregon as well as various men’s basketball coaches for negligence after the 2015 recruiting visit that led to his torn ACL. Clark declined to comment on the lawsuit as it is still in the legal process.
Clark eventually chose Pitt as his next college. He liked the culture and felt he had to take advantage of the opportunity to play for an ACC school.
“You get at least 10 guys that might see the NBA,” Clark said. “You get eight of them that see the NCAA Tournament. That’s the number one conference in college basketball. So my chances of getting to do those things...that’s something I didn’t want to pass up.”
Unfortunately, during practice he suffered another injury, this time a torn MCL. Five days before the first game of the 2016-17 season, he got ahead of everyone during a drill. He went up for a dunk and landed awkwardly on his leg. It cost him yet another season of collegiate basketball.
A new home on The Bluff
Clark enjoyed Pitt, but not as much his time on the team. He wasn’t fond of his coach, Kevin Stallings, who was fired last year and is infamous for telling one of his players “I’ll kill you” during a game while he was coach at Vanderbilt. It was time for a change of scenery.
University of Portland assistant coach Bob Cantu first noticed Clark when Cantu was a coach at University of Texas El Paso. They had tried to recruit Clark to go there, but his offers were so strong that UTEP couldn’t even get their foot in the door. Clark was one of the most sought after junior college players in the country.
“When I was at UTEP, I tried to recruit him,” Cantu said. “But at that time his recruitment was so strong that it came down to Pittsburgh and Oregon, and he chose Pitt.”
But Clark’s injuries and the news of him wanting to transfer meant Cantu, now with UP, had a shot this time. One way to attract talent when you’re a team in full rebuild like the Pilots is to take a chance on talented players that have dealt with injuries recently. Cantu was more than happy to take a risk on Clark and bring him to UP.
“In rebuilding a program a way to try to get someone who is a talented player is to take a chance on a guy coming off of injury,” Cantu said. “Having our doctors and our trainers look at it, we felt that there was a strong chance that he could come back strong.”
The Portland Pilots are one of the youngest teams in the WCC this season, with no seniors on the roster. They were also one of the youngest last year, with only two seniors. That’s part of the reason Clark had value to add to the team. At 24-years old, he’s easily the oldest guy on the roster.
His time at other colleges has helped, too. Pitt is an ACC school. The ACC is a Power 5 conference where college basketball demigods like Duke, North Carolina and Virginia play. It takes a lot to play against those teams, even if Clark never got to suit up for the Panthers. As coach Ben Johnson described him earlier this year, Clark had an “ACC swag” to him that that his Portland teammates don’t have.
“He just has experience because he’s just older,” Cantu said. “Even though he doesn’t have the game experience, he has the life experience. He automatically became a mentor to some of the younger players, and they gravitated to him...I think they respected his battle to come back from injury and the fact he was coming from Pittsburgh.”
His leadership is much needed on a team so young. Sophomore guard JoJo Walker said that Clark’s attitude both on and off the court make him invaluable to the squad.
“Last year we got really close as friends and teammates,” Walker said. “Nobody works harder than him. He’s encouraging. If he sees you not going hard enough, he’ll tell you. He’s got that winning mentality...he’s helped me a lot.”
Not to mention his skills on the court. Cantu raved about his size, strength, ability to score and more. Clark was an athletic do it all player who could do just about anything on the court.
“His defense of course,” Walker said about Clark’s game. “He can shoot the ball pretty well. Also, his energy on defense. When I’m not on the court, he can be the leader off the ball, calling plays and stuff like that.”
Clark had to sit last season due to NCAA transfer rules. If a player transfers to a Division 1 school, they have to sit out for a full academic year before playing first. But Clark was eager to play for the Pilots.
On Oct. 17, Clark was practicing with the team when he got a surprise visit from Reynoso. Clark experienced another surprise that day, one that was much less fortunate.
During practice, in front of his old coach, Clark dislocated his ankle. An ambulance took him to the hospital where they put his ankle back in place and got x-rays.
The x-rays showed more than just a simple ankle dislocation. The doctors saw a fracture in his foot and needed to give him immediate surgery the next day. His future in basketball depended on whether or not they had to put metal in his foot. If they hadn’t caught it, Clark’s career would’ve been even more in jeopardy.
Luckily he didn’t have to. The surgeon was able to fix his foot without using metal. At that point it was up to Clark to overcome the adversity of yet another setback.
Clark set a return date of Jan. 5, the start of conference play for the Pilots. Doctors warned him that the WCC opener was a bit optimistic for a return date. But Clark was determined to get back on the court as soon as he could.
“I told the doctor January 5th is going to be my return date, and he was like ‘aw come on, don’t get ahead of yourself,’” Clark said. “I was like ‘come on, I’m serious!’”
Clark didn’t go home for Christmas Break. He stayed in Portland, working with a trainer to get back into shape. When he met with the doctor again, they told him he could play a few minutes on Jan. 5 if game was out of reach and it was clear who was going to win.
“He was like ‘dang, you actually pulled off the comeback,’” Clark said. “He actually cleared me to play garbage minutes...unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get in on January 5th but that following game I played against BYU.”
He played more than just garbage minutes against BYU. Now, Clark is finally playing again.
Clark has found solid minutes in the rotation, playing about 16 minutes per game. His shot isn’t falling quite like it used to as he tries to get back into shape. He admits he’s still not fully back yet. He notices it when he plays. His body doesn’t always do what his mind wants to do.
“My foot is telling me ‘no you can’t do it,” Clark said. “If I’m on a fast break and someone’s in front of me I’m like ‘I’m gonna hit ‘em with a euro-step,’ but my foot is like ‘you’re not doing that today.’”
Part of it is just getting back into game shape, both Clark and Cantu admit. It’s not easy playing high level basketball after spending four years rehabbing injuries and watching your teammates play.
“He needs to get into what is called game condition,” Cantu said. “The speed of a game is a lot different than practice and you need what’s called game wind. He’s got to get his game wind and be able to run up and down the floor.”
There are other things he can work on, too. Cantu points specifically to his three-point shooting, which currently sits at 22.6 percent. But both Cantu and Walker are confident he can get it back up once he’s in game shape. Clark says he’s getting better slowly but surely. There’s still a lot to like about what he’s doing.
Clark graduates in May, but still has the option to play for Portland next year. Right now, he just wants to play the 2019-20 season, but Clark’s goals go beyond that. Next year, he wants to just be able to showcase his talent so he can have the opportunity to play professional basketball, whether that’s here in the NBA or overseas. As long as he’s playing professionally, he’ll be happy.
“I think that’s everybody’s dream,” Clark said. “But I’m more about baby steps before I start to jump into the future. I got to play a whole season first before I can think that.”
So, Clark’s taking it slow. His first goal was to just get back on the court. Now he just wants to finish off the season without any problems or setbacks. In his eyes, it will all come, but he has to take care of the little stuff first.
For Clark, it’s about taking it one step-back shot at a time.
Kyle Garcia is the sports editor for The Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.