Cynthia Brown gave birth to Keon on April 16, 1975 in Danville. She raised him without the help of his father, John Clark, a lifetime criminal who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2003 after killing a man in a dispute over a bicycle.
Keon started drinking in high school when he went to play basketball at Lincoln Park, a community park on the west side of town. After high school, he trekked across the country to play at a junior college in Irvine, California. Over 2,000 miles from home, and without a good support system, Clark felt isolated. In order to cope, his drinking escalated.
After a year apiece at Irvine Junior College and Dixie College, Clark was recruited to UNLV, where he was named first-team all-Western Athletic Conference following his junior year in 1997.
But he was suspended twice during his senior year, and never returned to the team after his second suspension when he tested positive for marijuana.
At the 1998 NBA draft, Clark was an enigma. Former Boston Celtics general manager Chris Wallace thought the 6-foot-11 Clark might have the most athletic ability of any player available and considered taking him with the 10th pick. But Wallace worried about Clark’s maturity and drafted Paul Pierce instead. Clark went to the Orlando Magic with the 13th pick.
Wallace’s doubts proved to be well-founded. For a multitude of reasons, Clark never lived up to his potential during his short, 6-year NBA career.
For one, he struggled with the spotlight that came with being in the NBA.
“I’m basically an introvert,” said Clark. “I never really liked people because I really can’t deal with a lot of falsehoods.”
Clark felt that people’s communication in the NBA was often disingenuous and he found it difficult forming relationships with his peers.
“There were too many engagements with people where they weren’t trying to see me as the person I was viewing them as.”
As a member of the Denver Nuggets, his teammates called him “Can’t Get Right” after a character in the 1999 film ‘Life’ who was talented at baseball but intellectually challenged.
Internally, Clark struggled throughout his time in the NBA, but he wasn’t willing to open up to others about his problems.
“The thing about mental health issues is you have to digest what it is you’re actually going through,” said Clark. “If you’re not able to access what is going on with you, you can’t speak to someone for any assistance.”
Instead of getting the support he needed, Clark turned to alcohol.
During a 2007 court appearance, Clark said he never played an NBA game sober. He said he drank a half-pint to a pint of gin per day.
“We all have our own artificial comforts, and that (alcohol) was mine,” Clark said.
In addition to a serious drinking habit, Clark was also impeded by the fact he was never that passionate about basketball.
“I’m one of those individuals who never uttered the words, ‘I’m going to the NBA’, or ‘I can’t wait.’”
The NBA was simply a path that was available to him. Besides, the money was pretty good.
“When I saw my first cheque, I knew it was bullshit,” said Clark. “They just gave me this amount of money to run up and down the basketball court to entertain people?”
Despite the high salary, Clark wasn’t willing to follow the physical regimen required of an NBA player. While others kept in shape during the summer, he only started working out in training camp. As a member of the Toronto Raptors, he once asked veteran Charles Oakley, who was in his mid-30s at the time, about his longevity.
“Oak, how did you stay in the league so long?” Clark asked him.
“I never got out of shape,” Oakley said.
“I guess I won’t be in the league that long,” Clark said.
Despite being blessed with extraordinary talent, Clark wasn’t willing to do what was necessary to maximize that talent.
“I never put my full ability on the basketball court. I’ll leave it as that. I never played up to my full capabilities.”
He stepped on the court when the coach called his name and picked up a hefty cheque for doing so. He admits he didn’t always act in a professional manner.
“I was literally smoking cigarettes at halftime when I was in Toronto. I mean, who does that shit as a professional athlete?”
Despite exhibiting a lack of professionalism, and struggling with mental health issues and alcohol addiction, Clark compiled an impressive array of highlights over the course of his career, including some ferocious dunks over helpless foes.
His personal favourite took place in March 2001 as a member of the Raptors. It was late in the third quarter of a game against the Sacramento Kings and Clark was furious.
“Scot Pollard had almost hyper-extended my elbow,” said Clark. “He’d almost popped my elbow out of place on a previous play.”
Clark would have his revenge.
“There was a screen and roll and I literally tried to kill Scot Pollard by dunk,” Keon said.
Two and a half weeks later, he recorded 10 blocks in the first half of a game against the Atlanta Hawks.
“We go in at halftime and these fools tell me how many blocks I got,” said Clark. “It’s like if someone’s throwing a no-hitter, leave him alone, don’t say nothing to him.”
He blocked another two shots in the second half for a total of 12, setting a single-game Raptors record he holds to this day. Still, Clark wishes his teammates had kept their mouths shut at halftime.
“I could’ve had 20 blocks that night, man,” he said.
Clark struggled with mental health issues and alcoholism throughout his NBA career.
After his two seasons in Toronto, Clark spent a year with the Kings and was traded to the Utah Jazz during the 2003 offseason, but suffered a serious injury in the preseason. He underwent surgery to remove bone spurs from his right ankle that fall and played in just two regular season games that year.
Despite coming off a significant injury, teams were still interested in recruiting Clark during the 2004 offseason.
“The Cleveland Cavaliers came to me when LeBron was still there saying he could use my help for a championship.”
Mark Warkentien, an executive with the Cavaliers, showed up in Danville in the summer of 2004. According to Clark, Warkentien relayed the message that ownership had given him.
“They told me, ‘Don’t leave until I bring you back on the plane. You’re exactly what we need but we don’t have any money.’”
Clark wasn’t impressed.
“’Well y’all ain’t got me. I hope you brought a big bag because I’m not going anywhere.’”
To this day, Clark is still flummoxed by the Cavaliers’ minimum contract offer.
“How the hell does that fucking work? If I’m what you need, how do you not have any money? That’s the only reason Keon Clark never got back into the NBA.”
Despite the poor compensation, Clark knows many others would have jumped at the opportunity.
“I don’t know too many people who would say, ‘Fuck, I don’t want to play with LeBron,” Clark said. “I just want to play golf. Leave me alone.’”
Clark never donned an NBA uniform again.
Lacking the structure the basketball season provided, Clark’s life took a turn for the worse. Back in his hometown, his drinking escalated to the point where he had daily blackouts.
In September 2005, Clark walked into a Danville Steak n’ Shake around 2 in the morning. He tripped on a plastic sign that said ‘wet floor’ and started screaming at the restaurant staff and demanding service. Two uniformed officers who witnessed the scene followed Clark outside the restaurant and pulled over his Mercedes. They found an unlicensed handgun, cannabis, and cocaine in the vehicle.
Clark’s license was suspended and his vehicle was seized.
Two years later, in September 2007, Clark was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. But Clark wasn’t at the sentencing hearing.
Nor was he in attendance at the Vermilion County Courthouse a few weeks later, when he was given another two and a half year sentence for charges that included driving under the influence and possession of a controlled substance.
A warrant was issued for Clark’s arrest, and on October 18, 2007, U.S. Marshals caught him riding a public bus in Splendora, Texas.
In 2008, he served six months of the two and a half year sentence.
In July 2010, Clark pleaded guilty to driving under revocation, admitting he’d driven illegally when he’d already had three prior convictions for driving under revocation. He was given 33 months in prison and was in jail until January 2012.
On August 4, 2013, an inebriated Clark totalled his car 100 meters from his house. Four months later, he was sentenced to eight years in jail.
Clark has been able to remain sober since being released from prison in 2017. (Courtesy of Keon Clark)
In Jacksonville Correctional Center, a minimum security prison, Clark realized he’d had the wrong attitude during his previous stints in jail.
“I wasn’t ready to surrender to what life offers everyone and that’s ups and downs,” said Clark.
This time, he was determined to take advantage of the monotony that prison provided.
“If you take the time to realize what it is that got you there, you have nothing but time to focus on not going back…It was the best education of self that I had my adult life.”
In prison, Clark woke up early to meditate and did yoga a few times a week. He took part in counselling sessions.
“I took the time to see what it was about me that made me make these life-changing decisions,” Clark said. “Because to go from a certain amount of acres to sharing a room with a grown man with a toilet in the room isn’t something you really want to trade off on.”
Clark also discovered a talent for public speaking in prison after joining a Toastmaster Club, an organization whose stated goal is to promote communication and public speaking skills.
As part of the Hilltop Toastmasters Club 7889, Clark’s speeches were critiqued by inmates as well as Toastmasters members in the community. He spoke about everything from using drugs for the first time to being arrested 60 times — to his experiences playing in the NBA.
“They think it’s all glitz and glamour (the NBA), but if you don’t have a good strong team around you, things can go to shit extremely quickly.”
After serving half of his eight-year sentence, Clark was paroled in July 2017.
Today, he puts his newfound oratory skills to good use, spending much of his time visiting high schools, basketball camps, and prisons to share his story.
“I allow people a glimpse behind the veil of what they think professional basketball consists of…I give them the ups and downs of what can come with it.”
He lets people know there’s more to life than money.
“People have it twisted. They think money is the key to success and it’s definitely not. The key to success is knowing who you are, enjoying who you are, and making who you are as strong as possible. That’s what happiness is, at least in my world.”
Most importantly, Clark says he’s been able to stay sober since being released.
“If you come out doing the same things you did after four years, 12-hundred something days of not doing it, then you just wasted 12-hundred something days,” said Clark.
“That’s a lot of time to reflect on what it is that you don’t need to do anymore.”