The three schools of Jimmy Clark III

Brentaro Yamane | Multimedia Editor | Jimmy Clark III (center) poses with his family and coach Keith Dambrot prior to his final home game. Dambrot said the support system Clark had in place gave him the trust to give him a second chance.

Spencer Thomas | Sports Editor

When this veteran-heavy Duquesne squad plays its last game, it will mark the end of seven seniors’ careers. Perhaps none of them as tumultuous as Jimmy Clark III’s. It has spanned three schools, one national championship and a quest for revenge that put him on SportsCenter.

In that time, Clark evolved and improved off of the court, while revolutionizing himself on it. In the final days of his college career, Clark endeared himself to the Duquesne fanbase, as well as his teammates.

Coming out of Covington, Georgia, a small town southeast of Atlanta, Clark committed to Virginia Commonwealth University. His 18 months there were spent as a role-player, developing his skills behind Atlantic-10 Conference Player of the Year winners Ace Baldwin Jr. and Bones Hyland. Defensively, he was elite as a pickpocket with quickness and effort. Offensively, he was irrelevant.

“We didn’t used to guard him,” said Duquesne Head Coach Keith Dambrot, who first got to know Clark by coaching against him. “He was a non-offensive player that was just out there to play defense.”

He slowly climbed up the depth chart but got into off-the-court trouble late in his sophomore season. After briefly being placed on university suspension, Clark was kicked out of the program. VCU never disclosed why.

He spent the rest of the spring watching on television as his old team made the conference championship game and earned a bid to March Madness.

In order to revive his career, Clark had to spend a season in junior college, at Northwest Florida State. He went from playing in front of 7,600 fans at VCU to traveling into gyms that had as few as six rows of seating. He started 31 games for the Raiders, and every time he laced up his shoes, he dreamed of putting them back on a Division-I court.

“That’s all I thought about,” he said. “Everyday.”

Down in the panhandle, Clark and the Raiders finished with a 31-5 record, culminating in the junior college national title. It was a magical season, one that Clark feels brought him to where he is today.

“It helped me learn what it takes to win at a high level,” he said. “You can see how connected as a group you have to be as a team to win at that level and at that magnitude.”

It was there that Clark also developed offensively, becoming the ball-dominant player we see today. However, he claims that to be a byproduct of greater lessons learned in the sunshine state.

“It wasn’t even about scoring,” he said. “I learned that you’ve got to be a dog on the court, no matter where you’re at: JUCO, D-I, overseas, NBA. Wherever you are, you’ve got to be a dog.”

He singled out tenacious defense, setting picks and taking charges as major stats that, whether or not they show up on the scoresheet, he takes pride in. He knew it was those traits that would get him back in a Division-I uniform.

“It was just grind until I get back to where I’m supposed to be. You see how that went,” Clark said with a smile.

The results also got Raiders Head Coach Greg Heiar a Division-I opportunity at New Mexico State. He brought several of Clark’s teammates with him and presented Clark with a scholarship offer as well. Clark never gave it much consideration, a decision that saved him from utter disaster. Less than a month into the season, one of Heiar’s players shot and killed a student from a rival school in self-defense. In February, an investigation into reports of hazing on the team resulted in Heiar’s firing and the rest of NMSU’s season being cancelled.

Clark had better luck in his D-I endeavor.

Dambrot said that while recruiting Clark, he reached out to Mike Rhoades, the head coach at VCU. Rhoads green-lighted the move, and just like that, Clark was back in the A-10.

“I knew he was a good person,” Dambrot said. “I had a good vibe from minute one.”

Even with a national championship ring shining on his finger, Clark’s past with the Rams followed him around. If he wasn’t going to play for them, he wanted to play against them. Clark openly admits that the opportunity to play against his old school every year is part of what drew him to Duquesne.

With those motivations, it should come as no surprise that Clark is an emotional player. It’s part of what got him here.

Clark’s first game against his old school was probably the best he’s ever played. He set a career-high with 26 points, none of them louder than an ally-oop he threw himself off the backboard. It landed him on the SportsCenter Top-10 plays the next morning, a feat he had achieved one month earlier with a game-winning shot.

Even now, he grins like a vandal when that play gets mentioned, and on senior night, his entire family wore t-shirts with that moment printed on the front.

Everything is personal for Clark.

After he threw down a show-stopping dunk on George Washington’s Babatunde Akingbola, Clark was visibly delighted to learn that his victim leads the conference in blocks. He interrupted the postgame press-conference when he broke into a brace-faced smile and did the universal symbol for “you just got dunked on.”

“On his head,” Clark said.

In the final season of a college career defined by evolution, Clark says he is trying to step up and be a more personable leader. He isn’t aloof, but anyone who sees him in practice or games recognizes that he is more observant on the court than he is talkative.

“I’d say that’s always been me. More just locked in and just try to lead by example, rather than just talking.”

But as he matures and accrues experience, Clark sees the benefits of stepping outside his comfort zone on a social level, and his personality begins to shine through.

“It’s just being more engaged with your teammates, talking to your teammates more, getting to know your teammates more. Because if you don’t know someone, they’re not going to follow you.”

Dambrot says that he gained an understanding of how to reach Clark and force the best out of him. He hit­­­s him head-on with criticism. Earlier this year, Dambrot called him out by name in a post-game press conference for his defensive performance. Blunt honesty is the key to Clark, who is so driven by his heart.

“Everybody marches to a different drum. There are some guys you’ve got to stay on top of and there’s other guys you’ve got to massage. Sometimes people misconstrue what fairness is,” Dambrot said. “But sometimes you’ve got to get on Jimmy, you know, to really push him. That doesn’t mean I like other guys better. It just means that I’m trying to understand how to get the most out of him.”

The relationship that has bloomed between the 65-year-old Dambrot and 22-year-old Clark is one of mutual understanding and respect. It’s a testament to how Dambrot has sustained a career connecting with players 35 years younger than him, as well as the maturity Clark carries himself with.

“He definitely holds me to a higher standard because he expects the best out of me, and that’s why I respect [him],” Clark said. “Because if someone doesn’t expect the best out of you, they’re not really helping you.”

“That’s what makes it nice is even when he has issues where he gets frustrated, you go back to knowing he’s a nice person so you can live with it,” Dambrot said.

In Jan­­uary, Clark missed a pair of free-throws that would have tied the game in the final seconds. Stone-faced and silent, Clark trudged off the court. Forty-five minutes after the game, Clark was back on that exact spot, shooting free-throws over and over again.

Almost two months later, Duquesne was tied with George Washington with 2.1 seconds left. Clark stepped back to the free throw line with all the pressure on his shoulders. Not only was the game on the line, but he was sitting at 999 career points. Clark collected himself, and drained both shots to secure the victory.

“For most of us, what makes us great kills us,” Dambrot said.

Clark’s composure isn’t flawless. When the team is struggling, he sometimes makes head-scratching turnovers and fouls that are more a product of him trying to do too much than anything else.

“His biggest thing that we harp with him all the time is discipline on both ends,” Dambrot said. “He wants to do it; he just has to continue to work on it. It’s like any habit that any of us have.”

“His ability to gamble and steal the ball is a great thing. But he has to learn how to channel it and when to use it and when not to use it.”

On Tuesday, Clark was named second-team all-conference, as well as being given the nod for the all-defense team. Reaching this position was never a given. Not when he was on the bench at VCU, and not when he was stranded in junior college. Undeniably driven by his emotions, Clark had to will himself to get here. At Duquesne, he finally found the people who understand the many layers he has and turned him into an all-conference candidate that Dambrot says should be getting NBA tryouts this summer.

“I’m just grateful man. Grateful for my teammates, grateful for everybody that helped me get to this position in life,” Clark said. “Without the help of these guys and the coaches it wouldn’t be possible.”

“He certainly isn’t perfect,” Dambrot smiled. “He drives me bananas sometimes, but he’s improved.”