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A Big Find : Sonora Basketball Coach Discovered Craig Clark, and Clark Has Discovered He Can Play the Game

February 11, 1994|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA HABRA — Craig Clark, all 6 feet 7 inches of him, was standing in line, just minding his own business.

He was a freshman at Sonora, waiting to register for classes. He wasn't looking for trouble.

It found him, though.

"I was just standing there and this guy came up to me and said, 'Do you play basketball?' " said Clark, now a junior. "I told him no. He said, 'You are now.' "

The "guy" was the Sonora basketball Coach Mike Murphy.

The next thing Clark knew, he had signed a bunch of papers and was standing on a basketball court.

Murphy was throwing the ball to Clark, who had never played the game.

This \o7 was\f7 trouble.

"I didn't know what to do," Clark said. "I caught the ball, turned around and threw up a shot. It didn't hit the rim. It didn't even hit the backboard. The look on his face said, \o7 'Oh my gosh.\f7 ' "

All his life, people had been pushing Clark to get on a basketball court. He fought it. Sure, he's big--a 7-footer these days--but he wasn't going to be a stereotype.

Now, it's Clark who does the pushing. He strains and strives to improve in a game that he once hated out of frustration.

True, opposing teams don't exactly quake in his presence. But they don't snicker, either. Not any more.

Clark is averaging nearly 12 points and 10 rebounds. Modest numbers, but light years away from last season's. He has improved to the point that Division I colleges are starting to show interest.

"It makes me happy to see how far I've come," Clark said. "I've worked hard at it and improved a lot. Now, it's kind of funny to look back at my freshman year."

He certainly wasn't laughing then.

There's a basketball rim in Clark's bedroom; it's old, worn out and a little bent. It used to hang on a wooden backboard in the driveway. He tore it down with a dunk a year ago.

The basket was there when his family bought the house, but Clark had never used it. He didn't even own a basketball. He couldn't dunk one if he did.

It wasn't that Clark disliked basketball; he just wasn't very good at it.

In fact, Clark didn't play any sports while growing up. Instead, he immersed himself in school work, the Bible and those Hardy Boys mystery novels.

Who had time for sports? Who wanted to make time?

"I once tried out for basketball when I was in the eighth grade," Clark said. "I didn't want to, but my friends were asking me and the coach was telling me I had to do it. It was a two-day tryout and I embarrassed myself."

Enough of that, he thought.

Then he made the mistake of being that tall guy in line. Murphy zeroed in on him immediately.

"I asked him if he was coming out for basketball and he said he didn't think so," Murphy said. "I just went and got all the necessary papers and said, 'Here, sign these.' "

Murphy literally took him from the line to the gym. He placed Clark in the low post and fed him a pass. Yes, the shot was atrocious, but Murphy saw some potential.

"I never had a doubt in my mind, because he could catch the ball," Murphy said. "He couldn't dribble. He couldn't shoot. But he had great hands and he was a very good passer."

Clark has built his game around that, working nonstop since the end of his freshman season.

The summer after his freshman year, Clark played at least two games a day, five days a week. He'd play with the varsity, then the junior varsity and, sometimes, even with the sophomores, all in one day.

Clark began working with a strength coach and has added 30 pounds, beefing up to 235. He also works with a shooting coach. He'll do 200 hook shots with his right hand and 200 with his left, not to mention hours and hours of layups.

But the most effective teacher was Chris Campbell, the team's center last season. His rammed his 6-8 frame into Clark day in and day out.

"Chris didn't show him any mercy," Murphy said. "He shoved him and pushed him. It was really brutal. But it toughened Craig up."

Said Clark: "Yeah, Chris beat on me a little bit. But it showed what I had to learn."

Clark's freshman season was a mixture of frustration and embarrassment. He went from the varsity to the junior varsity to the sophomore to the freshman team, all in one day.

Even on that level, he wasn't exactly needed. About all he was asked to do was win the opening tip. In fact, Clark won the jump ball, then was replaced.

"It was a struggle," he said. "I remember my first game, we were up by about 25 points, so they let me go in. I took a shot and missed and turned to run back up court and tripped over my own feet.

"Oh, and my uniform was so small, it looked like I was wearing underwear."

Clark was so embarrassed that he didn't even attend varsity games. But Murphy had faith.

"I always let him know he was doing fine," Murphy said. "I always let him know that he was going to be a player."

Clark is one now.

He has shown flashes of what he can be this season. He had 16 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocked shots against Santiago. He had 19 points and 14 rebounds against La Mirada. He scored seven points in the first two minutes against Troy, forcing the Warriors into a zone defense.

Still, it never seems to be enough.

"It's not fair sometimes because people look at Craig's size and expect so much," Murphy said. "There are games where he's scored 10 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and maybe blocked four or five shots and someone will say, 'Why doesn't he score every time he gets the ball?' They expect him to get every rebound and block every shot. I even catch myself thinking that sometimes.

"It's not fair just to judge a kid by his size."

Of course, Murphy did, and Clark has measured up.

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