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Season on the Blink

Knee injury hurt Clancy's draft position and all but ruined his NBA rookie year

March 10, 2003|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Sam Clancy, last season's Pacific 10 Conference player of the year and a second-team All-American at USC, was a can't-miss, first-round draft choice, a possible lottery pick whose game of low-post power and feathery baseline jumpers would translate well into the NBA.

Instead, five months into a rookie season in which he has yet to play, he's bound to the bench in street clothes, breaking a sweat only during pregame shoot-arounds and off-day practices. He's still rehabilitating a knee injury suffered nearly 10 months ago that caused his once golden stock to plummet and scared off NBA teams.

Forty-four players were chosen before the Philadelphia 76ers took a chance on Clancy, selecting him in the middle of the second round.

"Sitting out and not playing, it's more of a learning experience now," said Clancy, who was in town with the 76ers for their 106-92 loss to the Lakers at Staples Center on Sunday.

"It's always frustrating when you can't play but I'm getting better now so it's not as frustrating as it was earlier."

Certainly not as exasperating as the days leading up to the June draft.

It was during a workout for the Phoenix Suns on May 13 -- his first of the pre-draft season -- that Clancy, USC's all-time leader in blocked shots, went up to block a shot but came down awkwardly on his left leg.

Nine days later, Clancy -- the son of a former professional football player who eschewed a football career for one in a supposedly less physical sport -- underwent surgery to repair a dislocated kneecap.

His health has been questioned ever since.

An emotionally taxing and often frustrating recovery has taken the bloom off Clancy's rookie season, but the 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward said he is not distraught. In fact, he is still holding out hope of making his NBA debut this season.

But Clancy -- who flirted with turning pro after his junior season, leading a pre-draft camp in scoring and rebounding before returning to become the third-leading scorer in USC history -- doesn't want to rush things.

The Catch-22 is that if Clancy doesn't play this season there is no guarantee the 76ers will bring him back next season.

"It's always a danger but this is the business we chose to be in," Clancy said. "You can be cut or traded at any minute. This is the business. I just hope to have a job, just like everybody else."

Clancy figures his surgically repaired knee is "about 85%" of what it was.

"You know you're a rookie and you've got to pay your dues," said Clancy, who has been working at both forward positions. "I don't think if I was healthy, I would be playing that much right now anyway. You don't know the game yet [as a rookie]. I'm still learning the game and I'm happy just to be out there practicing."

Especially considering how severe his injury was.

Early speculation had Clancy playing by December. But 76er Coach Larry Brown said there's no hard timetable for Clancy's debut.

"He's learning to walk again but he's making a lot of progress," Brown said. "As soon as his leg is physically all right, he's going to play."

So there are no worries about bringing a rookie into a run for playoff position?

"No, not if he can help us," Brown said. "And I think he can help us. I think he's going to be great."

Meanwhile, Clancy is learning.

"It's tough for rookies but he's just learning what it means to be a professional," said 76er guard Eric Snow, who, with similar Ohio roots, has befriended Clancy.

"He's done everything that's been asked of him -- his therapy, his workouts. He shows some flashes in his workouts but it's tough with the injury that he went through. He has a great future ahead of him if he continues to do the things that he's done thus far.

"He has this inner strength and an excitement to work out. You can't teach that."

Those traits, Clancy said, were inherited from his mother, Anetta Harris.

It was during the fall semester of Clancy's senior season at USC, when his grade-point average dipped below 2.0 and dropped him from Wooden Award consideration, that Harris was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Clancy said the cancer is in remission after treatments.

"We were just in Cleveland and I saw here there and she's back in Philly now so she'll be there when we get back," said Clancy, whose father, Sam Sr., is the defensive line coach for the New Orleans Saints. "She's fine, she's doing real good."

If only Clancy's knee were sound. Then he'd be able to give up his unaccustomed role of sideline cheerleader.

"I want to play," he said. "I don't want to be just a practice player. But I would understand if I had to sit the whole year out and play next year and in the summer league.

"But I don't know. It's not my decision. It's up to the coaches and the organization, not me."

Clancy, the son of a cancer survivor and a football player, not in control of his own destiny?

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

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