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Sports Kentucky coaches remember Terrence Clarke's 'great soul, great spirit'

04:25  24 april  2021
04:25  24 april  2021 Source:   usatoday.com

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The circumstances of the 2020-21 season were such that Big Blue Nation never got to know Terrence Clarke as it would most highly touted recruits.

The COVID-19 pandemic kept players from interacting with fans at events like the Big Blue Madness campout as they normally would. An ankle injury limited Clarke to just eight games.

He missed all of the Southeastern Conference regular season schedule, and just when Clarke returned to the court in hopes of helping Kentucky to an improbable postseason run, the Wildcats dropped their SEC Tournament opener, ending the season. Clarke declared for the NBA draft just a few weeks later.

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But ask Clarke's teammates or coaches what they will remember about the Boston native, and they are likely to mention the smile that Kentucky fans too rarely got to see.

"From the pandemic that threw everything off to our struggles on the court to Terrence's injury and everything in between, it breaks my heart that only some of us got to truly see the kind of person Terrence was," Kentucky coach John Calipari wrote in a blog post for his website CoachCal.com Friday. "His heart was overflowing with love for his family, his friends and his teammates. He was as caring of a person as I have ever coached.

a group of people standing next to a football ball: Nov 25, 2020; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Terrence Clarke (5) high fives his Kentucky teammates before game against Morehead State at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center. © Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports Nov 25, 2020; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Terrence Clarke (5) high fives his Kentucky teammates before game against Morehead State at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center.

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"His enthusiasm and energy – not just for basketball, for life – are what we all hope to have in our journey. Terrence had figured that part out – that if you wake up every day with a smile on your face and a joy in everything you do, this life is beautiful."

Clarke arrived on campus with the soaring hype one would expect for the player ranked as the No. 8 recruit in the class of 2020 by the 247Sports Composite.

Before the season even started, Kentucky assistant coach Bruiser Flint noted that coach John Calipari spoke of Clarke in "in the same way to me as the John Walls and the Anthony Davises and things like that."

Even as Kentucky struggled as a team, Clarke reached double digits in points in four of his first five games as a Wildcat, including 22 points on 9-for-14 shooting in a loss to Georgia Tech. After that game, Calipari moved Clarke to point guard in hopes of boosting a struggling Kentucky offense.

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The experiment lasted just two games before the ankle injury torpedoed his season. Clarke attempted to play through the injury at Louisville but did not score in 16 minutes off the bench.

Clarke's status remained a topic of conversation for Kentucky fans for weeks -- especially after John Calipari appeared to question the severity of the injury at one point in early February -- but the message was clear when a setback forced him back to the sideline after attempting a return.

"He’s doing the physical therapy, he’s going to class, he’s being a good teammate that way," Calipari said. "Could you imagine if you guys were him? ... Here’s a kid’s career flashing before his eyes. Here’s a kid that played early, hurt and tried to bust through it and couldn’t. Took the time he thought could heal, and the doctors look and say, ‘Nope. You cannot play.’ The kid and I both cried."

While Clarke played a part in Kentucky's struggles while he was healthy with 16 assists and 22 turnovers on the season, there can be no doubt that Kentucky missed his talent and infectious personality while he was injured.

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"Y’all don’t understand the energy that TC gave off was just one of a kind," Kentucky freshman forward Lance Ware tweeted Thursday after news of Clarke's death had been confirmed. "...You can’t fake that type of energy!!!!"

Even after doctors had appeared to rule Clarke out for the remainder of Kentucky's season and it became clear the Wildcats would need to win the SEC Tournament to have any chance of playing in the NCAA Tournament, Clarke continued to push for a return.

He was cleared to play again just before Kentucky's SEC Tournament opener.

“He understands he may not play the game," Calipari said at the time. "Maybe he does. Maybe he doesn’t. He wants to do it for the team. ... It’s all about team for him. He just said, 'Whatever this team needs from me, I’m here. If I don’t play, I’m fine. If you want to put me in, fine, I’m ready to go.' "

Clarke did play in that game, contributing two points and three assists in nine minutes off the bench, but Kentucky lost to Mississippi State to end the season.

Clarke’s Kentucky career officially ended nine days later when he declared for the NBA draft with the intention of signing with an agent. On Wednesday, Klutch Sports announced him as one of its new clients in the 2021 NBA draft class.

A day later, Clarke died when the vehicle he was driving ran a red light, hit a vehicle that was preparing to make a left turn and then struck a streetlight pole, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. Clarke was 19 years old.

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The emotional impact of Clarke’s death quickly spread across the basketball world.

Former Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee, who served as Clarke’s lead recruiter to Kentucky, heard the news as he was flying to Mount Pleasant, Michigan, to finalize a deal to be Central Michigan’s new head coach.

“Just personally for me as excited an on a high as I’ve been for this opportunity here at CMU, then the news as I was traveling here to Mt Pleasant, I hit an extreme low,” Barbee said at his introductory news conference Friday while choking back tears. “I’m so saddened for Terrence, his family, his mother. You’re talking about a young man who had a great soul, had a great spirit. The obvious is the extreme basketball talent, but he was a caring kid who was fun-loving. He loved his teammates, they loved him.”

Many of Clarke’s teammates were “inconsolable” after learning the news, Calipari wrote in his blog post.

The Kentucky coach has traveled to Los Angeles to provide support to Clarke’s family. On Friday afternoon, players began posting invitations to a candlelight vigil in Clarke’s honor on their social media accounts in order to celebrate that “Terrence brought nothing but light into the world.”

The fact that Calipari’s Kentucky program remains in a period of transition with staff changes, transfer recruiting and NBA draft decisions still in limbo means the school's never-ending basketball news cycle will churn on in the coming days and weeks. The impact of Clarke’s death will hover over all that news though.

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“My plan is to stay (in Los Angeles) as long as they stay and do whatever I possibly can,” Calipari wrote. “Terrence was only with us a short time, but God blessed us when he put him in our lives. We are all better people for having crossed paths with him.”

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky coaches remember Terrence Clarke's 'great soul, great spirit'

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