I've been dreading writing this post for two years.
The reason I started the blog was to give myself a place to share deeper thoughts. Some of my favorite stuff I've written on here have been semi-coherent ramblings remembering coaches, teams, and players. This particular post has been on the horizon for a while, and I don't have any more time to procrastinate. We're losing Gary Clark.
I think one of the biggest things that happens after you graduate college is this weird shifting of priorities as a fan of your alma mater. When I was at UC I tended to carry a more win-at-all-costs mentality. Obviously I cared about who was representing my school, but it wasn't something at the forefront of my mind. Since December 2015, I've been a University of Cincinnati alumnus and I care a lot about character. I don't know when this shift happened, but I feel like it happened quickly. Don't get me wrong, I love winning, but I also really, really love having athletes that reflect well upon the name on my diploma. When you have a high-character kid who is also good at winning, I'm in heaven.
Meet Gary Clark.
I think I romanticize Gary over other players because he was part of the first recruiting class after the founding of OhVarsity. Yes, you can find OV tweets about Gary Clark from 2013, just weeks after I opened the account.
I'll be the first to admit I'm not a scout. I can watch a kid play and decide if I like him or not, but you won't see me predicting future stars out of high school. Gary Clark was different. He was doing absurd things in Clayton, North Carolina like ripping off quadruple-doubles. When he got to UC, I immediately knew that the hype was real because veteran-obsessed Mick Cronin inserted him into the starting lineup as a true freshman.
In his first game, he turned in a workmanlike 10 points, six rebounds, and four steals in 22 minutes. (To date, he's given us 10 & 6 another 36 times.) In the wake of Sean Kilpatrick's departure, Bearcat fans were looking for their next 'Face of the Franchise.' Nine games into Gary Clark's UC career, I knew we'd found it.
Gary Clark is absurdly good at basketball, but it took him a minute to get there. There's a legendary recruiting story about Larry Davis' pursuit of Gary that those close to the program have loved telling for years:
Gary wasn't a very high-profile recruit necessarily, but he did amass a fair number of good offers. The Bearcats were fortunate enough to discover him early. (Debate about who actually made Cronin aware of him rages on to this day.) They got in the door ahead of everyone else and saw a kid they loved. Gary had one issue: He didn't play hard enough. UC assistant coach Larry Davis told him as much and withheld the scholarship offer until he saw Gary turn up the effort. When Davis returned, Gary still wasn't where Davis wanted him to be and again he withheld the offer. I kid you not, Larry Davis went back a third time without leaving Gary with a scholarship offer. The Bearcats had their sights on a rising star who wanted to wear red and black and Davis was practically taunting the kid with a scholarship. On April 28, 2013, the Bearcats apparently had seen enough and finally made him the offer. Although pursuits from Pittsburgh, Maryland, and NC State would trickle in over the next few weeks, Gary Clark committed to UC on September 18, five days after his official visit.
When he finally did get to UC, he had a horrible habit of not playing like the Gary Clark we know today. He's always been a beast on the glass, but rebounds on the offensive end used to result in kick outs, even if he was open. It was maddening. Watch Gary play now and you'll see a kid excited to exert his dominance in the paint. It took a couple years to get to that point. Gary, bless his heart, came to UC without a mean streak in his body. He was genuinely too nice to bully anyone in the post or take a shot without first giving his teammates a touch. It took someone telling him "Hey kid, you're the best player on the court. Go show everyone."
Despite the coaxing it required to bring it out of him, I think Gary Clark was always meant to be a Bearcat. Cincinnati has a program with a deep, rich history, and Gary fits it perfectly. He's a Cronin guy who could've easily played for George Smith or, especially, Ed Jucker.
Through all the flux the last fifty years have brought, players like Gary Clark are still the lifeblood of this program--not just his bruising, shot-blocking build, but his unheralded foundation slowly built into a legacy over four sweaty years.
Gary Clark came to UC at a very unique time. He was in the first class of players that were recruited by the Bearcats to compete in the AAC. It was the beginning of a change in philosophy for Cronin in recruiting scorers who could be taught to play defense, rather than the other way around.
As a freshman, Gary Clark was on a team that lost its head coach in December. That group went on to lose 11 games, but made the tournament and beat Purdue despite not having a single double-digit scorer on the team.
As a sophomore, Gary Clark was a member of the most cursed team of all time, a bunch that lost eight games either in overtime or by four points or fewer. That season had a black cloud hanging over it.
As a junior, things finally lined up for Gary. Troy Caupain was a senior and Cronin had filled out the roster with weapons like Jarron Cumberland and Kyle Washington. Gary was finally poised to win a bunch of games. The Bearcats went 30-5 before their poor seed sent them face first into a talent-laden UCLA team in the second round.
The finale of Gary Clark's senior season remains unwritten. We don't know where this team will end up, but things are headed in the right direction. As an upperclassman, Gary Clark is 54-10 with two of those losses coming last week. Gary Clark wins games.
He's on track to win his 100th game as a Bearcat ... on Senior Day.
When thinking about my favorite Gary Clark moments, a few come to mind:
- Posterizing Ryan Boatright in his first game against UConn.
- This expert self-diagnosis from 2016.
- The alley-oop against Memphis.
- Breaking his tooth while picking apart UConn on their home floor during the 2017 AAC Tournament.
- This block against UCLA in December.
The only reason I bring any of these moments up is to illustrate the point that none of them come close to defining Gary Clark. I think it speaks to his career that there isn't a single story I can tell. It's the totality of what he is that made his time in Cincinnati so special.
His large-scale impact on Bearcats basketball cannot be understated. He’s started the most games of any player in program history. In fact, the only two games he hasn’t started were Senior Days when he took a seat to allow bench players to start their final game in Clifton. In 2016 it was Coreontae DeBerry and in 2017 it was Zach Tobler. If it weren’t for selflessness, Gary Clark would be leaving UC having started every single game of his career. Unbelievable.
He's on pace to graduate in the Top 3 in games played. A run next month would make him #1.
He’s the fifth player in program history to record 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds and the first to do so since 1978. He will likely leave UC as the #3 rebounder in program history, behind Oscar Robertson and Jack Twyman, likely the two best to ever wear the uniform. He leads all UC forwards in steals, a category in which he could potentially finish Top 5 behind some of the best defensive guards in school history. He’ll finish fifth in career blocks behind the best defensive bigs UC has ever seen in Martin, Hicks, Maxiell, and Jackson.
Simply put, he’s crafted one of the best careers in program history. It's the type of career that doesn't jump off the page but will improve as it ages and countless others inevitably fail to match it.
Through it all, Gary Clark has remained one of the kindest, most selfless Bearcats in history, offsetting an occasionally menacing on-court personality with the heart of a saint off it. At the forefront is Gary's relationship with Natalie, a Bearcat fan suffering from Multiple Sclerosis and a brain virus known as Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy. There are more stories, like the time he crashed a kid's birthday party. Beyond that are tidbits I've heard from all corners of the UC community as well as many others that will likely never be told.
Post-Gary life for the Bearcats will be much harder than most realize, and not just because they'll be missing a 6'7" scorer, rebounder, and shot blocker. Next year they'll have to navigate without the kid who's silently been their rock. Like many have said, he's the ultimate glue guy--on and off the court--dutifully filling in the gaps that needed to be filled for the past four seasons.
I know it sounds like hyperbole at this point, but you truly could not engineer an athlete I'm more proud to claim as a Bearcat than Gary Clark. On Senior Day, I'll be in attendance at BB&T Arena, not as a member of the media, but as a fan. You'll find me up in the stands, probably crying.
Watching this kid has been the treat of my life as a UC fan.
Thank you for being a Bearcat, Gary Clark.