September 20, 2019

Growing up in San Bruno -- about ten minutes south of San Francisco -- I can recall the very moment I wanted to become a professional athlete. It was the fall of 1987, when all I thought about was basketball. In my freshman English class at Capuchino High School, my teacher (for the life of me, I can’t remember her name) asked the class to write and share a paragraph about what we wanted to do. I, of course, wrote that I wanted to play professional basketball.

At the time I was a tiny 4’11 freshman and my only claim to fame was that I was the little brother of Patty “Duke” Clark, who’d graduated the year before and was super popular. Nobody took me seriously about basketball because of my height. Needless to say, the class and the teacher didn’t think my dream profession was an obtainable goal. Many of them laughed at me and honestly, I would’ve laughed at me, too! 

Fast forward a few years and I was a 6’2 junior at West Georgia College in Carrolton, Georgia on a full scholarship for basketball. I was in a business class and my professor asked me what career path I was leaning towards after I graduated college. Once again, I said “professional athlete.” I was the point guard at a Division II school in rural Georgia and we weren’t having that great of season. Not surprisingly, I once again heard some chuckles and was met with questioning looks by my professor and classmates.  

It may have been an unrealistic dream, but I’d been dream chasing for all my life. My mother always told me to never give up on my dreams, to not let anyone stand in my way. I took those words to heart and continued to carry my dream with me.  

Fast forward another 14 months and I was at a small NAIA school close to home. I’d transferred to take care of my mother who had been diagnosed with cancer. It was a big blow, but she was getting treatment and the cancer was in remission. I was glad to be home with her.

It was late February and I was having a great season. I was playing for a coach who played in the NBA and taught me a lot -- including a number of things about obtaining my goal of playing professional basketball. During a road game, I cut off the baseline to take a charge and my knee gave out. I collapsed to the floor in pain, unable to extend my leg. I’d torn my meniscus in half and needed to have meniscus repair surgery. My dreams were shattered again. I’d be out at least four months to rehab my knee. 

During that time, my mother’s cancer returned and spread quickly. She decided not to fight any longer. I didn’t know how much longer I’d have her in my life.

In June, after successful knee rehabilitation, I found an agent who was willing to take a chance on me. He found a team in the British Basketball League that liked my film and, incredibly, offered me a contract. My crazy dream was about to become a reality. In front of my ailing mother, I signed my first professional contract. She was so proud, so happy for me. And yet it was bittersweet. 

My life was filled with so much joy, and yet so much pain. I partied that night with my crew, celebrating that one of us was going to become a pro. I woke up the next morning to find my mom’s lifeless body in her bedroom. 

I will never forget that day.

She was the one who told me to chase my dreams and never give up. And yet, I did just that. Losing her turned my life upside down. I slid into a deep depression. I never made the trip to London to begin my career in the BBL.

Eventually, one of my best friends shook me up and put me back on my path. Phil Handy was playing in Australia and he’d spoken to some teams over there on my behalf. He knew this was my dream. He knew I needed basketball in my life. I tried out for the Australian pro league, played my butt off and landed a contract with a team in the second division. And I played.

Phil Handy and James Clark

I had done it. James Clark, son of Ernie, had made his dream come true. And though my playing days were short (but sweet), I had accomplished what many thought I could never do. The one person who had the most faith in me wasn’t present to share my glory. I knew, however, that she was always there. 

Of course, my dreams didn’t begin and end with playing pro overseas. Dreams evolve and change. What I learned from the experience was how important basketball was in my life and that I wanted to continue to make a living through the game, and to continue dreaming big. 

That hit me -- hard -- after returning from Australia and working corporate jobs for about a year and a half. That wasn’t me. I wanted to be around the game. It was in my blood. My new dream was to make it to the highest level of basketball -- as a coach. When a friend called me with an opportunity to work with the Orlando Magic, I jumped. It was a video coordinator job, and it was a temporary position, but to me it was a chance to make it in the NBA.

I left a job that was paying me good money for something that came without a guarantee. My friends and family thought it was a mistake. But they didn’t understand my passion. Basketball was and always has been the dream. 

I made stops with the Magic and the WNBA’s Orlando Miracle. I took a women’s coaching position at Drexel University, where I spent six years and met my wife, Mimi. I turned my passion into a full-time profession and helped rebuild a college basketball program. Even though my mother had been in heaven for many years, I know she was proud of me for sticking with my dream and never losing sight of what life is all about.

While at Drexel, Mimi told me she was pregnant and we were going to be parents for the first time. If you're not a parent, you won’t understand the amount of joy and the amount of fear that news brings. It scared the shit out of me!! I didn’t know the first thing about being a parent, but what I did know was that I was going to love this boy or girl with everything I had, provide the best life possible and let them chase his or her dreams just like my mother did for me.

We had a beautiful baby girl, Haley Jane, who changed my life. Just after she was born, I accepted a job at another university. I saw it as a chance to grow even more as a coach, and pursue a new dream to become one of the best women’s basketball coaches in the country. But my position was short-lived. I didn’t adjust to the new job and was fired for the first time in my life. I didn’t handle it well. I closed myself off like I’d done after my mother passed. I wasn’t paying attention to my family like I should have. I lost my love for the game and felt anger and resentment. Worse, I forgot momentarily that the most important part of my life was no longer basketball, it was Haley Jane. 

I needed to be better. For her. Always.

I spent time talking with my friend, Phil, who was coaching with the Lakers at the time and he told me to get back on the court and do what I do best, TEACH! I met former NBA pro, Alvin Williams, who was putting together staff for his local basketball academy.  We ran player development clinics throughout the Philly area. Working with Alvin brought back my love for basketball and it also allowed me to be a father first. I was able to watch Haley everyday. I was able to take her to playgrounds, playdates, museums -- I was happy again.

Haley and her younger brother, William Thomas, have taught me what life is about and have helped me prioritize my career decisions, hopes and dreams.

I started my own company, Full Court Solutions, LLC, to pursue a new dream -- of working with some of the best basketball players in the world, while being the best father I can be. It’s allowed me to continue my NBA dream by training and preparing NBA prospects for the Draft. I’m living my passion for the game through the players I train and spending more time with my kids.

Fatherhood is incredible. More than anything else, I love being a dad. I love being able to take my kids to the gym and have them watch me train someone who’s going to be in the NBA or playing overseas. I love FaceTiming them when I’m on the road training the Chinese National Team and telling them about the new places I’m seeing and cultures I’m experiencing. They see first-hand how never giving up on a dream can be so rewarding. I often wish I could go back to San Bruno and find those teachers who thought I would never continue playing basketball because I was too short. I want them to hear my story about how I’ve made a life of basketball, how I’ve become one of the best player development coaches in the world -- not as a way to show off, but to show them that dreams can come true in many ways. That’s the message kids need to hear. 

It’s crazy when I get on social media and see people I grew up with praise me for never giving up on my dream, how happy or proud they are of me for sticking with it. It hasn’t been easy, and my life isn’t fancy, but one thing my life does have is love -- a lot of love and dreams to chase!

Of course I’m writing this -- my story -- for Haley Jane and William Thomas. I want them to know that they can be whoever they want to be. I want them to know that if they have a dream, to not let anyone knock them off their path of achieving that dream. 

It’s what my mom did for me. And it’s what I will always do as a dad.

James Clark is one of the leading basketball player development coaches in the world and CEO of Full Court Solutions, a full-service basketball training company.

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