Ron Everhart heard a knock on his door. It was a Monday afternoon in late January, the day after Duquesne's 82-64 win over Dayton, and the coach looked up to see a familiar face: senior forward Bill Clark, the leading scorer on a resurgent Dukes team.
Clark's visits were not unusual, but the tone of this conversation was. He was not asking for more shots, claiming unfair treatment or asking to be more than a role player, as he sometimes had in the past. Instead, he and his coach were discussing the graduate courses Clark was taking and how the underclassmen were progressing, when, suddenly, Clark stopped. "Thanks," he said, and his coach was taken aback. "What the hell are you thanking me for?" Everhart asked. "Thanks for staying on me," Clark said. "I never realized how fun this could be."
That was around the peak of the fun so far, 11 games into the Dukes' 12-game midseason winning streak. But even with a post-streak slide -- Duquesne has lost five of six, slipping into a fourth-place tie in the Atlantic 10 -- this season has been notable for a team that was pegged eighth in the conference in October. With an aggressive, uptempo style on both sides of the ball, the Dukes (17-10, 9-5 A-10) are among the nation's leaders in assists (18.1 per game, which ranks second) and forced turnovers (20.7, ranking first). In January, shortly after thumping then-No. 19 Temple 78-66, they received their first AP poll votes in at least three decades.
While Duquesne's at-large candidacy has fallen victim to its recent skid, there's still one viable way to earn the program's first NCAA tournament berth since 1977: regain the form of the hot streak and take next week's A-10 tourney in Atlantic City.
Clark, who averages a team-best 16.6 points and 6.3 rebounds, and fellow senior Damian Saunders (12.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, and 2.3 steals) have helped key the program's turnaround and will become Duquesne's first four-year players not to experience a losing season since 1975. They give the Dukes one of the league's most versatile forward combos -- the 6-foot-7 Saunders is the school's all-time leader in blocks and steals -- and valuable experience on a squad that starts an all-freshman backcourt. Said one half of that duo, point guard T.J. McConnell: "I think we have the two best leaders in the NCAA."
But less than a year ago, Clark was so far in Everhart's doghouse that he wasn't even on the team. He sat alone in his dorm room last March, listening helplessly to the online radio feed of Duquesne's loss at Princeton in the opening round of the College Basketball Invitational, a postseason tournament that ranks below the NIT. He planned to leave school after the semester, having been suspended indefinitely by Everhart the week before, after a steady stream of back-talk culminated in a pre-practice confrontation in front of the team. "It was a behavioral situation that had to change," Everhart said. "I felt like if he [learned] how to keep his composure and handle things better, the sky was the limit for this kid."
After she learned of the suspension, Clark's mother, Rhonda, decided to intercede on her son's behalf. She called Everhart -- not to make excuses or even to ask that her son be reinstated. She just wanted the coach to know the full picture, why an outgoing kid from a nice SoCal suburb ended up with such a big chip on his shoulder, so she told Everhart a story that Clark has never talked about publicly until now.
Bill Clark never knew his father, William Clinton Clark. His parents separated before he was two years old, leaving Rhonda to raise Bill and his sister, RhyAnne, who was 3 at the time. In 1991, when Bill was 3, his father was arrested in connection with a botched robbery in a Fountain Valley, Calif., computer store. A woman named Kathy Lee was fatally shot in the head during the holdup. In October 1997, a jury found Clark guilty of planning the robbery and of arranging the execution-style murder of Ardell Love Williams, a woman who had agreed to testify against him. In December '97, despite not being present at either killing, he was sentenced to death for his role in planning both crimes.
Rhonda did not follow the case or wish to know any of the details, and she avoided telling her children the truth about their father's absence for as long as she could. But when Bill and RhyAnne were 8 and 9, respectively, she couldn't put off the questions any longer. Versions of the conversation differ in setting and details, but the children learned he was in prison and would not be returning, and Rhonda remembers they both cried. It was not discussed much after that, just a point in their past from which they were all moving forward.
By then they were living in an apartment in Palos Verdes, Calif., a wealthy L.A. suburb known for its stunning Pacific vistas and scenic horse trails. Rhonda moved them there in 1992, seeking both a fresh start for the family and quality educations for her children. School brought questioning classmates -- this was Palos Verdes, after all, a place where less than five percent of homes have no father present. So Bill mostly feigned ignorance, and even when he occasionally admitted his father was incarcerated, he deflected follow-ups with one "I don't know" after another. "If you look like you have no clue, people don't really harp on it," Clark said. "It makes things easier."
But he rarely made things easy for himself in other ways. He received multiple suspensions as first-grader for fighting kids as much as four years older. As a middle schooler, Bill was pudgy and plodding, sporting a 34-inch waist and joints that grew sore from bones in his body growing at uneven rates. He talked backed to coaches and officials and got into jostling matches with opposing players. In eighth grade, he piled up technical fouls so frequently his coach only let him play one half. His mother, an engineer, took a second job working at a children's clothing store to pay for his AAU trips, but Bill spent games glued to the bench and weekends uninvited to team sleepovers. Even when he thinned out and grew to be a 20-point scorer as a junior at Palos Verdes Peninsula High, he was passed over for team MVP at the season-ending award ceremony. The fire was fueled further. "He always had a good heart and it came from the right place," said Brad Doan, a family friend of the Clarks. "He just cared too much."
The next year he moved across the country to spend his senior year at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, where his cellular service was so spotty he swiped phones from sleeping teammates to call home. After that came a post-grad prep year at Worcester (Mass.) Academy, where he became so close with a friend's family, who treated this tattooed kid from California like their own son, that he thought it was only fair they know his story. He began to slowly let his past unfold -- his father's incarceration, how he never knew the man, the struggles of his mother -- but as he watched the tears stream down his friend's cheeks, he resolved not to tell the story again. "For what?" he asked now. "I wouldn't want people to feel bad for me. I didn't do that. It doesn't affect me at all."
Clark has heard from his father just twice over the years -- two isolated connections prompted by RhyAnne reaching out for answers when she got to college and her brother was at prep school. The last time was a brief phone call, which caught Bill by surprise on the way home from a coffee shop and found him with little to offer in the way of conversation. The other was in the form of a 16-page letter. In it was a tracing of his father's hand, a mark against which Bill could measure himself. "I put my hand to it," he said, "and it was just as big as his."
When he arrived in Pittsburgh in the fall of '07, Clark was an immediate contributor, starting nine games and averaging 8.3 points. But away from the court he kept habits picked up on lonely prep school campuses, eating meals alone and eschewing team outings in favor of watching DVDs in his dorm room. His stats steadily improved, but Clark never fully integrated with his teammates, even clashing with them at times -- another factor that led to Everhart suspending Clark last spring.
That was when the change started. Clark got the message, owning up to his transgressions with his coach and family and smoothing things over with his teammates. The Dukes voted to reinstate their co-captain and Everhart, enlightened by conversation with Rhonda and impressed by Clark's new attitude, did so. Now Clark calls the suspension "one of the best things that ever happened to me."
He immediately validated his teammates' faith in him. Even while juggling an 18-credit course load that enabled him to graduate last summer (he has, fittingly, started a graduate program in sports leadership this year), Clark stayed late at offseason workouts to see teammates finish their reps and set the pace by finishing first in conditioning drills. Once-rare social outings with teammates have become the norm. "This year he makes it his business to say, 'What are you guys doing?' " junior B.J. Monteiro said. Now Clark takes teammates to his favorite local food joint, The Chinatown Inn, so often that when he walks in with McConnell, they're greeted with a question: "The usual?"
Where Clark would once duck blame for blown assignments or misplays in practice, this season Everhart has seen him accept responsibility even for miscues made by others. When McConnell has an off night, Clark and Saunders pick him up with tales of their own rookie struggles. "Now Bill Clark is the coach in that locker room," Everhart said. "He's accountable, they're accountable, and we're accountable to each other."
"If you're having a bad day, Bill's that guy that will charm you up and make you forget about your problems," Saunders said. "If you're not going as hard as he is, you're gonna hear a mouthful about it. Guys like that are the guys you need."
It's the first Tuesday in February, a day after Clark paid thanks in Everhart's office, and the Dukes are lined up in two rows on the floor of the Palumbo Center, one sitting and one standing, as they prepare to take a team photo. The timing was never right before; first the jerseys arrived late, and once the season got underway there was never a time when all the players and staff were on campus at the same time. But now they are camera-ready and Clark is seated front and center with ball in hand.
The next night he will post a double-double -- the fourth of his five this season -- in a double-digit win over George Washington. He will do it while absorbing hard fouls, elbows, sudden collisions he never saw coming, and after the game his teammates and coaches will marvel at his restraint and Clark's left brow will be swollen like a prize fighter's. Across the country, a mother and sister will watch the action on computer screens, noticing how he walks away from the paint when a defender plants an elbow in his ribs, seeing him beam with delight after a key three-pointer. They know he's anxious to earn a pro contract somewhere and provide for his family in a way his father never did, but they keep reminding him to focus on enjoying his final collegiate season.
"We're statistics," said RhyAnne, who is working on her honors thesis at UC-San Diego. "The state, the government, whoever you want to call it -- they expect us to fail. He's already proven everybody wrong." RhyAnne runs her brother's name through search engines every week, and when she finds stories about his leadership and his positive impact on the Dukes, she sends them to her mother. "Mom, this is a big deal," she tells her. "You've done your job."
But now Clark is sitting for the team photo, Dukes all around, as two athletic department employees walk past and stop to look on. Clark is hamming it up, squeezing the ball between his legs, going through a series of poses, ignoring pleas to cooperate for the photographer. One of the staffers lets out a laugh and shakes her head. "Oh, look at Billy," she says, and the man next to her grins. "Look at Billy Clark smile."