Keon Clark (center) holds career averages of 8.2 points and 5.9 rebounds. (Gary Bassing/Getty Images)
Former lottery pick Keon Clark was sentenced to eight years in an Illinois prison Wednesday after he pleaded guilty to weapons and DUI charges, the Associated Press reports.
Clark, 38, was the No. 13 pick in the 1998 draft, and he spent six seasons with the Nuggets, Raptors, Kings and Jazz before his NBA career ended in 2004. He's served multiple prison stints and faced a series of criminal charges during his post-NBA career, and he dealt with serious alcohol abuse during his time in the league.
"I never played a game sober, unfortunately," Clark said in 2007, according to the Associated Press.
In 2012, a sheriff's deputy found a loaded firearm in Clark's house, which was a violation of his parole. Earlier this year, the News-Gazette reports that Clark admitted to having "too many beers" after driving his car into a telephone pole and flipping it over. The paper also documented Clark's trouble with alcoholism.
"I, uh, did a lot of stuff in my past," Clark said at his plea hearing in Vermilion County Circuit Court, tears streaming down his face. "I have to own up to it."
On the stand, he testified that he started drinking alcohol in high school. By the time he turned pro, he said, he was drinking a half-pint to a pint of gin a day. He drank at halftime during NBA games. He also testified that after leaving the NBA and returning to Danville, he spent much of his time drinking and playing golf. His drinking caused him to black out every day.
"The money, the fame, the fact that I was on TV. People think money will make your life better. Money didn't dissolve my problems. It increased them," said Clark, who grew up poor.
"I was already on a destructive path," he continued. "What happened was people looked at me, and they saw my persona. What they put on me was not me. You can't live up to something you're not. ... Nobody cares about your problems. Everybody diminished my problems, including myself."
A 6-foot-11 big man who attended UNLV before going pro, Clark holds career averages of 8.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks.
Jackie MacMullan referred to Clark as "talented but maturity-challenged" in her 1998 mock draft, and Gerry Callahan wrote a 1998 Sports Illustrated future that NBA talent evaluators were enamored with Clark's potential even though he had a series of disciplinary issues, including a positive marijuana test, while in college.
With a lucrative professional career dangling before him, what did he do? He got suspended twice and then quit. In his senior season Neon Keon, as he's known, was eligible for only 10 of UNLV's 28 games. "I definitely feel like I let my team down," he says. "I came back because I thought we could win. I wanted a ring." The Rebels won the WAC tournament and then lost to Princeton in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but by the postseason, Clark was long gone. "They actually seemed to get better without him, and that makes you wonder," says one NBA general manager.
Orlando Magic general manager John Gabriel, who will make the 12th and 13th selections—both lottery picks—in the draft, says of Clark, "He's got big-time athleticism. He can do things above the rim. He's got a chance to be a special player in this league." Will Gabriel grab Clark if he is available? "I wouldn't rule it out," he says.
Carroll Dawson, the Houston Rockets' vice president of basketball, saw Clark play three times last winter and recently put him through a predraft workout. Dawson came away impressed with at least one aspect of Clark's game. "He can take an offensive rebound and in one motion funnel it back into the basket better than anyone I've seen in a long, long time," says Dawson, whose team will pick 14th but is looking for help in the backcourt. "That is something that takes exceptional athletic ability as well as long arms."
Boston Celtics general manager Chris Wallace says Clark "has immense athletic ability, maybe more than any other player in the draft." The Celtics, who need big men, own the 10th pick and are seriously considering Clark, warts and all. "The big issue with Keon is the off-the-court—the intangibles," says Wallace. "We have to round up all the facts, listen to his side of the story, talk to other people and weigh the risk-reward with him. We'll look at the whole picture."
A brief 2001 profile in Sports Illustrated by L. Jon Wertheim noted that Clark impressed his Raptors teammates with his athleticism, his dunking ability and his skinny legs.
Beanpoles. Nine-irons. Dipsticks. Pipe cleaners. You name it, and Raptors reserve forward Keon Clark has heard it about his legs, which are so slender that they make his size-16 high-tops look like clown shoes. Good-natured about his extreme lower extremities, Clark prefers a more flattering comparison. "My legs pack a lot of power," he says. "I call them my rocket boosters."
Clark has achieved liftoff with the Raptors, who acquired him from the Nuggets in a six-player trade on Jan. 12. Endowed with a 40-inch vertical leap and an 89-inch wingspan, Clark is giving Vince Carter a run for his money asToronto's most highlight-worthy dunker. "I especially like the follow-ups," Clark says. "I can get free for those because teams key on Vince."
Says Toronto center Antonio Davis, "Keon's been a great fit, the way he's played with so much energy. But how he does it on those long, skinny legs, I'll never know."