Publish date:

Prince Or Frog? Keon Clark from UNLV is the great unknown of this year's draft

For the last four years, he has moved around more than a
fugitive from the FBI and showed up on more university campuses
than Greenpeace. Even Keon Clark has trouble remembering all the
stops along the way. Clark, a center who most recently played
for UNLV, attended four colleges, not including Temple, the
school to which he committed while at Danville (Ill.) High.
"It's too bad," says Clark. "I probably wouldn't have had all
the trouble I had in Vegas if I had just gone to Temple in the
first place."

When his academic shortcomings kept him out of Temple, Clark
went to a junior college in California, then to one back in
Danville and then to yet another in Utah before signing with
UNLV. There he got into trouble for, among other things, letting
an agent pick up the tab for a spring-break trip he took to
Florida in his junior year. That earned Clark an 11-game
suspension to start his senior season; he later tested positive
for marijuana, which earned him another suspension. He decided
he didn't want to wait out that benching, so in February he left
the Runnin' Rebels to prepare for an NBA career. Now, while
evaluating Clark before the June 24 draft, NBA general managers
and coaches can be sure of one thing: At least he's accustomed
to the travel. "We like Keon a lot," says one general manager,
"but do you get the feeling he has trouble finishing things he

Can he finish? That's the question many teams are asking about
Clark, a possible lottery pick whose unpolished talent makes him
perhaps the draft's most tantalizing prospect. Clark, 23, stands
a shade over 6'10", has soft hands, long arms and leaping
ability that leaves scouts drooling. But though his wingspan may
be an off-the-charts 7'5", his attention span isn't quite as
impressive. Clark says that as a kid he never thought about
playing in the NBA, and it's not hard to believe him. The NBA is
tomorrow; the carefree Clark doesn't like to think beyond today.
"It sounds funny, but I really don't think he's followed the NBA
much," says John Spezia, the coach at Danville Area Community
College, where Clark took classes briefly but never played. "He
likes to do lots of things, sing, tell jokes. He's a nice,
fun-loving kid, but sometimes he can be in his own world."

A year ago, after earning all-WAC honors and setting a UNLV
single-season record for blocked shots (112, in 29 games), Clark
could have declared himself eligible for the draft and been a
middle-to-late-first-round pick. He chose instead to play his
senior season for the Rebels in hopes of improving his NBA
stock. But 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.

Quitting your team is an unorthodox way to get ready for the
next level. "Keon's got a lot of talent and a lot of potential,"
says UNLV assistant coach Dave Rice, "but I don't think he
understands how good he can be."

Fortunately for Clark, NBA people do. 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."

Clark's off-court blunders have given lower-lottery teams such
as Boston and Orlando a realistic shot at his services. What if
he had spent four years at one school and had amassed an
impeccable record? "We wouldn't be having this conversation,"
says Wallace. "He'd be going in the first few picks."

By draft day perhaps no player will have been as closely
scrutinized as Clark. In the weeks leading up to the draft,
Clark has bounced around the country even more than usual. As of
Sunday at least eight teams either had had him in or were
scheduled to have him in for predraft interviews, workouts and
psychological exams. After visiting the first cities on his
itinerary, Clark said he was enjoying the tour and felt
confident that he was winning over skeptics in the NBA's front
offices. "I'm pretty sure I'm making a good impression wherever
I go," he says. "All I know is when I leave, it's all smiles."

Clark often leaves them smiling. Unlike another troubled but
talented former UNLV star, Portland Trail Blazers guard Isaiah
Rider, Clark disarms his critics with a playful demeanor. "J.R.
was J.R.," he says. "I'm a different person." Gregarious and
upbeat, Clark does not squirm or scowl when confronted with his
mistakes. He explains them without a hint of remorse. "I never
regret anything," he says. "I just try to learn from everything
I do."

When his junior season ended, Clark says, Runnin' Rebels
teammate Kevin Simmons told Clark he had a way to get the two of
them to Florida free for spring break. Clark just followed
along, looking to have fun. He says he didn't realize that the
fun was being bankrolled by an agent--until arriving in Florida.
"We got picked up in a limo, and we got wined and dined," he
says. "And then it was, like, oh, boy, we're in trouble."

Clark says he called his mother, Cynthia Brown, back in Danville
and explained his situation. She called UNLV coach Bill Bayno,
who insisted that Clark and Simmons turn themselves in to the
NCAA and hope for leniency. "I was like, oh, no, we can't do
that--we're UNLV," says Clark. "Ever since Tark [former coach
Jerry Tarkanian] was here, the school has had a tarnished
reputation with the NCAA. We're not going to get a break." Clark
says Cynthia, who works for an insurance company and raised him
alone ("always just the two of us," Clark says fondly), paid to
fly him home from Florida, but that did not dissuade the NCAA
from coming down hard six months later.

"Eleven games," Clark says, shaking his head. "That was a lot
worse than I thought it would be. Coach Bayno and I were
thinking three or four games. Eleven games. That was tough."
Simmons was forced to sit out 14 games.

Clark returned to the Rebels on Jan. 4, and in his second game
back, against Air Force, scored a career-high 28 points. He went
on to average 32.0 minutes, 14.8 points, 8.6 boards and 2.2
blocks in his next 10 games but never felt comfortable on the
court. "I think he tried to make up for those 11 games every
time he played," says Rice.

On Feb. 7, Clark sat out a game against Wofford because of what
a team spokesman said was "conjunctivitis." Two days later Bayno
suspended Clark indefinitely. The only reason given was a
violation of team rules, but Clark says now that he had failed a
school-administered drug test, and he knows what people are
thinking, How could he be so dumb? Why would someone on the
brink of an NBA career risk it all just to get high?

"It was just me, and it was a mistake," he says. The positive
drug test earned Clark his second suspension, but this one was
different. This time, he wasn't welcome at practice. "Basically,
I wasn't allowed to better myself," Clark says. "I could do
individual workouts, lift weights, that kind of thing, but I
couldn't practice, and that hurt."

So Clark decided to pack his bags yet again and, with Bayno's
blessing, leave Las Vegas. He signed with veteran agent Tony
Dutt (who wasn't his spring-break host) and went to New Orleans
for a month to work with renowned trainer Mackie Shilstone. At
220 pounds Clark knows he needs to add muscle if he intends to
mix it up with the top centers and power forwards of the NBA.
"Keon's stronger than he looks, but he really doesn't like a lot
of contact," says David Rose, who coached Clark at Dixie College
in St. George, Utah, and is now an assistant at BYU. "He likes
to get up and down the floor, catch it on the move and finish
the break."

"The big questions with Keon are strength, physical play and
consistency," says Wallace. "We know he's a highlight-film
player who can make the spectacular play. It remains to be seen
if he can be a consistent player at the next level. Right now
he's the wild card."

Right now the wild card from Vegas could go almost anywhere. One
thing's for sure: As usual, his bags are packed. "I don't care
where I go," says Clark, looking forward to draft night in
Vancouver. "I just want to get a phone call, go on stage and
wear a hat."

COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER Pete and repeat Clark, with Kings assistant Pete Carril, had more workouts than Jack LaLanne. [Keon Clark practicing as Pete Carril observes]

"He's a highlight film player," says one general manager, "but
can he be consistent?"