WHEN DENIS CLEMENTE was growing up in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, he always heard stories about a first cousin of his father's who had died before he was born. This cousin played baseball; Denny also played baseball. The cousin was fast; Denny was maybe even faster. And as Denny matured, excelling as an outfielder—the cousin's position—crowds in Bayamón buzzed. "Everyone talked about him," says Art (Pilin) Alvarez, his AAU coach, "because of Roberto, of course."
But no one in the family of Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Hall of Famer, could have foreseen where his supposed heir would be playing today: Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kans. Denis, 22, is stirring conversation again—as the new point guard at Kansas State. "I always liked basketball more," he says. "There's just more movement."
Movement has been the dominant motif of Clemente's career. The first time Alvarez spotted him, Denis was a skinny 15-year-old who had been clocked dribbling baseline to baseline in a breakneck 3.6 seconds. At the 2006 ACC tournament CBS analyst Billy Packer proclaimed that Clemente, then a Miami freshman, was "the fastest player in college basketball." Coach Frank Martin of Kansas State—where Clemente transferred after two seasons with the Hurricanes—says Clemente is "the fastest person I've ever seen with a ball in his hands."
By his own admission, though, Clemente's journey has been more of a steeplechase than a sprint. As a junior at Miami's Calusa Prep he outscored Tyler Hansbrough and Kevin Durant at a Nike AAU tournament. Calusa went 48--5 during Clemente's two seasons there, and the school retired his number. But in college he ran headlong into trouble. In his sophomore year he was suspended by the Hurricanes twice and finally dismissed in March 2007 for violating unspecified team rules. "I learned a lot from the experience," Clemente says. "If you want to play, you have to be more responsible."
He transferred to K-State to play for Martin, an old friend of Alvarez's. Forced by transfer rules to sit out last season, when the Wildcats made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 12 years, Clemente worked hard on the practice team and in the weight room, putting on 20 pounds of muscle—he's now 6'1" and 175—and learning from Wildcats stars Mike Beasley and Bill Walker. "I saw how hungry they were to get to the next level," Clemente says. "I wanted the same things."
Now that Beasley and Walker have left school early for the NBA, a smaller Wildcats offense will have to accelerate. Its engine will be Clemente, who has switched to number 21 in honor of his famous relative. "I'm going to run and run," the junior says. "I think we're going to be the fastest team in the Big 12." If he's right, the crowds in Manhattan will buzz just like the ones in Bayamón.
CRAIG HACKER PHOTOGRAPHY
MANHATTAN TRANSFER Clemente will be the spark for smaller, quicker Kansas State.