LIKE many American teenagers who discover they’re pretty good at making the basketball go swish through the net, Cameron Clarke dreamt of reaching the NBA.
Born and raised in a Lewisville, a city with a similar population to Cork, on the edge of Dallas, he gravitated towards football initially before realising the pull of basketball was stronger. LeBron James was his idol to the degree he was cheering on the Miami Heat when they were beaten by the Dallas Mavs in the 2011 finals.
Clarke first played organised basketball at 13 under Coach Al in a summer league and — as many Irish youngsters have — tried a dual mandate for a while. Before he turned 16 he was a powerhouse, operating as a receiver or defensive end in football, and a weights programme saw him hit 16 stone of muscle.
His basketball was suffering though. Talented enough to merit a starting spot he often only clocked a couple of minutes of game-time on the hardwood as he hadn’t committed fully to training. Once he did, a path eventually opened up towards a professional career.
Not that the 24-year-old envisaged ending up on Leeside — or more specifically Ballincollig where he’s prepping for a National Cup final in Dublin.
However, he was always conscious that playing basketball in Europe was more attainable than the NBA.
“Sure who wouldn’t want to play in the NBA but going overseas is cool. You get to see a different country, and I was never overseas when I was younger.
“You play the sport you love and meet interesting people.”
He remembers Booker Woodfox, a fellow Lewisville native seven years his senior and one-time NBA draft prospect, cruising around the city after earning money in stints in Venezuela and Colombia.
More exotic than Ballincollig of course, but it planted a seed. While a Cork winter can test a man’s patience, he’s finding his stint here far more enjoyable than a season in Finland. He hasn’t been converted to a cup of tea yet, in fact he doesn’t even drink coffee, but the generosity of the Irish has been a huge bonus.
“You have your days where it’s ‘man I miss home’ but Ballincollig’s a great place to live. In Finland it wasn’t the language barrier but the way we were set up was tough.
“There were three Americans and we had a car but we couldn’t do as much, just outside Helsinki but I felt a bit trapped.
“It was a dark, cold, snowing all the time.”
How did he land at Ballincollig, newcomers to the national league and now into their first national final on the back of Clarke’s dazzling 39-point display in the semi-final defeat of Killarney? It was through a team-mate in Finland BJ Cardarelli, who is currently playing in Luxemburg.
“BJ’s dad had coached a women’s team in Ireland and he put the word out. I was onto BJ and told him I hadn’t signed anywhere. He nearly came to Ireland himself.
“I thought I’d be going to the top league so I was a bit worried when I heard Ballincollig were a step-down. I was told they would be competitive, have a chance to push for top four and the main trophies I was excited.
“Now I feel like I’m set up better than any American in the country. I’m living five minutes from the bus stop. I’m near Cork and I can work out in the Oriel and get into the gym to shoot too.
“I can make my day go by and get what I need done and still enjoy life.”
Clarke spoke to Ballincollig coach Kieran O’Sullivan and his son Ronan before flying across the Atlantic, which put his mind at ease. They’ve helped him integrate into the team, while he’s indebted to Daniel O’Sullivan and Colin Murray’s friendship off the court.
“Dan and Colin have looked after me most. They’d fire me a text to pick me up, go watch a game, bring me to their house for some dinner.”
The standard has impressed him – Ciarán and Ronan O’Sullivan, Jack Kelly, Dylan Corkery and more in his own squad, Roy Downey with Neptune, Michael McGinn at Fr Mathew’s.
And the way of life is enjoyable.
The day before we met at sponsors Tradehouse Central, was spent shooting and watching a Ballincollig underage game with Daniel O’Sullivan, before a trip to town for Liverpool versus Man City and a feed in Son of a Bun to finish off. Tall and athletic, with earrings and a distinctive beard, Clarke stands out for his style off the court as much as his dynamism on it.
“I don’t get any looks that say ‘what are you doing here?’ it’s more ‘hey, what do you do here?’ They’re interested.
“I guess it’s obvious I’m American and once you’re involved in sports the Irish are on board. Racism is everywhere but I haven’t had problems. I love Ireland, I really do.”
The seal of approval was provided by his mother Rochelle, who travelled over for Christmas and was in Neptune Stadium to watch him rip it up against Killarney.
“My mom is still Facetiming me about her trip to Ireland. It was the time of her life!”
There are no Irish roots he’s aware of, though his father’s name, Johnny Clarke, hints at some.
He’s making local connections of his own now. While he concedes taking a full session with an underage team is demanding, he’s delighted to assist some of the growing Ballincollig club’s rising stars.
“The young guys want to learn from me. Isaac and Cathal and a few more have done a lot of shooting.
I’m helping them out but they’re great for me too.
Instead of me chasing down all the rebounds I’m getting my shooting rhythm.
“I’ll make five shots, they make five shots, we’re doing drills and you end up with putting 300 shots up. I felt more confident shooting in that semi-final because of it.” Clarke appreciates the value of hard-work because he wouldn’t be a professional otherwise.
“My high-school coach was really positive and that trickled down but he wasn’t big into skill-work. We always did our own thing to get better. We just believed in ourselves. We improved by just continuously playing.
“Here one of the main problems is the kids can’t get in the gyms.
“In Texas I had six gyms nearby I could go to whenever. There was a rec centre that was like $15 to get into for the entire year. You could fall into pick-up games.
“I know some of the kids here in Ballincollig would love that type of thing.”
After a fine high-school career and evolving from a forward to a ball-handling guard, Clarke targeted making his mark in college. Division 1 and 2 offers weren’t forthcoming but he found a home in the NAI in Kansas with Southwestern. He thrived, with a Freshman of the Year accolade.
Having grown up with friends who loved baseball, sprinting, football and basketball, sport meant everything.
“Kids here, if they could just see the system we came through, it would be a real eye-opener. It’s different but if you’re into sport, it’s a good ‘different’. Sports rule in Texas, it really dominates.
“I remember when we beat the number one in the State, Cedar Hill, in the playoffs in my junior year at high school and my teacher came up to me and said ‘you played so well don’t even worry about that homework’.
“Sports bring in so much money to schools. Crowds are really good. We sold out a college arena for a high school game, 17-, 18-year-olds.”
The prospect of leaving that behind was daunting but now Clarke has an opportunity to make history with Ballincollig. Killorglin have only lost once all season and defeated Neptune in the semi-final.
“They’re a good team but they’re beatable.
“They shot really well down there when we lost to them on their court and it was probably our worst shooting performance of the year. They’ve decent size and very solid players.
“It’s exciting that we’re playing one of the best teams on the big stage. There’s no better way to win a championship.”
Though domiciled in the Collig, and despite Colin Murray and Daniel O’Sullivan teaching him about the popularity of soccer, hurling and football, he still avidly follows the NBA on his iPad.
He’s in contact with Marcus Smart, vital cog with the Boston Celtics and contemporary from Dallas.
Dwayne Wade, Allen Iverson, and Chauncey Billups were early favourites along with LeBron. Now it’s the likes of the diminutive Isaiah Thomas, the ice-cool James Harden and the stylish Kyrie Irving.
“I love the NBA. (Russell) Westbrook is great to watch of course. His competitive nature is off the charts. I liked the (current champions) Warriors more without KD (Kevin Durrant). Steph (Curry) is amazing. He had to work to do what he’s doing. He’s the man.
“I love Draymond Green. His attitude, his tenacity, the way he always competes.
“LeBron though just does everything. For someone that size to have such basketball IQ. He carries himself so well. He’s never in trouble but stands for what he believes in.”
As role models, they probably don’t get better and LeBron always shines on the big stage.
That’s the challenge now in the National Basketball Arena tomorrow.