Jack Clark doesn’t assess himself with any degree of boastfulness. He is stating the facts of his basketball life.
“I’d say mentally, I’m probably one of the strongest people,” the La Salle wing guard said recently, sitting on a bench outside Tom Gola Arena.
It wasn’t always so. Go back, say, six years, Clark said, and he’s pretty sure he couldn’t have handled all he’s since been through as well. Now, even a global pandemic, he’s been able to deal with it.
“The injuries really took a toll on me,” Clark said, then he added a postscript: “In a good way.”
La Salle fans know the basics and will be happy to hear Clark declare himself “100%” healthy. Many remember how Clark tore an anterior cruciate ligament back when he was playing for Cheltenham High, “a week or two after” he had committed to La Salle. He’d gotten away for a fast-break dunk, slammed it with two hands, landed badly. Clark got back in time to play nine games for La Salle as a freshman, and averaged 10.6 points and 4.3 rebounds.
Then there was another tear, meaning another missed season.
“The second time, it really took a toll mentally,” Clark said. “Like, wow, another year of rehab. Rehabs for ACLs are crazy. It was a struggle for me at first. Physically, not at all, because I was used to the pain, used to the exercises.”
Clark was back last season, started 19 games, and actually led the Explorers with 9.9 points a game, adding 5.2 rebounds to his previous average, proving he wasn’t just a guy floating around the outside.
The word “back,” it should be noted, doesn’t allow for much nuance.
“It’s weird, man,” La Salle coach Ashley Howard said. “We were talking yesterday. I said, ‘Dude, you’re faster, stronger, more explosive than you’ve ever been.’”
Reborn might be too strong a term.
“He’s still learning about himself,” Howard said. “Learning what he’s capable of. At 6-8, with his skill, he can do so much, like effortlessly. Once he realizes his full potential and he steps on the floor every day to play to his full potential, I think he’s going to be a special player. I’ve always felt that way about him.”
His skills come from an interesting place. Not just because his father played ball and coached Jack on the junior varsity at Cheltenham High. Or because his grandfather, John Parker, a former star player at Millersville, had been an NBA referee whose first game had also been the first game Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played in the NBA.
“I would always complain to my parents, ‘Am I ever going to grow?’ ” Clark said.
For a long time, Clark was an average guy for his class. His dad was 6-2 and his mom was 5-10. He wasn’t looking to get up to Abdul-Jabbar or anything, but he wanted some height.
“Your time is going to come,” his parents would tell him.
It finally happened. Clark remembered a growth spurt that felt like “8 inches in a year,” he said. “I’ve got to buy new shoes.”
It probably was not quite that much, maybe 5 or 6 inches, as he went through the details of it. But the spurt kept going even into college. A 6-6 guard had committed to La Salle. A 6-8 guy showed up.
“My sleeves [suddenly] stopped mid-forearm,” Clark said. “I used to sleep in a twin bed [at home]. That was a weird thing, waking up and my ankles were off the bed at one point.”
His eating habits grew accordingly.
“I ate a lot,” Clark said. “People eat three meals a day. It was probably more like six. My mom would buy gallons of milk. Gallons on top of gallons.”
He was into healthy eating, though.
“I’m really into vegetables,” Clark said. “I ate a lot of Brussels sprouts and spinach. I’m really into spinach. My mom and dad both cooked a lot.”
So he got the height he’d always begged for, and then some.
“A great thing for me, especially being a guard,” Clark said. “Knowing that I could do everything a smaller guard could do, but with a bigger frame.”
Other than the ACLs, he had injuries that seem almost mundane. “Ankle injuries. I fractured my pinky. You can still see it,” he said, holding it out. “It’s still messed up now. A ball hit it and snapped it out of place, a summer-league game in high school.”
He doesn’t blame the growth spurt for his knee injuries — “I’m not going to say that’s why I kept getting hurt. But I think that’s why my body wasn’t as strong as fast.”
“In the past, you always knew he was battling back — he’s a little rusty, we’ve got to be patient with him, because he hasn’t had time to really work and develop his game,” Howard said, explaining his own thought process in previous years. “Now, he’s still coming into his game, but the fact he feels good, his confidence is good, and he’s able to practice and do extra work and all those things, I think it’s going to help him as the season goes on.”
Their conversations continue, about working on rebounding, defending, scoring, ball-handling — “because I can do everything … I’m sort of like the guy on the team who doesn’t really have a position.”
There are advantages, as well as responsibilities, to being that guy.
“Definitely,” Clark agreed.
And the mental part, he can check that off. “Knowing I could get through two years of rehab back-to-back, not playing basketball for two years,” Clark said.
The child who once wondered when he’d ever grow took on another assignment during his injury comeback. “Trying to make myself better in every way.”