Jordan Clarkson didn’t get off the bench in the Lakers’ latest game, as if that was even close to a travesty.
His real edification on the unpredictability of life came last year, after the best game of his college career at Missouri.
He had just blitzed Kentucky for 28 points — Kentucky! — and earned an immediate sit-down with his dad and stepmom, who were in town. They came with a purpose, it turned out, leaving their San Antonio home for a few life-changing days in Missouri.
It had nothing to do with Clarkson’s pro basketball future, where some personnel experts pegged him as a first-round pick after the Kentucky performance.
For the record: A caption with the top photo originally identified Jordan Clarkson on the left. He is kneeling and his brother Bear Clarkson is standing on the left.
It had everything to do with his father being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in his lower back. A tumor had wrapped itself around his spine and was spreading upward, getting close to his lungs.
Clarkson was crestfallen. How could he not be?
His father, Mike, was everything to him. Even looked exactly like him, albeit at 51 years old.
“He was my best friend growing up,” Clarkson said. “He shaped me into what I am today.”
While his father began treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Clarkson’s game faded. He didn’t score 28 points again and never approached the same 11-for-17 accuracy he showed that early February night.
The drop-off was stunning, if not understandable. Before knowing of his father’s disease, he averaged 18.9 points and shot 48%. From there, he dropped to 15.4 points and 39%.
Clarkson, 21 at the time, started tumbling toward the second round of the NBA draft, where there were no guaranteed contracts.
“I try not to blame outside stuff for what’s happening on the court. But at the time, there was just a lot of stuff going on,” Clarkson said. “Basketball is not only played physically with skills and stuff. You have to be there all mentally, and I feel like toward the second half of that season, I really wasn’t. I feel like that’s why my play slipped like that.”
He couldn’t stop thinking about his father. And his stepmother, Janie, and teenage brother, Bear, and what would become of them.
He started to envision himself as the family provider, placing even more pressure on his basketball skills. He scored only seven points against Tennessee. Only 11 points against Florida as Missouri got eliminated in its conference tournament. And only 13 points in what became his final college game, a loss to Southern Mississippi in the National Invitation Tournament. He missed nine of 13 shots.
“If anything ever happened, I had to take the lead in the family,” he said.
He was drafted by the Lakers three months later, the franchise liking him enough to buy its way into the second round. The Lakers didn’t have a pick there because of the Steve Nash trade but gave $1.8 million to the Washington Wizards for the 46th overall selection.
The Lakers liked what they saw of the 6-foot-5 junior at the NBA scouting combine — and in those earlier games in Missouri’s season.
“To get a guy like that at 46, we’re pleased,” Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said at the time.
Clarkson was a hit at the team’s summer league, racking up points in free-flowing games that rarely have tough defense.
His adjustment to the actual NBA has been less fluid, the transition from shoot-first point guard to passer taking time.
Sometimes he is too fast on the court, trying to blow past defenders without thinking of his next move. He is averaging 4.3 points and 0.7 assists in 16 games for the Lakers (10-23).
Coach Byron Scott has said he needs to work on his ball-handling, but the Lakers like his aggressiveness.
The first year of his contract was guaranteed for $507,336. The Lakers hold an $845,059 option on him next season.
Of greater importance, well beyond basketball and financial gain, Clarkson’s father has stabilized, even improved.
Mike Clarkson was spending most of his days in a wheelchair after doctors severed three nerves near his spine to ensure removal of the cancer over a series of procedures.
He recently started using a walker to get around, otherwise known as significant medical progress. His cancer has diminished greatly, and there are only a handful of satellite cells that doctors are observing.
“I’m not supposed to be walking, but I’m up with a walker,” said Mike Clarkson, who works in the Air Force. “Regardless of what doctors say, God doesn’t work with statistics.”
Looking back, it ate at father to see son struggling the last two months of a college career.
“I knew he wasn’t as focused. That kind of bothered me because I know Jordan worked hard to get to that point,” Mike Clarkson said. “If he had continued to play like he was playing, he would have been first-round, no doubt.”
The Lakers play another game Sunday against Indiana. Clarkson will be the third-string point guard behind Ronnie Price and Jeremy Lin. His concentration has returned to the court, but his father is never far away.
“It’s a blessing he’s still here. We got really lucky,” Clarkson said. “If it had touched his lungs, it could have gotten real severe.
“It was a tough year for my family. It shows us that we can really get through anything.”