Sad story of former NBA shotblocker, alcohol-addict Keon Clark


clark-1Since Aug. 4, Keon Clark has been locked up in a fourth-floor cell in the Vermilion County Jail, sleeping on a steel bunk that’s a foot shorter than his nearly 7-foot-tall frame.

His only glimpse of the outside world has been through the jail windows.

But the former NBA first-round draft pick calls the incarceration “one of the better times of my life.”

“I have been clean and sober for five months,” Clark said last week during a brief phone interview with The News-Gazette from jail. “I have made changes for the better mentally. … I can focus on me and the changes I need to make to become, basically, a citizen of my town instead of a hindrance.”

The Danville native was 23 when he was selected by the Orlando Magic with the 13th overall pick of the 1998 NBA Draft. He went on to play for the Denver Nuggets, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings and, for two games in November 2003, the Utah Jazz.

Now 38, Clark has been out of professional basketball for a decade. But since then, he hasn’t been able to stay out of trouble with the law.

Today, he faces a list of weapons, drugs and traffic-related charges stemming from a 2012 case and four 2013 cases in Vermilion County. Prosecutors have offered him a plea agreement in those cases. A hearing on the matter is set for 10 a.m. Wednesday in Vermilion County Circuit Court.

However, in his interview, Clark made one thing clear.

“I haven’t agreed to a plea,” insisted Clark, who on Monday afternoon was still waiting to hear from his lawyers — Champaign-based Jim Martinkus and Adam Dill and Urbana-based Alfred D. Ivy III.

Ivy, who is representing Clark on a driving after revocation/subsequent offense charge, declined to comment on his client’s case or his upcoming hearing. Martinkus and Dill didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Clark said he backed out of a previous deal that he thought was unfair. Vermilion County Assistant State’s Attorney Sandy Lawyles wouldn’t divulge details of the state’s offer or whether a judge — if an agreement is accepted and approved — could extend Clark’s time behind bars in the Illinois penitentiary.

“He would be (eligible for probation) on the driving cases,” Lawyles said. “He would not be (eligible for probation) in the weapons cases.”

Those charges — possession/use of a firearm by a felon and parolee — are the most serious of the group, Lawyles said.

If Clark is sentenced to prison, he would be required to serve at least 50 percent of his term, Lawlyes said.

clark-2Turn for the worse

“It’s sad,” Danville Public Safety Director Larry Thomason said. “He’s been given multiple opportunities to turn his life around. Unfortunately, you can’t make people accept those opportunities. You can only hope they do.”

A 43-year police veteran, Thomason first heard of Clark when he was a Danville High School senior and played on the 1993 Vikings basketball team that finished third in the state in Class AA. Thomason followed Clark’s college and professional basketball careers in the local newspapers.

“My recollection was that he was a high school standout and had a lot of potential,” said Thomason, who like other community members, was pleased to see a native of his small, Midwestern working-class town in the national spotlight.

Then the media attention surrounding Clark shifted from the basketball court to the courtroom. In the mid-2000s, Thomason started seeing Clark’s name in the police blotter — mainly traffic tickets for speeding, driving with an expired license and driving the wrong way on a one-way street.

Then the charges became more serious. Disorderly conduct in 2004. Possession of a firearm with no firearm owners identification card and possession of a controlled substance in 2005. Another possession of a firearm and driving under the influence of alcohol in 2006.

Clark continued to have brushes with the law, mainly over his driving, in Vermilion County, Champaign County and Marion County, Ind.

In 2007, he was given a chance to participate in Vermilion County’s drug court probation program, which is aimed at helping nonviolent offenders with drug or alcohol addictions get clean, stay out of the criminal justice system and become productive members of society.

“There were some sanctions” for not following program rules, Lawlyes said, reviewing Clark’s old docket entries. “But there were times he had good reports, too.”

His convictions also landed him behind bars — both in the county jail and the Illinois Department of Corrections. He served about 6 months of a 2-year prison sentence in 2008 for a driving-after-suspension conviction in Champaign County. He was back in prison in August 2010 and stayed there until mid-January 2012, after being sentenced for driving after revocation and driving after suspension in Champaign and Vermilion counties.

He was still on parole when he was charged in the 2012 weapons case, now pending.

clark-3‘Destructive path’

Clark spoke publicly about his battle with alcohol at a December 2007 court hearing. On the stand, he testified that he started drinking alcohol in high school. By the time he turned pro, he said, he was drinking a half-pint to a pint of gin a day. He drank at halftime during NBA games.

He also testified that after leaving the NBA and returning to Danville, he spent much of his time drinking and playing golf. His drinking caused him to black out every day.

In his recent interview from jail, Clark said he may have been cut out physically to play in the big leagues. But, he admitted, he wasn’t mentally prepared to handle the lifestyle of a professional athlete.

“The money, the fame, the fact that I was on TV. People think money will make your life better. Money didn’t dissolve my problems. It increased them,” said Clark, who grew up poor.

“I was already on a destructive path,” he continued. “What happened was people looked at me, and they saw my persona. What they put on me was not me. You can’t live up to something you’re not. … Nobody cares about your problems. Everybody diminished my problems, including myself.”

Early on, alcohol became “my therapy,” Clark said. But, he added, he now sees that it caused him to use poor judgment and make bad decisions.

Since he’s been in jail on a $100,000 bond, meaning he would have to post $10,000 to be released, Clark said he has been getting professional counseling.

“Mental therapy,” he said, “not just drug and alcohol.”

Clark said he’s also had time to focus on what he would like to do with his future — helping others from making bad choices by sharing his story.

“I can help so many young people who are coming up,” he said. “I have a lot of knowledge, and I’m willing to use it. My testimony is beyond reproach.”

Clark played 7 seasons in the NBA, appearing in 353 games, starting in 65 of them. He played for Denver Nuggets, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz. Clark holds career averages of 8.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 1.6 bpg in 22.6 mpg.



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