Inside colleges’ pursuit of a future star
of Marvin Clark
June 1, 2014
Kansas City, Mo.
Marvin Clark Jr. was sold. Fresh off a recruiting visit to the University of Oregon two years ago, he was convinced he wanted to play there.
He loved the Ducks’ fast-paced offense, the team needed a player at his position, and one of his youth coaches had played for an Oregon assistant. That was the type of edge that could help in a battle for playing time.
The campus wowed him. Everywhere he looked, he saw the Nike swoosh. The company's co-founder, a big Oregon donor, had helped finance some of the nicest facilities in the country. For a kid who had spent time in homeless shelters, it seemed like nirvana.
A year ago, Mr. Clark made it official, committing to the Pac-12 program over more than a dozen other suitors. Around the same time, he had surgery to repair a fractured foot, forcing him to miss several months on the court.
Courtesy Marvin Clark
He was prepared to graduate from high school last year, but Oregon's coaches had encouraged him to spend a year at a prep school.two Oregon coaches visited him there. It was his first game back, and it showed. After the game, he says, the coaches started to walk out of the gym without offering a word.
That night Mr. Clark hardly slept, fearing that he had lost his scholarship. The next day he called one of his coaches, who had been in touch with Oregon. Mr. Clark’s instincts were right—Oregon had moved on.
Mr. Clark, who had turned down offers from Arkansas, Iowa, and other universities, now had only a few months to prove himself to recruiters. Would any of the spurned suitors still want to take a chance on that foot?
The alternative was not so good. His father had died when he was 3, and his mother had spent years struggling with drug addictions and abusive relationships. As a young child, Mr. Clark watched her get beaten up by several men in her life.
His mom, who was recently diagnosed with lupus, hasn’t worked outside the home for years. She and Mr. Clark’s five younger siblings share a four-bedroom apartment with one of her cousins here in Kansas City.
There were times during Mr. Clark’s childhood when the family bounced from shelter to shelter. The last time he counted, he says, he had been through 13 schools. Each time the family moved, his mother carried all of their belongings in a single black garbage bag.
Since his elementary-school days, Mr. Clark has helped care for his brothers and sisters: making their meals, doing the family's laundry, even bathing them and putting them to bed. His mom was largely absent, either working late shifts as a nurse or too strung out to help.
For all his mother's challenges, Mr. Clark still sees her as the glue that keeps the family together. Many people in her situation would have given up, he says, but she just pushes on.
That upbringing has shaped Mr. Clark's temperament. He often puts others ahead of himself, and hates to disappoint people, particularly those he is closest to. At Christmas, he received hundreds of dollars in gift cards from the families of friends. He made sure that almost all the money went to his siblings. His holiday list had just one wish: a few nice bars of soap.
His sense of responsibility for his family is at the center of his college decision. Basketball now looks like his best chance to help.
“I’ve got to work fast—I’ve got to get my family out,” he said one night in January. “I want to take care of my mom.”
But in the cutthroat world of recruiting, who is looking out for him?
Behind every elite recruit is a team of handlers whose job, at least on paper, is to protect their players’ interests. Mr. Clark, an easygoing 19-year-old, has a half-dozen people around him, none closer than Bertram (Buzzy) Caruthers III.
Like many handlers, Mr. Caruthers comes from the Amateur Athletic Union, a popular basketball program whose coaches are often derided for using their most-talented players to advance their own careers.
Mr. Caruthers, an energetic assistant coach who worked this season at Dodge City Community College, would love a higher-profile job. But his main goal, he says, is to help kids like Marvin make it to college.
Three years ago he identified Mr. Clark, then a skinny high-school sophomore, as someone who could use a lift. He offered him something no one else had: a chance to put himself first. He invited Marvin, midway through high school, to join his AAU program, Mokan, which competes in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League.
Mr. Clark’s family did not have a car, so Mr. Caruthers began driving him to practice, and the two men, about a decade apart in age, developed a fast friendship.
They come from different backgrounds—Mr. Caruthers grew up in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood, far from the gang-marked streets where Mr. Clark was raised. And their personalities are little alike. Mr. Caruthers walks fast, talks fast, and often attracts a crowd. On the court, he keeps his players on task. But when practice ends, he becomes the team jester, always looking to draw a laugh.
Mr. Clark is reserved and introspective. He likes time alone, and can often be seen smoothing his shooting stroke (with or without a ball) or thumbing through his phone. He also loves to sing. From the moment he wakes up, he has a song in his head, and there is rarely a moment when he isn't humming a tune. He has a soft spot for slow jams, and his pregame play list includes Beethoven and Bach.
That cool demeanor has sometimes held him back. But Mr. Caruthers, a high-school standout whose game was built on hard work and grit, has pushed him to play with more intensity and raise his voice on the court. Off the court, his coach has been a rock—part big brother, part best friend. When his number comes up on Mr. Clark's phone, he is “My Mans Buzz.”
Where other coaches saw Marvin as midmajor material, Buzzy saw NBA potential: a big, athletic kid—now 6-foot-7—who could shoot. He was special enough that Mr. Caruthers and Matt Suther, who started Mokan 10 years ago, took an unusual step. About a year after they had started working with him, they persuaded Mr. Clark’s mother to hand over guardianship of her son.
Their goal was to remove their star player from an unstable environment, giving him an opportunity to flourish. Their first move was to place him in a foster home in a comfortable Kansas City suburb, where he would spend the next seven months—one of his longest stretches under one roof. His foster parents bought him an extra-long mattress and scheduled meetings with teachers to get him on track academically. They brought him on family vacations (they have four other children as well), and he began referring to them as “Moms” and “Pops.” For the first time, his world seemed stable.
But his AAU coaches were not satisfied. They didn’t like having him in a large public school, where they felt there were too many social distractions. They also knew that if Mr. Clark wanted to play major-college basketball, he needed to bulk up and face tougher competition.
So his coaches stepped in again—without consulting his foster family—this time sending him three hours away, to Sunrise Christian Academy, a small prep school with a high-profile basketball program.
Mr. Clark initially resisted.
“It tore me up,” he says. He hated leaving the comfort of his new home and worried about being so far away from family. With his mother in poor health, he wondered who would take care of her and his siblings.
His mother also needed him financially. Before Mr. Clark comes home, he often withdraws cash from the Social Security payments he gets because of his father’s death. His mom uses the money for food, haircuts, and other incidental expenses.
At one point, she asked him to cosign a lease for an apartment, putting him in a difficult spot. If he didn’t sign the form, he knew that the family could end up homeless. But by legally obligating himself to his mother, who has a history of missing payments, he knew that he was flirting with credit problems himself. He decided not to help.
Despite his misgivings about the move to the prep school, Mr. Clark has thrived. Without the responsibilities at home, he has been able to focus on his studies—and his game has taken off. Over the past two years, he has grown stronger and gained confidence competing against some of the country’s top players.
Recruiters have noticed. Several say he has developed a “pro body.” The coaches in one major program started calling him a “warrior.”
The recruiting dance often starts during the summer, when college coaches crowd into a handful of gymnasiums across the country to watch the top players compete. Mr. Clark’s injury last year kept him off the summer circuit, putting extra pressure on his AAU coaches to get his name out.
Thanks to Mr. Caruthers and Mr. Suther, whose phones are filled with the numbers of Division I coaches, Mr. Clark didn’t sit long on the market.
Among the first programs to show interest was Kansas State University, which has close ties to Mokan. Its head coach, Bruce Weber, visited as soon as he heard that Mr. Clark was available. Ole Miss—which has Sunrise and Mokan connections—and Seton Hall also jumped in.
Recruiting is as much about tapping connections as it is showcasing talent. And while those connections have helped Mr. Clark, they are also crucial to his handlers. Sunrise lands some of its best players from college coaches looking to try out talent. Mokan benefits, too—the more players it places in big-time programs, the easier it is to recruit the next generation.
Mr. Clark made his first official visit, to Kansas State, in October. The university, located about two hours from Kansas City, is known more as a football power. But Mr. Weber, a former head coach at the University of Illinois, has helped raise its basketball profile.
Mr. Clark’s mother, Donette Collins-Miller, joined him on the trip, and they sat together at a football game amid a stadium full of rowdy Wildcats supporters. That night they took in the annual “midnight madness” basketball tipoff, where nearly every seat was filled.
But what won them over was Kansas State’s emphasis on family. The university promoted its academic-advising unit, which gave Ms. Collins-Miller comfort that her son would have a “mom away from home” to help with homework.
At one point, the wife of one coach pulled her aside to let her know that her son would be in good hands. “I got your baby,” she told her.
Before Mr. Clark’s visit was over, Kansas State's coaches asked for his formal commitment to play for them. Mr. Clark told them that he didn’t want to rush his decision. The dance was just starting.
Many programs still recruit the old-fashioned way: Mr. Clark has shoe boxes full of letters from colleges at nearly every level, from Johnson County Community College to the University of Florida. Wichita State also wrote—59 times.
Most of those letters were never opened. Text messages, on the other hand, Mr. Clark couldn’t help reading.
Two years ago, the NCAA began allowing unlimited texts between coaches and players who have completed their sophomore years of high school. For many recruiters, texts have become their primary mode of contact with prospects.
Over the past few months, coaches from all over the country have sent Mr. ClarkHe shared many of them with The Chronicle. Some days he received two or three dozen. Most of his suitors stayed in touch at least twice a week with either him or his handlers. If they didn’t, he figured, their interest must have waned.
Unlike the letters, which kept a distance, many of the texts were intimate.
“You are our guy!!” one coach texted. “You will without a doubt get a lot of publicity & hype.”
“Hope you realize how special you could be!” wrote another. “This is your spot.”
Others kept their messages short and sweet:
“Need ya bro.”
“Need ya man.”
“All about you!”
All of that attention can be misleading. Some players show up on campus expecting the same star treatment, only to be told to go to the back of the line.
The conflicting signals could be one reason for the high transfer rate in college basketball. About 40 percent of Division I men’s basketball players either change colleges or leave their original institution by the end of their second year, according to the NCAA.
Mr. Caruthers and Mr. Suther say their players’ retention rates are far better, in part because their program teaches players what to look for. Mokan’s coaches have identified a half-dozen factors that they believe players should consider, including proximity to home, style of play, and player development. (The list does not mention academic quality.)
Mr. Clark’s handlers also encourage their players to consider colleges that Mokan has a relationship with. Those relationships give players assurance that they will be able to compete for minutes. His coaches have steered players away from colleges where they don't have the same influence.
Mr. Clark wants a coach who will be tough on him on the court but love him off it. But if he is going to take care of his family, he also needs exposure. The way he sees it, the more playing time he earns, the more TV time he will get—bettering the chance that NBA scouts will notice him.
His NBA dreams are not crazy, but the odds are long. Of the thousands of players eligible for the NBA draft every year, only 60 will be selected. Even fewer will make a career out of it.
Sunrise Christian Academy, located in a nondescript residential neighborhood a few miles from downtown Wichita, is full of players with the same dream. The school, which has 800 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, caters mostly to middle-class families from the surrounding area.
But its basketball players come from all over the world. This season Mr. Clark had teammates from Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Mali, Serbia, and Sweden. They all lived together in a modest ranch house a half-mile from the school.
One day in January, several of his teammates lounged in the family room, where the shades were drawn and the only light came from the flickers of their gadgets. One player watched a French sitcom on his laptop. Others played video games.
In the basement, Mr. Clark sat on his bed watching a YouTube channel called the “Pro Shot Shooting System.” On his nightstand were several books, including one that his foster parents had given him—The Principle of the Path, about how to make decisions.
Two years ago, when Mr. Clark showed up, he didn’t know how good he was or how good he could be, his Sunrise coaches say. But he had a lot of work to do. During his first few weeks, he lifted so many weights he could barely bend his arms. He pushed through, reminding himself of how tenuous the game was, and how, at any moment, his stock could fall.
“If you don't work hard,” he says, “schools will just find someone else.”
Several days a week this year, Mr. Clark met up with a classmate, Lourawls (Tum Tum) Nairn, at 5 in the morning to get in an hour of skill work before their first practice. Some mornings they wouldn’t leave the gym until they each sank 500 shots.
Mr. Nairn and Mr. Clark played together last season on Sunrise’s “maroon” team, its highest-profile squad. (The school has four teams, including one for postgrads, which Mr. Clark played on this season.) Mr. Nairn, a speedy point guard who has committed to Michigan State, and Mr. Clark, an explosive wing, teamed up for dozens of alley-oops.
The two share a deeper connection. Like Mr. Clark, Mr. Nairn, who is from the Bahamas, left home at an early age with hopes of helping his family. Mr. Nairn believes it is fate that the two found each other, and both have dreams of sticking together in college.
Late last year, Mr. Clark strained his foot, forcing the two players to put their workouts on hold for several weeks. When he returned to the court, in January, he learned that Iowa State, another Mokan connection, wanted in.
The university would have him on two visits. On the first, he and his teammates got a behind-the-scenes look as the Cyclones prepared for a Big 12 Conference game. A week later, he came back with his mom and a coach from Sunrise.
During a workout, the team’s head coach, Fred Hoiberg, watched as Mr. Clark’s left-handed stroke filled the net. The coach, who played for a decade in the NBA and then worked for the league’s Minnesota Timberwolves, seemed impressed.
After Mr. Clark made a string of shots, Mr. Hoiberg turned to the Sunrise coach and said, “I’ve seen all I need to see.”
On every visit, coaches look for some way to separate themselves from their competition. For Iowa State, it’s Mr. Hoiberg’s NBA experience. “Other coaches might have basketball relationships” with NBA general managers, one assistant told Mr. Clark’s contingent. “Coach Hoiberg has life relationships.”
The Iowa State trip also showed the power that social media can have over recruits. During a Cyclones game that weekend, Mr. Clark posted several messages on Twitter and Instagram. “Loving The Hilton Magic!” he wrote, sharing a photo from his seat in Hilton Coliseum. “Mad Respect For The Iowa State Fan Base!”
The fans raved. Many knew he was on a recruiting visit and tweeted their appreciation.that Mr. Clark’s AAU coaches had commissioned on his life, about the struggles he had overcome and the AAU program’s role in helping him. “Watched your video this week. Was glued,” tweeted one fan. “Way to rise above.”
Mr. Clark picked up 200 Twitter followers that weekend, including Mr. Hoiberg’s wife. He has set his phone to vibrate whenever his name is mentioned on Twitter. In the days following his visit, it buzzed 10 to 20 times a day with tweets from Iowa State fans. Many of them he answered.
Soon after the visit, Mr. Clark called Mr. Caruthers and told him he could see himself in maroon and gold, the Cyclones’ colors. A few weeks earlier, he had said the same thing about Kansas State.
The day after Mr. Clark returned from Iowa State, Mr. Weber arranged floor seats for him and four of his teammates for the Wildcats’ game that night against Kansas, which was then ranked No. 1 in the country. When Kansas State pulled off an overtime upset, Mr. Clark was there to rush the floor with the fans.
Kansas State’s coaches brought him into the locker room to enjoy the celebration. One coach later texted, “That could be you on that floor next year!!”
Around that time, an assistant coach asked Mr. Clark how he would feel if the university found someone else for his position.
“I’ll be honest pretty bad,” Mr. Clark texted.
“Why would you gamble that away?” the coach texted.
Mr. Clark wrote back, emphasizing that this wasn’t his choice alone: “I know coach i know but my guys dont want me making a quick decision.”
Between October and March, Mr. Weber, the head coach, drove to visit Mr. Clark at least six times.
“We just want you to know how important you are to our future,” the coach told him on one visit. “We don’t want to lose you.”
At one point,explaining why he believed Kansas State was the right choice for Mr. Clark. The first reason: He would be playing for a staff he could trust, which had recruited him harder than anyone else.
Mr. Weber emphasized that, by staying in his home state, Mr. Clark would make connections that would help him after his basketball career had ended.
An assistant coach played up the importance of having his family close by.
“They can see you at every home game,” the assistant texted. “We just want to keep you close to everyone who cares about you.”
Kansas State would soon have more company. In mid-February, an Indiana assistant came to Kansas to watch Mr. Clark play. At the end of the session, he offered a scholarship.
“We’re serious,” the coach told Mr. Clark. “When can we get a visit scheduled?”
Michigan State was also interested. But because the university had not made an offer, Mr. Clark was not considering it as seriously.
“I’m focused on schools that really want me,” he said. To do otherwise, he said, wouldn’t be fair to the coaches who had put in the time.
Just as his recruitment was heating up, the line from Iowa State went cold. When Mr. Caruthers asked why, a Cyclones assistant told him that Mr. Hoiberg needed reassurance.
The assistant asked for Mr. Clark’s statistics on the season and wanted to see some recent game film. He insisted that he still wanted to get the deal done, his texts showed.
But Mr. Clark was not happy.
“How do you go from being my best friend to stop talking to me?” he said.
After consulting his handlers, he decided to cut ties. Just like that, his latest No. 1 choice was out.
“I’m done with playing games,” he said. “If you sleep on me, you’ll regret it.”
But all the starts and restarts were wearing on him, and the dance was taking longer than he wanted. Before all of this was over, he texted Mr. Caruthers at one point, “Ima be bald with grey hairs!”
Around that time, he also learned of more problems back home. His mother was late on rent and her landlord was threatening to evict the family. The news reminded Mr. Clark of everything at stake.
“I have people I can’t let down,” he said. “I have to succeed.”
Basketball coaches have a saying they like to repeat at the end of close games: The team with the ball in its hands last has the best chance of winning.
Some coaches feel the same way about recruiting: The program with the last visit is often in the strongest position to land the prospect.
For weeks, Mr. Clark was planning to go to Ole Miss last. But the university, where a former Mokan star plays, had not pursued Mr. Clark as aggressively as his other suitors.
As his decision day was nearing, Mr. Clark told a reporter for a recruiting website that he was not planning to visit there after all, a disclosure that bothered his AAU coaches. They worried that it could be perceived as a slight against the university, and thought it could hurt Mokan’s chances of placing other players at Mississippi.
“They told me that’s not how we run things,” Mr. Clark said. “They’ve got to keep that relationship strong for kids in the future.”
Instead, Indiana looked like his final visit. But near the end of February, Mike Garland, a Michigan State assistant, flew to Kansas. After watching Mr. Clark play, he sat with him and the Sunrise coaches and placed a conference call to Tom Izzo, the Spartans’ head coach.
“Chief, it’s a no-brainer,” he said to his boss. “We’ve got to get this done.”
Mr. Izzo called Mr. Clark later that night.
“I hope you don’t mind, but in these next few weeks I’m probably going to bug you a bit,” he told Mr. Clark. He said he even planned to have his wife and son call.
“The schools you’re considering are all great schools, but Michigan State is a special place,” said Coach Izzo, whose program has been to five Final Fours since 2000.
Within days the Spartans had made an offer and set up a visit. The late push did not go over well with Indiana, which had recently lost a high-profile recruit—Mr. Nairn, Mr. Clark’s teammate—to Michigan State.
On February 28, a few days after receiving the Michigan State offer, Mr. Clark and his mom flew to East Lansing. That weekend, they watched the team play poorly.
“You saw us at our worst,” a Michigan State coach texted after the trip.
Mr. Clark said he liked it that way.
“I’m happy I got to see it raw,” he texted back. “Cuz all I want is the truth ya know?”
His mom also liked what she saw. Many coaches ask players about their mothers. Michigan State named a building after one.
The Spartans put an emphasis on family that Mr. Clark said he had not seen before. All of the players attended every meal with him. And Mr. Izzo set aside time for his mom.
After the game, the coach invited her back to his house to visit with him and his young son. The coach asked her about the challenges in her life and sought her guidance on caring for his aging parents. (As a nurse, Ms. Collins-Miller worked with the elderly).
Over tea, Mr. Izzo told her how impressed he was with her son, and that she should be proud of how he had turned out.
The next day, the coach and his assistants broke down film of Mr. Clark’s game. They liked his potential but were careful not to make promises. He would have to work for his minutes.
After Michigan State, Indiana had a change of plans. It canceled Mr. Clark’s official visit, instead inviting him and Mr. Caruthers for an unofficial visit, which his family would have to pay for.
In early March, Mr. Clark and Mr. Caruthers drove seven hours to Bloomington, where they watched the Hoosiers, ranked No. 1 in the country a year ago, squander a 16-point lead in a loss to Nebraska.
During the game, a Michigan State coach spotted Mr. Clark on TV, sitting behind the home team’s bench.
“No clapping Marv,” he texted.
“I aint clappin coach lol!” Mr. Clark replied.
While Mr. Clark’s allegiance seemed clear, Mr. Caruthers’s were just starting to come into focus.
After the game, the two met with Indiana’s coaches, who emphasized what Mr. Clark could do for the team. They compared him to Victor Oladipo, a former Hoosiers star who had not been heavily recruited out of high school. But last year, after two seasons under Tom Crean, Indiana’s head coach, he was selected as the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.
Late that night, Mr. Clark and Mr. Caruthers had a long talk in their hotel room. Until then, Mr. Caruthers says, he had tried not to influence Mr. Clark’s decision. But after seeing how much the Hoosiers could use a player like Marvin, he couldn’t hold back his feelings.
“If we’re all about the NBA, and you really want to take care of your family,” he told Mr. Clark, “you should go to Indiana.”
After Michigan State, Mr. Clark thought he knew where he was headed. But Mr. Caruthers’s words left an impression.
Hours later, Mr. Clark let a Michigan State coach know about his quandary: He liked Coach Izzo. But Buzzy—the guy he trusts, the coach who had brought him this far—told him Indiana was the best option.
“I gotta take care of the fam coach,” he texted the Spartans assistant. “I have no choice.”
Days later he texted Mr. Crean, telling him that he was serious about Indiana.
“You guys need me and thats what i need,” Mr. Clark wrote, echoing Mr. Caruthers’s sentiments. “Coach i wanna take an official as fast as possible!”
“That’s fine,” Mr. Crean said. “We need to win today and then set a date ASAP.”
Michigan State’s coaches dug in, telling him that they understood he needed to take care of his family, and that he wanted the opportunity to play as soon as possible.
“We will WIN, make you better AND you will also have a point guard that wants to get you buckets,” an assistant texted. What else did he need?
It wasn’t him, Mr. Clark wrote back. Could Coach Izzo have a talk with his Mans Buzz?
That weekend Mr. Clark visited his mother in Kansas City, where he laid out the options. For him, even though Buzz was pushing Indiana, it came down to two programs: Michigan State and Kansas State. He liked the idea of playing close to home, he told his mother, as he worried about her health. But he loved the feeling he got around Coach Izzo.
He made it clear, however, that he was willing to follow Buzzy’s lead and go to Indiana if it meant he could take care of his family sooner.
Ms. Collins-Miller—who had uprooted him more than a dozen times, leaned on him to help raise his siblings, and signed over guardianship of his life—needed him to break the bad cycle she was in. But as she sat with her son, she offered something that he did not expect.
Stop worrying about the family, she told him. “We’re fine,” she said. “You take care of yourself.”
So after all that—after committing to play for Oregon 11 months ago, after watching that deal evaporate, after lots of counsel from lots of people, hundreds of text messages, four official visits, and more than 20 scholarship offers—Marvin Clark Jr. made his own decision. He was going to Michigan State. ■
Production by Soo Oh. Photos edited by Erica Lusk.