Sports

Chris Clemons’ success at Campbell is all in his head

How imagination fuels this shooting star

Raleigh native and Campbell University senior Chris Clemons talks about his NCAA scoring record and the art of his play
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Raleigh native and Campbell University senior Chris Clemons talks about his NCAA scoring record and the art of his play

Chris Clemons has these visions, and he’s not quite sure how to explain them. In his mind he sees things: a certain move on the basketball court; a new way of finishing a drive at the rim; something he hasn’t done before that might just turn the routine into a work of art, if only he can make it reality.

Look at Clemons, and what’s visible might not necessarily impress someone expecting to see one of the most productive college basketball players in the country. He has the arms and shoulders of a wrestler, or maybe a linebacker, but it’s impossible to ignore what everyone can see: and what everyone sees, first, is the relative lack of height.

No one sees what Clemons can see, these scenes playing out in his mind, the ones that have helped him become, however improbably, one of the most prolific scorers in college basketball history.

After a recent practice, Clemons tries to describe how he’s done it. He tries to put into words how he’s built this game that has allowed the transformation from overlooked prospect at Millbrook High in Raleigh to, now, a national phenomenon in his senior season at Campbell. Like artists trying to explain how they paint, or musicians how they compose, the answer is complicated. How does any creative, after all, really explain how they do what they do?

“Man, I don’t know, man,” Clemons says, searching.

His secret isn’t so much about practice, necessarily, or even a routine -- the kind that might mandate that he shoot a certain number of shots every day, or arrive at the gym at some ungodly hour. In fact, Clemons says, he has no such routine. What he has, though, is a particular gift that eventually leads him to his answer.

Ask Clemons to explain some of what he’s done on a basketball court and after a while he’ll start talking about how much of it begins with a vision, and a belief in what he sees. That, he says, is the origin: a scene develops in his mind – an improbable dunk, a creative finish, a way to create space for a shot – and then he tries to turn it into reality.

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Campbell’s Chris Clemons runs the offense during practice on Thursday, February 28, 2019 in Buies Creek, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Some players’ best attributes are things that can be physically quantified: wingspan and height and vertical jump. Those are things that can be seen. Then there’s Clemons, whose best attribute might just be his imagination, and the visions within it.

“It could be anything, man,” Clemons says of his creative process, and the things that have come to him over the years during his unlikely journey. He can talk at length about attempting “a bunch of weird shots growing up” and the time he spent “just imagining different ways to do things.”

“There’s no limit to the imagination,” Clemons says.

He smiles at the thought, as if he saw some of this coming – as if he was in on his own secret all along. And some of this, he insists, he did see. He saw some of the plays that have found a national audience, either through posts on social media or clips on ESPN, or both. He saw himself scoring a lot of points, too, though that’s where his reality is grander than anything he ever imagined.

“Didn’t think I’d get to 3,000,” Clemons says, pausing a moment to let the number sink in.

It’s one of two numbers that has come to define him. Earlier this season, Clemons became the ninth player in Division I men’s college basketball history to score 3,000 points. He’s the only one who’s ever done it at a North Carolina school. The other number is one that has followed him now for years, and it’s the familiar one that suggested none of this could be possible.

It’s his height: 5 feet, 9 inches – and more than anything that’s why he finds himself here, at a small school surrounded by wide open fields and farmland that reinforce the feel of metaphorical and literal isolation. Campbell is a little less than an hour’s drive south of Raleigh and yet it is a world away, in many respects, from all the nearby ACC schools, with resources and followings that seem endless.

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Chris Clemons works on his shooting form during practice on Thursday, February 28, 2019 in Buies Creek, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

In some ways, Clemons has managed to bridge the divide. He is the nation’s leading scorer, and though nobody would argue that he is its best player, his talent for scoring has transcended his small stature and that of his surroundings. If Clemons’ imagination is responsible for his basketball artistry, and he says it is, then his height is responsible for his imagination.

If he were taller, perhaps, he wouldn’t have to think so hard. That he is not means he must rely on creativity and, at times, geometry. He must understand angles – those that concern not only the trajectory of a shot but also the contortion of his body, especially when he encounters more imposing players. In some ways, Clemons’ most limiting physical attribute has led to his most powerful strength.

And yet the lack of height, he says, is “more of an everybody-else thing than it is a me thing.”

“I don’t feel like it’s ever affected me,” he says.

Now there are only so many games left. Clemons’ time as a college basketball player is nearing its end. There’s the Big South tournament this week starting Thursday against Hampton and, with it, the chance for Campbell to do what it hasn’t done since 1992: earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. Kevin McGeehan, in his sixth season as head coach, says all the right things about staying in the moment, not looking ahead.

Yet he knows it’s unavoidable, too, the visions of the not-so-distant future. The moment is here, and what better way for Clemons to end his four years at Campbell than to lead the Camels back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 27 years? Indeed, McGeehan says, the thought of making the tournament – the kind of thing for which Campbell would hang a banner - “is on everybody’s mind.”

It’s the one vision, perhaps, that Clemons has yet to realize. Game after game – and sometimes play after play, the rate his senior season has gone – he has turned dreams into reality, whether through the completion of a highlight or another broken record. And to think that his basketball journey began, in his preteen years, with tearful rides home after games came and went without much playing time.

His father, Carlyton Clemons, remembers those days well: taking his son to AAU tournaments and then walking out of the gym together and then “him crying in the car,” Carlyton says, “because he didn’t get to play.” And look at his son now: 3,136 points and counting, which are the most of any active Division I player and the sixth-most ever – and just 14 short of placing Clemons among the top five.

“A surreal story,” Carlyton says.

Clemons and his dad and even McGeehan have recounted the story often enough in recent days and weeks that aspects of it have grown repetitive – the story of how the player all the bigger schools ignored wound up here, and then wound up doing what he’s done. McGeehan first watched Clemons at a tournament in Myrtle Beach, the summer before Clemons’ senior season at Millbrook.

McGeehan sat there watching for less than five minutes, he says, when he sent a text message to one of his assistant coaches: “This is the guy.” When they spoke, McGeehan says he tried to sell Clemons on a vision of his own: that Clemons could lead the Camels to the NCAA tournament, that he could set the school record for scoring (which he did, last year), that he could leave an enduring legacy.

The other schools that offered Clemons scholarships included Gardner-Webb and UNC Greensboro. That was it. He received no attention from N.C. State, which is the closest ACC school to Millbrook. Clemons received no attention, either, from North Carolina. The closest he came to being recruited by any major school probably came during the John Wall Invitational, at Broughton, in December 2014.

Brandon Ingram, then in his senior season at Kinston High, attracted standing-room only crowds. By then, he had not yet decided to play his lone college season at Duke. In one semifinal game at the invitational, Ingram’s Kinston team found itself playing against Millbrook, with its small, unheralded point guard. Ingram finished with five points. Clemons scored 37 in a 20-point victory.

There was no tearful ride home that day. Afterward, Clemons told reporters: “I like to play against big competition. I like to attack them and show other coaches I’m better than (my ranking).” Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke coach, had a front row seat. So did Mark Gottfried, then the head coach at N.C. State. Only Jeff Capel, then a Duke assistant, spoke afterward with Clemons’ high school coach.

By then, though, Clemons had finalized his decision to go to Campbell. Even if a bigger school had come calling, he says it would have been too late. So that’s why he’s here, on the first day of March, sitting in his emptying home gym 30 minutes after practice, telling his story over again, recounting how and why the bigger schools in his backyard could have missed him. Only there is no satisfying answer.

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Chris Clemons works on his shooting form during practice on Thursday, February 28, 2019 in Buies Creek, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

“Never know, man,” he says when asked, as he’s been asked so many times before. “I don’t know what they’re thinking. They may have saw something. It could’ve been (the height). Could’ve been anything. It doesn’t bother me at all.”

On the one hand, it’s believable enough. Clemons insists that Campbell has been “a great fit,” and when people ask him to imagine himself somewhere else – the way he first imagines some of the crazier shots that he makes – he can’t do it. He plays in an offense that is built around him. He plays in a cozy arena, a little more than 3,000 seats, where every eye is on him.

And he has played well to have generated national attention, anyway. Twenty-seven years ago, when Campbell last made the NCAA tournament, its appearance was such a story that the Los Angeles Times sent a reporter from California to Buies Creek. Dick Schaap arrived, with a full camera crew, for a segment on ABC World News Tonight.

Now, the world is smaller. A Clemons highlight can spread moments after it happens. When it does an audience can see a player who, indeed, has embraced his stage, however bright it is. And yet some of that angst still resides in Clemons – the desire to prove doubters wrong, the desire to overcome limitations, perceived or real.

His father, Carlyton, says he can’t take much credit for his son’s basketball ability. Perhaps Clemons’ greatest on-court inspiration, his dad says, came from studying Allen Iverson, who defied his lack of size as much as anyone who has ever played.

“Some of the stuff you see him do,” Carlyton says, “is Allen Iverson-esque – the crossover and such.”

Clemons is something of an artist on the court, with his creativity, but the same is true off the court, as well. He likes to draw. Always has. He says he’s taking a drawing class now. He prefers drawing in pencil. During his high school years, he’d often draw himself playing basketball. Someone would print out a photograph of Clemons on the court, the ball in his hands, and he’d replicate it.

Now it’s the last Saturday of the regular season, and it’s Clemons’ senior day, and here is another one of those scenes he never could envisioned. He’d never seen it before. No one had: a crowd this large at the Pope Center. Capacity is 3,095, but today the attendance is 3,351, a building record. There are a lot of people up in the concourse, standing without a seat, leaning over the railing to watch.

The game has implications beyond senior day. If Radford wins, it clinches the outright Big South regular-season championship. It Campbell wins, it clinches a share of that championship, and home-court advantage throughout the conference tournament.

The first time these teams played, back in late January, Clemons finished with 39 points and made a 30-footer at the buzzer to give the Camels a one-point victory. Now, in the rematch, Radford scores the first 10 points. Mindful of what Clemons did last time, the Highlanders double-team him almost every time he touches the ball. It works for a while. He can’t find room.

Campbell’s deficit grows to 12 before Clemons provides the first crowd-on-its-feet moment of the game. He splits a double team, accelerates through the lane and finishes with a two-handed dunk. It’s a wonder how he managed to do it. It looked like he’d started his ascent too early, but looks can deceive.

Moments later, Clemons makes a 3-pointer over two defenders. Not long after that, he completes a three-point play with a layup and a free-throw, lining up on his free throw attempt behind the line and to the right, because that’s what works for him. And not long after that, in the final 70 seconds of the half, he makes two long 3s in the span of about 30 seconds, again bringing the crowd to its feet.

Campbell trails by six at the half. Clemons has 16 of his team’s 28 points – his 112th consecutive game scoring in double figures. He’s done that now in 126 of his 127 college games. The second half starts, and the Camels keep chipping away. Clemons cuts the deficit to one midway through the half. He has the assist on a 3-pointer that gives his team the lead not long after.

Another two-handed dunk from Clemons, after another split double team, gives the Camels a four-point lead with about two minutes remaining, and the crowd is roaring. Clemons finishes with 30 points, right on his average, and after a 64-62 victory he and his teammates cut down the nets. One of them winds up around Clemons’ neck, and he wears it around like it’s a medallion.

“A crazy atmosphere in there,” Carlyton says later. “I’ll tell you that.”

Afterward, McGeehan tells reporters that he has 50 congratulatory texts waiting for him. This is a big moment for Campbell basketball. It’s the kind of moment that makes clearer why Clemons decided to remain here, even after having chances to transfer in recent years to someplace bigger – maybe even to one of the schools that first overlooked him years ago.

Transfers, McGeehan acknowledges, happen “so frequently that you would be foolish not to be thinking about it,” and so sometimes in recent years he worried that Clemons might try to prove himself at a higher level. Clemons, though, didn’t want to sit out a year and, besides, he says, “I have the potential to make it to where I want to make it to, professionally. So I didn’t see a reason to leave.”

This particular game, his senior day, there were no moves up the all-time scoring list. Clemons doesn’t like to be reminded of where he stands, anyway. He knows he’s sixth all-time in Division I scoring. The highest he can feasibly climb is to No. 3. He’s 15 points away from passing Doug McDermott and moving into the top five.

This season, Clemons has passed the likes of Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson and, among memorable players from North Carolina schools, Rodney Monroe and J.J. Redick and Stephen Curry and Tyler Hansbrough, the ACC’s all-time scoring leader. Cynics will say if Clemons were in the ACC, he wouldn’t be putting up these numbers. Still, there he’ll be in the record book, his name alongside theirs. When it says “Chris Clemons,” the font won’t be any smaller.

“I’m not going to realize it until I’m probably older,” he says, “when basketball’s all over for me.”

Now, after his senior day, it goes on. He walks off the court wearing his trophy net around his neck. Kids ask him for autographs and adults ask for selfies. All over, fans are shouting his name: “Chris! Chris!” It’s another one of those scenes that even Clemons, for all his imagination, might not have been able to conjure.

Yet the visions continue. There’s no limit to the imagination. Clemons still sees things he hasn’t yet made real.

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Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.

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