Michael Jordan’s aerial assault was so rare that Mars Blackmon famously said:
"It’s got to be the shoes!"
It just had to be the shoes to explain the uniqueness of his airness, right?
"Uh, no Mars."
So when a person’s eyes gravitate towards the excellent play of California’s senior, Layshia Clarendon, the first thing that catches their eye: her hair. One would envision that Blackmon would say:
"It’s got to be the hair?"
"Uh, no Mars."
While the golden Mohawk has definitely garnered a life of its own, this is not the only aspect of Clarendon that catches people’s attention, when watching her on the court. Though the hair stands out, it’s her "golden" performances on the hardwood all year that captivates the eye.
"I got the haircut and I was like, ‘Why not do it now? I’m young, I’m 21, how often can you wear a Mohawk in life?’" said a laughing Clarendon. "I went for the Mohawk, not thinking [it would take a life of its own].
"People talking about my hair, I’m like an under a radar person, I’m not flashy. But then the hair, it’s a little counter-intuitive -- it’s kind of my personality sticking out with me."
Usually an outer metamorphosis is a direct reflection of change coming from within. And Clarendon’s maturation over the past couple of years is a direct correlation to the steady rise of the Golden Bears.
But her road up until this point definitely had a lot of growing pains. Labeled as good but not great for the first couple years of her college career, Clarendon’s emergence onto the national scene is a culmination of timing, hunger and growth.
In 2009, the Golden Bears signed the nation’s number one class; let me repeat that again, number one! And everyone expected immediate success -- especially the players. Think about it, they had signed five All-Americans. That’s a class that would have made any coaching staff of the established elites dance with jubilation.
Clarendon -- a WBCA All-American in her own right -- didn’t receive the same amount of national publicity as her teammates, but nevertheless was a vital component to California’s class.
This group of players was supposed to be the launching pad in taking the Golden Bears to the stratosphere. They were supposed to be the women’s version of the "Fab Five", and make an immediate impact once they descended onto the Berkley campus.
However, the translation from hype to substance didn’t really go too well -- especially for Clarendon. Thrust into the toughest position for a freshman, point guard, she struggled.
"I thought I would play the two, come in and play some minutes," said Clarendon. "Next thing you know, eight or nine games into the season, I’m the starting point guard as a freshman. And I’m like, ‘What?’ Like, this is college basketball; [I didn’t] know the plays, it’s faster and quicker and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’"
Patience is a virtue, but in today’s culture, patience wasn’t on her side. While growth takes time, especially for players so young, many pundits had already written the obituary for the 2009 class -- they wondered aloud if this was another sad case of too much edification. Maybe Clarendon and her teammates weren’t as great as initially thought.
They went from making a Sweet Sixteen appearance in the NCAA tournament the year before (2009), to her first year, winning the WNIT championship. And for some programs, that’s great. But this is California we’re talking about - the standards are much higher.
Still, it was something to build upon -- a solid starting foundation.
Then the 2010 season came.
The second year was worse than the first, they just went 18-16 and another WNIT appearance -- only to be bounced out in the second round. Talk about a precipitous decline, this was not what Clarendon or her teammates anticipated coming out of high school. Not only were the Golden Bears struggling in the quicksand of mediocrity, she was struggling too -- mentally.
"My sophomore year was probably the most challenging," said Clarendon. "Because we went to the WNIT again, but this time lost in the second round. It was kind of like a bust. Then we found out that Joanne (Boyle) was leaving to Virginia. So, I'd say that was a difficult year, a lot happened."
Losing and the state of mediocritization that hovered over the program, it just wasn’t something that she was accustomed to; it even got to a point where Clarendon remembered her father’s cautiously optimistic words coming out of high school.
"I remember my dad saying to me as I got ready for my freshman year, ‘Hopefully, you guys make the (NCAA) tournament'," said Clarendon. "And I’m like, ‘What?’"
Those words have a morsel of truth to them now, as she reflected on them during this time. That moment of contemplation was more like a searing indictment of the state of affairs that now clouded the once proud program -- those words were a sign that things needed to change.
And like a premonition, the forecast was about to go from gloomy to sunny -- in the very near future.
The coach that had recruited all of these players to Berkley - Boyle - suddenly resigned -- taking the job at Virginia. With all of the frustrations that had taken place, this subtle change would be the life raft that would give them new life -- and allow the Golden Bears to float back to the top.
"After Joanne left, before we found out who our new coach would be, our team banded together and decided that this was it," said Clarendon "We were going to change this program, we worked so hard those couple of weeks when we were coachless.
"It was a pivotal moment for this program. The seniors and juniors then really held the team together -- along with Jessica Dolan, Charmin Smith, and our strength and conditioning coach and trainer."
And this wasn’t a bunch of poppycock - they were determined to fix the ghosts of the past that haunted them.
Their renewed commitment was the first step, but there was still another component left: Who would be the new head coach?
Needless to say, help was on the way, and they wouldn’t have to look far.
Lindsay Gottlieb decided to come back "home." She was Associate Head Coach at California in 2007-08 before becoming the head coach at University of California-Santa Barbara. And as she embarked upon coaching this team, the first thing she did was give the team some basic requirements:
"Show up, work hard and give us everything you have -- and everything will fall into place," she stated.
And if they did those things, Gottlieb would give the players the platform to improvise on the court -- albeit staying within the structure of the offense.
"Thank God that we got Lindsay Gottleib - she’s going to be here for awhile," said Clarendon emphatically. "She’s a great leader; she puts us in places to be successful. She’s beyond intelligent, a nerd of basketball (with) the amount of film she watches, and she just knows her stuff. I think she really lets us play in space, play how we want to play. She always wants us to be who we are.
"Everything she’s done is kind of supportive; she takes the time to really know each player on an individual level. It’s awesome. She’s kind of like, ‘Here’s our general offense, work within it, and you guys can score, play hard and be who you are.’"
Let freedom ring.
That was music to the ears of Clarendon as she’s always played the game with such instincts and inventiveness. It was the reprieve that she needed; this was her forte -- perfect for her personality.
Last year Clarendon sparkled on the hardwood, enjoying her best year up until that point: WBCA All-America Honorable Mention, All Pac-12 and Pac-12 All-Tournament team. Her play just stood out.
Not the one to hog the spotlight, Clarendon was able to blend in for the majority of her career. Yet one of the main changes that has helped catapult the Golden Bears to new heights was not only her embracing the limelight -- but most importantly accepting the main thing that comes with it: leadership.
"I’ve always led by example," said Clarendon. "But [I had] to be more vocal last year and this year. Whereas the years before, we had [players like] Alexis Gray-Lawson (leading). But whereas now, when we huddle on the court, they’re looking at me -- my leadership has (definitely) evolved."
Now woven into her fabric, the girl who always took solace in just being in the background, has now blossomed into a woman that welcomes standing out in the forefront -- confidently and assertively.
With the Pac-12 tournament right around the corner and a #6 ranking, Clarendon is determined to ride the wave of success as far as she can.
"Our goals for the rest of the year are a Pac-12 regular and conference tournament championship," said Clarendon. "And to keep playing together as long as possible after that. We want to play until someone beats us, as compared to beat ourselves."
Her personality is fitting of all the new found accolades she’s received thus far: determined, helpful, altruistic and leader. No wonder Clarendon’s a Finalist for the Lowe’s Senior Class Award.
She’s just "Golden."