When I first called Middle Tennessee State University forward Alysha Clark on Tuesday evening at the time arranged for us through her contact person, she was trying to navigate Atlanta's airport to get to her connecting flight to New York for the 2010 WNBA Draft.
Her flight had arrived late from San Antonio -- where she had just received the Robin Roberts/WBCA Broadcasting Scholarship award without time to watch the Final Four -- and she had just found out that her connecting flight to New York for the 2010 WNBA Draft was earlier than she originally thought. She estimated that she might have 10-20 minutes to get to her flight. Maybe in a normal airport that would be semi-stressful - in the Atlanta airport it could be a nightmare.
Since it was halftime of the National Championship game, I figured we could chat for about 10 minutes. But this would be a bad time for an interview right?
"Well," said Clark, thinking aloud. "I guess that could work -- I don't really have anything else to do but get to the gate."
Not that I refused to believe her, but I figured that there might be a few disruptions in trying to conduct an interview with someone rushing through an airport that might require getting on a tram to get from gate to gate.
So after I suggested that we just chat some other time, we went back and forth for a minute about alternate times: her flight would get to New York at midnight and she would just be too tired then. Once in New York she didn't want to chat before 10 am EST because she wasn't trying to wake up that early. With me being in Seattle, I wasn't really trying to wake her up that early anyway so I suggested sometime between 11 and noon.
"Oh, well I don't want to make you get up early either," she said upon hearing that I was in Seattle. "Yeah, you can call anytime around noon. I won't be doing anything anyway."
She was probably right - aside from sitting in her hotel room looking forward to the draft "excited and a little nervous" and heading the NBA Store for a meet and greet, she probably didn't have much to do. So it was settled - noon on the day before being drafted.
I joked with someone the other day that there's almost no point in commenting on how down to earth and humble women's basketball players are because it's not really a unique trait, for the most part - by now, we should just assume down-to-earth and humble until further notice. But Clark had something extra - she just seems to take everything in stride. While so many players are obviously trying to project a persona, Clark was open and honest about herself even in our first conversation.
Since talking to her, I've re-watched the nation's leading scorer play and the calm and laid-back demeanor that she exuded in our first brief exchange is also evident on the court. As hard as she works from the beginning of the shot clock to establish post position with her wiry strong 5'10" frame, she makes the work look almost effortless at times scoring over bigger and presumably stronger players. She takes whatever the defense gives her and finds a way to score and score consistently. Playing in the paint at her size, that's obviously a necessity but also somewhat startling that she is so effective despite such an obvious limitation.
However, compared to a player like Penn State University guard Tyra Grant -- who just seems to emanate passion -- Clark's casual approach to everything could certainly be interpreted as nonchalance. Yet it could also be taken as a mark of confidence, almost as though it never occurs to her that there is reason to worry as long as she works hard and maintains the right attitude.
"I don't like to be too uptight or too serious," said Clark in our interview on Wednesday afternoon. "I don't want to take something so serious - I want to enjoy the game - but at the same time, I'm a competitor. I think just kinda being relaxed a little bit it kind of helps me keep my composure on the court and keep my teammates motivated and keep them in it and just staying positive."
Chatting with Clark that's definitely what stood out - totally relaxed and a lot of laughter, even as she was saying, "I'm kind of nervous to find out where I'm going to go."
Her ability to keep that composure was probably most evident in the moment she identified as the biggest of her career.
With the Sun Belt Conference Championship tied at 68 in overtime and the shot clock turned off as the clock wound down, everybody in the arena - likely including University of Arkansas-Little Rock defenders - probably knew the ball was going to Clark in the post. That's just what Middle Tennessee does. Yet still, after getting the ball on the left block with less than five seconds on the clock, she managed to turn over her right shoulder and somehow sneak the ball off the backboard over a bigger defender with 1.8 seconds left. It was a routine play made much less routine by the fact that it was something every kid shooting around on the playground dreams of.
"Hitting that game winner, that's something that you're always going to remember, that's something that can never be taken away: taking home a conference championship," said Clark, after some thought about her most memorable moment. "But every moment, every game I've played has just been something new and something more I've learned that's just been great."
However, all dreams aside, what makes the shot and her teammates' faith in her to actually make the shot more representative of who she is as a basketball player is the possessions leading up to that shot.
Despite tallying a Sun Belt tournament record 46 points to that point in the game- breaking her own record set in the quarterfinals and then again in the semifinals -- Clark had missed 5 consecutive layups at point black range prior to the dream game-winner. Just to stack the odds a little bit more, it's also worth noting that she played the final 7:20 of regulation and the overtime frame with 4 fouls, which is especially significant considering that she was the one who rotated over to defend UALR's Butler as she drove hard to the rim on the penultimate possession of regulation that would have rendered overtime unnecessary.
So as amazing as the shot itself was, to have done that after playing the entire game without rest, 11 minutes in foul trouble, and about 5 minutes of missing layups seems to add an additional layer to this particular dream narrative. It ends up standing out not only as a dream, but perhaps a defining moment for an entire basketball career seemingly predicated on defying odds and achieving unlikely results.
Going one step further, it might be said that her big moment was even beyond her wildest dreams.
Unlike many of her peers invited to the draft, Clark was never really that interested in basketball growing up. She started playing basketball in 10th grade when she moved to Tennessee in 2002 because she wanted something to stay in active and in shape between volleyball and track, which she says demonstrates that she's a coachable, quick learner. That she seems to display such natural basketball instincts in spite of such strong disinterest in her formative years adds yet another layer of intrigue to her talent.
"I don't model myself after anybody," said Clark. "I really didn't start playing basketball and playing sports when I was younger so it wasn't anything I was ever interested in. A lot of the girls have been playing since they were like four-years-old - playing basketball when I was still playing with dolls and stuff. It never really even crossed my mind. So I kinda just developed into my own player - I didn't watch anybody... I just kind of developed."
Even after getting into basketball, she was surprised even at the possibility of getting attention from Division I programs. After two years of being Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year at Belmont University, she had the opportunity to transfer to Vanderbilt University instead of Middle Tennessee and chose the latter, according to her contact person. The thought of the WNBA? Not exactly high on her list of priorities - she had other concerns.
"When I started playing and learning so quickly, I really started enjoying it," said Clark. "I just decided it was something I wanted to continue to do. And once I got to a point in my junior and senior year when I was actually getting recruited to go to college, I was like, ‘Wow - maybe I can take this thing on in there and just go from there.' I never really had any expectations to be here today in the WNBA Draft and stuff because I was horrible and everything just kind of happened so quickly for me and it's all just been a whirlwind so I'm just taking it for what it is."
And yet, however strange it may sound, the very fact that Clark seems to possess such natural basketball IQ and the ability to use that natural ability so effectively without the lifelong intention to pursue a professional career almost reinforces the fact that she is a truly gifted basketball player.
"I think a good coach sees the talent and sees the potential," said Clark. "They can take it how they want - I've kinda developed so quickly that there is obviously still more room for improvement and a great coach would see that and see that potential and want to invest in that and want to help me grow and become a better player."
- Although I have no social science research handy with which to support this claim, I have a theory: you can learn a lot about a person from how they handle airport adversity (or being lost). Add Clark to my list of people who have reinforced that.
WNBA.com: Prospect: Alysha Clark
Sun Belt Player of the Year (2009, 2010)…All-Sun Belt First Team (2009, 2010)…CBSSports.com All-America Second Team (2009)…Associated Press All-America Third Team (2009)…WBCA All-America Honorable Mention (2009)…Tennessee Sports Writers Association Player of the Year (2009)…Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year (2009)...Sun Belt Tournament Most Outstanding Player (2009)…Sun Belt All-Tournament Team (2009)…Atlantic Sun Player of the Year (2006, 2007)…Atlantic Sun Tournament MVP (2007)…Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year (2006)…Atlantic Sun All-Freshman Team (2006)…Atlantic Sun All-Tournament Team (2006, 2007)…All-Atlantic Sun First Team (2006, 2007).