Missouri's NBA Draft-Bound Backcourt Bonded over Fathers' Struggle with Cancer

Tully Corcoran@@tullycorcoranSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 20, 2014

AP Images

We talk about family as a fixed and permanent unit, something that always was and always will be. There is comfort in thinking of it that way, but that's not really how it is.

The family you knew as a child will be different from the one you know as an adult. There is birth and death, marriage and divorce. Sometimes, a girlfriend becomes a wife.

And sometimes, a buddy becomes a brother.

Next Thursday, if all goes as expected, roommates Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown will be selected somewhere in the middle of the NBA draft and baptized into American adulthood.

Just two years ago, they were strangers living almost 2,000 miles apart. But today, Clarkson says, "That dude is like my brother."

Their bond was sealed over a hellish 34-day stretch in which Clarkson and Brown—a pair of transfer guards who became Missouri's leading scorers—found out their fathers had cancer and decided the best thing they could do was be quiet, be strong and only show vulnerability within the walls of the apartment they shared together in Columbia, Missouri.

One day, Clarkson walked down the hall to Brown's room.

"If you ever see me with my head down or something, man," he said, "just pick me up and talk to me."

Neither is a big talker, but Brown said all Clarkson needed to hear.

"He said he had my back," Clarkson said.

Feb. 1 was an important day for Missouri basketball, which meant there was some extra gravity pushing down on Clarkson and Brown, the Tigers' quiet leaders. A rough stretch at the beginning of SEC play had dropped the Tigers to 16-4, 4-3 in the conference.

But preseason No. 1 Kentucky was in town, and more than 11,000 fans showed up at Mizzou Arena hoping to see the Tigers get a win that could redefine their season.

So it made sense Clarkson's family would be in the building. As usual, Missouri would need everything it could get out of Clarkson and Brown, who for a couple of guys in their first year of eligibility at Mizzou carried an unusual amount of responsibility.

The Tigers were young and not particularly skilled in the frontcourt. Either Clarkson and Brown played well, or Missouri lost. Hosting the most talented team in the country only amplified that reality.

In front of a national CBS audience, Clarkson and Brown were the two best players on the floor that day. They combined for 61 points.

And Missouri lost.

Even when you control what you can control and leave it all out on the floor, sometimes it isn't enough.

Mike Clarkson and his son, Jordan.
Mike Clarkson and his son, Jordan.Photo courtesy of the Clarkson family

After the game, Clarkson's father, Mike, and stepmother, Janie, went back to the apartment Jordan shared with Brown and gave him much worse news. Mike had a rare form of cancer along his spine.

He remembers telling his son something like this: "I'm not trying to rain on the parade, you just had a tough game against Kentucky, but I wanted to make you aware of this situation that arose, and I'm gonna get it taken care of."

He told his son not to worry, to focus on what he was doing.

"That was a hard pill for him to swallow," Mike said. "He tried to act as if, OK, no problem."

But the stone face isn't in Jordan Clarkson's bag.

"I know once he got by himself, he was really concerned that, 'My dad might not be here.'" Mike said. "He's a very emotional-type guy behind closed doors. He had a tough time trying to deal with that."

In November, his little brother had broken his leg playing basketball, and Jordan acknowledged him every single night during pregame introductions, raising 10 fingers in the air to represent his brother's number.

But his father's illness was different.

"Jordan didn't want to make any excuses and use that as a crutch to the media," Mike said.

So that urge Jordan felt to publicly acknowledge his loved ones, the way he did for his brother, would have to manifest itself some other way, some other place, in some psychological compartment where there are no sports cliches or coaching mantras. This wasn't for public consumption because, as they say in athletics, if you're out there, you have to perform.

But if he needed an example, he just had to look at the granite rock that lived down the hall and drank from the same milk jugs. Barely a month earlier, Brown's father, David, had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Serious, terrifying, not-much-doctors-can-do stomach cancer.

And outside of Brown's own family, Jordan Clarkson had been about the only person Brown ever talked to about it.

"He never really spoke to his teammates about it," said Frank Haith, who coached Brown at Missouri. "He's got that inner toughness about him. I don't think it affected him in terms of his play."

A younger Jabari Brown (far right) with younger brother Jamil and father David.
A younger Jabari Brown (far right) with younger brother Jamil and father David.Photo courtesy of Brown family

There is no telling what it was like in that Columbia apartment after Jordan's parents were gone and it was just Jordan and Jabari. Jordan has spoken about his father publicly, but only in broad terms.

The agency that represents Jordan as he prepares for the NBA draft has a public relations arm that handles him delicately. It made him available to talk for this story only on the condition that the questions be prescreened and edited for "warmth." Brown has never spoken publicly about his father's situation, and his agent denied repeated interview requests for this story.

Clarkson grew up in Texas, where he was one of the state's brightest track stars. Jordan was fast, and his parents, especially Mike, doted on his talent. Mike had played basketball at UNLV for two years in the early 1980s. He knew how to work and was determined to show his son how to succeed.

"That's my hero," Jordan says.

So Jordan grew up running, running, running. All the time. Every day. A little faster today than yesterday. He made it to nationals every year, but it was a life lived between beeps of the stopwatch.

"All of a sudden in ninth grade, he came in and said, 'I don't want to run anymore,'" Mike said. "It was kind of a shock to us. Because he was such a talented track and field athlete, I think we just pushed him too hard. You can just burn a kid out."

So in ninth grade, he picked up a basketball and, man, was that fun. It helped that he was already fast and fit, and it helped a lot more that he had a father who knew how to play and was eager to teach him.

Jordan was used to rigorous training, and when he applied it to hoops, the skills just started to stick to him. By his junior year, just about every college in Texas had sent Clarkson a letter. Texas A&M and Texas Tech offered scholarships, as did SMU, TCU and Rice. But Clarkson settled on Tulsa. He liked the coach, the academic adviser, the athletic director. Everybody.

More than 1,700 miles away in Oakland, California, Brown was finishing a more spot-lit recruiting process. Rivals.com ranked him the No. 19 player in his class. He turned down Arizona and Kansas and just about everybody else to go to Oregon.

Brown grew up in a basketball family. Both his parents played in college, and his mother, Fannie, played professionally overseas. Like the Clarksons, the Browns nurtured their son's talent. There were all kinds of training techniques and books about various basketball players. Darcy Frey's 1994 classic The Last Shot was a particular favorite of Jabari's.

"That used to be his bible," Fannie said.

And then there were the gyms. David and Fannie made sure Jabari and his younger brother, Jamil, always had a gym to play in as opposed to a driveway or a playground.

Photo courtesy of the Brown family

"The thing in Oakland is it's always hard to get in a gym," Fannie said. "But we tried. Tried, tried, tried, even if we had to pay for it."

They say you don't get to pick your family, but if you're a good enough athlete, you get to pick your program, which is close. Basketball programs always pitch themselves that way, at least, and in 2011, Brown was in Oregon, and Clarkson was in Oklahoma, and life was blooming the way it does at that age.

Within a year, though, both players were seeking new basketball families. Tulsa made a coaching change, and Oregon turned out not to be what Brown expected, so both got their releases and reopened the recruiting process.

Well, nobody had forgotten Brown was a top-20 player in his class, and by then, the late-blooming Clarkson had fully flowered, averaging 16.5 points per game as a freshman at Tulsa.

Missouri, meanwhile, was coming off a 30-5 season in Haith's first year. But that team was full of departing seniors, making Missouri an ideal spot for guys looking for playing time on a national stage.

NCAA rules force Division I transfers to sit out a year, which can be a lonely time. But Clarkson and Brown bonded quickly. They came from similar families and seemed to have similar sensibilities—big players, but not big talkers.

So they spent a year together, going to class and going to practice but wearing street clothes during the games, which was tough because the Tigers really could have used them. Missouri couldn't seem to win on the road, got a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament and finished 23-11.

Now, the big picture was this: Haith was entering his third year at Missouri with a 53-16 record, but there was some pressure on him. That first magical season—perhaps the best in Missouri history—had ended with a humiliating first-game loss to Norfolk State in the NCAA tournament.

A year later, there was a lot of doubt as to whether the Tigers would even get into the NCAA tournament, and when they immediately got bounced again, year three became politically critical for Haith. He now had a roster of his own assemblage, and if nothing else, he needed to show that things weren't just going to keep getting worse.

Fortunately, he had the two stud transfersClarkson and Brown.

On Dec. 29, David and Fannie gathered their sons back home and knocked the wind out of them. The message was a lot like the one Clarkson would get a month later. Your father has cancer, but we want you to focus.

"They took it very hard," Fannie said.

Fannie told Haith, so the rest of the Tigers knew about it, but they didn't want it to be a spectacle. They wanted their son to be able to just play, to pursue his dream without distraction.

And remarkably, he did. But he didn't just play. He was spectacular. During a five-game stretch that ended with his 33-point effort against Kentucky on Feb. 1, Brown scored 24 three times and 28 points once. He finished the season as the SEC's leading scorer, averaging 19.9 points per game.

Jordan Clarkson after Missouri's win over UCLA.
Jordan Clarkson after Missouri's win over UCLA.AP Photo

"I think one of the things that really helped a lot is the fact that I work in the medical profession," said Fannie, an account specialist for a hospital. "I told them I would certainly let you know everything that is going on as it relates to your dad. Your goal is to focus on what you're trying to accomplish in life. Know that I will be here to do what I can for Dad, and you all just take care of you. I think that helps him a lot."

So all along, nobody knew. Nobody ever would have known except that late in the season, a reporter from The Kansas City Star called Fannie to ask about something totally different, and she accidentally let it slip that David Brown and Mike Clarkson both had cancer.

"I forgot to say, 'off the record,'" she said.

Suddenly, the Tigers' season made a little more sense.

"They're not only your two best players, they're your leaders too," Haith said. "So think about that. We had a young team. Our front line was all freshmen. We basically relied on them for guidance and support and leadership. And both of those guys are not great talkers, but then you have this kind of thing happen to them, it has to affect their minds and their approach and trying to lift others up. ... Yeah, the dynamics of our team was all looking to those guys. You would have to struggle with that, with what was going on."

Everybody could see that Jordan Clarkson had not been the same player since that Kentucky game, but now everybody knew why.

He was averaging 18.9 points per game before he learned of his father's diagnosis, and he averaged 15.5 after. He shot 45 percent for the season but 38 percent after Mike's diagnosis. Forty-five of his 93 turnovers came in those final 14 games.

"It was drastically affecting him," Haith said. "He was frustrated, he was pressing, he was all over the place. He still had some good moments, but he was not the same confident player he was when we saw him play against UCLA or Kentucky or any of those teams."

Even months later, Jordan reluctantly acknowledges that was true.

"I tried not to let that situation come onto the court," Jordan said. "But I'm human just like everybody else. It kinda affected me just a little bit. Staying strong for my family was a big thing for me."

Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson react to a negative officiating call against Arkansas.
Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson react to a negative officiating call against Arkansas.AP Photo

Brown and Clarkson were two of the top seven scorers in the SEC, averaging a combined 37.4 points per game. But Missouri's season ended in the second round of the NIT. In what appeared to be a preemptive move, Haith left Missouri for Tulsa, and Clarkson and Brown left early for the NBA draft.

Mike Clarkson is doing just fine now. A surgery to remove tumors has hindered his ability to walk, but he expects to regain that through physical therapy. He isn't completely free of cancer, but he says his doctors are confident they'll get it licked.

David Brown's situation is different. Treatment has left him too weak to talk, and there aren't many options.

"It's not curable," Fannie said. "It's treatable."

So Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown go their separate ways now. They don't talk much. Except to each other.

"I talk to him almost every day now," Jordan said. "Just checking up on him."

Like the brothers they've become.

Tully Corcoran has been working in professional journalism since 2003, covering everything from high school soccer to the NFL to the Final Four. He lives in Houston and loves sandwiches.


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