Strong Roots: How Skeptics Fueled One of the Most Memorable Careers in UVa Basketball History
There is an adage in the wine world that “bad” soil makes good wine. Why? In poor soil the roots of vines must work harder to find nutrients. If a vine’s access to water and nutrients is too easy, it may not grow as strong. “When you do all the work for the plant, the plant ends up doing less work itself,” they say. Conversely, challenging conditions force roots to do more work, producing stronger vines, and often better wine.
Out of high school, the 5′-9″, 150 pound Kihei Clark attracted little fanfare. “Kihei Clark isn’t a guy who will blow you away with immense size, explosive athleticism or fancy dribble exhibitions,” wrote one recruiting website. “He is slight and cherubic and not the first player you would pick for your team at the rec center,” another article read. Clark’s father, from whom he inherited his stature, urged Clark to overcome the naysayers. “I told him not to worry about it,” his father said. “Whenever you’re undersized, there’s always a stacked deck . . . There are doubters.” Like college recruiters, who came to watch him play but couldn’t get past his size. “Every single one said he was too small,” said Derrick Taylor, Clark’s high school coach. With little interest from colleges outside the area of Clark’s San Fernando home, Clark committed to UC Davis. “Being my size, I never pass the eye test,” says Clark.
Except Tony Bennett’s eye test. After UVa coach Bennett learned that Clark had decommitted from UC Davis in the summer of 2017, he managed to lure the point guard across the country to a school thousands of miles from home. Despite an offer from one of the top ranked programs in the country, skeptics continued. One PAC Ten assistant coach said to Clark’s high school coach: “Congratulations on your guy Kihei earning a scholarship to Virginia. But I have to be honest with you. Don’t think you think that’s a little bit over his skis?”
Clark persevered. In a development almost no one saw coming, Clark made the starting line-up just a few games into his career, joining a line-up of players rated much higher than Clark’s 347th national ranking. Not even a broken wrist could stop him. Just six days after breaking his wrist, he returned to the lineup playing with a cast, and ended up starting 20 games during the season. And yet, even that didn’t silence skeptics. “No. 0 is not an ACC player, not quite sure what Tony is trying to prove there,” tweeted one ACC sportswriter the first time he saw Clark play.
Eight weeks after that tweet, Clark threw the greatest pass in NCAA history, helping Virginia advance to the Final Four, and eventually its first National Championship. With Virginia trailing by two points, and his teammate at the foul line, he chased a long rebound tapped into the back court and grabbed the ball with 3.5 seconds remaining, 70 feet from the basket. What happened next is difficult to understand without appreciating the doubts Clark had long overcome. To Clark’s right was a star upperclassman, Virginia’s floor leader, clapping and screaming for the ball. To his left was another star upperclassman, clapping and screaming for the ball. Perhaps a less confident freshman would have obliged. But, the eighteen-year-old guard ignored them both, instead throwing a one-handed pass the length of the floor to a player guarded by the opponent’s 7’3″ defensive stopper. Even as Clark made the pass, doubts lingered. One of the players screaming for the ball, Kyle Guy, later explained what was going through his mind: “This little dude better know what he’s doing, because I’m going to be very mad if he just looked off two upperclassmen who have been-there-done-that.”
Know what he’s doing? Game tied. Season saved.
Given all that Clark has accomplished at UVa, it seems odd to dwell on just one play. But, it captures so well what Clark has done for the program during his four years at Virginia, and how he did it. Even after his heroic efforts to help Virginia win a national title, doubters persisted through his next three years, never warming to Clark’s unconventional appearance and style of play. In his final trip to Cameron Indoor Staidum, Duke fans painted themselves with letters spelling “KIHEI IS SHORT”. And yet, this week Clark reached a milestone only four other Virginia players ever have: 1,000 points and 500 assists in a career.
So, before a crowd of 21,623 fans, with the season on the line, where did Clark find the belief in himself to ignore what others were saying and make one of the best plays in NCAA history? The same place he found that belief through his whole life. Himself. Unlike athletes with more obvious attributes, Clark never had outsiders constantly telling him how good he is. None nurtured his ego with praise. Rather, skeptics told him again and again that he could never be good enough. To create a belief in himself, Clark had to do the work himself.
One of the most memorable careers in Virginia basketball history, then, we owe in part to the skeptics – the ones who forever told Kihei Clark that he would never succeed. They are the soil that helped make Clark strong.