LOUDONVILLE — Last March, just minutes after Nico Clareth had saved a Siena College men’s basketball season with an all-time shooting performance in the MAAC semifinals, Saints head coach Jimmy Patsos revisited a conversation he’d had a month earlier with Clareth.
That talk happened back when Clareth was on an “indefinite leave of absence” from the Saints, one Siena athletic director John D’Argenio recently seemed to confirm had been more of an imposed suspension. Whatever the reason for Clareth’s midseason hiatus from the team last season, it ended shortly after a lunch meeting between Clareth and Patsos, during which the coach expressed appreciation for Clareth’s basketball knowledge, passion and skills — and warned Clareth not to miss out on using them at Siena.
“Dude,” Patsos told Clareth, “you’re blowing it.”
A few days after that conversation, Clareth rejoined the Saints in a win against Iona — and Patsos waved away questions about the timing of Clareth’s return.
“We don’t cast our family members aside ever,” Patsos said. “We might be mad at our family members, but we never cast them aside.”
That was then.
This is now.
And, now, it’s over for Clareth and Siena basketball.
After a problem-plagued sophomore season and an up-and-down junior campaign, Clareth and the program “have reached a mutual decision to part ways.”
That became official Wednesday, days after the school released a statement less than an hour before Friday’s tip against Niagara in which it was said Clareth — a co-captain for the Saints — would not play that night after he “informed the team [that] morning that he would be traveling home to his native Baltimore to attend to a family issue.” At the time, Clareth’s status was listed as “day-to-day.”
Wednesday brought a joint statement from Clareth and the school, in which Patsos expressed appreciation for Clareth’s time with the Saints and Clareth said he would finish out the academic year at Siena before looking to transfer to continue his playing career. Clareth remains on scholarship.
Clareth’s section in the statement reads: “Right now what’s best for me, my family, and the team, is for me to step away. I appreciate the opportunity that was given to me at Siena, and I’m thankful for the chance to be able to finish out the school year before transferring to continue my pursuit of a college career. I would also like to give a special thanks to the fans for the support I received during my time here.”
Clareth’s Siena career finishes with 976 points. He was averaging a team-best 15.1 points per game this season.
“I’m just pleased that we came to a conclusion that everyone is on board with,” D’Argenio said. “Everyone can embrace it and move forward.”
Just spoke with John D'Argenio, who voiced support for the way Patsos and the Siena coaching staff handled Clareth's tenure: "I have no qualms at this point with anything the coaches have done.”— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) January 10, 2018
In a session Wednesday with reporters, Patsos said Clareth is still “part of the [Siena] family” and would continue to have his locker and access to the team’s facilities in the months ahead. Patsos said that while standing inside the school’s Alumni Recreation Center, a gymnasium which features a large decorative poster of Clareth helping up former teammate Brett Bisping.
“There’s no ill will,” Patsos said a day before the Saints play Iona Thursday in a rematch of last year’s MAAC championship game. “It’s just what’s best for everyone.”
Clareth’s departure, though, from the Saints had been brewing for at least a year.
After Clareth set the Siena freshman scoring record, he had offseason knee surgery, and his status was a constant question for much of the 2016-17 season. A few games into the season, he was suspended three games for an undisclosed violation of athletic department rules. Then, in mid-January, Clareth took his leave of absence, the one that played out more like a suspension, and about which Patsos later said he “didn’t handle it perfectly, but I had to stick to my guns.”
Clareth returned from his leave after seven games. His first session with media members after his return was a terse, barely-a-minute-long interaction that ended when then-senior Lavon Long stepped in between Clareth and reporters to end the exchange shortly after Clareth had been asked if he thought his leave of absence had been fairly handled.
“Is life fair?” Clareth responded before exiting.
Initially, Clareth made the most of his chance when he returned. He played well for the remainder of his sophomore season, then provided his Siena career’s signature performance with an incredible second half against top-seeded Monmouth in the MAAC semifinals. That’s when Clareth, on a bum ankle, led Siena to a win with 27 points after halftime in a game the Saints trailed by 17 points with 17 minutes to go. Clareth hit seven 3-pointers in that second half, and was nearly in tears of joy on the court after the game as cheers thundered throughout Times Union Center.
“This is everything right here,” Clareth said afterwards. “That’s the happiest I’ve ever been."
Patsos on if he regrets naming Clareth a co-captain: “Can’t live in regrets. You know, you do the best the you can. . . . But he was a good captain in the summer and the spring.”— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) January 10, 2018
Not long after the season ended, Clareth was named a co-captain for the 2017-18 season.
“Nico has earned the right to be a captain through the energy and effort that he has brought to the program over his first two years,” Patsos said at the time in a statement released through the school.
That summer, Clareth addressed what was needed from him in his new role as a named team leader.
“It starts by me not messing up,” Clareth said, a thought he punctuated with a self-aware laugh, and later backed up by saying there was “no room” for him to mess up in his junior season.
As a captain, Clareth often said and did the right things. He preached patience with the team’s freshmen and heaped praise upon them. When his shot wasn’t falling and he landed on Siena’s bench, he stayed engaged, as opposed to last season. Even when Patsos removed him from the starting lineup, Clareth never publicly questioned the move.
But problems remained.
Before the season, Clareth switched his uniform number from 15 to 25, and generally declined to answer questions about the change — an early sign Clareth had no intention of warming to a role as team spokesman despite his captaincy. He frequently offered short or sarcastic answers to reporters, and Siena rarely picked Clareth to represent the Saints in their formal post-game press conferences.
Generally, Clareth was accessible after games in the team’s locker room, but he blew off that responsibility after a blowout loss in Siena’s home opener during which he shot 3 of 12. Clareth jetted after that game, a captain leaving it to his teammates — mostly freshmen and sophomores — to answer for an embarrassing defeat.
At practices, it wasn’t uncommon for him to lose his cool, to blow up when something went wrong.
In games, he struggled to keep his emotions in check. He picked up one technical against Vermont after making a basket, and flirted with a few others in other games for taunting opponents after successful shots.
Patsos said there was no singular incident leading to Clareth’s departure from the program. “I wish I could tell you that there was some crazy thing, but there wasn’t.”— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) January 10, 2018
But — again — he showed growth toward the close of 2017.
In Siena’s win during its non-conference finale against Holy Cross, he scored 29 points on 14 shots in 32 minutes off the bench. After that game was one of those times Clareth — with passion — said all the right things.
About trying to become a better team player.
“You really need your teammates and their support,” Clareth said. “You need help on the court, you need everybody to be on the same page.”
About what it had been like to watch his freshman teammates develop through a bumpy non-conference season.
“There’s some things you just can’t tell them,” Clareth said. “They go through certain phases, stuff like that, and you just have to sit back and watch, and just give them all the strength — as much as possible — and when they get through it, it really is beautiful.”
And about what’s needed for a student-athlete to get through the grind of being a Division I men’s basketball player at a program like Siena.
“Maturity is everything at this level,” Clareth said.
A week after that, Clareth shot 2 of 16 in a loss against Marist and Patsos benched him for a key late-game possession. A couple days later, Clareth only took two shots against Quinnipiac in another loss in which Patsos benched him for the game’s final moments.
He never played another minute for the Saints.
D’Argenio said several options regarding Clareth’s future were discussed. The Siena AD was pleased that Clareth only wanted to consider options that resulted in him staying in school. “I need to get my college degree,” D’Argenio said Clareth told him.— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) January 10, 2018
Clareth left the team before the team’s loss against Niagara, and his teammates said after their win two days later against Canisius that they hadn’t heard from Clareth since his departure.
“We have not. No,” Siena sophomore Thomas Huerter said after the win against Canisius. “We just know it’s something with his family and he’s down there sorting it out.”
Clareth was back in the area Monday and Tuesday. Siena freshman Jordan Horn said he saw Clareth shooting around one night, but the two players didn’t chat about Clareth’s status with the team. On Wednesday, Siena junior Evan Fisher said the situation involving Clareth had not been a distraction for the rest of the Saints.
“Not really,” Fisher said. “I think we do a pretty good job of just keeping focused on the court with basketball, not really letting that kind of stuff get to us.”
Patsos on if he could have done anything differently with Clareth to avoid his departure: “Of course we could. Is there anything you could have done differently in your life?”— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) January 10, 2018
During Clareth’s time in Loudonville, he was a player Patsos often championed. Yes, there were moments where Patsos publicly lost his patience with Clareth, such as last year when he said after Clareth’s final game before his leave of absence that the guard “just wasn’t ready to play” that night. But even after that whole episode last season, Patsos led a campaign — which was unsuccessful — touting Clareth to repeat as the MAAC Sixth Man of the Year.
Clareth got away with taking bad shots and antics his teammates could not. His talent partially dictated that, but Patsos also clearly had a soft spot for Clareth, a player whose intelligence and sense of humor made him easy to forgive.
“I really, really, really love Nico,” Patsos said Wednesday.
At one practice earlier this season, Clareth went through one of his spells that bordered on a tantrum. In between sprints the whole team ran, Patsos loudly said how most coaches would have assigned a more stern punishment in that moment.
“But I’m different,” Patsos said. “I don’t mind if you fight back.”
From earlier today, here’s Jimmy Patsos on his coaching philosophy and his attempts to reach Nico Clareth during his career at Siena. pic.twitter.com/XTKyGNBYJF— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) January 10, 2018
On Wednesday, Patsos offered an explanation — and a defense — of how he’d handled his relationship with Clareth. Patsos said there were things he could have done differently with Clareth — “Is there anything you could have done differently in your life?” Patsos said to a question along those lines — but that he spent more time with Clareth away from basketball than probably any other player in his coaching career.
“One of my flaws is probably caring too much about the players as people, caring about their off-the-court stuff, wanting them to be happy, wanting them to be productive members of society,” Patsos said. “That’s a Siena thing and that’s my own personal thing, but that’s not the norm in college basketball. It’s win as many games as you can because that’s the nature of the business, is to win. I don’t believe that. I believe in John Wooden. We’re here to make them better people first, and then better players. That’s the approach we took.”
That approach was evident throughout Clareth’s tenure with the Saints. That lunch last February, the one right before Clareth rejoined the team, had been just one of many involving coach and player.
This time around? Perhaps Patsos could no longer reach Clareth in that way. When Clareth left the Saints last week, it was assistant coach Greg Manning who was sent to visit with Clareth and his mother to try to re-recruit the player back to the program.
In the end, that move didn’t work. Patsos met with Clareth Monday and Tuesday, and said the two men came away from those meetings agreeing Clareth’s best path forward in his playing career — and life — would involve another school.
“It’s just time to kind of move on,” Patsos said, “and that’s what we’re going to do.”