ALBANY — He’ll share Saturday’s senior night with four of his UAlbany men’s basketball teammates, but Ahmad Clark will be the night’s top star.
He’s earned that.
During that celebration before the Great Danes’ 7 p.m. game vs. America East Conference rival Stony Brook at SEFCU Arena, Clark will have earned every second of the applause he receives before UAlbany looks to snap a three-game losing streak and help its pursuit of securing a home playoff game. In a career filled with ups and downs, those downs often outnumbered the ups for a player who was a high school benchwarmer before becoming a college standout.
It’s the senior night from earlier this month, though, that offers just one of the examples of why everyone along his basketball journey pulled for Clark to one day earn his own spotlight after a career largely spent in a supporting role.
Will Brown, UAlbany’s head coach, chokes up when he talks about that mid-February night.
“Excuse me,” said Brown, taking a few seconds to compose himself as he sat in his office on UAlbany’s campus earlier this week. “I don’t get emotional much.”
But this memory gets him, and his voice will catch in his throat a few more times as he recalls it.
Brown was sitting in the stands at Catholic Central High School along with former Saint Rose head coach Brian Beaury, who gave Brown his first college coaching job 25 years ago as an assistant and whose niece Jamie married Brown. The night’s game against Cohoes served as Brown’s older son Jackson’s senior night. There were still several minutes to go before the evening’s festivities started when Brown saw a familiar face enter the gymnasium.
Clark immediately headed over to Jamie — the Browns don’t sit together at the games; “I got tired of hearing how I’m his dad and not his coach” — to hug her, then greeted the rest of the Brown family. The 23-year-old from Bowie, Maryland, sat down with them, stayed for the whole game, then stuck around after to take pictures with Jackson, a kid Clark refers to as one of his “little brothers” along with Brown’s younger son Landon.
And here’s the thing about that night: Everyone was thrilled to see Clark and impressed he took the time to show up, but nobody had expected — or even asked — him to make it. Jackson had mentioned his senior night to Clark, though, and the UAlbany star had a free night after scoring 24 points in a loss the previous evening at Hartford.
So Clark hopped in his car and headed to the game — which was a surprise to, well, everyone.
“That day, we’d practiced earlier,” Brown said. “Ahmad didn’t say anything to me about coming.”
Clark, though, is one of those guys that always showed up, even when it wasn’t easy. He rarely played in high school at powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School in Maryland, headed to DME Sports Academy in Florida after that for a prep year since he had no scholarship offers, then found himself the next year at St. Petersburg College — a junior college — since there still wasn’t a Division I program willing to take a chance on the 6-foot-1 guard.
Clark starred, though, at St. Petersburg. He elected to head to UAlbany instead of Morgan State, and sat more than he played in that sophomore season with the Great Danes, who already had in place a star backcourt of Joe Cremo and David Nichols.
“It,” Clark’s mom Emily said, “was a repeat of high school.”
Actually, Clark probably played even fewer minutes at DeMatha Catholic than he did during that first season at UAlbany when he’d often head into a game, make a dazzling shot or pass, then find himself headed to the bench a minute later after committing a wild turnover. DeMatha Catholic is one of the best high school basketball programs in the country, and Clark backed up a starting backcourt of Markelle Fultz — the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft — and current Georgetown starting guard Terrell Allen.
“Those were the two guys he played behind,” said DeMatha Catholic head coach Mike Jones, whose program recently won its latest championship in the super-competitive Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. “You can call it unlucky.”
Clark grew up dreaming about playing at DeMatha Catholic. His older brother Darren Jr. had played there for a couple years, and Clark attended every summer camp he could at the school. When he was a junior, Clark made the school’s varsity team, but only as a “bubble guy” because the program was so loaded.
Clark, Jones said, was “incredibly talented.” The coach also knew he couldn’t afford to leave the guard off his roster. He’d watched his players interact enough to understand that.
“His personality was so infectious. There was no way he wouldn’t be on the team,” Jones said. “The other kids may have rioted if he wasn’t on the team. Everyone loves Ahmad.”
“He has a very playful nature. He’s a very outgoing, high-spirited kid. He jokes around a lot,” the 30-year-old Darren Jr. said of his younger brother. “That’s just who he is. I would never want anyone to take that away from him. Maybe, sometimes, that can get mistaken as immaturity, but that’s who he is. He likes to make people smile.”
He was an “entertainer” and a “comedian,” and Clark carried those acts with him into his college career. As a teenager, he had developed a moniker of “Johnny Sosa,” a mixture of a name in tribute to one of his brother’s friends and a rapper, and Clark enjoyed being the guy who practiced trick shots and made crazy passes whenever possible.
“That’s,” Clark said, “who I wanted to be.”
But the past tense matters there because “Johnny Sosa” stopped working for Clark at some point, and that point is probably not long after Cremo and Nichols left the UAlbany program to transfer to high-major programs, and Clark needed to — like, right away — become The Guy for the Great Danes.
He had considered leaving UAlbany after that first season because he so desperately wanted to play, but couldn’t bring himself to make a decision he viewed as akin to giving up. Then, Cremo and Nichols departed, and Clark was left to lead a freshman-filled team through a rebuilding season. Things started OK, but didn’t end great. Clark was a third-team, all-conference selection, but closed the campaign coming off the bench with Brown wanting to send a message about the need for Clark to take greater “accountability and responsibility,” on and off the court.
Clark received the message. He needed to be better, and dedicated himself to achieving that. To a large degree, that started with accepting he couldn’t try to make up for all the games he’d watched from the bench earlier in his career.
“I’m not going to be perfect,” Clark said, “and I had to realize that.”
His senior season hasn’t been perfect, but it’s been special. Clark is on his way to earning another all-conference selection, and leads UAlbany in scoring, assists, steals and minutes, and ranks second in rebounds despite playing a large chunk of his final college season battling a variety of injuries.
“What’s been most impressive with him is how hurt he is right now, and how he just won’t sit, and how he keeps fighting and playing,” Brown said. “He’s probably more hurt than any guy on our team’s roster, but he knows he’s a senior. He knows he’s a captain.”
Most troublesome for Clark is the hamstring tendinitis he’s battled throughout conference play. The ailment makes it nearly impossible for him to use his left leg to push off the ground to leap, and there are days when the stiffness he wakes up with in his knee takes hours to work itself out.
“That we don’t play until 7 o’clock on most nights helps him,” Brown said.
His teammates know Clark isn’t operating at full strength. They appreciate how he has continued to give the Great Danes everything he’s got, and how he’s embraced his role as a veteran mentor. The path that Clark followed during his UAlbany career, going from little-used backup to lead guard, serves as a model for others looking to pay their dues on the way to earning a starring role.
“I think he shows that if you believe in a system and just keep working, your time will come,” UAlbany freshman Trey Hutcheson said of Clark, who became UAlbany’s 12th 1,000-point career scorer during its Division I era earlier this season.
“And,” UAlbany sophomore Malachi de Sousa said, “he’s been through it all.”
Clark still believes UAlbany can right itself this season, still make a push toward a conference championship. Ask him what he most wants from this season, though, and he’ll say it’s to make sure the still-youthful Great Danes end this campaign heading in the right direction.
“I want them to be successful when I’m gone,” said Clark, who will graduate from UAlbany with a degree in sociology.
It’s that team-first attitude that Jones brings up first when he discusses Clark. Jones has coached a number of players more talented than Clark, but while “it’s easy to root for the prodigy,” there’s something more to seeing the player who worked, worked and worked without the promise of success who then finally found it.
“I cannot overstate how proud we are of him,” Jones said. “He’s that guy.”
Along with fellow seniors Nick Fruscio, Romani Hansen and Kendall Lauderdale, as well as redshirt junior Sasha French, who plans to graduate after this season, Clark will play what’s potentially his final home game Saturday night. That’s bittersweet, but his focus is on one thing.
“We need a win,” said Clark, whose team is in a three-way tie for fourth place in the conference at 7-7 and sits at 14-15 overall.
Brown knows Clark will give whatever he’s got left in the tank to make that happen. The Great Danes are struggling right now, but Clark hasn’t let that affect the way he’s leading his team in a starring senior season he worked for years to make possible.
“I just wish we had him for another year,” Brown said.