Marvin Clark Jr. hopped onto the back of a golf cart to expedite his travel from the entrance of Lucas Oil Stadium to the locker room where Michigan State would prepare to take the practice floor before thousands of fans on the eve of the Final Four.
There could not have been another participant at college basketball’s grand event with a greater appreciation for the moment than Kansas City’s Clark.
“Extremely blessed,” Clark said. “I can’t even explain it. It’s crazy how God works. This lets me know there is a God, coming from where I came from to where I am now.”
Where Clark is now is a top reserve forward for the Spartans, who face Duke in the national semifinals Saturday. He averages 4.6 points, has played in every game and started seven as a freshman.
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Where he was was nowhere permanent. Clark was 3 when his father died in a car accident, and he tells the story of trying to climb into his father’s open casket at the funeral.
The loss began a spiral that lasted for years as Clark grew up on Kansas City’s East Side. He and younger brothers and sisters were shuttled to relatives’ homes, shelters and a domestic violence center. Clark described his condition for a while as “homeless.”
Clark’s mother, Donette Collins-Miller, did what she could to keep her family together, but she was caught in abusive relationships. Clark once saw his mother get beaten up by her boyfriend.
At an early age, Clark recognized the gang culture, knew where he could and couldn’t go. Everyone, it seemed, had a gun. He saw a neighbor get robbed at gunpoint for a car.
A documentary filmed two years ago featuring Clark and his troubled childhood, “I Am Marvin Clark,” is available on YouTube.
Basketball intervened, and people entered his life who would begin to make a major difference and lead him away from Kansas City.
They saw Clark’s basketball talent, but coaches and intermediaries also saw a person who wasn’t defeated by his past and wanted more for his life and his family’s.
“I have more respect for that kid, more than any kid I ever coached,” said Spartans associate head coach Dwayne Stephens, in his 11th season at Michigan State and a coach for nearly two decades. “Knowing where he’s been, the things he’s had to endure.
“A lot of kids think they have it tough. This kid really did, and it would have been really easy for him to fall into the pitfalls that other kids do. He had enough self-discipline, self-motivation, self-esteem and commitment to be successful, to make it to this point.”
Clark started high school at Renaissance Academy, and it was while playing there that he was noticed by Buzzy Caruthers, then an assistant coach at The Barstow School. Caruthers’ brother-in-law is Matt Suther, who founded MoKan Elite, Kansas City’s premier AAU basketball organization. Soon, Clark was playing for MoKan.
“He wasn’t a good player when we first saw him, but he had a great attitude and wanted to work hard,” Suther said. “He needed a good environment.”
Clark found one after transferring to Blue Springs High School. As a junior, he averaged 17.1 points and 7.1 rebounds, earning second-team honors on the Missouri Class 5 all-state team.
But Clark said he wasn’t keeping up academically, and a final transfer occurred — to Sunrise Christian Academy outside of Wichita, which was on its way to becoming a national prep basketball power.
“I wanted to get better, and I thought that was a place where that could happen,” Clark said. “It was tough because I didn’t want to leave my family. But my mom told me it was all right to be a little selfish.”
Clark spent two years at Sunrise under coach Kyle Lindsted, and among his teammates last season was point guard Tum Tum Nairn Jr., who signed with the Spartans in November 2013 and continued to work on Michigan State coaches to pursue Clark.
At Sunrise, Clark’s game, along with plaudits for his work ethic in the classroom and weight room, was starting to draw interest, and he took official visits to Indiana, Seton Hall, Iowa State, Kansas State and Michigan State.
Again, there was a pull toward home. Kansas State and coach Bruce Weber was a finalist.
“The night before I committed Michigan State, I called coach Weber and told him the news, and it was the hardest call I’ve ever made,” Clark said.
Michigan State’s welcoming approach “was through the roof,” Clark said, and he knew it was the right call when his mom approved.
Clark said it took some time to adjust to the college game, although his statistics don’t support that idea. He scored 15 points twice before December and had seven of his eight double-digit scoring games in the nonconference portion of the schedule.
His other big scoring game came in the regular-season finale at Indiana. Clark started for an injured Branden Dawson and scored 14 points on six of seven shooting. The Spartans have won all eight games when Clark has scored in double figures.
“Things have gotten better for me as the season went on,” he said. “Not everybody is a one-and-done in college basketball.”
But Clark has dreams of making a living playing the game, even if Duke gets his immediate attention and he’s happy as a collegian.
“However long it takes me, I’m going to try and get there,” he said.
Many are pulling for him.
“With Marvin, and what he’s overcome,” Stephens said, “I would never bet against him.”