The moment Missouri junior point guard Jordan Clarkson arrived on campus in June 2012 after transferring from Tulsa, he and Jabari Brown became fast friends.
Clarkson and Brown, a junior shooting guard who transferred from Oregon, also became roommates and now say they are as close as brothers.
But the latest bond Clarkson and Brown share is as unbelievable as it is heartbreaking.
Brown learned Dec. 29 that his father, David, had been diagnosed with cancer.
Five weeks later, Clarkson found out that his father, Michael, also had cancer. He’s currently at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis receiving treatment for a tumor on his spine.
“He’s like a blood brother to me now just going through everything that we’ve been through,” Clarkson said of his teammate Brown. “It’s been a bonding experience that can’t be replaced. He’s been one of the dudes I’ve been able to talk to and open up to. He knows everything about me; I know everything about him. His family is just like my family.”
Jabari’s parents recently discussed David’s diagnosis for the first time publicly, but Brown, the Tigers’ leading scorer, still doesn’t want to talk about it on the record.
Clarkson, however, opened up about the toll Michael’s illness has taken during the last two months.
“It affected me a little bit mentally,” Clarkson said. “You don’t want to see your dad struggling and stuff like that.”
Clarkson’s parents broke the news at breakfast Feb. 2, one day after Clarkson popped off for 28 points in a five-point loss against Kentucky at Mizzou Arena.
He’s only topped 20 points in three of 13 games since — after having recorded at least 20 points in 11 of Missouri’s first 21 games.
Clarkson committed only 18 turnovers in the last 10 games before learning about Michael’s cancer. He’s committed 44 in 13 games after hearing the news.
Clarkson doesn’t use his father’s illness as an excuse, but he also doesn’t deny that it’s always on his mind.
“In the back of my head, that’s always there,” Clarkson said. “That’s family, man, and I’m just making sure they’re strong and still going. It’s tough.”
It’s also a burden Clarkson wasn’t eager to share.
“It’s something I kind of kept in and just wanted to deal with myself,” he said. “Of course, coach (Frank Haith) knows and I talked to Jabari, but Jabari’s probably the only person that knew at the time.”
Fortunately (or perhaps very unfortunately), Brown could easily identify with Clarkson’s struggles.
“He’s going through a situation too, so I knew I could relate to him and talk to him,” Clarkson said. “ We have those days where we talk about it, but most of the time we try to keep it away from anything. We just want to look at the brighter side and just hope everything will be all right.”
Things got tougher as February progressed and Missouri’s fortunes in SEC play didn’t change. The losses only compounded the personal grief.
“When you’re losing, it definitely makes it harder to enjoy,” Brown said.
The basketball court was supposed to be where Clarkson and Brown found respite and escaped, but it became another source of stress instead as the Tigers tried to reach a sixth straight NCAA Tournament.
“We were going through a tough time as a team, too, through these last games, so it’s kind of been tough,” Clarkson said. “But one of my favorite rappers (Fabolous) said that tough times don’t last, but tough people do.”
Now, Clarkson and Brown are determined to shrug off the struggles — on and off the court — to make a deep run in the National Invitation Tournament.
The Tigers play host to Southern Mississippi on Sunday.
“We’re trying to make it to New York. We’re trying to win a championship and we know that no other team in Missouri history has won two NIT games in a row,” Clarkson said. We want to do something to make a name for ourselves.”