CLEVELAND - Unlike fellow NBA parent LaVar Ball, the notoriously verbose and attention-hugging helicopter dad of Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, Mike Clarkson is a quite, behind-the-scenes influence when it comes to helping manage the burgeoning career of his son Jordan Clarkson, the former Laker turned Cleveland Cavalier.
Mike avoids publicity the way Superman dislikes kryptonite. But through the relentless efforts of my editor, Homer Sayson, Mike did grant SPIN.ph a rare one-on-one interview. last week in Cleveland. We met at the Quickens Loans Arena where the Cavs hosted the Washington Wizards.
Here is Mike Clarkson in his own words.
SPIN.ph: Thank you for accommodating our request, sir. Here's my first question, at what age did Jordan start playing sports?
Mike Clarkson: It's my first time here at the Quicken Loans Arena and the atmosphere is electric. Anyway, Jordan started at an early age but his first sport was track and field. He didn't really excel in basketball until he was in ninth grade, where he really started to take it seriously.
SPIN.ph: When did you sense that he was athletic and that he possesses the potential to be a pro athlete someday?
Mike Clarkson: I did get a chance to watch him on his red-shirt year at the University of Missouri. I also watched his workouts and his associate head coach told me that Jordan had the potential to go (to the NBA). But he wanted me to take a look at how he would develop throughout the year.
So when I actually observed his workouts I saw how much progress there was and how the skill level had risen in such a short time, maybe eight months. Jordan did even better in his final year and was ready to make the next step.
SPIN.ph: I assume that you are an athlete as well. What sports did you play growing up leading to college?
Mike Clarkson: Yes, sir. I was an amateur boxer most of my youth. I boxed against the top fighters in the country and I was a No. 17-ranked welterweight for many years. But when my hands started bothering me I switched to basketball, a game I've played since I was young, and spent two years at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas (UNLV).
I wasn't a star player and when I didn't see a future in basketball, I enlisted in the military and joined the U.S. Air Force.
SPIN.ph: What was Jordan like growing up?
Mike Clarkson: Jordan was a little quiet. We used to call him a little geek. Jordan was really nerdy but was athletic and had a good personality. Just as he was before, Jordan remains so compassionate to other people. When he is out on the court, he is not just playing for himself, he is playing for everyone here and in the Philippines. He knows he has a huge following but he doesn't let it get into his head.
SPIN.ph: Who were the NBA stars Jordan looked up to growing up?
Mike Clarkson: For many years he looked up to Kobe Bryant, whom he idolized and played the position he wanted to play. He also looked up to a good friend of mine, NBA champion David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs. When Jordan was in college he started looking up to LeBron James. It's just so ironic that he got to play with Kobe and LeBron.
SPIN.ph: How did that feel like for him?
Mike Clarkson: After the first two games against the Boston Celtics and the OKC Thunder, he came home and I picked him up at the airport. He told me: " Dad, this is almost like a dream. I played with the two greatest players who ever played the game and this is only my fourth year in the league.'
SPIN.ph: By the way, Jordan is having a strong game tonight and it's just the second quarter.
Mike Clarkson: Yes, but you know he is still trying to adjust, just like the three other new players the Cavaliers traded for. But they have a strong leader in LeBron. Once the maturation and adjustment process plays out I think the Cavs will do well.
SPIN.ph: Jordan once said in an interview that he loves Filipino food. Do you feel the same way and did you find good Filipino food in L.A.?
Mike Clarkson: Not really in L.A., we didn't find one. Jordan's biological mom (Annette) fixes for us lots of Filipino food when we are at home and she does in San Antonio also. It seems he had to find good Filipino restaurants.
SPIN.ph: What are your favorites?
Mike Clarkson: I like adobo. I love pancit. And lumpia is No.1.
SPIN.ph: Jordan and the new Cavs are thriving here. Do you think Cleveland now has enough pieces to reach the NBA Finals?
Mike Clarkson: Before Jordan and the other guys got here, they got to a point where the chemistry seemed out of balance. I guess, you know, the management made a change that was needed. With the reinforcement coming in, the Cavs got a rush of excitement and everybody is trying their best to fit in and fulfill their roles. Once they work those things out, they are going to be a force to reckon with in the Eastern Conference.
SPIN.ph: Jordan has blossomed into a really good combo guard through sheer hard work. Does he allow time for himself to relax?
Mike Clarkson: Jordan has a phenomenal work ethic and that's what Kobe noticed about him. If something doesn't go right, Jordan's in the gym when nobody is around working on the mistakes he had made as well as trying to perfect things he wants to do on the court. I don't think this would change and he will continue to do whatever is needed to help the team.
SPIN.ph: Although you are not overly involved in your son's professional affairs, you are obviously a vital part of Team Clarkson. How did you find that delicate balance?
Mike Clarkson: Everybody sees a basketball family in the basketball court but there is so much life outside the lines to get you set up and to get you to a higher level when you're talking about being a professional. It's an everyday process. It's non-stop.
SPIN.ph: It is common among NBA players to have an entourage and close "peeps." Does Jordan have one?
Mike Clarkson: Jordan has been fortunate to have met so many NBA players and coaches who can be considered his support group. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who happens to be a friend of mine, has befriended Jordan as well. When he was in L.A., Jordan got some guidance from Magic Johnson. Of course there was Kobe and now LeBron.
Jordan keeps in touch with Tyler Ennis and Andre Roberson, his best friend in high school. So many guys in the league need one another and Jordan has got that covered. He is in a good place.
SPIN.ph: Does Jordan have a shoe deal right now?
Mike Clarkson: Right now he is with Nike. He has been with the company since his first year, probably because he came from a large market such as Los Angeles. He is very fortunate that even though he was a second-round pick he got a deal with Nike and Nike loves Jordan. We just renewed his contract with Nike so maybe down the road we could look for some other shoe companies and by that time I would imagine Jordan's game would be on a certain level that he can demand a certain price point.
SPIN.ph: Now that Jordan has established himself as a star and now that his profile will increase dramatically playing alongside LeBron James, what advice did you give him in regards to handling all the fame?
Mike Clarkson: Stay humble. Understand how you got there and what it took to reach it. Keep your nose to the ground and continue to work hard everyday and every year. He has to remember the process or he will tend to get lost.
Also, I reminded him that there are a lot of guys coming out of college - hungry young men who want to get paid to play sports for a living. They present a challenge for him to improve in a league that is very competitive. Whether you are in Brooklyn, in Los Angeles, or in our hometown of San Antonio, everybody is a heck of an athlete. The talent is getting better every year.
SPIN.ph: Do you have anything to Jordan's fans in the Philippines?
Mike Clarkson: I think the L.A. Lakers have a great following among Filipino fans, but I think we can change that. Even though they don't necessarily root for the Cavaliers they can still root for Jordan. Remember, Jordan still plays for them. So to all Filipino fans, please keep supporting Jordan. Trust me, he will be in the Philippines soon, hopefully this coming summer.
Editor's note: Ever since Jordan Clarkson became a household name in Philippine basketball, it was my fondest wish to interview his dad Mike Clarkson, the rock of Jordan's Gibraltar. But the challenges of inter-state travel coupled with a tight business schedule made the meeting flourish only in the planning, not the actual happening.
But a break came through last Thursday when Mike was in Cleveland where our contributing writer, Rex Alba, holds fort as the Cavaliers beat reporter. As it turned out, Mike's and Rex's schedule were open as a 24-hour 7-11. And just like that, the pieces fell nicely into place, one diligent message at a time.
A million thanks to Mike for his time and patience. Ditto with the tireless "T-Rex" Alba for making the two-hour drive from Columbus, Ohio to downtown Cleveland in such short notice. - Homer Sayson