ATHENS, Ohio — The top college basketball scorer in America is in the house.
That’s him, the smallish player shooting his free throws from an odd location, as the Campbell Fighting Camels go against Ohio. By the way, he’s the kid who used to sleep with his basketball.
Yeah, Chris Clemons is only 5-9. But he’s the tallest man in town if he stands on his box scores. From the 85 games in a row he’s scored in double figures, to the 65 times he has broken 20 points, to the 24.9 average he had as a junior, which made him the top scorer in the nation returning this season.
And, yeah, it is a little different, how he sets up for his free throws off-center, not far from where the circle meets the stripe, like a kicker lining up for a field goal attempt on the right hash mark. But he’s a career 84-percent shooter from the line, so you want to be the one to tell him to change?
And yeah, he once had a basketball under his arm every night, like a lot of kids clutch a teddy bear, with images of future jump shots dancing in his head. Then he’d get up not long after dawn, go outside and start shooting. “This is a childhood dream come true,” he was saying about what his career has become.
The Chronicles of Clemons have one more winter to run at Campbell, and imagine the possibilities. He has a chance to become only the ninth player in Division I history to score 3,000 points in a career. To completely redecorate much of the Campbell record book – already owning five of the top six scoring games in school history. A chance to be on SportsCenter some more, which is not easy to do when you play for Campbell.
He’s been there often – like last year he won two games in the last second in 10 days. Or the opener this season, when he put 44 points on UNC Wilmington, outscoring the Seahawks 15-11 by himself in overtime.
“It could be magical,” Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan says of this season. So let’s catch up to Clemons on a Monday night in Athens, Ohio.
Ohio coach Saul Phillips had warned the public what was coming. “The most dynamic scorer in terms of versatility that I’ve seen in mid-major basketball in a long time,” he called Clemons in the local newspaper.
Before the game starts, some things we should know about Clemons:
- He has a 44-inch vertical jump.
- He had 34 dunks his high school senior season in Raleigh.
- McGeehan, tipped off by an assistant, first took a look at Clemons in a summer camp. He watched for under five minutes, grabbed his phone and texted the assistant: “He’s the one.” Now McGeehan says, “From that moment, we were at every game. This doesn’t happen that often but we would go to all the summer AAU events with the whole staff.”
- With none of the bluebloods in the state after Clemons, McGeehan quickly made an offer. Come to Campbell, in beautiful Buies Creek, N.C., population 3,000 or so, 50 miles down the road from Chapel Hill and Durham. Clemons had no clue where the place was. “It’s not the school that I grew up dreaming to come to, but it’s the opportunity I got. I’m making the most of it. It’s kind of a blessing in disguise playing here,” he says now. “God puts you in places you never knew you could go.”
- He thinks he still has that ball he slept with as kid. “I’m sure I do in the garage somewhere.”
- His unusual wide-right free throw alignment was born last season, when he was missing too many free throws to the left. “I moved to some weird spot and I started making it. In shoot-around, I usually find a spot. It’s different everywhere. There’s not a certain line on the court you can actually look at it. That’s the hard part.”
- He’s heard about his size maybe a gazillion times. All it does is fuel the fire. “It’s something you can’t control. But I can control how I play every night. I feel like talent will show amongst everything. I constantly work on my game. I carry that chip on my shoulder to prove doubters wrong every night.”
- His sophomore season, he scored 51 points one night and 33 the next in the Big South Tournament. But he couldn’t get the Camels to the title, and NCAA Tournament. Campbell has been only once, in 1992, five years before Clemons was born. The Camels lost in the first round to Duke and Christian Laettner, who the next weekend would hit a shot against Kentucky you might remember.
Monday turns out to be not such a fun visit to Athens. Clemons hits a couple of shots from the next zip code, but never really catches fire and Campbell loses 81-73. Phillips mentions how “We did good a job putting bodies around him.” He’s happy with his defense. The Bobcats hold Clemons to . . . 26 points, making his average after three games, 32.3. He is also his team’s leading rebounder. One of his baskets, he went high and tipped in. All 5-9 of him
He walks out of the locker room not a happy man after a tough night at the office. “You by any chance have a stat sheet?” he asks, wanting to see what went wrong.
“I’m playing a role on my team that I need to play. My team needs me to score. It’s hard to do, I’m not going to say it’s easy. But it’s what needs to be done for this team. They think that stopping me is the key to beating us. My job is to not let that happen.”
Consider the irony. Clemons has gone from being the kid ignored by big schools during recruiting to a marked man every game by other defenses. “He’s seeing all kinds of stuff, but he’s been seeing it for three years,” McGeehan says.
“He’s electric. Just a different level athlete. What people don’t realize is he’s really a great passer. They’re drawn to the scoring. He makes it that way because he likes to score, but I think he’s a really good basketball player all the way around. When he plays to this strength and within himself, he really does make an impact on the game every single way.”
Size problem? What size problem?
“I think it’s just made him who he is,” McGeehan said. “I think it’s driven him to work really hard at the game to become great. That purpose is always there. He doesn’t talk about it. I’ve never thought once about his height. Well, I did when he got blocked once or twice tonight. But not usually. He’s just that good. I think he has proven that it doesn’t matter.”
Another thing the coach loves about his senior.
“He wants so badly to be like one of the guys. He’s been like that since he came to Campbell. Even though he’s getting articles written about him every day, he’s on SportsCenter, I think all the guys love him because he wants to be one of them.”
He is on schedule to graduate in December, and after that, the answer to his NBA dream – be it yes or no. But before that, the task is to make the season memorable for Campbell. The Camels leave Athens 1-2, but there is always excitement about what might happen next with Chris Clemons. Just ask his coach.
“Nothing he does surprises me.”