Clark Can't

What's with Kevin Clark's erratic performance this season? And what's Clem Haskins going to do about it?

Kevin Clark is one of the most heartwarming, and heartbreaking, underachievers you'd ever want to meet. When Clark makes a noteworthy contribution to his University of Minnesota Gophers basketball team--generally a steal, a three-pointer, or one of his patented, court-length drives for a layup--the senior shooting guard characteristically emits a little hop and twirls his body with contagious zest, his right fist clenched and pumping by his side. Conversely, when Clark is throttled by opponents, his bewilderment emphasizes the boyishness of his features, and his body appears to be much frailer than its listed dimensions of 6-2 and 180 pounds.

Gophers fans have seen the vulnerable, disheartened side of Clark during every road game against a Big Ten conference contender this season. The blunt reality is that Clark has been the club's biggest disappointment, the one vital performer who hasn't lived up to expectations. After transferring to Minnesota from junior college last year, Clark's shooting accuracy and scoring production steadily increased, to the point where he was named tournament MVP and was the obvious spark-plug of the Gophers' season-ending march to the NIT championship. This year Clark and small forward Quincy Lewis were supposed to be a synergistic scoring tandem, and coach Clem Haskins has frequently made it known that his team's offense "will only go as far as Quincy and Kevin take us--we will live and die with those guys." To that end, T-shirts and literature emblazoned with The Lewis & Clark Expedition were dutifully churned out as the theme for the 1998-99 campaign.

Had Clark picked up where he left off last year, it's likely Minnesota would be a shoo-in for an NCAA tournament berth and contending for the best record in the Big Ten. Instead, the Gophers must weather a brutal schedule down the stretch in order to land in the top half of the conference and secure an NCAA bid. And while Lewis has more than fulfilled his end of the bargain--despite confronting defensive alignments bent on containing him, he ranks among the nation's top five in scoring average--Clark has been far less consistent. During the past two years (through last Sunday afternoon's contest against Michigan), Minnesota boasted a 19-2 record when Clark scored at least 15 points, and a 14-19 mark when he fell below that figure.

Up and down: The Gophers' Kevin Clark
Christopher Peters
Up and down: The Gophers' Kevin Clark

It would be a mistake to scapegoat Clark, however, without considering the extent to which his health, his coach, and the limits of his own abilities have contributed to his current funk. To begin with, virtually no one has dared to criticize Clark's lack of production during Big Ten conference play this year. They're treading lightly because he has twice experienced a recurrence of the seizures that first plagued him in high school (at a Thanksgiving Day meal at Haskins's home, and after the December 19 Nebraska game).

When it comes to specifics about the nature of the episodes, the Gophers have been stingy. "He has suffered a couple of seizures. How and why they have occurred I can't say," says Roger Schipper, the trainer for the university's men's athletic department. "That diagnosis is a private matter between Kevin and his doctor."

In a recent interview, Clark told City Pages that he's taking 300 milligrams of the anti-seizure drug Lamictal each day after lunch. Dr. Miguel Fiol, a neurologist and the director of the Epilepsy Center at the University of Minnesota, is not familiar with Clark's case but calls Lamictal "a pretty effective anti-convulsant, anti-seizure drug." Fiol says that anyone who suffers recurrent seizures would be classified as a person with epilepsy, but if Clark has experienced just two episodes since Thanksgiving, then the condition is "a very mild case." As for side effects, Fiol says, "There's been a lot of testing, and about 95 percent of the people taking the drug have no side effects. Seven percent may experience dizziness, 7 percent may have difficulty with coordination, 2 percent may feel tired, and 2 percent get rashes."

Clark says he has never felt the impact of the drug during a game and doesn't think it affects his play. "Sometimes I get real tired [after taking the drug]," he acknowledges. "If during practice I feel dizzy, they'll tell me to get some water. Sometimes I get dizzy and I get dehydrated real quick." Adds Schipper, who dispenses the medication: "Every medication has different side effects, and we are evaluating those effects on Kevin. The issue has been discussed enough, and I don't think Kevin wants it talked about anymore."

Haskins has been similarly close-mouthed. The coach did comment a few months back that Clark was probably having to adjust to his medication being steadily ratcheted up from an initial 40 milligrams. But Clark and the Gophers obviously feel his health is under control. If they didn't, he wouldn't be vying with Lewis for the team lead in minutes played, and they wouldn't be reinserting him into the lineup for the relatively meaningless closing moments of easy victories.

Is something eroding Clark's stamina? It's tempting to believe so: In the first half of each of Minnesota's first nine Big Ten contests, Clark converted on exactly 50 percent of his shots. But in the second half of those games, his accuracy plummeted--to 31 percent. (In those games, Clark's time on the court was comparable from half to half, as was the number of shots he attempted.)

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