It wasn’t until he arrived in Pullman last year and opened up to WSU basketball coach Ernie Kent that Conor Clifford, now a senior, was able to heal the deep wounds left by the loss of his mother, Julie, during his senior year of high school.
Conor Clifford had many scholarship offers coming out of Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., in 2015.
That he ended up at Washington State is testament to not only men’s basketball coach Ernie Kent’s recruiting prowess, but also to the strong familial atmosphere Kent built in his first two seasons in Pullman.
For it wasn’t until he arrived in Pullman last year and opened up to Kent that Clifford, now a senior, was able to heal the deep wounds left by the loss of his mother, Julie, during his senior year of high school.
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Conor grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif., the youngest of three athletic kids. His parents divorced when he was 3, but they remained close friends and raised their kids together. Conor’s father, Paul, played Division II basketball, and Julie was Japanese and a judoka, so she got her kids into martial arts early.
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“She taught him that he could do anything he put his mind to,” Paul said of his late ex-wife.
Conor’s first athletic endeavor was Brazilian jiujitsu. He didn’t really play basketball until his teenage years, and even today Conor (7 feet, 260 pounds) admits that “being so big, my coordination never came till way late” in his junior year of high school.
He had much to live up to. His older brother Takeshi played college basketball at Chapman University in California, and his older sister Allison was a four-time NCAA judo champion who competed on the U.S. judo team.
But Conor grew into his body and by his junior year of high school, he had offers from several Division I programs.
In April 2011, toward the end of Conor’s junior year, his mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. Julie’s condition deteriorated quickly, and she died in March 2012, during Conor’s senior year.
By that point, Conor had committed to UC Irvine, 15 miles from his hometown.
In hindsight, Paul says Conor ended up at Irvine in part because of his mom.
“When we brought Julie to the campus, it kinda gave her some peace to know her son would be going to college there because she knew she was on her last legs,” Paul said.
Keys to success
Be better offensively: The Cougars averaged a woeful 70.5 points per game last season — 11th in the Pac-12. With newcomer Malachi Flynn joining returners Josh Hawkinson, Ike Iroegbu and Derrien King, the Cougars have extra weapons this season.
Play faster: Coach Ernie Kent says his team played too slow last season. This season, he wants it to get back to its up-tempo offense from 2014-15 and distribute the ball more equitably.
Minimize turnovers: The Cougars had the Pac-12’s worst turnover margin last season. If they want to win more than one conference game this season, this has to be fixed.
Initially things worked out OK. Conor was UCI’s key reserve center during his freshman year, and he saw some action early. In his sophomore year, the Anteaters brought in 7-foot-5 Mamadou N’Diaye, now in the NBA D-League, and decided to redshirt Conor.
Paul saw the writing on the wall and convinced Conor it was time for a fresh start. So in 2014, Conor left Irvine for Saddleback College, hoping to get some starting experience and then bounce back to a Division I college.
Three big games
• Dec 7 vs. Idaho: Just because Ernie Kent might coach this one from the Idaho bench. Earlier this fall, WSU’s coach paid $2,000 to win a Coaches vs. Cancer charity auction prize — to help Idaho’s Don Verlin coach the Vandals for a day. This should be entertaining.
• Dec. 10 vs. Kansas State: New WSU president Kirk Schulz will have to root against his former school in this one. The Cougars take on Kansas State in Kansas City, Mo.
• Feb 26 vs. Washington: It’s always a big game when the Huskies come to town. Can WSU avenge last year’s 99-95 overtime loss to the Huskies in Pullman?
Kent and the Cougars showed strong interest from the beginning. During a recruiting trip to Mission Viejo in the fall of 2014, Kent sat next to Paul courtside, watching Conor practice as Paul told him all about what his son had been through.
At the end of the conversation, Kent looked Paul in the eye and said, “Paul, I understand what you and Conor have gone through in his life. Just understand, I’m going to take care of him.”
“That meant a lot,” Paul said. “Ernie’s gift is he’s well spoken and he’s very earnest and very honest.”
Conor, too, felt a solid connection with Kent and the Cougars’ coaching staff.
Strong and silent in more ways than one, Conor is not the type to pour out his emotions.
“When I talk to my kids about their mother, they never really want to talk about it,” Paul said. “It’s like talking to people who’ve been at war.”
But after Conor signed with the Cougars and arrived in Pullman last year, little by little, he found himself opening up to his new coach.
“I love this staff so much because Coach has helped me tremendously,” Conor said. “I’ve never really been able to really come to peace with a bunch of my issues until talking with coach Kent, and he really helped me out with that.”
“When we got him here, we knew we’d have to put our arms around him,” Kent said. “You could tell, emotionally, he’d been through some things.
“I saw a young man that needed to deal with fear. Fear of death. He certainly needed to deal with some anger and anxiety.”
Because it wasn’t just his mother Conor had lost. Months after Julie’s death, Conor’s high-school coach, Jim Harris, died of kidney cancer. When Conor was at Saddleback, Takeshi — who had dropped out of college to come home and care for Conor during their mother’s illness — was diagnosed with testicular cancer and told he had a 10 percent survival chance
. Takeshi beat the cancer, but his disease took a toll on Conor, too.
Gradually, Kent coaxed these emotions out of his new center. He and Conor spent a lot of time talking — in his office, at his house, while driving around. After Conor told Kent his mom had asked him, during her illness, to find his way back to church, the coach took his new player on a tour of churches in Pullman to help Conor find one to attend.
“I just spent some time with him,” Kent said. “And in doing so, you start to get a feeling of someone’s inner spirit and mentality.”
Then came the day, at the Cougars’ basketball retreat, when Conor stood up in front of teammates and told them his story. It was both cathartic and healing.
“I thought that was huge for him,” Kent said. “The guys gave him great support from that point on. We gave him an opportunity to deal with all that and emotionally, to grow. And he’s just responded very well. I’m very proud of him.”
Kent has big plans for Conor. Conor’s junior season started slow because of a sprained knee suffered in the preseason, but he played in 31 games, earning seven starts and averaging 14.1 minutes, 6.8 points and 2.1 rebounds.
Now that Conor has had a full season in the Cougars’ system, Kent thinks he is primed for a breakout season because of his combination of athleticism, size and shooting touch.
“He’s almost an automatic scorer down there when he gets the ball. He’s going to be so much more effective this year because he’s lost 30 pounds since he’s been here, which has made him a lot faster and a lot more mobile,” Kent said. “ ‘You’ve got this whole other game in you,’ I tell him. ‘You’ve got a perimeter game in you because you’ve got such a soft touch.’ ”
With the confidence the Cougars’ coaching staff has instilled in him, Conor has blossomed on and off the court at WSU, and his family has noticed.
“What Washington State did better than anybody else was that they made Conor feel like a part of their family,” Paul said. “It’s been a wonderful experience, being a Cougar. It doesn’t matter how the win-loss column is. It’s seeing how your son is treated, and how the fans treat him.”