Clark: 'It's going to be a lot better'
DANVILLE — Keon Clark's most recent drunk-driving conviction, stemming from an Aug. 4 accident in Danville, sent him back to the Illinois penitentiary on Wednesday.
But shortly before he was sentenced to 8 years in prison on that charge and a weapons charge in a 2012 case, the former NBA player said the accident, just a block from his home, was also a wake-up call.
"I totaled a vehicle," Clark said during one of several phone interviews with The News-Gazette this week from the Vermilion County Jail. "I flipped the car on its hood. I walked away with only a few scratches."
Prior to the accident, Clark had been arrested four other times in 14 months and charged with weapons, drugs and driving-related felony offenses.
Each time, he posted bond and was released from jail.
Clark remained incarcerated this last time but not because he had blown through the millions he earned during his five years in professional basketball, he said.
A jail janitor "asked me why didn't I bond out," Clark recalled. "Did I murder anybody? I said, 'No, I didn't murder anyone.' Sometimes, you have to sit still.
"But the more I thought about it, I thought I am in here for murder — the murder and misuse of God's creation," he said, referring to "my God-given talent" and the opportunities squandered by abusing drugs and alcohol.
"So now, I'm spending my time rebuilding the foundation God gave me from the inside out so I can be born again."
The 38-year-old Danville native faced 10 weapon-, drug- and driving-related charges stemming from one 2012 case and four 2013 cases.
In an agreement with prosecutors, Clark pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful possession/use of a firearm by a felon/parolee in the 2012 case and one count of aggravated DUI/license suspended or revoked in his most recent 2013 case. The remaining felony and traffic charges were dropped.
Edgar County Circuit Judge Matthew Sullivan, who heard the case after Vermilion County judges recused themselves, sentenced Clark to four years in the Illinois Department of Correction on each count. The terms must be served consecutively.
Clark was credited with already having served 122 days behind bars in one case and 16 days in the other. Vermilion County Assistant State's Attorney Sandy Lawlyes, who recommended the two consecutive four-year terms, has said that Clark will have to serve 50 percent of his sentence. With time served, that could amount to about 3-1/2 years.
Both of Clark's attorneys — Jim Martinkus of Champaign and Alfred D. Ivy III of Urbana — asked the judge to recommend that Clark be placed at a Department of Corrections-run drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility outside of Chicago.
"I think that would serve the interest of the public, as well as Mr. Clark himself," Martinkus said. Following the hearing, he said treatment would hopefully "cure him of his addiction, which is the cause of most of his troubles."
'Wreckage' of past
At the onset of the hearing, Clark, dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit, smiled and waved to a dozen or so supporters — including his mother, Cynthia Brown — who crowded into the small courtroom. He sat quietly at the defendant's table while the lawyers discussed details of the agreement and sentence.
Upon questioning by Sullivan, Clark said he understood the terms, despite having taken medicine for anxiety, depression and seizures. He agreed to waive his right to both a jury and bench trial and enter a guilty plea to the two amended charges.
"I wish to plead not guilty, but in accepting the plea, I will plead guilty," Clark said.
Earlier, he said he would accept the deal rather than take his chances with a trial — because of "the wreckage of my past."
If the cases had gone to trial, Lawlyes said, a Vermilion County sheriff's deputy would have testified that on June 27, 2012, the deputy and a parole agent searched Clark's home at 310 Poland Road and found three loaded magazine rounds in a basement bedroom and a firearm with one round in the chamber hidden behind a clock in the living room. Clark is a convicted felon and at the time was on parole for driving-after-revocation/suspension convictions in Vermilion and Champaign counties.
Lawlyes said another deputy would have testified that on Aug. 4, the deputy was called to a single-car crash at 214 Poland Road. Clark, the driver, hit a telephone pole, flipped the car on its hood and was taken to the hospital.
"He stated he had too many beers," Lawlyes said, reading a police report. She said the report also noted Clark had bloodshot eyes and slurred speech and demonstrated erratic behavior, and he refused to give blood and urine samples to check for alcohol.
Before sentencing, Sullivan gave Clark a chance to address the court. Clark stood and turned to face his mother, uncle, a cousin and fellow members of the Carter Metropolitan Community Church in Danville.
"I, uh, did a lot of stuff in my past," he said, tears streaming down his face. "I have to own up to it."
"You heard I flipped a car," he continued, his voice choked with emotion. "I (got) stitches — 13 to be exact — and I walked away from it. I could've been a lot worse. It's going to be a lot better."
Church members called out, "I love you" and "praise the Lord" to Clark as they left the courtroom.
'Guess I'll just drink'
In an interview from jail, Clark blamed his accident on a seizure and said he has suffered from seizures before due to stress.
"Pressure busts pipes, but it also creates diamonds. I'm turning it into a diamond right now," he said of his situation, though he refused to talk about a possible return to prison.
Clark did talk about his alcohol abuse.
The only child of a single mother and a father who was in and out of jail, Clark said he started drinking in high school, when he'd go to Lincoln Park to play basketball with other kids. That continued when he played basketball at two community colleges and UNLV from 1996-98.
Clark was selected by the Orlando Magic with the 13th overall pick of the 1998 NBA Draft, and went on to play for four other franchises. By the time he started playing professional ball, he and "an associate from Danville" were drinking a gallon of gin every other day.
"It was never a goal of mine to get to the NBA. It was something that was presented to me," Clark said. Clark, a former communications major, said he saw basketball as a way to get a college education.
At 6-foot-10 "without shoes," Clark said he was physically cut out to play professional basketball, but wasn't prepared for the lifestyle.
"When I got my first check, it hit me (that) I'm getting paid for something I enjoyed," Clark said, adding the amount "was enough to make me smile and jump. After that, it turned into a job I didn't like the travel, the arrogance of some co-workers people thinking, 'I'm better than you' that attitude going along with people who thought they were prima donnas."
Clark said he's disappointed that no one close to him ever called him out on drinking or tried to get him help.
"They disappointed me," he said. "They could smell I was drinking. They don't say anything, so I said, 'I guess I'll just drink more.'"
'I'm not bulletproof'
Earlier this week, Clark talked briefly about his father, John Clark, and his absence from his life.
In February 2004, the elder Clark was sentenced to 65 years in prison for fatally shooting one of his friends at a Danville public housing complex after the two quarreled over a bicycle.
Clark said the last time he spoke to his father, who's locked up at the Stateville Correctional Center, was on the phone a couple of years ago.
Now Clark regrets repeating that cycle with his own children — a 13-year-old boy and 8-year-old girl — who live with their mother in the Indianapolis area.
"I'm pretty sure they know I love them," he said.
Clark acknowledged that his problem with alcohol led to poor choices. Since he's been behind bars and sober, he said he has turned to a higher power for help.
"The fact that I was thinking I was doing it by myself without the blessing from a higher power, Jesus Christ that's why I had so many ups and downs," he said.
Growing up, "I pushed religion aside for a while. I went to church, (but) it was more for show."
In the future, he said he wants to help people of all of ages from making bad choices by sharing his story and showing them that life is "not all roses with money."
"No one wants to hear that someone who in their eyes is wealthy has problems," he said. "I may be 7 foot tall, but I'm not bulletproof."