Pops, I Know You’re Up There Absolutely Loving This

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

I want to talk about the hardest year of my life. No matter how many blessings I receive, 2022 will always be the year that I said goodbye to my guy, my connect, my biggest fan, my dude … my Pops, Kenneth Duane Clark.

But first things first! We’re not shedding any tears just yet! No, no, no. Save your tissues! First off, we need to have a few laughs, because my Pops hated it when we would cry. So we are going to do this the way he would have wanted.

I can’t start telling stories about my dad without you knowing what he looked like first. Whatever I say, it will never do him justice. You need to get the essence, the aura. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, right? Well, with my Pops, it might be 10,000.

Courtesy Clark Family

Hey, I know I’m biased, but come on! Look at this man. How handsome was he!? And yes, if you couldn’t see the resemblance already, that is my mom in the picture with him. This isn’t too long after they met, and even that is a funny story. See, my dad was a musician, but not just any musician … he was music! He had a band in the early ’70s that was performing in Nashville, and I’m sure he was running on about four hours of sleep a night — hahaha! His band was in need of a lead female vocalist, and his bandmate was like, “Man, you need to come check out this lady singing at the club around the corner. She’s really good.”

My dad said, “Alright, cool.”

Naturally, it took him three weeks before he got around to it!

But he always said that when he finally showed up at the club, she blew him away.

She joined the band. They became friends. Over time, they became more than that. Eventually, they got married and had four kids, including little ol’ me. My dad said I was so skinny when I was born that I looked like a sack of “Bones,” so that’s what he called me from that day on. My mom grew up with an Irish mother and Jewish father who even spoke some Yiddish in the house when she was growing up. The fact that these two polar opposites found each other is mindblowing to me, but that’s the power of music. Witnessing their relationship was incredible and gave me such a well-rounded look on life. I couldn’t have asked for better parents.

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

Mom: Soft spoken, reserved, caring.

Dad: Cool as the other side of the pillow. Never met a stranger. Funny as hell.

We used to drive everywhere in this van — one of those big old white Chevy Astros with blue stripes — because honestly what else can you possibly drive when you have four kids and need to up and move? I remember my friends from school riding with us for the first time, and my dad was blasting Kenny G or some Anita Baker and singing along, and my friends thought it must be somebody’s birthday or something.

Second time they came along with us, it was the exact same vibe. (Music is our family’s love language.)

Kenny G cassette on. My dad playing the air saxophone and tapping his foot to the beat on the gas pedal. Cracking jokes. Laughing.

He loved music.

My friends would be like, “Wait, you do this every day?”

I’m like, “Yeah!”

They’d be like, “You have the coolest dad in the world!”

He’d start telling his stories, and I swear they would get more and more outlandish each time.

“You know, I used to walk to school with no shoes. Ten miles there and back.”

“Yeah, Pops. Weeeee know.”

Next time around….

Fifteen miles. Uphill. In the blinding snow. No coat. No shoes! Made me tough.”

(My dad grew up in Southern California and East Texas hahaha.)

Courtesy Clark Family

When you experienced my Pops, it was just that … an experience. Even if you were a total stranger, he made you feel like y’all had known each other your whole life. You were left with this feeling for the rest of the day of … goodness.

Yeah … goodness. He had this power to make you feel seen and loved.

One of my favorite qualities about him.

My siblings are all musicians, and they had that bond with him. But me, I was the outlier. For me, it was basketball. That was our thing.

And it’s so funny, because I never even touched a basketball until I was in 7th grade. I had no idea this was going to be my life. I remember I was so bad that when we moved to Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, my sophomore year of high school, my coach told us to do a reverse pivot during a passing drill. (Insert immediate panic.) I had no idea what he was talking about. As a sophomore! I whispered “Uhhh … I have no idea what that is.”

He thought I had to be joking.

Two years later, I was Ms. Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year in Tennessee.

None of us thought that this was going to be my journey. We just kind of improvised it the whole way, and I think maybe that’s why my dad got such a kick out of it. We didn’t take anything for granted. I can still hear my dad’s voice the night of the WNBA Draft, when I was telling him about the media things I had to do, and he was grinning, gassing me up like: “Go head, Bones. Look at you. Go head, girlfriend. You a superstar now, huh?”

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

He thought that just because I got drafted, that meant I was for sure on the team. But obviously, the W was brutal back then. Only 11 roster spots. Veteran-heavy teams. Nothing was guaranteed. A couple months later, I got cut from my first training camp. Boom. Goodbye. Not ready. Come back next year. Broke as a joke.

I remember my 1998 Isuzu Amigo was on its last leg and I had a grand total of like a thousand dollars in my bank account. Actually, if I’m being honest, it was probably like $993.27.

This was way, way before that NIL money! I had to call my college coach and ask him to put in a good word for me at the Nissan dealership. I hate asking for help, so you know that means this was my last resort.

“Coach, do you have a contact that can help me get approved for this loan?”

I’ll never forget driving off the lot in my new Nissan Altima, and thinking about how many months of those friggin’ payments I had to make with no job at the time, and I got hit with a crazy wave of anxiety.

I was (supposedly) a professional basketball player.

I had no plan. No team. No future.

I was bawling the whole drive home. (At this point, are y’all really surprised I was crying?? lol)

Any other parent would have probably been like, “Hey, maybe it’s time for the real world. Put that degree to work. You had a good run.”

But my dad was always just so chill and so positive.

“You got it, Bones. Keep workin’. It’ll all work out.”

I went to Israel to play professionally and work on my game, and I came back the next season and I made that roster, and everything was perfect.

Just kidding! I got cut again.

That’s why it’s still so surreal to me to hear the words, “Alysha Clark, three-time WNBA champion.”

Like…. Are you serious? Is this real life? In 2012, I was just trying to not get my Altima repossessed. In my head, I was allowing thoughts of doubt to creep in. I’d literally ask myself, “Are you even good enough to be here?”

(Shoot, I asked myself that after signing in Vegas, but that’s our secret.)

The one person who always believed in me and my ability was my Pops. (To the point where I had to bring him back to the reality of my actual situation hahaha!)

His support kept me wanting to be better.

I remember when I finally clawed my way onto a WNBA roster with Seattle in 2012, he used call and say things like:

“You need to go to the basket, Bones! Show ’em!”

“You need to shoot the ball more!”

Mind you, I’m on a team with Tina Thompson, Sue Bird, Tanisha Wright….

“Go head, Bones! You gotta show ’em you can play, too!”

Pops, I’m just trying to make a nice bounce pass and go hide in the corner! Come on!

But that was just his way. He had my back. Once I finally made it, my siblings told me about how he’d always be on the phone calling up his buddies, spreading the word like, “You know Bones is on TV tonight right? She scored 14 last game! Yeah, ESPN2. Don’t forget. 8 p.m. ESPN2.”

The W should’ve been sending him marketing checks.

He was just beaming with pride, seeing me doing my thing.

He used to say, “I always thought it would be one of my sons who became a professional athlete … I’ll be damned if it wasn’t you Bones!” (With a big grin and a hearty laugh, of course).

His laugh was my favorite.

That was my connect. That was my guy. This whole thing was our journey.

When my sister called me to say he had passed away last year, it really broke me.

Like, broke me in a way I didn’t know existed.

This is still fresh for me. I can barely talk about him without crying. I’m impressed I made it this far with only a few tears! I’m proud of myself! Whenever I think about him and get a chance to talk about him … there’s this punch of sadness … like it’s hard for me to even breathe … but, at the same time, a sense of joy that I get to tell the world how pure of a soul he was.

When it comes to grief, I don’t even know.

I don’t even know where to begin.

There’s such a complex mix of emotions. Feelings. Thoughts.

Anger. Sadness. Confusion. Emptiness. Guilt.

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

Why someone so good?

Why did he have to be alone?

How can we go on without him?

God, do you even care?

Why why why why why? All this comes to mind at once. Breathing isn’t so easy now.

He died right after we were knocked out of the playoffs against Seattle. Normally, I go home right after the season, but this time I didn’t. I wasn’t at home. That’s what killed me. The weeks after that were a blur. We all handle pain in different ways — mine happens to be staying busy. My family already had so much to deal with, so I went into my “Business Mode.” The funeral arrangements. The logistics. Any task that could keep my mind busy. When I got too overwhelmed by emotion at my parents’ house, I used to drive over to my house so I could be all by myself and just clean. I’d clean for hours. Just mopping the floor and sobbing. That was the way I dealt with it, by bottling it all inside until I was alone.

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

I think the nighttime was the worst part, because everything was quiet, and I had to sit still with reality. That’s when I’d just cry and cry.

I feel like a lot of athletes are like me, honestly. We just suppress all our emotions until we finally crack and have a breakdown or a bout of depression. That’s why I love the fact that more of us are speaking out about our struggles both emotionally and mentally so we can help to change that.

Three things really helped me.

1. My friends and family
2. Traveling
3. Therapy

Without those three things, I would still be drowning.

The therapy part is essential, or at least it was for me. I learned to give myself grace, and I learned that it was alright to be feeling what I was feeling. Knowing that healing isn’t linear, that it will come in waves, helped me prepare better for those down days. The tools I got from my therapist helped me to not be so scared of the emotional rollercoaster I was on.

…. I still am hurting, honestly. There’s a hole that will never be filled.

Alysha Clark

The traveling part was inspired by my Pops, actually. I always remember him telling me, “Go and see the world, Bones! I wish I could still do it! That’s what I miss most about music. Go and see it for me, and bring me back something!”

I loved getting to share the world with him through souvenirs.

My dad was also a big nerd like me. He loved to learn. He loved watching documentaries about the Maasai warriors, and it was always his dream to travel to Africa. So last off-season, me and my sister traveled to Tanzania and we climbed the first leg of Mt. Kilimanjaro and spread some of his ashes, so that he could finally see it. That gave me a bit of peace helping him fulfill a dream, but for this entire season with the Aces, I still was hurting.

…. I still am hurting, honestly. There’s a hole that will never be filled.

And that’s where the last piece of this comes in, because without my friends there to lift me up, I would never have gotten out of bed in the morning, let alone lifted up a WNBA championship trophy.

I swear that God had his hand on my shoulder when I came here to Las Vegas. He knew this is where I needed to be for this season of life I was going to walk through.

This locker room, these women, this staff…. They are incredible.

David Becker/NBAE via Getty

But first, I need to give a big shout out to my other girls, in Seattle and D.C. I’ve gained some lifers from my time playing there. I didn’t know how much I’d need them, but this season they showed up for me without me even asking. During the hardest week of my life — the one-year anniversary of my Pops’ death — guess who we happened to be playing?

Seattle and D.C. Tell me that’s not fate. My dad was still looking out for me. All my old friends were there, and they all kept me lifted.

Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. Tianna Hawkins. Tina Charles. Mercedes Russell. Elena Delle Donne and her wife, Amanda. I could go on and on….

Shatori watched my dog Sly for me. Elena and Amanda made sure I had food (and wine). I had a whole bunch of shoulders to cry on that week he passed.

Outside of my family, nobody really knew how I felt, but all that love and support meant everything to me. And when it comes to the Aces? When it comes to the ACES?

This entire year, I showed up to a work environment that was so positive and encouraging and supportive. This group of women is phenomenal. They prayed over me, they cried with me, they comforted me, they lifted me. The love I have for them is so deep. The love we have for each other is so deep, and I love that it is on full display for everyone to see.

All season, it was us vs. us.

We didn’t say a lot.

We read a lot! We heard a lot! We observed some real weirdo activities taking place online, the way some of you were talking about the Aces. We got receipts. No need to say more.

We were zipped up. Focusing on us and what we needed to do.

If you wanted a reply … in due time. It was coming. We had business to handle first.

Us vs. Us. That’s it.

When that final buzzer sounded in Game 4, you could see the raw emotion in all of our faces. Especially for those who did it twice, back to back, after everything we’ve all been through in that locker room (and I don’t even have to put it all on paper, because IF YOU KNOW YOU KNOW) that moment of relief was like….

Jackson Krule/The Players' Tribune

We really did that.

Nobody wanted this script but us. And we did it.

And now … we’re addressing things. People don’t like it? Well, just make sure next time you speak on our behalf, you’re proud of what you say.

I know that my dad was up there somewhere, absolutely loving it.

On the plane ride home, after the partying and the screaming and the goosebumps all died down, I took a moment by myself to just reflect on everything. To be where my feet were.

Me and my siblings all have these urn pendants with a bit of my dad’s ashes in them, and during the season, I would take long walks at night and just talk to my Pops. That was our time for me to fill him in on everything going on. I know it may sound weird, but it was like I could feel him near. It’s like he was there walking with me. And when I felt strong enough, I’d listen to all his voicemails I have saved on my phone. Just to hear his voice.

I really miss hearing his voice.

That night on the plane, I felt closer than ever to him, way up in those clouds.

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

I touched the pendant, and I just talked to my dad, like I did after every single game since I can remember.

I miss our postgame phone calls.

I said, “We did it, Pops. We really did it. Can you believe it? After all this shit.… We did it. Thank you for being my Sixth Man.”

And I know that he would say, “We did it, Bones. I’m so proud of you. Man … I just love watching you play.”