LOS ANGELES — Jordan Clarkson had just turned the corner into 2014—as a blossoming star at Missouri with sights set on the NBA draft that year—when he was hit with some devastating news in January: his father, Mike, was diagnosed with a Stage 4 carcinoma that had spread up and down his spine.
The situation led to a special initiative that’s currently in the works as part of Clarkson’s now one-year-old JC Cares Foundation.
“I had to focus on my college team, but it definitely was tough,” the Lakers’ standout reflected with the NBPA last week during his Thanksgiving outreach event in Inglewood, Calif., with Mike and his stepmother, Janie, in attendance. “I had to take care of my family and my brother, [Julian], and my stepmom and everybody. The toughest times were when my stepmom would call me when he was in the hospital going through some stuff, and then I’d almost break down. There were tough nights like that, but we made it through.”
While Clarkson said his father’s disease threw his play off “a little bit,” he still tried to “stay strong and keep competing.” Clarkson went on to be named to the second-team All-SEC, and his father ended up having two successful surgeries (after radiation treatments) on March 24 and 25, 2014, at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Doctors removed four vertebrae and placed two permanent rods on both sides of his spine, which extend near his shoulder blades. He also had a plate inserted in his lower back to support the rods. After the surgery, he was in a brief comatose state and wasn’t able to walk for months, but he slowly recovered and Clarkson fulfilled his dream of being drafted in June.
“I wasn’t able to walk again until November ,” said Mike, who now gets around with a cane. “I could barely even stand up, so in my rehabilitation I had [the aids] holding me up, just trying to get me strong enough, get my back to where it could handle the weight itself. So it was tough, a lot of falls.”
In the two weeks leading up to his surgery, Mike was a guest at Rochester’s Sandra J. Schulze American Cancer Society Hope Lodge, which features a home-like environment with private suites for cancer patients and their caregivers. But during his stay, he noticed some of the facility’s fading amenities and how they needed upgrades.
Now, with Clarkson’s financial contribution and ongoing fundraising through his foundation, he’s working with the Hope Lodge on three different projects, which are under final construction: new flooring in 28 rooms, and replacements to the kitchen countertops and dining room floors. Once those are completed in the first quarter of next year, Clarkson is planning to dedicate one of the rooms to the Lakers, with team-themed bed linens, pictures and accessories.
“Anywhere I can help, anything that they need,” Clarkson said about his involvement. “My dad had an experience there and they took care of him while he was going through everything. So that place is a part of his journey.”
“This is one of the philanthropic projects that Jordan really wants to elevate,” Mike said. “Jordan understands the pain that he felt and the pain that the family endured during my battle with cancer. Now, he wants to give back to people that are suffering from the disease. He understands the importance of giving back to others that are less fortunate. I think that’s the most important thing that my family and I tried to instill in he and his brother.”
Mike also taught his son about having integrity, accountability and responsibility. Those were key values he learned being in the military for almost 11 years as a human resource manager for the Air Force Personnel Center. And now Clarkson is carrying those same aspects to his community work.
While one of the missions of Clarkson’s foundation is to help cancer patients—the first plan working with the Hope Lodge—the second is to impact low-income people. Last week, at The Salvation Army in Inglewood, Clarkson distributed turkeys and trimmings to 325 underprivileged families, in partnership with the East West Bank. It was his first community outreach event of its kind as part of his foundation.
“It means a lot, just being able to come here and impact the community,” Clarkson said. “We’re inspiring to the city. They always see us on the TV, so it’s good to come back and know that we’re around here and accessible. It’s mostly touching areas like the one where I grew up in San Antonio. It wasn’t always the best area growing up, but we made the best of it—all my friends, everybody. It’s just cool to be able to see how far we’ve grown, so I’m just trying to help out as much as I can.”
Clarkson shared the top moments of his off-the-court work. “Just the expressions, how happy they are to be able to come here and benefit from this stuff,” he said. “That’s the best part about doing all this.”
Clarkson has also expanded his support for the youth in the Philippines—his biological mother, Annette, is half Filipino—and grown his basketball camps to four locations this past summer: in Beijing, China; Surabaya, Indonesia; Taguig, Philippines; and Corona, Calif., where he partnered with the local Boys & Girls Club. For each of his camps, which cater to ages 8-17 and emphasize skills development and positive reinforcement, he sponsors a significant number of children who are unable to attend due to economic hardship.
“I love doing the basketball camps, especially for all the little kids—just trying to give them experience that I have had,” he said.
Next summer, Clarkson will be adding camps in Los Angeles and the east side of San Antonio (an area that’s lower income), as well as a father-son weekend program in St. Louis, Mo., at Harris-Stowe State University, where Julian plays basketball. St. Louis is about two hours east of Columbia, where Clarkson went to college, and he primarily chose the city because it needed attention with its major problems. In August, the FBI ranked St. Louis as the most dangerous city in the U.S. with 88.1 violent crimes per 10,000 residents.
During next year’s Father’s Day Weekend, underprivileged fathers and their sons will be able to stay on campus in Harris-Stowe’s dorms, being able to experience college life. In addition to basketball clinics, they’ll go through different seminars covering topics like studying for the ACT and SAT, ensuring college eligibility, building healthy relationships in the family and teaching fathers how to become positive influences in their kids’ lives.
When it comes to the Philippines, Clarkson is the second-most famous active athlete with Filipino descent after boxer Manny Pacquiao, based on social media engagement. And he knows how important that ambassador role is in his career.
“It’s real cool,” said Clarkson, who met Pacquiao in 2015 in the Philippines and played chess with him. “I know I’ve got a lot of people supporting me, so I’ve got to do a good job to represent.”
In the last two summers, Clarkson has collaborated with Nike and NBA Cares on basketball clinics in the Philippines. In 2015, he visited with Gilas Pilipinas, the country’s men’s national team, to share his experiences of being in the NBA and provide encouragement as they were entering the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament. This past summer, Clarkson met with two prominent businessmen, Hans Sy and Manny Pangilinan, discussing his endorsement deal with Smart Communications, the country’s leading wireless services provider. He also provided Nike apparel and footwear to underprivileged youth during his basketball clinic at Tenement Court, which is in a low-income housing project.
So just how popular is Clarkson in the Philippines? Mike retold a story from the first time his son went to the Philippines in 2015, saying, “You would think that it was LeBron James coming to this place.”
“On his first trip, he asked the driver if he could stop because he saw some kids playing, and the kids were playing barefooted,” Mike said. “The kids knew who he was, so they all ran to the gates and he went in and said, ‘Go get suited up. Put your shoes on. We’re going to play.’ And a kid grabbed the ball and just started dribbling, and someone else came and said, ‘They don’t have shoes.’ Jordan’s eyes kind of watered. That was a shock to him. He said, ‘One day I’m going to take shoes over there.’ He also wants to work on a basketball court [next summer].”
Clarkson smiles when asked about his connection to Filipino fans in the U.S. “Everywhere,” he said, laughing humbly. “It gets kind of crazy sometimes. Basketball is something that Filipinos love. Even in the country, there are courts everywhere.”
This past Saturday, when Clarkson made an appearance at Victory Auto Connection for its grand opening in Cerritos, Calif., Mike was also stunned by the size of the crowd.
“At least 300 Filipinos were there,” Mike said. “When we pulled up, we could hardly get through the doorway. But each fan got to come in one-on-one and interact with Jordan for a few moments. If there’s one word that I can describe Jordan, it’s humility. Growing up, Jordan always wanted to see someone else do just as good as he was doing. He doesn’t look at himself as a star. When he looks in [peoples’] eyes, he’s genuine. It’s not that I’m a celebrity, it’s not that I’m any better. And I think that’s why people gravitate to him.”
With that humility in mind, signing a significant, long-term contract this past offseason has made Clarkson more focused on those around him—on and off the court. On it, he has a team approach and is “definitely cool” being in the second unit for the Lakers.
“The best thing about it is just we’re out there free with no expectations, and we’re out there just balling,” he said. “We just all do a good job of playing for each other. It’s so fun. We’re just going off instinct and what coach has put in.”
Off the court, Clarkson said, “The biggest thing for me right now is just giving back and making sure everybody around me in my situation is situated.” Looking ahead, he’s organizing a sneaker giveaway this Christmas with his foundation. And he’s thinking about ways to help the homeless in Los Angeles and hosting an event to honor his close friend from middle school, Cameron Moore. He passed away in October from heart complications during his first practice with the Macedonian club KK-AV Ohrid. In 2015, he was first diagnosed with cardiomegaly, an enlarged heart, when he was playing in the D-League.
“That was my dog. He was my running mate. He always had my back—always,” said Clarkson, who writes his name and number on his sneakers for every game. “He had just left [to Macedonia] because he was out here the whole summer with me. I’m dedicating this year to him because he was a Lakers fan, Kobe fan. So it’s crazy that I got chosen by the Lakers. I’m just trying to do my best for him.”
Clarkson is also game-planning for a fashion line he’d like to launch in the future.
“I’m trying to figure out if I want a lifestyle brand or really like some actual dress clothes,” he said. “But I like to be casual sometimes, so I’m probably going to look into that, like hoodies and stuff like that. I always had a thing for clothes. It’s just now that I’m here [in Los Angeles], I have access to different things. It’s been awesome.”
Clarkson has been making a bigger push into fashion, highlighted by his recent GQ spread with Lakers teammates Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell. And next year, he wants to frequent different fashion weeks in the spring and summer. He said he enjoys living in LA because of the leeway he feels to create his own identity.
“I like the people here. You actually can be yourself and be who you want to be. Nobody judges you, so it’s really cool,” he said. “My style is unique, different. I wear a lot of wild stuff. I haven’t pulled out anything crazy out of the closest yet. I’m saving it for a little while, but it’s coming.”
He’s already unveiled one crazy item: a kilt, which he wore to a game this week, making national headlines. Mike couldn’t believe it, poking some good-natured fun at his son.
“I was, like, ‘Come on, Jordan,'” Mike said, laughing. “He’s always having fun it seems like. The Lakers created this year having fun. What makes me smile now is his sense of fashion. I spend a lot of time on his Instagram. I’ll see him in pictures and I’m, like, ‘What is that?’ He’s, like, ‘Dad, do you like it?’ And I’m, like, ‘I don’t even know what it is.'”
Mike said he can also smile “because now people get to see the player that he is.” Back in 2014, he didn’t feel good seeing Clarkson struggle a bit on the court, somewhat affected by his health crisis. Now two years later, he’s one of the best bench players in the NBA, averaging 15.2 points in only 28.1 minutes per game.
“He’s not the guy where his dad is suffering and he’s carrying luggage with him,” Mike said. “He can go out there and play freely. He’s just playing and people really get to see the God-given ability that he has.”
Clarkson has felt the biggest differences with his defense (he’s averaging a career-high 1.8 steals per game), being more efficient (he’s shooting a career-high 45.3 percent from the field), strength getting into the paint (he added muscle this past summer) and overall confidence. He said the Lakers aren’t thinking about the playoffs even though they’ve defied expectations with a .500 record. Their goals are a winning season and developing together as a young core.
Clarkson himself is far from being satisfied.
“It’s only my third season in the league, and I’ve still got a lot of room to grow,” he said.