The Terrence Clarke who first walked through the doors of the Vine Street Community Center was nothing like the star basketball player Boston would come to know and love. Back then, the mere wisp of a boy who was just hitting double digits in age and nowhere near hitting triple digits in weight, could barely dribble the big orange ball in his hands.
“A skinny little kid, maybe 65 pounds” said David Hinton, the administrative director at VSCC. “And when he first got here, he was awful, probably one of the worst players I’ve ever seen. He couldn’t play a lick.”
But Clarke could dream big. And he could work hard. And when he passed through those doors, he stepped into a world where those dreams were encouraged and that work was nurtured. That’s how he became the Terrence Clarke the basketball world learned to watch in wonder, the sweet-shooting, wildly athletic guard who made his way from the neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester to the Rivers School, to Brewster Academy, to the University of Kentucky, and, soon, when the calendar turned to late July, all the way to the NBA.
That is the Terrence Clarke the basketball world mourns today, following the news the 19-year-old died in a car crash Thursday night in Los Angeles, where he was working out in preparation for the NBA Draft.
That is the Clarke whose name we so excitedly anticipated being called in the 2021 NBA Draft, the man who was so ready to tell the world that Boston isn’t limited to welcoming the best professional basketball players into the city limits, but can grow them here too. With every step he took up the sporting ladder, Clarke remembered who and what was at his back, his pride in carrying a Boston banner evident in a 2019 Globe interview.
“Boston is a great basketball city,” he said. “I really want to do this for myself, but I also want to do this for my community because [Boston] has never been on the map. Nobody would say, ‘Oh, [top] basketball players come from Boston.’ I want to be the person to make that happen.”
No wonder this all feels so raw today. Clarke was one of our own.
He was the kid who treasured a place such as Vine Street, who made it his second home, padding around the building in his socks, napping on the couch in the computer room, eating lunch, doing homework, setting up by the PlayStation to watch highlights on ESPN, creating his own highlight reels in the gym. Basically, spending more time inside those walls than he did in his own house, buoyed both by the blessing of his hard-working parents and the embrace of Vine Street’s dedicated employees.
“We’re not known for basketball. We love it, but we’re not known for it like that,” Hinton said. “We’ve had a few kids that were exceptional players, but for the most part, if we were brought a bad report card, that’s what we’d yell about. We didn’t care about the basketball, but when he developed that skill that was fine too. We loved him, whether he was in the team room watching ESPN to us watching him on ESPN in here, turning on the TV and saying, ‘Look, he just scored!’
“That was huge for us. Absolutely, he was one of our own.”
The loss of young life is unfathomably tragic on every level, the grief of unrealized potential bleeding into every memory. Those memories belong first and foremost to Clarke’s own family and loved ones, but the images of him soaring down the lane or following through on a 3-pointer, those are shared by everyone privileged to witness the embodiment of his basketball joy, everyone who hopped aboard his heady journey and couldn’t wait to see where it took him next.
Maybe it would have been back to Boston, to a city and a franchise that knows too much about basketball heartbreak, the loss of Len Bias on the eve of his Celtics career, or Reggie Lewis in the prime of his, already teaching the cruel lesson that fate cares nothing about athletic résumés and fame shields no one from tragedy. Yet a loss such as Clarke’s, coming before he could even deliver on the promise that elevated him among the very top high school recruits in the nation two years ago, is another deep blow to the city.
Just listen to Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who spoke for everyone when he said he didn’t want to believe the news that was just being delivered Thursday night as his team beat the Suns.
“I’m not sure how much I want to talk about the game,” Stevens said. “When you consider a Boston kid … Those kids are important to us here. I never met him, but my son looks up to him. It’s hard to talk about a basketball game with even the idea that that’s floating out there. I just pray it’s not true.”
As the weight of the truth settled in, Celtics players such as Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown, mentors who did get to know Clarke, shared their shock and grief as well. Kentucky coach John Calipari wrote of being “gutted” as he headed to California to be with the family, and Klutch Sports, the Rich Paul-led agency that had just signed Clarke only a day before, spoke of being “devastated” over the loss of “an incredible, hard-working young man” who was “ready to fulfill his dreams.”
Dreams born and nurtured at 339 Dudley Street. On Friday, tears fell there in his memory.
“It’s certainly left an empty feeling. I really did not want to come to work today. Wanted to blow off the day,” Hinton said. “This is my home too, and we all treat it like home. There’s no graffiti on the walls, none outside the building. We take care of the place. We own this, the community owns it, and nobody is going to come here and mess it up.
“That’s how Terrence felt. Even going to Kentucky, he asked if he could come in the building at 6 a.m. when it was closed. The janitor would let him in, he’d get a quick workout and go off to continue his day. He felt that comfortable coming here, and we wanted him to own it. He lived it.
“The staff is taking it hard, they were really close to him. His mom would say it — when you’re here, you’re our son.
“We’ve lost one of our sons.”