The untold story of the high school coaches who helped shape Utah Jazz’s Texas trio
Before Jordan Clarkson, Royce O’Neale and Danuel House Jr. were NBA stars, they were just three kids from Texas who learned valuable lessons about life and hoops from their high school coaches
On June 2, 2010, a 17-year-old Jordan Clarkson went to the principal’s office.
It was the day after his graduation from Wagner High in San Antonio, the day all the kids would pick up their diplomas and any last remaining possessions before going off to the next stage of their lives.
The next stage for Clarkson was the University of Tulsa, where he would play for two seasons before transferring to the University of Missouri. But before all of that, he had to go see the principal.
Clarkson wasn’t in the principal’s office because he was in trouble, in fact he was never in trouble — coaches and teachers described a young Clarkson as a bit of a class clown, a little bit of a nerd, but a kid also with a lot of swagger.
He and a high school teammate, Andre Roberson, went into Dr. Milton Fields’ office and each boy gave the high school principal a sneaker.
“One gave the left, one gave the right, they each signed them and Jordan said, ‘These are gonna be worth a lot of money someday,’” Fields said, cocking his head to the side with a smirk. “That kind of foresight. … They just knew. And what makes me feel good is that they had enough confidence at that age to say they could do it — and then go do it.”
Both Clarkson and Roberson would go on to have NBA careers. Fields, now assistant superintendent of the school district that includes Wagner, looks at those sneakers every day. Prominently displayed in his office the shoes remind him that investing time and fostering confidence are two of the most important things an educator can do.
On that same day in 2010 in Killeen, Texas, about 150 miles north of San Antonio, a 16-year-old named Royce O’Neale was struggling with his confidence.
His junior year at Harker Heights High had been upended when, midway through the basketball season, he suffered a broken ankle when a teammate fell on his leg.
O’Neale watched from the sidelines, unable to help his team as they missed the playoffs — the first time the Harker Heights Knights missed postseason play in four years.
“You just knew he was going to come back trying to prove something,” Knights head coach Celneque Bobbitt said. “And he did. That boy worked his tail off and I know I pushed him, but I knew he was different and could handle it.”
About 250 miles southeast of Killeen, Houston native Danuel House Jr. was trying to build his confidence, but struggling to find those who would foster it.
He had just finished his sophomore year at Sharpstown High in Houston, but felt like he was being held back when it came to basketball.
“It was a mess,” House said. “A lot of jealousy and weird stuff going on there and you can’t grow in a room built on jealousy.”
House transferred to Hightower High after his sophomore year and has never forgotten how much it meant to have coaches that would invest their time so that he could become a better player and person.
“By me moving to Hightower it gave me a chance to lock in,” House said. “The coaches at Hightower were willing to miss family dinners so I could get extra shots up.”
This Texas trio knew very little if anything at all about each other. They didn’t know that they would all celebrate their birthdays the same week (O’Neale on June 5 and Clarkson and House on June 7), they didn’t know that they would all start out at one NCAA Division I school and transfer to another to finish their collegiate careers, they didn’t know that they would all end up in the NBA, and they certainly didn’t know that they would all be playing alongside each other in Utah Jazz jerseys.
The journey to becoming an NBA player is a long and arduous one that requires an immense amount of work. Clarkson, O’Neale and House have all put in uncountable hours in the gym to get where they are and they have experienced successes and failures of many kinds along the way.
But before they were college basketball stars or household NBA names, they were just three kids in Texas, and it was their high school coaches who saw the first glimmers of greatness.
“We used to do a drill where you roll the ball on the floor and have two guys go after it,” Clifton Ellis said. “We had a guy that was a senior that didn’t play that well the year before, and he was pretty driven to prove himself so he could get a chance to play. He happened to be matched up with Jordan in this drill and he went after the ball and just plowed through Jordan. I’m pretty sure he broke a bone in Jordan’s hand.”
Ellis, now the head coach at Temple College, a junior college in Temple, Texas, was Clarkson’s high school coach.
He laughs remembering some of the things he used to do to harden his players, to try to get them to build good habits.
“It wasn’t always pretty,” Ellis said. “Sometimes things got ugly.”
Clarkson was sidelined a few weeks after injuring his hand and there were some seniors who had spots ahead of him so Ellis brought Clarkson, a sophomore at the time, off the bench. The player who would eventually become the NBA Sixth Man of the Year, got his first taste of that role under Ellis.
“He did it and he never complained about it,” Ellis said. “Never even complained about the drill, even though I set him up to get hurt. That was the last time we did that drill, never done it since.”
Though the somewhat dangerous drills stopped, there was still a hardness to Ellis. He admits that he’s relaxed over the years, but back then he was still trying to prove something — to himself more than anyone else.
Ellis was the first head coach in 2005 at the newly established Wagner High. He was tough on his players and he asked a lot of them, but he also had a righthand man, Rodney Clark, his assistant coach, who is now the head coach at Wagner. If Ellis was the bad cop, Clark was the good cop.
“He made sure that the players had fun, that there was a balance,” Ellis said of Clark. “His approach was like, yes basketball is important and we need to be serious about basketball, but let’s also take a minute to laugh and joke around with the kids.”
That balance worked well with Clarkson, whose father, Mike Clarkson, had high standards and set high expectations. He wanted his son to apply himself and to be disciplined, but to also be happy.
Before playing basketball, Jordan Clarkson was a track star, a sprinter. His father wanted him to work hard and apply himself when it came to track, but there were two things holding Clarkson back from giving it his all.
First, he hated running on the hot tracks in Texas.
“And he needed to be a part of a team,” Ellis said. “I think that being a part of something that wasn’t about individual accomplishment really helped Jordan.”
Though he was a late bloomer when it came to basketball, his love for the game developed at Wagner. A little shy during his freshman year, Clarkson slowly came out of his shell as each year passed. He started out trying to fit into the basketball world, and eventually found that he didn’t have to try to fit in. Basketball was a perfect fit.
“He was a great kid who was a little bit silly, but on the court he became a leader,” Clark said. “He would lead with his actions and was always going hard and eventually we saw that there was something different about him. He was really good.”
Clarkson went on to play at Tulsa and then Missouri before playing with the Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers and finally the Jazz. At every stop along the way all of his coaches have called Clarkson a basketball sponge. He listens to everything his coaches tell him and tries to soak up everything they have to say. But that wasn’t always the case.
Early on, Clarkson would often disagree with Ellis or get angry at his coaching style. Because Clark had more of a friendly rapport with the players, Clarkson and the others would go to Clark with their complaints.
“I would have to explain to them the reasons why we’re doing a certain thing or why something was happening,” Clark said. “Sometimes that explanation was, ‘He’s the head coach and that’s what he wants.’ I told Jordan, ‘If you just go play and listen to what the head coach says and let all the other stuff go you’ll be fine. If you keep worrying about all the other stuff, you’re going to play like (expletive).’”
That piece of advice stuck with Clarkson.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder picked up on how coachable and willing to listen Clarkson was within a week of him being with the Jazz, and often praises how well Clarkson picks up on things and does exactly what is asked of him.
“He’s a sponge,” Snyder said. “That’s something that you have to learn early on.”
O’Neale is a man of few words. He opens up with his close friends but nearly everyone who knows him would describe him as an introvert. He likes to hang back in a crowd and observe.
The same cannot be said for everyone else in O’Neale’s life.
“I didn’t need to do the talking,” O’Neale said, laughing. “They did all the talking anyone would need.”
When O’Neale says “they” he’s primarily referring to his mother, Deb Kingwood, and coach Bobbitt. The pair are boisterous, outgoing, talkative, love to sing karaoke, and could easily be called social butterflies.
Bobbitt and his wife have been friends with Kingwood for decades. To hear them describe it, they all grew up together and even when O’Neale was little, they felt like they were still kids themselves, trying to figure out life — and they figured it out together.
So, while Bobbitt was O’Neale’s high school coach, he was also like a member of the family. Bobbitt and his wife would babysit O’Neale when Kingwood, a single mother, was working. They would take O’Neale and his sister to his house after school. Then as O’Neale got older, he helped take care of Bobbitt’s son.
Bobbitt still laughs about the “Lion King” shirt and sunglasses that O’Neale never wanted to take off when he was a toddler.
“He helped raise me,” O’Neale said of Bobbitt. “But he never showed favoritism as a coach. He tried to relate to every player and learn everyone’s story and find ways to connect and he pushed all of us to be the best that we could be. There were always lessons in every story he told.”
But Bobbitt wasn’t O’Neale’s only high school coach. O’Neale’s mother was a coach, too. She coached some while O’Neale was in middle school and then coached him early in high school on AAU teams.
“She’s a good coach, but I wouldn’t listen to her,” O’Neale said. “She would try to bench me and I’d be like, ‘Nah, I’m checking myself into the game.’”
It was with Bobbitt though where O’Neale learned the value of versatility.
“I wasn’t going to just have a player who was a shooter and all he did was shoot the ball,” Bobbitt said. “If you were going to play on my team, you were going to do everything. You’re going to pass the ball, shoot the ball, set a screen, get a rebound, play defense and learn the plays. If you want to be a great player you have to be able to do it all. Nobody wants a one-trick pony.”
That versatility and willingness to do all the little things to help his team win is what earned him a spot on the University of Denver basketball team and later a spot with the Baylor Bears. It’s what allowed him to compete internationally before fighting for a spot on the Jazz roster, and it’s what caught the eye of Snyder and the Jazz coaching staff and eventually led to O’Neale getting a spot in the starting lineup of a perennial NBA playoff team.
When House talks about the area of Houston that he’s originally from, he does so by naming the different gangs that were prominent in the area, the things he had to avoid and the lessons he learned at an early age.
“It was rough,” he said. “I lost a lot of friends, made a lot of friends, and learned more from that than maybe anything else.”
House was pretty young when he learned that what he valued most were relationships that were not one-sided. He does not want to give and give and receive nothing in return and he hopes that those around him expect the same from him.
So, when House transferred to Hightower High, the fact that coach Vincent Norman was willing to stay late at the gym with him, spend time talking with him, even when there were other places he could have been, meant the world to House.
The coaching staff at Hightower didn’t know a lot about House, but they knew they were getting a good player. Norman, who was assistant coach in House’s junior year and head coach his senior year, remembers hearing what House had done in a game against Houston Yates, a high school team that was No. 1 in the country, regularly blowing teams out by 60 or more points and went undefeated while breaking numerous high school scoring records.
“We’d heard that he was moving and enrolling at Hightower and that he’d dropped 39 on Yates,” Norman said, raising an eyebrow. “If he could do that against Yates, we knew he was special.”
And House certainly was.
He was raw and needed some polishing, but he worked as hard if not harder than anyone else on the team and on those late nights in the gym even Norman sometimes had to tell the young House that enough was enough.
All of the work paid off though. His recruiting stock shot through the roof and top schools started to check in on the youngster.
Hightower made it to the state semifinals during House’s junior season only to be beat by a Texas team that featured current NBA Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart. But the next year, they moved on from the semifinal in what Norman called House’s best game against a Texas team highlighted by Kelly Oubre, who now plays for the Charlotte Hornets.
“We were down 14 with four minutes to go and House came over to me on the sideline and just said, ‘We’re not losing this game, no way,’” Norman said. “He scored 22 in the fourth quarter and overtime. He showed up as a leader. He put the team on his back and wouldn’t let us lose.”
It’s not the game-winning performance against Oubre that stands out from that time for House, though. It was the confidence he gained by the time his coaches were willing to invest in him.
“They had the time for me,” House said. “And they had kids of their own so that time was valuable and precious.”
Not much has changed since his high school years. House still seeks out two-way relationships and knows that sometimes he can expect a little too much from people. But it has served him well so far, and it’s actually what attracts him to playing for a guy like Snyder and with a team like the Jazz.
“He reminds me of me a lot,” House said of Snyder. “He expects a lot from his players, but he gives everything he has to his team. He’s willing to put in as much of himself as we do and so for that I love it. I’ll give him whatever he needs and play as hard as I can for this team as long as they’re willing to play hard too.”