THE journey of Michael Clarke to coach the Kalamunda Eastern Suns Men’s SBL team is a remarkable one.
Clarke has always been passionate about basketball and had his philosophies on the way the game should be played and what he would like a team to do to be successful, but life took him away from the game for a long time.
A successful career as a criminal defence lawyer, which had Clarke as one of the best and most prominent in the state, meant there was little time for basketball.
But after 20 years , Clarke decided he did not want to do that for the rest of his life.
He began to get involved in basketball again and when an opportunity came up to attend Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) it was too good to pass up.
After two years there, he returned to Perth and was named Kalamunda Eastern Suns Men’s coach for 2016.
Clarke set about working hard to build the Suns program from virtually the ground up.
He has implemented his distinctive game style of up-tempo, full-court pressure defence, which he honed further at VCU, and by backing the youth at Kalamunda a definite plan for the future can be seen.
“I’m focused entirely on the Eastern Suns at the moment but on a longer term beyond that the college system in the US is where it’s at and I’d love to get another crack coaching there,” Clarke said.
“I’d love to be an assistant coach in the NBL at some point and they are the longer view things that are sitting out there in the ether at the moment.
“I’m not working towards those things actively though, I’m entirely focused on what is a lot of work getting the Suns to where they should be; as an entire club and not just the men’s program.”
Clarke’s journey is a remarkable one and one well worth telling.
His time in basketball started early but once it was time to attend law school, it was put away for some time.
“Going way back I started playing basketball when I was eight back in the ’80s long before it was a really popular game here,” he said.
“I got into the WABL system as it is now and played for Perth originally, then I moved to Willetton and played the remainder of my WABL years there culminating in a trip to America in a WA All-Star team.
“I was in Year 12 when we came back from America and wanted to go to law school. After eight years continuously playing basketball my knees were shot, I wasn’t getting any taller and it was time to move on so I shelved basketball.”
The success of Clarke’s career in law meant he felt he had achieved everything he could so he was left with the urge to turn his attention to something else.
“I’m very goal orientated and criminal defence work was very heavy going,” he said.
“I always said it was like being a boxer and every trial and case you did was like having a fight, and if you just keep having fight after fight you end up punch drunk.
“I had achieved all my goals, I was running my own firm, I had done jury trials, I had done murder cases and I had risen to the top of the profession. The only thing to do was the same old thing for another 20 or 30 years.
“If it was all about making money I would have kept doing it, but I got to a point in my life where I wanted to quit while I was ahead and squeeze a fresh challenge into this life to give me a new sense of interest.”
It was towards the end of his 20 years involved in law that Clarke got the basketball bug back .
It started at the Perth Redbacks and then the Kalamunda Eastern Suns where the chance to go to VCU opened up.
“In 2009 after I was ticking off all my goals in law, I got interested in basketball again. I got involved at the Redbacks as a sponsor and that’s how I met the Prior family,” he said.
“I assisted Jarrad in one of the Redbacks teams and in 2010 we moved from the city up to Mundaring so I moved across to the Eastern Suns as a coach. Within a year or two, I was assistant coach with the Eastern Suns Men’s SBL team assisting Ash McCormack and also coaching the 20s in my own right.
“I was coaching a certain way and Ash asked if I had heard of the VCU Rams who had just gone to the Final 4 with a style of play similar to what I was doing with the 20s.
“I saw that they had a graduate school where you could do a master of education specialising in coaching, and I thought life was a series of 20-year chapters so it might be time to move on to the next one.
“I had a mid-life crisis at 40 and decided to shelve law and go to VCU and do that master’s program, and learn in the home of basketball.”
Making the trip to Richmond, Virginia was a brave one, but immediately Clarke knew he had made the right choice and the next two years were remarkable.
“My time at VCU was surreal,” he said.
“It was amazing to get there and all of a sudden the things I had been watching online I was in the middle of. I had to keep pinching myself when coach Smart would come up and talk to me.
“I would see these guys from the Final 4 run and then I got a job with the team, and then they asked me to travel with them and we ended up in the National Tournament. It was a fairytale.
“I remember being at Barclays Centre in Brooklyn for the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament and I was sitting next to Spike Lee. I couldn’t believe it.
“You wouldn’t get that basketball experience in Australia and it was worth a decade of learning. Then after the first year of doing all of that at VCU, I got to spend another year actually as a coach in the mid-west at a Division 3 school on the basis that I would put in a pressure defensive system for them.
“I actually got to run the defence and to have been able to coach in the US college system and see all that it entails was an experience of a lifetime.”
When he returned to Perth, Clarke knew that basketball would be his focus but he did not quite know where it would lead him.
When the opportunity with Eastern Suns presented itself he was quick to signal his interest.
While there have been tough times so far in 2016, the positives are that he has a definite plan for the future in place and the signs of that proving successful are beginning to show.
“I was coming back here and wanted to coach the Eastern Suns Men’s team at some point. I thought that would happen within a few years and it obviously ended up happening a little sooner,” he said.
“I also set up a business, Frontier Basketball, that was involved in individual workouts, group camps and I had an idea that we could help kids get to college in the States. I had those things bubbling in my mind, then the Suns job came up and it’s been a whirlwind ever since.”
Clarke knows nothing he has achieved since this second phase of life in basketball would have been possible without the support of his wife Kelly.
“We don’t have kids which is partly why we were able to lock the door and go to America for two years,” Clarke said.
“She has been great and gave up her career as a librarian to come with me, and she couldn’t work over (in the USA) so she was stuck watching basketball games and cable television, and eating the American food, which she didn’t mind.
“She has given up everything for this and she loves basketball which makes my life so much easier. She always falls in love with my team and starts loving the guys and having favourites and all of that.
“She is an important part of everything we do along the way and without that it just wouldn’t have been possible.”