Ace Under Pressure She's Beautiful, Talented And In The Final Four, But Kristen Clement Has Never Had It Easy No Stranger To Adversity Clement Has Faced Life, Court Obstacles

Posted: March 30, 2000

The demotion hurt, sure, but Kristen "Ace" Clement - beauty queen and team spokesperson - she knows pain. Real pain.

She knows the ache that comes from rejection by a father, and she knows the self-inflicted misery that comes from rejecting him now.

She knows the sinking, hopeless sense of powerlessness that a kid feels when adults stir a pot the kid would rather leave unstirred. She knows the anguish that adolescents feel when they are too pretty and too good and too new to gain acceptance at a different school.

So yes, when Tennessee coach Pat Summitt gave up on Clement as her point guard in January, it stung.

What would her friends and relatives back in Delaware County think?

What about her legacy at Cardinal O'Hara High? So much for the WNBA, right?

Yeah, it stung. It stung for about half a second. Because Clement knows that no matter how bad the pain gets, as long as she ignores the gnawing, eventually it will recede.

Last Sunday, in Memphis, Tenn., Summitt sat on a dais beside Clement, her latest example of point-guard deconstruction and reconstruction.

Summitt listened as Clement issued a glowing testimonial.

"You grow to love her," Clement said of her coach. "She's got a lot of power; a lot of impact over you as a player. . .and a person. You grow to love and respect her."

A moment later, almost imperceptibly, Summitt patted Clement on the back with her left hand, the sort of mothering gesture that seems incongruous with Summitt's imposing demeanor.

Clement froze. She cast her eyes down. Her sculpted, arched eyebrows lowered. She fought the lump in her throat.

See, Summitt builds her point guards. She takes high school stars, strips them of any self-confidence they might have and then rebuilds them on her own terms. More so than any of her other players, Summitt's point guards become reflections of her - passionate, aggressive, correct.

With Clement, Summitt's process failed to produce a suitable point guard. The coach anointed Clement the successor to Kellie Jolly after Jolly graduated last season. Clement's ascension to the position as a junior completed a plan Summitt conceived when she saw Clement, then 13, playing in an AAU tournament at Tennessee. Summitt said then that she wanted Clement to run her team one day.

However, following poor performances in losses to Connecticut and Georgia in January, Summitt stripped Clement of her starting job. Summitt didn't even cushion the move by immediately announcing that Clement would have the starting slot at shooting guard. Two days later, Summitt named freshman Kara Lawson the starter at the point. Shortly thereafter, she put Clement at the two-guard. Tennessee proceeded to win 18 consecutive games.

The Lady Vols won the NCAA Mideast Regional Monday night over Texas Tech. They face West Regional winner Rutgers tomorrow night in the national semifinals at the First Union Center with a rock at shooting guard.

"One thing Pat Summitt does is she breaks you down as a player and then she builds you back up," Clement said. "She teaches you how to apply that to life. I never thought I'd say it, but you learn to love her. I'm getting so much closer to her I'm scared."

Fear takes a different shape earlier in players' careers.

"When you get to Tennessee, you're so intimidated by her," Clement said.

And, when the moment arrives when Summitt approves. . .well, the nectar of gods is not so sweet. That moment arrived for Clement on Sunday afternoon with that light pat on the back.

"I didn't expect it," Clement said that night. "It's one of those moments you can't explain. Her doing that said the feelings are mutual.

"I had this feeling in my heart; I sort of put my head down and smiled.

"It meant a lot to me. It got me for a minute."

The minute passed. Really, it was just another in a lifetime of emotional moments that Clement has known.

"Krissy's 21, but sometimes I think she's more like 34," said Deb, Clement's eldest sibling, who is 34 herself.

"I was like this before I got to Tennessee," Kristen said. "I've been through a lot with my father. My family, my brothers and sisters, have struggled tremendously. I've seen a lot. I've soaked in a lot."

Clement's father, Rick, a club singer, left Sue, his wife of 16 years, and his six children in Bedford, N.H., on March 23, 1980. Kristen, the youngest, was 1. Deb, the oldest, turned 14 the day before. She sang as part of Rick's band.

A wealth of issues surrounded the couple's fiery divorce; Clement's mother, who has reassumed her maiden name of Carney, says he was possessive, that he threatened her to keep her in the marriage for years longer than she wanted.

Rick, who lives in Manchester, N.H., allows that threats might have been made, but he insists that another member of his family made them. He contends that Carney was unreceptive to working out their problems. So they split.

For the next eight years, he saw the kids every other weekend until Carney, an Upper Darby native, moved to Broomall to care for her ailing mother.

The relationship between Kristen and her father eroded after the move. He said Carney poisoned Kristen toward him. He and Deb said Carney intercepted letters he wrote to the children. They said Carney refused to let Kristen and Steve, the two children young enough to remain in her care, speak with him when he called.

Carney denied that she kept Rick from the kids. "That's all lies," Carney said. "No way that happened. If they got a letter, I made sure they could read it. In fact, I was calling Rick to get him to call them. He never did."

They agree, at least, that Rick quit trying in 1992. He had just completed his second divorce, a marriage that produced two more children.

"I gave up trying to contact them," he said, "because I felt the doors would not be open."

So, when Kristen was 13, he simply dropped out of the lives of the children from his first marriage. He did so to his regret.

"I've made mistakes," he admitted, his voice quavering. "I just want my daughter back."

Lately, Rick has taken steps to that end. He began writing to Kristen again when she went to Tennessee. When Kristen visited Deb and her family (now seven children strong) in Bedford during a holiday break from college in 1997, Rick said, Kristen briefly saw him. Then, nothing; no return letters, no calls, nothing.

He will not blame her for her refusal to hold a real conversation with him for the last eight years.

"She feels like I abandoned them when I cut off my relationship with them [four] years after they moved," Rick said. "There were probably times when she needed a father."

Times like when she was, oh, 13.

Clement graduated from O'Hara, but not before she tried public schools.

She went to Strath Haven as a seventh-grader, to Colonial as an eighth-grader. She was quite pretty, and a budding star not only on the court but also on the soccer field. And she was new, and not exactly the easiest person to approach, she admits.

"When I meet people, they sometimes say, 'I thought you were rude and snobbish and a bitch,' " Clement said. "But I'm not."

In any event, Kristen, Carney and Deb claim that her Strath Haven schoolmates threatened her.

"They were threatening to kill her," Deb contended. "She had to eat her lunch in the library."

John Prag, then the athletic director at Strath Haven and now the middle school's dean, chuckled at the notion.

"We don't have any gang violence at Strath Haven. But that doesn't mean kids don't say things like that," he allowed. "She had some socialization problems. There was a lot of jealousy with the other girls. I remember there being some tearful episodes."

Prag contended that Clement's departure from Strath Haven had less to do with threats than with Carney's interference; in fact, Prag cast Carney as something of a stage mother, which Carney denied. Prag's assertion is strengthened by the fact that Carney moved to Knoxville when Clement enrolled at Tennessee.

Clement left Strath Haven for Colonial, then embarked on her legendary career at O'Hara.

Clement led O'Hara to three Catholic League titles. She passed Wilt Chamberlain's former city scoring record. She was everybody's player of the year in Pennsylvania as a senior.

During it all - the threats, feats, and development of her game and personality - Rick was not around.

Deb essentially raised Kristen. After Rick left, Carney sold carpet and umpired softball games to make ends meet. Caring for the infant fell to Deb.

"She spit on me. Threw up on me. Her crib was in my room," Deb said. "She wouldn't stay in it. She spent almost every night in my bed."

To this day, Deb helps care for Kristen. She takes care of the insurance and payments on Kristen's car.

After Carney moved herself and her two youngest children to Broomall, Deb began her own family. She also embarked on a modeling career. She won the Mrs. New Hampshire contest and represented the state in the 1994 Mrs. America pageant. Kristen, then 14 and an AAU standout, was awestruck.

Later that year, while in Las Vegas for an AAU tournament, Kristen found herself tempted to enter a Miss Hawaiian Tropic contest, the kind with the skimpy bikinis. She called Deb, who encouraged her. Kristen entered, and won.

She entered two more contests in the next five years. She won both - the second a modeling contest while visiting Deb.

She is not modeling now, but she admits to pride in looking good. After the win in New Hampshire, said Deb, Kristen was offered a chance to go to New York City and pursue a career. Deb advised against it.

"There are millions of beautiful women," Deb said. "There are very few beautiful women athletes. You're going to make tons more if you're a successful athlete later."

In an environment - women's athletics - in which feminism thrives perhaps as nowhere else, one would wonder if Clement's peers resent her modeling background and her candor.

"I'm not ashamed of it," Clement insisted. "When I step on the basketball court I mean business. I play ugly. There's a time to be a woman. When I'm on the court - I mean, sometimes I want to be a woman, look like a woman. You don't have to look like a guy."

Still, it would have been nice to have a father's point of view when Hawaiian Tropic wanted to fly her to the islands to model.

It might have been helpful for Clement to ask her dad if he thought she should commit to Tennessee while a junior at O'Hara, as she did.

After Summitt told Kristen in high school that she would clip her offensive wings as a point guard, Kristen nearly backed out of her commitment to Tennessee. In tears, she called Deb. She might have called Rick.

Finally, when she dated Flyers star Eric Lindros in the spring and summer of her senior year at O'Hara, only Carney was there to monitor the situation.

(Clement acknowledges the relationship, but she won't talk about it.)

Certainly, Rick, a former hockey player and coach himself, might have guided Kristen then, too.

But Rick just wasn't there.

So it's understandable that Clement felt she could not turn to her father when she flailed this season.

As the season progressed, Clement regressed. Had she gotten anything out of her grueling summer workouts in Knoxville? She dropped 15 pounds in an effort to fit in beside the likes of Tamika Catchings, who earned national player of the year honors.

"I felt I had let the team down," Clement said.

Hardly. She changed positions and the team has not lost yet.

Clement could have pouted. The demotion could have been the team's undoing, and Summitt knows it.

"I'm really appreciative as to how she's handled it," Summitt said.

The Lady Vols shot just 32.8 percent in the Mideast Regional final, but forced 18 turnovers, spurred by Clement's intensity, Summitt said.

Of course, Clement would like to score more; she knows she must score in college to reach the WNBA. She has to prove that she can score more in college than the 5.6 points she is averaging and continue to regain confidence in her shot.

"It's not there yet," she said of her confidence, "but it's better than what it was."

So, too, is her relationship with Rick.

When Tennessee played at St. Joseph's on Dec. 19, he attended the game. He used a ticket left by Kristen and brought his two children from his second marriage - 15-year-old Jon, who is Steve's little buddy, and 11-year-old Tori, who idolizes Kristen, who, in turn, adores Tori.

Rick said he reconciled with Steve, now 24, after the St. Joe's game. He did not attempt to reach Kristen.

"Too much media around," he explained.

He did, however, meet Kelly Berrall, Kristen's roommate. He believes he convinced Berrall that, despite Carney's assertions to the contrary, he simply wants to be a part of Kristen's life.

"Whatever accolades she might get, whatever money she might earn, fine," he said. "I don't want anything. I just want my daughter back."

The next step came Feb. 2, when Tennessee visited Connecticut and evened the season series. Rick attended, again on Kristen's ticket. He waited until the reporters left and then, for the first time since 1997, he spoke to Kristen.

There was little to it. He congratulated her on the game. She thanked him for the birthday card and present he had sent.

That was it.

Rick said he would love to come to this weekend's Final Four but, having just left his job, said he cannot afford it. Rick and Jim, Kristen's brother, who lives in San Diego, will be the only ones absent.

It looks as though a storybook ending - daughter wins title in hometown and reconciles with father to the strains of violins - is impossible.

That's fine with Rick. He's in no hurry.

"I think she's trying to observe me," Rick said. "I think she's being very careful with her feelings. I don't think she wants to be let down again by her father."

He's right.

"At UConn, it was the first time I saw him in three years," Kristen said. "I was scared.

"I'm just not ready."

She paused. "Not yet."

Silence. "Yeah, sometimes you struggle playing basketball," Clement said softly. "But it's nothing. . .it's nothing like a life situation."

Send e-mail to hayesm@phillynews.com

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