Clint Parks’ relationship with SDSU started in 2008 when Steve Fisher, Brian Dutcher, and their coaching staff first began recruiting Kawhi Leonard. Nearly fifteen years later, no one could have imagined the player that brought them together would be in the conversation as the greatest player of his generation.
While the full story of Leonard’s career is not yet written, at this point, he arguably ranks third amongst his peers, only behind LeBron James and Steph Curry, but ahead of Kevin Durant in the discussion of the era’s best if leading teams to championships is the standard.
Leonard’s rise in many ways mirrors his athletic trainer’s elevation in the basketball world. The Clippers’ star had none of the advantages the other three were given on their journeys. James and Durant are unicorns, blessed with an unparalleled athletic skill set that was recognized at a young age and developed. Curry is the son of one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. Leonard certainly blessed physically, worked his way to stardom.
The same could be said of Parks. Born in Riverside, he moved to Hawaii during his sophomore year of high school. The island had no junior college basketball, so Parks returned to the mainland to continue playing. He attended Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington, but his career on the court was cut short because he broke his fibula twice in consecutive years.
A forward thinker, even at a young age, he understood that his path to a career in basketball might exist outside the lines. The spring and summer after graduating from high school, he co-founded an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team called Team Elite. Leonard was among Parks’ first players.
“I just never wanted to do anything else with my life since I was a kid,” Parks explained. “I tell people, I tell my mom and my dad, ‘The thought of not having basketball. It’s like, what would we do?’ Some people would say, ‘that’s not healthy.’ …That’s my life. That’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. Play, coach, train, something with hoops.”
Just as Leonard’s place in basketball’s highest echelon is measured by results, not convention or self-promotion, Parks’ values as an athletic trainer are simple. Above all else, he stresses an embrace of the grind.
No matter the skill, no matter the arena, to be elite, there comes a time when improvement is no longer fun or enjoyable. The best separate themselves when they continue to grow despite there being no apparent or immediate reason to do so. Reaching this point and finding a way to stay focused is the grind Parks preaches.
During this process, he emphasizes the fundamentals. Ball handling, shooting, footwork, etc., all have a place in his workouts before the fancy skills Tik Tok has made viral. This dogged determination to be great on what truly produces on the court is what Parks instills in his clients. Drill after drill, day after day, year after year, with the same tremendous loyalty and effort he demands, Parks mentors those he works with.
“I always say, ‘The work ethic that you’ll learn with me will translate to the rest of your life when you have kids when you have a family, all that, working a job, whatever it is,’” Parks said when asked about his impact in his client’s life off the court. “(Former players) Jeremy (Lieberman) has had his own businesses, Cole (Huff)’s a journalist, he works for The Athletic, living in Vegas. He covers the Aces, UNLV, other facets, and sports teams in Vegas. This is all still transferring to the next stage in their life. It’s exciting. Those guys were kind of at the beginning of this. Their belief in me and my belief in them went hand in hand. I’m always thankful for them.”
This approach is similar to how SDSU runs its basketball program. It is this commonality that is among the roots of SDSU and Parks’ mutual respect. While many in the game chase techniques to shorten the process, the Aztecs embrace the work necessary to get the job done.
Parks admires the effort Dutcher, Dave Velasquez, and Matt Soria have put in at the same place for so long. He praised Velasquez for filling every role imaginable for the program, from player to video coordinator to assistant coach. The only position he has not played is head coach, but Parks sees Velasquez sliding over 18 inches in the future.
Parks, though, reserved his highest accolades for SDSU’s head coach.
“There’s nothing he hasn’t done,” Parks said. “His dad’s a legendary coach, Jim Dutcher in Minnesota. He’s been with Fish. He recruited the Fab Five at Michigan. They won a National Championship. He’s done everything. There’s no coach out here on the West Coast that’s done what he’s done as an assistant.”
“Obviously, as a head coach, he hasn’t done those things, but he’s recruited pros, he’s coached pros, as an assistant and as a head coach. He won a National Championship. The Fab Five changed college basketball forever. That was him. Those are the guys that still talk about him. Jalen (Rose), Chris (Webber), Juwan (Howard), Ray King, all those guys, Rob Pelinka, the Lakers GM. Those are Dutcher’s guys. He doesn’t flaunt it like some of the other coaches do, but those are really his guys. … He was going to the inner city. You got to have real respect to get those parents to say, ‘I’m going to send my kids to you.’ … Fish was the same way. They built this thing from scratch,”
Given this connection, it is not surprising Parks spent much of the past six weeks in San Diego at the JAM Center, working with Aztec great Jalen McDaniels and former Stanford Cardinal Anthony Brown. Like the program in general, SDSU’s training facility has become a basketball oasis where players can come in without being bothered to get their work in.
A few weeks ago, Leonard came in to work out with Franklin. Parks said it was impossible to tell Leonard had been hurt, adding that his fans should be “very excited” about the SDSU’s great upcoming season. Among current Aztecs, four stand out as having the best shot to join Leonard in the NBA.
“On this team, I think Matt (Bradley) does,” Parks said. “I think Matt has a chance. He has to continue to get more efficient. He has to continue to round out his game. He’s gotten better, so I think he’s going to be right there in that position.”
“I think Lamont Butler is another person to watch out for as far as one of those players who has a chance. He needs to continue to develop his shot, be able to make shots consistently. He’s in the gym every day, complete gym rat.”
“Keshad Johnson, obviously, still has two years. He’s in the gym every day. He’s a gym rat. I see Nate Mensah in there all the time. So, guys are working. Everybody’s path is different.”
In time, Parks hopes to one day become a college basketball coach himself. To that end, he recently started as an assistant coach at Crespi High School, where one of his players, Joe Sterling, is an incoming freshman. As more high school players choose a post-secondary destination based on how successful programs are at player development, Parks’ expertise in the area should make him an attractive candidate.
In the meantime, Parks’ most important job is the one he has. The most important players are the ones in front of him. With creativity, he will figure out how to have the dual role of trainer and assistant coach. It will take some work, he says, but working at both allows him to continue being part of the game of basketball. In the end, that is all he has ever wanted to do.