LOUISVILLE — Less than two weeks after bolting for the pros last spring, Earl Clark made one last call to Louisville Coach Rick Pitino.
"I asked him if I could come back, that I thought I wasn't ready yet," Clark said.
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And Pitino's response?
"He just asked how fast could I get back to campus," Clark said with a laugh.
Pitino wasn't laughing last April, just days after the Cardinals lost to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament regional finals. His voice was flat. No anger. No rage. No pontificating on the folly of youth.
"Earl Clark will not play basketball at the University of Louisville next year," Pitino said.
And with that, Clark's college career seemed to be over just days after saying he'd stick around for his junior season. As Pitino talked, the baby-faced 6-foot-9 small forward who averaged 11.1 points and 8.1 rebounds as a sophomore had left campus and was already in Houston working out in preparation for the NBA Draft after speculation he might be a borderline lottery pick.
Clark called the move "a business decision," one Pitino went along with even if he didn't think it was time for Clark to move on.
"I didn't think it was in his best interest to move on, but I respect other people's opinion," Pitino said. "I wasn't disappointed. He was making what he thought was the right call."
During those lonesome nights in a Houston hotel, Clark's thoughts kept drifting back to his teammates, his friends and his coach. Clark never did fill out the paperwork to drop out of school and enter the draft, never did sign with an agent, never did really mentally check out of a program a step short of the Final Four.
But after his about-face, Clark returned to school fast enough to finish out the semester and earn back the trust of his teammates.
"I could see the temptation," said senior guard Andre McGee. "He had a great year. I know a lot of scouts were after him. He's a great talent. To have that option to go pro, I understand. We weren't mad."
Neither was Pitino, who didn't make Clark run the steps at Freedom Hall or order him into the training room at 6 a.m. The humbling life lesson his soft-spoken star learned during his foray out on his own was punishment enough.
"I was happy he came back," Pitino said. "But he needs to go to work. He needs to learn just showing up isn't good enough."
Clark has been hitting the gym before the sun rises to work on his game, going to bed earlier and trying to become a leader, not the easiest thing for a guy Pitino joked sounds like Michael Jackson when he talks.
Clark is working on it, just like he's working on everything else. He's thankful for the second chance Pitino gave him. He doesn't plan on having to ask for a third.