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The Many Facets of Jordan Clarkson

By Francisco Arechiga

Mar. 21, 2016
Laker Guard Jordan Clarkson on his diverse background, role models, Filipino heritage and being the first Asian American Backcourt

The Lakers’ “backcourt of the future” is about defying expectations.

Kobe Bryant retiring at the close of this season certainly marks the end of an era for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers are worth a staggering $2.7 billion and are the second-winningest franchise in NBA history, with 16 championships to their name. Forbes says they are the NBA’s most profitable team. With this type of legacy, planning for the team’s future is crucial. The owners have assembled a roster of young talent, and with expectations looming for future superstars to take up the mantle, Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson plans to stay hungry.

An icon for a new generation

Clarkson has had the most court time of any Laker in the 2015-2016 season, scoring the highest number of field goals per game on the team, and the highest three point percentage. He’s also scored the second highest points per game behind Bryant. Clarkson was nominated for “Best Rookie of the Year” last season, where along with former teammate Jeremy Lin they became known as the “First Asian American Backcourt” in NBA history.

“Jeremy was probably one of my closest teammates last year. It was definitely cool to make history with him,” Clarkson told us in a recent interview.

Clarkson, who is part Filipino, is hoping to play for the Philippines men’s national basketball team at the Rio 2016 Olympics, and fans on both sides of the Pacific have enthusiastically championed his rise.

Staying hungry

Speaking with his characteristic mellow cadence and a faint gleam in his eyes, Clarkson uses the phrase “losing his mind” to describe being in the zone on the court. “When I say ‘lose my mind,’ it’s like I don’t think no more. It’s all instinct. It’s, like, programmed in there and I go do it. It’s just from repetition and from knowing what I’ve seen before, and what didn’t work. So I take what didn’t work the last time and try to fix it as fast as I can.”

Clarkson says legends like Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash have been pivotal, and inspire him to stay humble and work hard. “You see great players like Kobe, they’re always in the gym. They’re working on their craft. So I’m just trying to follow the blueprint for success that they’ve laid out, and listen to what they’ve said.”

At this year’s “Rising Stars Challenge,” Clarkson and fellow Laker D’Angelo Russell rallied for a combined 47 points to shoot their team to victory. This Clarkson / D’Angelo duo has been heralded as the “backcourt of the future” by fan site Lakers Nation.

Jordan Clarkson with Kobe Bryant at 25th Annual L.A. Lakers Celebrity Golf Invitational and Dinner
Clarkson with teammate Kobe Bryant at 25th Annual L.A. Lakers Celebrity Golf Invitational and Dinner
" You see great players like Kobe, they’re always in the gym. They’re working on their craft. So I’m just trying to follow the blueprint for success that they’ve laid out, and listen to what they’ve said."

“I feel like we’ve got a good young group with Julius [Randle], Larry Nance [Jr.], Anthony Brown, D’Angelo Russell and myself. This year’s a really good chance for us to grow and develop and learn as much as we can about one another, because I feel like we're going to spend a lot of time together in the years to come,” says Clarkson.

Clarkson says he’s always seeking out new ways to add a bit of flair to his game, and working with teammates like D’Angelo to add an element of surprise. “I always try to find something new every game. Trying to find a new way to finish at the basket, or trying to find a new way to get my jump shot, or finding a new way to pass to my teammates that’s between my legs, behind my back, behind the head. I just like to keep it free, and flowing and fun.”

The road less taken

The word that came up most frequently in our discussion was “different.” In his soft-spoken manner, Clarkson expresses a casual enthusiasm for discovering new things. “I go everywhere, just trying to find stuff that’s different. Just ‘cause I think it’s cool to be different.”

Clarkson has embraced his Asian heritage, learning Tagalog and visiting the Philippines to run basketball camps; yet, like many millennials, he sees identity as something fluid. “I feel like I’m from a lot of different places. San Antonio is my home. Of course I’ve been to a lot of places, but I kind of kept that small-town mind-set. I feel like I’m never going to change from that,” says Clarkson.

" I go everywhere, just trying to find stuff that’s different. Just cause, I think it’s cool to be different."
Clarkson at the Toyota Sports Center training facility in El Segundo
Clarkson at the Toyota Sports Center training facility in El Segundo

Growing up, family meals on his mother’s side included some of Clarkson’s favorite Filipino dishes, such as chicken adobo and lumpia, but actually going to the Philippines was eye opening. “It was incredible, just being able to go over there and see how loving people are, and even how passionate they are about basketball and life in general. I felt like everyone was really positive and happy. It’s definitely a different style of living than what we have in the United States.”

Asian Americans in the limelight

There are 2.98 million Asian Americans in the prime Lakers territory of Greater Los Angeles and San Diego, according to the latest Census data, and around 25 percent of this population—at least 750,000 people—is Filipino American. Asian Americans now make up the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States and constitute a powerful consumer bloc, with the highest average household income and the highest levels of education of any group, according to Pew Research Center.

When asked about the significance of Clarkson’s prominence in the NBA, Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian American Media, says it’s critical that Asian Americans are featured prominently in mainstream culture. “It’s very important to have diversity represented in all areas of society, but especially in those areas of high media visibility, for in that way, the overall value of diversity and inclusion is strengthened on a day-to-day basis and in a public way.” The issue starts with the pipeline for talent, considering that Asian Americans make up only 0.2 percent of NCAA players.

“With the rise of the ‘Asian Century,’ Asian Americans are becoming more prominent in mainstream media. Asians are the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S., so visibility is a key factor in showcasing that Asian Americans are, in fact, in nontraditional roles, and that they excel in them,” says Stephen Liu, founder of Privy.net, a private global network and platform of Asian American tastemakers and key influencers, including Jeremy Lin and Lisa Ling.

Staying open to possibility

Clarkson’s father was his first basketball coach and continues to be a big influence. “My dad always told me to have an open mind. ‘Don’t let nobody tell you what you can’t do. If you want to do something, just put your mind to it and put the time in.’ That’s all I’ve lived on ever since I’ve been young. So if I feel I can snowboard, and I want to be a snowboarder tomorrow, I would go practice,” says Clarkson.

“You know, he’s inspired me a lot. With everything he’s been through, fighting cancer and finally being healthy. Even growing up, we weren’t in the best circumstances when we were younger. He made his own business, started his own company and got us to where we are today.”

Aside from studying the greats on how to read the game, Clarkson’s unique background gives him a distinctive style and an edge on the court. He attributes some of his speed and agility to early decorations as a track and field star. “Track and field is an individual sport and takes a lot of pride. You’re out there by yourself, and you don’t want to lose, so that’s definitely one thing that’s always been in my mind. I hate to lose more than I love to win. So I think that drives me a lot.”

Off the court, Clarkson enjoys shopping for new styles to debut in the locker room or to share with his more than 430,000 followers on Instagram. “I like to spend a lot of my time shopping, going to different stores and trying to find stuff that people aren’t wearing.” Like other diverse aspects of his life, eclecticism seems to be an organic part of Clarkson’s personal style, which ranges from couture suits, to jackets with large postmodernist slogans, to tight jeans and spoof Metallica t-shirts.

Describing what’s core to who he is, Clarkson says, “I’m open to try everything. Finding something new is pretty cool. Even if it’s, like, finding a different route home every day, it’s cool just to see something new.”

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