For Dennis Clifford, there’s the obvious, physical pain that everyone can see, and then there’s the agony and disappointment he keeps outside of Conte Forum’s walls, away from his young, impressionable teammates.
As possession flips during a Boston College men’s basketball game, the sophomore center’s left knee tells him no, but he doesn’t listen.
It’s obvious, the strain on his focused face as he moves the 80 feet from one block to the other. He needs to contribute somehow. As a captain, he knows he needs to help this team. It’s impossible to ignore how fragile the Eagles’ confidence is as the young core continues to lose by three points, two points, and even just one small yet always mountainous point.
After a few minutes of forcing that left knee to make the 80-foot journey back and forth, he’s subbed out and heads to the bench. The knee gets cold, and the condromalacia won’t allow him to stay loose or warm. The possibility of subbing back into the game before the half ends, as desperately as Clifford wants to, is slim.
He refuses to show the disappointment, though.
“I don’t want anybody on my team to know that I’m struggling, because there are a lot of young guys that look up to me, so I try my hardest to stay positive,” Clifford said.
Although he’s just a sophomore, the captain holds court like an elder statesman for the program.
Joe Rahon sinks a three, and Clifford has the loudest applause. Ryan Anderson flicks in a lay-up despite being fouled, and Clifford is the first to stand up and wave the towel around his neck. It’s genuine excitement, but he also knows he has to set an example.
“I think they look to see how I’ve been dealing with this,” Clifford said, “to see how I deal with adversity and that’s how it should be.”
Clifford carried the Eagles during their preseason trip to Spain, and it looked to his teammates and coaches like he would lead the young group both on the court and off it.
“I know the players looked to me in the offseason,” Clifford said. “I was going to be one of the guys they went to on the court. I think that was part of my role as a leader.”
He was on almost every single ballot when captain votes were counted. Head coach Steve Donahue said Clifford finished hands above everyone else so he thought only one captain was necessary.
A nagging injury turned severe before the first game of the season, though, and he hasn’t been the same since.
“It was always kind of in the back of my head, but it was a minor problem, ” Clifford said of the knee pain caused by his condromalacia condition.
He assumed everyone else had similar knee pain. Everyone that plays basketball has problems with their knees, so that must be it, he told himself.
Donahue said that no one spent more time in the gym and the weight room this summer than Clifford. That hard work was the main reason he was selected as the leader, but it might also be why he’s only averaging a little more than 15 minutes a game this season.
He lifted as much as he could during the offseason. Although he showed a ton of potential during his freshman year, the results weren’t there on the scoreboard and he knew that needed to change. The center added more than 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason, but in the process of all of those squats he irritated the already annoying pain in his left knee beyond the point he could handle.
“I think this was bound to happen at some point,” Clifford said.
He’d never worked his body that hard before, and in retrospect it makes sense to him why the pain has gotten so much worse. Yet the hurt in his knee doesn’t match the pain he feels being relegated to single-digit minutes when his team is losing close games time and time again.
“I think that’s definitely been the hardest thing I’ve been going through this season,” Clifford said. “Now I just try to do as much as I can, whether I’m sitting out in practice or playing in practice or sitting out in the games, I just try to stay as positive as possible.”
Clifford has only played more than 20 minutes five times this season. He spent a long time not even being able to practice consistently, but two weeks ago, leading up to the Duke game, he started feeling better.
“[My knee] has been hurting a little, but it’s been feeling a lot better than it has in the past,” he said. “So if Coach sees me working in practice and feeling pretty good I think it’s more likely that I’ll get to play like I have in the last few games.”
After playing seven combined minutes against Clemson and Miami, Clifford started against the Blue Devils last Sunday and played 14 minutes, the most since he logged 19 against Maryland in mid-January. For the first time, he went 100 percent in nearly every practice leading up to a game. He’s still taking it easy the day before, though, to avoid any risk of not being able to play at all.
“The first couple days when I wasn’t close to the game time I was going 100 percent, and then the day before a game me and Coach are always hesitant to see what I can do,” Clifford said. “I want to stay comfortable but I don’t really want to irritate my knee any more.”
When asked about the possibility of being shut down for the season, Clifford said the thought hadn’t crossed his mind and that he didn’t think the decision was up to him, but that he’d do whatever Donahue thought was best. Right now his plan is to work through the pain, helping the team any way that he can on the court, and then take some time off after the season to let the knee heal.
Although he’s been inching closer to more playing time lately, it’s been difficult for Clifford to be effective for long stretches. He’s averaged around two points per game since conference play began.
“It’s really hard to get ready for the games and stay comfortable and have coach Donahue comfortable with me in the game when I’m not practicing,” Clifford said.
Against Wake Forest last week, Clifford hopped on a stationary bike when he was taken off the floor. He was hesistant to embrace the idea from the trainer at first, but he wasn’t going to ignore anything that could help him sub in and out more easily.
“I thought I was going to get really tired and I was going to look stupid, but I think it worked,” Clifford said. “I’m open to do whatever.”
While he deals with the injury, he’s found support from the other players, especially Ryan Anderson and Lonnie Jackson.
“My teammates are always picking me up,” Clifford says. “I think Lonnie and Ryan have done a great job, not only with me and themselves, but also fulfilling the leadership role that the team needs right now and I think that has been very reassuring for me.”
And that’s when Clifford starts to light up. He’s solemn when talking about his injury, but any discussion about his teammates makes him smile and laugh. It shows why he was selected as a captain in the first place, the joy he gets out of everyone else’s success.
BC’s freshman guards, Rahon and Oliver Hanlan, have taken over the BC backcourt and Clifford has been incredbly proud of the duo.
“I tell them every day, they’re a really special type of people, and not just from the athletic standpoint. At the end of the game they’re confident enough to be like, ‘Hey, give me the ball. I’m the point guard. It should be in my hands. I’ll get you the ball when you’re open,'” Clifford said before stopping and shaking his head in appreciation.
He calls Rahon’s late free throws against Wake Forest that sealed a BC win “the most legendary thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“And that’s the captain looking at a freshman do something like that,” Clifford says.
And then there’s Eddie Odio.
“Me, Ryan, and Lonnie have been telling everybody that’s going to happen sooner or later,” Clifford said of Odio’s breakout season. “He’s going to be the quiet kid his whole career but he’s probably going to make the top plays a dozen more times. But he’s not going to say a word about it.
“He gets emotional during the games, but I don’t think he shows it as much as the next guy. Me and Ryan might have been more excited than him,” Clifford said with a laugh of Odio’s SportsCenter highlights.
He’s been held back from filling statsheets, but Clifford doesn’t focus on how that might affect a future professional career.
“I don’t know if I need to block it out, I just haven’t given it that much thought,” Clifford said. “I look at the offseason as a time when I can establish my chances of a career. In season, all that has troubled me is the fact that I can’t be on the court helping my guys out and being the leader that I should be.”
And that’s what stands out the most about Clifford. Rather than use the knee injury as an excuse, he actually blames himself for not being a good enough leader in spite of the setbacks. It’s easy to see that anything short of winning is a failure for the center, and a failure he places on himself. It’s also a failure he uses to push himself to work harder, fight through the pain, and get better, and that’s all anyone around him could ask.