2015-16 Male Athlete of the Year: Dennis Clifford

Time was finally winding down for Boston College men’s basketball. The Eagles were about to finish their season without a conference win for the first time in program history, mercifully ending with a loss to Florida State in the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament. And, as the final seconds of the season ticked away, the team’s leader and biggest threat watched the action from the bench.

There weren’t that many fans in the Verizon Center. When national powerhouses like Virginia and UNC are in town, people aren’t likely to check out a first-round game between BC and FSU. But those that did straggle in from the streets of Washington, D.C., witnessed Florida State pull away with an 88-66 victory. Dennis Clifford, once the Eagles’ biggest threat in the game, was no longer controlling the paint. In the first half, he’d been unstoppable, scoring 12 points and grabbing seven rebounds before halftime as his Eagles stayed right with the Seminoles. By the end, he was relegated to the bench, forced to watch the conclusion of his BC career from the sidelines after accumulating one too many fouls.

After the game, a reporter asked Clifford about his favorite memory as an Eagle. Clifford began to answer, but then took time to compose himself, staring at his hands. When he looked back up, clearly emotional, he responded, “Going out to eat.”

The seemingly innocuous answer was picked up by every media outlet imaginable, from Barstool Sports to Sports Illustrated. And almost everyone criticized the answer, with some people arguing that it was just a poor answer while others pointed out that the team got norovirus after going out to eat.

Almost two months later, sitting in Hillside Cafe, Clifford laughed about that experience.

“I’ve always been a dude that’s always trying to eat, that’s definitely part of my personality,” he said. “A lot of people close to me know that, so I got made fun of a lot for a week.”

But what if he was asked the question again? If he could go back in time, having just been eliminated from the ACC Tournament as one of the worst teams in Division-I basketball history, what would he say?

“I would start the same way, but I would definitely elaborate and not try to sound like an idiot,” he said with a chuckle.

His elaboration would basically be what Clifford’s close friends and family already know about him—that this team has meant everything to him. The everyday things, like going out to eat with his team, meant just as much to him as the playing did. Despite the tumult he went through during his college career, from injuries and poor play—both personal and of the team—nothing diminished his love for basketball, his teammates, and BC.

This year, Clifford’s dominance on the court and commitment to his team have been clear. The 7-foot-tall center left everything on the court in every game, establishing himself as a positive role model for his teammates. No one who knows him doubts Clifford’s commitment to BC and to his team. He is, in short, the quintessential Eagle.

It was crazy, it was like a drug, being out there on the court again. Dennis Clifford

College basketball wasn’t always a given for Clifford. Though he played all throughout high school, when he was younger he wasn’t sure if he’d be good enough to garner enough interest to play at a major-conference school. But then, as he developed his game and grew older, he started getting recruited. When BC came knocking, Clifford jumped at the opportunity to play for the Eagles.

Clifford arrived on campus as a freshman in 2011, ready to make his mark on the court. A young member of a young team, he quickly established good relationships with his coaches and teammates. It was head coach Steve Donahue’s second year leading the Eagles, and the team depended on four freshmen starters. Clifford’s strong freshman campaign was marked by appearances in every single game. He averaged 9.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game as a freshman, showing flashes of brilliance and the potential to become one of BC’s strongest basketball players.

Dennis Clifford

Then came the knee injury.

The nightmare started in his sophomore year. Clifford aggravated his knee coming down from a dunk, and the pain just refused to go away. His numbers plummeted to 2.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. The pain continued throughout his junior year, when Clifford had surgery and was sidelined with a medical redshirt. During that time, Clifford’s focus slipped.

“During my sophomore and junior year I didn’t really handle myself the way I should have,” he said. “I spent all of my focus on how I was hurt and how things weren’t going my way.”

It didn’t help that a lot of people, including doctors, had grim outlooks on Clifford’s future—some believed he might not be able to play basketball again. He’d shown the potential to be great as a freshman, but the injury derailed everything. With these doubts in his mind, Clifford fought to get back to the player he knew he was.

In 2014, Donahue was fired and replaced by Jim Christian. Clifford, post-rehab and ready to play, introduced himself to his new coach and explained his situation.

“I just got to know his story and what he’d been through,” Christian said. “It gave me an appreciation for what he’d been through, just to get to that point.”

At that point, according to Christian, Clifford was just starting to feel better. The months of rehab, the workouts, the effort, and the determination were paying off. He was ready to come back and prove that the knee injury hadn’t knocked the basketball out of him. More importantly, his new coaches were thrilled to see him bounce back, and their excitement was a huge boost for Clifford.

“It was crazy, it was like a drug, being out there on the court again,” he said.

Clifford played consistently as a redshirt junior, but didn’t excel. He averaged 6.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. The important thing was, he was getting back into a rhythm—one that would really take off this year, when he played as a graduate student in his final year of varsity eligibility.

Dennis Clifford

He averaged 6.3 points while grabbing 8.8 rebounds for the first four games of the season. In the Eagles’ fifth game of the season, against UC-Irvine, Clifford scored 14 points and added five rebounds. From there, his numbers rose steadily—including a 17-point performance against Penn State—but the best was yet to come.

On Feb. 9, amid lots of talk about BC’s woes, Roy Williams and his formidable Tar Heels rolled into Chestnut Hill. They were ready to cruise to an easy victory in Conte Forum. After all, if you’re UNC, the last thing you expect from a struggling team is a close game. Unfortunately for Williams and Co., the Eagles weren’t about to roll over without a fight. And although the Eagles would end up losing 68-65, it was a turning point for Clifford, and everyone knew it.

He completely dominated the post throughout the game. Nobody could muscle a rebound away from him, and he ended with 13 boards to accompany his 14 points. But it went beyond the stats. Clifford’s presence in the post was a clear message—nobody was taking anything from him. It was his home court, it was his domain.

With eight games left in the season, Clifford was hitting his stride and playing the best basketball of his BC career. Christian was impressed not only with Clifford’s play, but with the joy he saw in his big man as he hit a rhythm.

“He slayed those inner demons,” Christian said. “The physical ones and the ones you put in your own head about the confidence levels and the consistency levels.”

From that point on, Clifford took off. He  averaged 14.1 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game. His determination and focus served as an example for the rest of his team. Clifford never stopped fighting—not until he was whistled for his final foul against Florida State, ending his BC career.

Looking back, it’s easy to marvel at Clifford’s comeback. He went from being injured and doubting himself to excelling, including absolute domination toward the end of his final year. Without the right support system, it’s possible Clifford wouldn’t have bounced back. But his family, friends, and teammates never stopped believing in him, giving him the extra support and confidence necessary to fight back to the top.

“Without them, I’m not sure if I would’ve made it out of that rut,” Clifford said.        

Jerome Robinson and Clifford just clicked.

Robinson, a freshman, stayed with Clifford when he visited BC. Clifford did the usual things, like showing Robinson around campus, but the two also chilled, played video games, and—what else?—got food together. The future teammates had an immediate connection. According to Robinson, Clifford is always perfectly attuned to the situation—in practice, he’s serious, but outside of practice he’s always willing to goof off.

This year, like Clifford’s freshman year, the team was young. With eight freshmen on the squad of 14 total players, the upperclassmen served as mentors and examples. Clifford in particular excelled at this. According to Robinson, the big man didn’t stop at providing an example for work ethic. He helped the underclassmen figure out how to manage their time around the demanding basketball schedule.

“He wants everything to be better for us,” Robinson said. “He’s always looking out for us with different things.”

This didn’t escape notice from the coaching staff. Christian believes Clifford’s work ethic and example cemented his place as the most respected member of the team. The center wore his hustle and heart on his sleeve every day of practice. Clifford, who well remembered being a young member of a young team, set an example for the underclassmen. Christian hopes this will turn into a consistent, deep-rooted culture of upperclassmen helping to develop younger teammates.

Christian also saw Clifford’s presence helpful in other ways. In a college basketball culture where transferring is common, Clifford remained a steady presence in the program for five years. Although he graduated from BC, he did not leave the team behind, staying for his graduate season, which Christian believes speaks volumes about Clifford’s character.

Clifford saw it as an equal relationship. While he served as a role model to his teammates, they gave him enthusiasm and the drive to compete every single day in practice.

Dennis Clifford

“These young guys this year, they helped rejuvenate my spirit and how I approached practice every day,” he said.

He wants everything to be better for us. He's always looking out for us with different things. Jerome Robinson

His BC career may be over, but Clifford is far from done with basketball. His whole journey so far—the promising start, the injury, the comeback, and the dominance—have led to this point. So what’s ahead for him?

Clifford is currently working out and preparing himself for upcoming NBA workouts. There’s no question in his mind that he wants to take his game to the next level, and nobody else doubts that he will. Clifford is buzzing and ready. He hit his stride at the end of last season, and he’ll look to keep the dominant rhythm alive as he figures out the next step.

He’s shooting as high as you can shoot in basketball—for the NBA. Even if professional basketball in the United States doesn’t work out, Clifford knows it’ll come together for him. Maybe he’ll be able to play here. Maybe he’ll play overseas. He’ll play wherever, really, just so long as he’s doing what he loves.

Christian, for one, believes that Clifford can accomplish anything he puts his mind to. His work ethic, hustle, and determination will allow him to continue improving every single time he steps onto a court. After the ACC Tournament loss, Christian said he’d never been prouder of another human being than he was of Clifford. That sentiment rings true still today, as Christian believes Clifford is destined for even more greatness after leaving BC behind.

“To watch a guy develop the way he has at the right time,” Christian said. “I think his best basketball might even be ahead of him.”

Clifford is done playing basketball for BC. He’s laced up his shoes and stepped onto the Conte Forum court for the last time. He’s heard his name announced as a starter here for the last time. He’s taken his last shot in maroon and gold. But if there’s one thing Clifford has taught us, it’s this—he will never stop being an Eagle.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

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About Annabel Steele

Annabel is the associate sports editor for The Heights. She is from DC and spends her free time trying to memorize every episode of LOST, the greatest show in the history of television.