I believe I have a pretty good grasp of the history of basketball in our area and the careers of those players who have contributed to that history. However, when I sat down to lunch recently with Clay Tucker, I discovered a fascinating story that far exceeded my knowledge of his remarkable career.
Tucker teamed with Jimmy Conrad at Perry High School in the late 1990s to form an impressive combo while playing for coach Mark Jarvis. Their post high school careers were even more amazing. Conrad was a first-team All-American at Ohio Northern University and Tucker’s college and professional careers have been nothing short of phenomenal.
Tucker found his way to Division I University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee by attending a junior college workout in the summer after his senior year. “I didn’t have any offers and was hoping to catch the eye of a good junior college program,” remembers Tucker. “An assistant coach from UW-M was there and offered me a scholarship. Thirty days later I was in college. It was like God opened a door for me.” And through that door he went.
Tucker redshirted his first year, a decision he believes was critical to his development. “More college freshman athletes should consider redshirting,” Tucker believes. “It gave me the opportunity to mature physically and as a person.”
Tucker believes his college coach, Bo Ryan, was most instrumental in his development. He says, “The most important thing coach Ryan taught me was the value of each possession.” When Ryan left UW-M to become the head coach at the University of Wisconsin after Tucker’s junior year, he wanted to take Clay with him. Tucker’s decision to stay at UM-W paid off. He was named the MVP of the Horizon League and led the Panthers to their first-ever appearance in the NCAA postseason tournament. They nearly pulled off an upset of Notre Dame in the first round. Tucker recalls, “I had the ball, down one point, for the last shot of the game. I drove into the paint, went up for a shot and passed to an open teammate right under the rim, but the shot was missed. I still have the tape, but I just can’t bring myself to watch it.”
Tucker graduated from UW-M as the leading scorer in school history. In the Panther record book he is also listed as the second leading rebounder, leader in three-point shots and steals, and third in assists. More importantly, Clay earned a degree in finance that became handy in his many professional contract negotiations.
Like so many college basketball players, Tucker’s dream was to play professionally but the NBA did not come calling. Although he spent several summers playing in the NBA’s D-League hoping for a contract, it was in Europe that Clay fulfilled his dreams.
No one knows European professional basketball like Clay Tucker. He has played for 19 professional basketball teams around the world in the last fourteen years, mostly in Europe. Yes, you read that right. Tucker has traveled across the globe playing the game he loves.
When I asked Clay if he could remember every team he played for, he quickly rattled them off. His first contract, for $150,000, was with the Sunsvall Dragons in Sweden. That was followed by: Southern Crescent Lightning (WBA), Utah Snowbears (ABA), Kansas City Steers (ABW), Ment Vassilakis (Greece), Arkansas RImRockers, Le Mans (France), Teramo Basketball (Italy), Khimki (Russia), Kyiu (Ukraine), Cajasol (Spain), DKV Joventut (Spain), Real Madrid (Spain), Lottomattica Roma (Italy), Hacettepe (Turkey), TED Ankara Kolejiler (Turkey), Torku Konyaspor (Turkey) and Vaqueros de Bayamon (Puerto Rico),
This season Tucker is playing for Byblos in Lebanon which is located just 15 miles from Beirut. The team is currently 10-2 and in second place in the league. He is averaging 18 points a game and leading the league in 3-point field goals with 37.
Clay has learned to love his nomadic basketball journey. “I never stayed two years in the same place because I was always looking to outplay my contract and move up in salary,” he explained. “Some guys like the security of staying in the same place. I love the travel and experiencing different cultures. The town I live in now (Byblos) is the oldest inhabited city in the world. They love basketball there.”
Tucker has made decisions with his head and not his heart. In 2011 he was invited to the Cleveland Cavalier camp and offered a contract worth $515,000 if he stuck with team for an entire season. Many American players would have jumped at that offer. But Tucker turned the offer down. “I had a contract in Spain worth more than twice that much and it was guaranteed. And there were no taxes,” explained Tucker. “I wanted to play in the NBA, it was always my dream, but from a business standpoint, it wasn’t the right move. To give up all I worked for in Spain, the contract had to be guaranteed.” That’s the logic of a man carrying a degree in finance.
His professional basketball orbit has provided Tucker with a sophistication about life in Europe. He now speaks fluent Spanish and can “get by in Italian and French.” His contracts, which also provided a car and an apartment, have made him financially secure. He fell in love with several places he lived, especially Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and Puerto Rico. But Clay still cherishes the time he is able to return to Lima and spend time with his mother Sue and his fiancee Chanta Cannon.
Tucker had an interesting take when comparing European basketball to the game played in the United States. “In America we are taught to be more aggressive and basketball often breaks down to a one on one game,” he explains. “In Europe, it’s more of a team game. The game is actually much faster there. There is a 24 second shot clock at every level, even in grade schools. And if there is an offensive rebound the clock only resets to 14 seconds. The game really moves.” In Tucker’s opinion, the United States would be wise to follow their lead and implement the shot clock at every level of play.
Now 36 years old, Tucker feels he still has three or four more good years of basketball left in him. He says, “I was thinking about retirement and called my friend Skoonie Penn (former Ohio State star and European pro) for advice because he gave it up a few years ago. He told me he retired too early and advised me to stick with it as long as possible.”
When his playing career is finished, Clay would like to get into college coaching. “I feel I want to give back to the game because basketball has given so much to me,” he says.
I have a feeling that Clay Tucker’s basketball odyssey has only just begun and this remarkable young man’s future bears watching.
Bob Seggerson is a retired boys basketball coach and guidance counselor at Lima Central Catholic. Reach him at email@example.com.