VERDIGRIS — He is not completely sure when the feeling arrived. Maybe it was the seventh 3-pointer in a row. Or the eighth. Or the ninth. But sometime on that night in January 2006 when Rotnei Clarke dropped 55 points on Wewoka, he came to this realization: I should never miss. All these months later, let's modify that just a bit. "I expect almost every shot to go in,” Rotnei says, with thousands of reasons for confidence. Take a recent evening when Rotnei has already made — not taken, made — 500 3-pointers. Two hundred free throws. Countless mid-range jump shots. He's lifted weights and raced through passing and ball-handling drills. The workout is approaching four hours. But now the shots aren't falling. Frustration is rising. "Are you tired?” asks Kelly Clarke, Rotnei's uncle and the Verdigris High School coach. "Yeah,” Rotnei says — and keeps shooting. This is the mindset that has turned a talented gym rat into a shooting star. And made Verdigris, a bedroom community near Tulsa along Route 66, a must-stop on college coaches' recruiting tours. If Rotnei is shooting — and he is always shooting — he should be hitting. "When he's off,” says Conley Clarke, Rotnei's father, "he takes it personal.” Off means missing three straight. Taking it personal means taking drastic measures. Earlier, after making only 92 free throws in 100 tries, Rotnei shot 100 more. With each miss, he sprinted the length of the court. Made shots merited a reward: Rotnei sprinted to halfcourt. "You learn to shoot,” he explains, "when you're fatigued.” So as he keeps missing, Rotnei keeps shooting. Pretty soon, he's found his groove: Five straight. Ten. Fifteen. "The next one's going in,” he tells himself. "The next one is good.” By now you're wondering, is the kid obsessed? Or possessed? Let's go with neither. Perhaps you're already familiar with the 6-foot, 180-pound sharpshooter who will be a senior next fall. Maybe you've heard about the astounding numbers: Fifty-five points on that night of epiphany, when Rotnei was a sophomore. Fifty-seven last season against Adair. And during the state tournament, a record-setting 60 against Vian. He averaged 20 points as a 5-foot-8, 150-pound freshman, 34 as a sophomore, almost 38 last season. Almost as gaudy are his AAU stats for Dallas-based Team Texas, playing against some of the nation's top talent. Which is why at last count, more than 2,500 recruiting letters cluttered Rotnei's bedroom. Why Oklahoma's Jeff Capel and Gonzaga's Mark Few and Marquette's Tom Crean, among others, have found their way to Verdigris. Why Bob Knight and Billy Gillispie and Bill Self have Rotnei's cell number. And maybe — though all sides deny it — why Conley Clarke is Oral Roberts' new director of basketball operations. But at this point, if ORU reeled in Rotnei, it would qualify as a recruiting coup of mammoth proportions. Detractors point to Rotnei's size and speed, or lack thereof. But a week or so ago, after offering a scholarship, Kentucky's Gillispie told Kelly he didn't care if Rotnei lost an inch and 10 pounds and a step. "With his toughness, that's the kid I want leading my team,” Kelly recalls Gillispie saying. There's talent, too. Rotnei's dad played college basketball. His mother played college volleyball. His younger sister, Cassie, excels in both sports. But environment certainly has played a major role. When Rotnei was about 6 months old, his father took to placing a ball on the infant's blanket, just out of reach of his right hand. Then, when Rotnei had strained to grasp it, Conley would move the ball to the left side. "People thought we were crazy,” Conley remembers, and chuckles. "But he's really good with either hand.” And there was never a doubt as to Rotnei's favorite pastime. Whenever he saw a basketball goal, the toddler would point. "Shoot!” he'd say. "Shoot! Shoot!” By the fourth grade, father and son were shoot, shoot, shooting together almost every day. Over the years, with a great deal of assistance from Uncle Kelly, they've honed innate ability into uncanny sharpness. But make no mistake. This is dedication, not drudgery. No one's driven Rotnei more than himself. "This isn't a workout to him,” Kelly says. "This is his sanctuary.” Rotnei, a devout Christian, might quibble with the phrasing. But not the concept. "God has given me this talent for a reason,” he says. "I want to use it for Him.” The night Rotnei scored 55 against Wewoka, the team bus pulled into the parking lot about 3 a.m. When Conley went to put away the equipment, he heard a ball bouncing in the gym. Rotnei was shooting again. Except that the lights were off, this wasn't surprising. "If I could, I'd be up here all through the night,” he says. Every night, he means. Occasionally, Conley and Kelly have to force him to take some time off. The other day, Rotnei did just that. He attended church, went fishing, just took it easy. About 6 o'clock, he headed up to the gym. "He didn't quite make it a whole day,” Conley says.
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Shooting superlativesDuring his workouts, Rotnei Clarke has achieved some astounding numbers. Among them: •Made 94 of 100 3-pointers in an exhibition for former Arkansas coach Stan Heath. •Made 74 straight 3-pointers. •Made 137 straight free throws. By George Schroeder