Shaquille Cleare, left, who will play at Maryland next season, is averaging… (Eddy Matchette/for the…)
HOUSTON — As the Maryland men’s basketball team played several states away, Shaquille O’Neal Cleare, its most touted prospect in a decade, sat in the third row of a yellow school bus that rumbled over East Texas potholes and past roadside tumbleweed and the occasional skunk.
While teammates slept or joked, Cleare squeezed his size-19 Under Armour sneakers under the seat, adjusted his headphones and became lost in his favorite music, which includes Al Green and Gladys Knight & the Pips.
Cleare, an 18-year-old raised in the Bahamas, eschews graphic hip-hop for uplifting songs as he contemplates a life journey already as winding as these narrow roads near Beaumont, where his Village School team won that night.
The 6-foot-9, 280-pound Cleare has garnered attention as one of the nation’s top 30 high school seniors, averaging 26 points per game while shooting 83 percent. When he arrives at Maryland next fall, he will represent the cornerstone of Coach Mark Turgeon’s rebuilding project.
Not even Cleare envisioned such a scenario three years ago, when he was an introspective freshman who arrived in America having barely played organized basketball, a depressed teenager who so disliked his living conditions here that he vowed to leave America for good.
“I came from the gutter,” Cleare said. “I came from, like, the bottom.”
‘In a corner by myself’
Weighing more than 10 pounds at birth, Cleare’s parents named him after Shaquille O’Neal, then a young player with the Orlando Magic. But unlike promising American basketball players who fly around the country on shoe company-sponsored summer-league teams, Cleare spent his free time hanging out with friends on beaches and watching tourists parasail.
But Cleare’s parents wanted their son to have more opportunities than the Bahamas offered. So Cleare, then 15, entered the Elite Bahamian Education Program, a nonprofit organization run by Frank Rutherford, who became the first Bahamian to win an Olympic track and field medal with a triple-jump bronze at the 1992 Games. The foundation claims to have helped several dozen Bahamian teenagers use athletics to pursue a college education.
Rutherford directed Cleare to Houston’s Village School, where he tested into the private school that has no affiliation with Rutherford’s foundation. But Cleare’s first introduction to America came on Ash Point Lane in suburban Sugar Land, where Cleare shared a three-bedroom home with as many as 15 other Bahamians from Rutherford’s program. A trainer in his mid-20s slept in the home — owned by Rutherford — to watch the teenagers.
Without his own bed, Cleare slept on a mattress on the floor. Cleare, who recites scripture every morning, could not attend church on Sundays because the teenagers had as many as five mandatory workouts per day, beginning at 5 a.m. and concluding with a late-night session at the luxurious nearby Lifetime Fitness Center. Cleare would hobble up and down the stairs of the two-story home with blistered and bruised feet, his body worn down from the regimen.
“It was depressing, tiring,” Cleare said. “I used to be so tired I rarely even ate. I didn’t even have the energy to go into the kitchen and make something to eat. It was hard, man.”
Rutherford said he has no regrets about Cleare’s living conditions, adding that Cleare slept in a four-bedroom home with a den and that it never housed more than eight teenagers while Cleare stayed there. Rutherford said he spends as much as $80,000 per year on the teenagers, receives only a few hundred dollars occasionally from their parents and gives teenagers what he can, including a Chevrolet Suburban they share. Rutherford did concede there were “lessons to be learned all the way around from the school to us in our program, the adjustments we had to make.”
Cleare yearned to focus on academics in his new country. Exhausted, he slept through many classes.
Mikhail McLean, who at 17 was the oldest in the house at the time, views Cleare as a little brother and said training seemed excessive considering academic responsibilities, but it was necessary because Bahamians lagged behind American peers. McLean said Cleare’s depression was exacerbated because Cleare arrived unaccompanied by a close friend.
“We basically raised each other from 14 to 18,” said McLean, now a sophomore forward at the University of Houston. “It takes certain kids longer to adjust. I told people they had to clean their room, wash dishes, wash laundry because they are not being babied by parents anymore. It forced us to mature earlier.”
During workouts, Cleare sometimes lingered alone on one end of the court while Rutherford ran others through drills at the other end. Cleare recalled Rutherford telling him that he would amount to nothing and was a “waste of time.”
“A bad situation,” Cleare said.