CARRYING the tag “former MVP” into any season brings a mountain of pressure, but it’s nothing on what Hawks star Rotnei Clarke piles on himself to perform.
Still, he could’ve been forgiven for feeling the weight of expectation on his return to the NBL last season.
Having watched the 28-year-old spearhead a decidedly blue collar Hawks outfit to the play-offs in his first season in Wollongong, the Illawarra faithful had high expectations.
They were expectations shared across the league which led plenty to criticise the Butler University alumn’s early-season form, with some even calling for him to be moved on.
Clarke admits he wasn’t immune to the commentary, but insists it was nothing he hadn’t dealt with before.
“I came in with the same mindset as I did the first year,” Clarke said.
“I just came here to play and do what I could to help the team win. I didn’t really feel any extra pressure.
“I had a tough start to the year and when I dealt with all the scrutiny and all the criticism that was out there it kind of fired me up.
“It probably woke me up a little bit and got me going. I use little things to motivate me and that probably motivated me a little bit.
“I’m always having to prove myself regardless of the outcome. I feel like I’ve had to prove myself to people my whole life so it was no different.”
Clarke did just that after coach Rob Beveridge decided to bring the diminutive sharp-shooter off the bench as part of the second unit.
It saw him recapture top form and lead the Hawks in scoring with 17 points a game en route to a grand final appearance. It’s a role he’s open to playing again in his third NBL season.
“Bevo bringing me off the bench last year was different for me but it ended up working for the team and it’s all about what’s best for the team,” Clarke said.
“It’s whatever Bevo wants to do. If that’s me starting, great, if that’s me coming off the bench and giving a spark like last season and letting Whitey and Norto go at it like they did in the starting five I’m willing to do it.
“It’s about being a professional, coming in and doing your job no matter what that is to help the team win, so that’s what I’ll try to do.”
Clarke returns to the Hawks on the back of a hugely successful stint in Italy with VL Pesaro, averaging 19.5 points across eight games, while he also took part in the Dallas Mavericks mini-camp in June.
He’s also one of eight returning members of the Hawks grand final squad from last season. It’s unlikely to see Illawarra avoid the perennial insult of being written off, but Clarke said it merely fuels the fire.
“The two years I’ve played with the Hawks we’ve made the play-offs which is awesome,” Clarke said.
“If you look back on last season I think we did a lot of things right to end up where we ended up but we fell short of our goal.
“That’s the main goal going into this year, to get to that championships series and win the championship.
“I think a lot of us take pride in playing for this city and for this region and this organisation because everybody counts us out every single year.
“It’s what I’ve dealt with my whole life and that’s why I like playing here because everyone counts us out and that’s fine with us. We’re out to prove people wrong.”