IOWA CITY — Carlton Valentine tapped Anthony Clemmons with the nickname that defines the hard-nosed Iowa freshman point guard.
“When he was 8 years old — all the kids were 10 — I coached youth football, and he just kept busting through the line,” Valentine recalled. “We had a scrimmage and he sacked the quarterback like four straight downs. I said, ‘You’re like Warren Sapp.’ That nickname continued all the way through high school.
“He’s the toughest ever.”
Valentine, a former Michigan State basketball player, now coaches basketball at Lansing Sexton (Mich.) High School. His son, Denzel, and Clemmons — “Sapp” — combined with current Cleveland State guard Bryn Forbes to win two state titles in 2011 and 2012, the school’s first since 1960.
Denzel Valentine starts as a freshman combo guard at Michigan State, averaging 6.3 points a game. Clemmons, who posts almost a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, could lock up with his former teammate multiple times Thursday, their first time as opponents since maybe sixth grade.
There’s depth to their relationship beyond basketball. It’s a bond that a college basketball rivalry barely can approach, let alone change.
“I’m pretty sure it will be (emotional),” Denzel Valentine said Tuesday. “But I’m trying to focus in on the game and worry about the emotional stuff maybe after.”
Clemmons frequently spent the night at Valentine’s house as a youth. So much so that Carlton Valentine joked, “I have a story for you: tell him to get off my couch.” They competed on the same AAU team for at least five years, and Kathy Valentine drove them in the family van to tournaments all over the country.
Denzel Valentine was the star, both as a youth and later with Lansing Sexton. As a senior he averaged nearly a triple double and earned multiple player of the year honors. He signed with the hometown Spartans, a team with which both he and Clemmons cheered over the years.
Sapp had his moments, too. As a sophomore, with his team trailing by a point with five seconds left, Clemmons approached the free-throw line while Coach Valentine hid his head. Clemmons knocked down a pair of free throws to lift Sexton to the state finals.
But the scholarship offers didn’t come for Clemmons. So he kept working, waking up at 5 a.m. to lift weights and work with trainers. That included game days, Carlton Valentine said, and some of those sessions were straight from his couch. Clemmons battled through an ankle injury and eventually started seeing some looks entering his final AAU season. Eventually Iowa noticed and offered him a scholarship.
“He’s one of the most mentally tough players I’ve ever seen,” Carlton Valentine said. “He never pouted, he never complained. He just kept working. That’s what I’m proud of him the most.”
The players and their families remain close. Clemmons still talks with them regularly, including with Denzel almost every day. He spoke with Kathy on Tuesday afternoon. Kathy will attend the game in person, while Carlton cannot.
“She just said how proud she was of me and said it’s real emotional seeing us play against each other, after playing together for so many years,” Clemmons said. “She said she’s proud of us and wished us the best of luck.
“We’ve got a real tight bond. That’s like family to me.”
Carlton Valentine feels the same way.
“He’s not just one of my former players; he’s a part of my family,” Carlton Valentine said. “I’ve known that kid since he was 7-8 years old. He has his own parents, he has a mother and a father that really love him and they really support him and have done a great job. They allowed me to help him grow and develop as a basketball player and as a person.
“It was great having him around. He’s a jokester.”
WHY NOT MICHIGAN STATE?
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo was asked this week about not recruiting Clemmons, who grew up a Michigan State fan.
"You know, it wasn’t what we needed at the time," Izzo said. "It had nothing to do with whether he’s good enough to play or not. It had to do with what you need and what you’re looking for. I’m happy for him."
Clemmons said he wasn't surprised Michigan State didn't offer him a scholarship.
"I knew at that time they had Keith Appling. I knew they had Travis Trice," Clemmons said. "They had a bunch of guys there. Even if they did offer me I would have took that into consideration as look at my playing time. How would have I be able to fit in there with those two guards? It’s not really motivation. Tom Izzo is a good coach. I’m not surprised he didn’t."