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Passion pays off for Kansas State's Denis Clemente in NCAA Tournament

When he arrived on campus in Manhattan, Kan., two years ago, Denis Clemente was far removed from the comfort of South Florida and its Hispanic culture, having left the confines of friends and family in search of a fresh start.

After two seasons at Miami, in which he started 15 games his sophomore year, Clemente decided it was in his best interest to transfer after he was suspended in February 2007 for violating team rules. He had been suspended for the Hurricanes' season opener as well.

Clemente, 23, needed to prove the new beginning was warranted. He did so the only way he knew how.

"It was his work ethic," fellow Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen said. "When he first got here, he couldn't really speak English; all he used to do was smile. But it was his work ethic since the day he got here. He stayed in the gym, and that work ethic rubbed off on everybody. When we first got here as freshmen and he was a transfer, all night he would spend time in the gym, and you look up and you would be in the gym with him. His work ethic has really rubbed off on this team. And his emotion. I might be the vocal leader, but Denis emotionally had led this team."

A native of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Clemente is the second cousin of Baseball Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente. He became a local legend during his days at Miami Calusa Prep, where he averaged 33.5 points and was the 2005 Class A player of the year.

His AAU coach's friendship with Kansas State coach Frank Martin, a former high school coach in Miami, led him to join the Wildcats. And Martin said he has never looked back.

"He's tremendous," Martin said. "Obviously his career in Miami had come to an end, and a lot of people would point the finger and blame as to why it came to an end. He accepted the responsibility, and from day one, he's been unbelievable. When he first stepped foot on campus, he weighed 148 pounds. He weighs 183 pounds right now. That's the commitment that he's made into making himself just a better athlete and in the weight room, eating the right way and taking care of himself."

And Clemente is taking good care of the Wildcats. He has started in all 35 games and is the team's second-leading scorer (16.3). When Kansas State (28-7) plays Xavier (26-8) on Thursday night in the semifinals of the West Region in Salt Lake City, Clemente will again be relied upon for keeping the team grounded.

"It feels good, but at the same time, we can't lift our feet off the earth," he said. "We've got to stay focused right now. Live in the moment."

For Martin, his pride in Clemente extends beyond the court. Clemente's trouble at Miami reportedly included classroom attendance issues, which he has rectified at Kansas State.

"He never, never was a good student," Martin said. "Well, he's getting ready to get a degree in about six, seven weeks. He's taken pride in being a good student. Then on top of that, he's busted his hump to make himself a better player, and he's become a heck of a leader. And that work ethic, that dedication, that spirit that he has, has permeated amongst our team."

Clemente has scored in double figures in 17 straight games and has led the team in scoring 10 times, but he believes his true value to the Wildcats is his unselfishness — and that work ethic.

"I'll do whatever it takes to win," Clemente said. "If I've got to score 10 points to win the game, I'll score 10 points. If I've got to score 30 points, I'll score 30 points. It's like I always say, 'Hard work pays off.' I've been working the whole summer, the whole year for this, and look at where we are now. If you're working hard, something good comes."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

Clemente connection

As Denis Clemente grew up in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, a skinny baseball standout who wore a shirt two sizes too big before he concentrated on basketball, he constantly heard stories about a second cousin, a Hall of Fame major-league player who died before Denis was born. Nearly 38 years after Roberto Clemente, right, died in a plane crash at age 38 while delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, the native of Puerto Rico remains a hero throughout Latin America. He was the first Latin American player inducted into the Hall of Fame, the 1966 league MVP, a four-time NL batting champion and a 12-time All-Star who won 12 Gold Gloves, all with the Pirates. Roberto stood up for racial justice and the downtrodden, a trait Denis must have inherited. In high school, Denis befriended a slow, overweight student who was bullied by other students. Roberto's best-known quote: "I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give."

Passion pays off for Kansas State's Denis Clemente in NCAA Tournament 03/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 23, 2010 8:41pm]
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