Clarendon leaves leadership legacy

BRISTOL, Conn. -- Layshia Clarendon watched intently as an inexperienced teammate dribbled the ball off her foot and out of bounds.

Sensing her frustration, Clarendon retrieved the orange and white basketball, offered an encouraging pat on the back and applauded loudly. The next time through, her teammate didn't bobble even a single dribble.

This didn't happen to one of Clarendon's California teammates at this year's Final Four in New Orleans, but rather to a young girl, no older than 4, at the WNBA's annual pre-draft fitness day youth clinic Sunday at ESPN's KidsCenter.

Two radically different venues, but with the same comfortable leader.

Clarendon, ranked 67th overall in the 2009 ESPN 100, arrived at the University of California as a soft-spoken, unheralded prospect, the sixth best player in the nation's top recruiting class. When she graduates in five weeks, Clarendon will leave behind a legacy as one of the most successful, if unlikely, leaders the program has ever produced.

With Clarendon, a 5-foot-9 playmaking guard, leading the way, the Golden Bears put together a season unmatched in school history. Cal eclipsed the 30-win total for the first time in a single season, while also winning its first Pac-12 regular-season title. The team's Final Four berth also marked a first in program history.

Clarendon, who still proudly displays a Final Four sticker on the back of her iPhone case, talks fondly about eating beignets and taking in live jazz music in New Orleans. Though the result on the court against Louisville was a disappointment, the experience of a Final Four was not.

"I had a chance to really soak that in and realize, 'Wow, we're at the Final Four,'" she said. "We're one of the last four teams still standing in the country."

But all Clarendon and the Golden Bears accomplished this season could have just as easily never been realized. There's a fine line between potential and production.

After Clarendon's sophomore season, Joanne Boyle resigned as Cal's coach to take the same position at Virginia. The Golden Bears were coming off a second-round loss to Colorado in the WNIT, a defeat that marked the low point of Clarendon's four-year career.

"No one anticipates a coaching change. It's kind of one of the main reasons you pick a university. You trust the coach [and] you think they're going to be there," said Clarendon, who also spoke openly to youth players and their parents at Sunday's clinic about facing adversity in all walks of life.

Rather than dwell on the disappointment, Clarendon helped rally the team around new coach Lindsay Gottlieb. In the two years since Gottlieb took over, Cal has gone 57-14, with numerous program milestones met along the way.

"It helped us stick together," Clarendon said. "My senior class really held the team together and said, 'We've got to be better, we're going to be better, we're going to change this program around. This is it.' So that was really a turning point."

Clarendon is impossible to miss in any room. Her now-trademark hairdo -- a golden mohawk -- is unmistakable. Beyond that, her infectious smile and hand-crafted items -- everything from bracelets to, amazingly enough, a wallet made out of Capri Sun packages -- are on display.

"I'm definitely the creative one," said Clarendon, who lists drawing, painting and building among her hobbies. "... With my younger brother, we're always making things, taking them apart."

Clarendon, whose love for reading blossomed once she reached college, said she is within reach of a cumulative 3.5 GPA by the time she graduates.

"I'm definitely a nerd off the court. I love school," said Clarendon, who makes an appropriate cameo at the 2:06 mark of Cal's "Started From The Bottom" tournament music video.

The San Bernadino, Calif., native is also a member of the Gay Straight Alliance on Cal's campus, as well as Athlete Ally on a national level. She said she hopes to work with the LGBT community, possibly through Christian Ministry Outreach in the future.

Clarendon comes from an athletic family. Her older sister, Jasmine, 28, played at Pepperdine, while her younger brother, Terry, 17, hopes to play college football. Her father, Curtis, played baseball and basketball, while her mother, Sharon, ran track.

Clarendon calls her father her toughest critic and biggest fan. Though he's always pushed her, particularly by calling the reluctant Clarendon a "natural-born leader" from an early age, he's always been the first one to offer praise.

"I'm totally a daddy's girl. Everyone knows that," Clarendon said. "I'm really close with all my family, but my dad ... was just the one that was always my hardest critic."

During a question-and-answer session at the end of Sunday's clinic, a young boy asked the 12 draftees which WNBA team they wanted to play for. Most played it coy, including Clarendon, though she added: "I am from California ... just saying."

The Los Angeles Sparks hold the No. 10 overall pick, right in the range in which Clarendon continues to be projected. Just saying.

Clarendon insists she doesn't care where she ends up, though. If you ask her, she'll tell you she's not even nervous about Monday night's draft. And there's no reason not to believe her.

Clarendon is a leader -- always has been, according to her father. But now she embraces it.

"My leadership role kind of changed from being the young freshman and playing point guard 10 games into the season," Clarendon said, "to being the one my senior year who's grabbing everyone and huddling up."