By Philip Sikes // Athletic Communications
Toughness is a skill. That’s what noted ESPN broadcaster Jay Bilas wrote in his 2013 book, “Toughness: Developing True Strength On and Off the Court.”
After reading Bilas’ book last summer on the flight to Italy with the men’s basketball team, I fully agree with the premise that toughness is, indeed, a skill. As head coach Brad Brownell often says, it’s a talent — same as the ability to shoot or block a shot.
As I head into my 10th year as the communications contact for the men’s basketball program, three prime examples of toughness come to mind.
Cliff Hammonds, a guard for Oliver Purnell’s program from 2004-08, was the best leader by example I’ve ever seen. On the court, Cliff sprinted back on defense, communicated with teammates and ran to huddles during timeouts — everything you want in a tough player. Off the court, he was a double major in architecture and psychology, not something you typically see from an All-ACC basketball player.
Often times, life experiences instill toughness in a person. There’s no better example of this than Tanner Smith, a Tiger guard from 2008-12. Tanner has watched his father, Craig, suffer from a debilitating disease since he was a child. His well-known charity, Tanner’s Totes, spawned from his innate desire to help people suffering in a similar fashion. These experiences translated to the court, where Tanner was the ultimate teammate. He sacrificed his body to take charges, was the first to dive on the floor for loose balls, and so on. He exemplified toughness.
Current Tiger point guard Rod Hall did not come from the same type of background as Hammonds and Smith, but he possesses that same toughness. Consider the following excerpt from an article published by Manie Robinson of the Greenville News last January:
Hall and Brown won championships together in middle school and played on the same travel team during the summer of 2010. Before leaving for a tournament on July 4, the pair attended a cookout in Dogwood Terrace.
Hall left the gathering to retrieve an item from his parents’ home. When he opened the front door, Tracie Hall already had received the horrifying call. Minutes after Hall left the cookout, an armed man biked through the neighborhood and opened fire.
Brown was shot in the head.
His death drove Hall through periods of confusion, anger, grief and guilt. There are wounds that may never heal, because there are questions that can never be answered.
Hall lost his best friend Darnell “Dee” Brown before his senior year of high school. To honor the memory of his fallen friend, he wears Brown’s jersey number (12) and writes “RIP DEE” on the toe of his game shoes. Despite the difficulty of moving forward without Brown by his side, Hall has done so admirably.
His numbers aren’t eye-popping. Hall enters his senior year with 642 career points and 287 assists — certainly not the type of statistics ordinarily associated with players invited to a camp as prestigious as Chris Paul’s CP3 Elite Camp. But Hall's game has rarely been about putting up numbers. His toughness and dependability gave him a chance to compete against 25 of the nation’s best guards, guys like Marcus Paige (North Carolina), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga) and Fred Van Vleet (Wichita State).
Hall and the other elite campers interacted daily with the seven-time NBA All-Star and former Wake Forest standout last week in Paul’s hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C. He said the most valuable lessons he learned involved ball screening — learning patience to make the proper read and also seeing the entire floor, not just his defender.
Few believed Hall had a chance to play basketball at the ACC level, let alone a chance to learn from one of the NBA’s best point guards. But he formed a relationship with assistant coach Earl Grant, who urged Brad Brownell to take a look at the Augusta, Ga., native. Brownell liked Hall’s competitiveness and decision-making, and offered a scholarship. Because he was splitting time as a standout football player at Lucy C. Laney High School, Brownell thought he had a chance to make big gains by focusing solely on basketball.
Hall has certainly made big gains since enrolling in 2011. He has delivered his share of tough plays late in games, too, dating to his freshman year in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. Trailing by three in the waning seconds against Southern Illinois, Hall drove through contact and finished at the rim while being fouled. He stepped to the line and converted the free throw to force overtime, and the Tigers eventually won.
Last season, he posted 10 points in the two overtime periods in a must-win at home over Maryland. In the ACC Tournament quarterfinal against Duke, Hall provided the go-ahead score with 7.4 seconds to go, before the Blue Devils ultimately won on a pair of free throws. The loss ended with Hall being stripped on a controversial no-call, but he shrugged it off two games later in the NIT, providing the game-winning layup with 9.3 seconds left in Clemson’s 50-49 triumph over Illinois.
Hall maintains he was not on anyone’s recruiting radar was because he didn’t play in any camps growing up. He didn’t want his mother, Tracie, to stress paying for him to attend the camps. In his own words, “I did it without earning any stars.”
He came in with a group of five players that made up Brownell’s first recruiting class. Now, Hall is the last man standing from that group. Three players transferred, while close friend K.J. McDaniels moved on to the NBA after a stellar junior season.
Hall’s dedication is another testament to his toughness.
“I think it shows that I’ll stick through adversity,” Hall said. “I appreciate everything Coach Grant and Coach Brownell did to get me here. I felt like they deserved my loyalty. I wanted to be a guy the coaches could depend on. So I told myself if I ever got a chance, I’d make the most out of it.”
Brownell said his point guard is one of the more underappreciated players he’s ever coached.
“A lot of coaches on the road talk to me about Rod and the stability and toughness he brings to our program,” he said.
When members of the coaching fraternity speak that highly of a player, it says volumes about his toughness. Clemson’s coaches are just happy they have one more season with Rod Hall.