Bill Clark sits next to the scorer’s table as he prepares to sub in for the end of Loyola University Chicago’s easy victory against Illinois State.
The Loyola student section chants, “BIL-LY! BIL-LY!”
The senior walk-on grins goofily with a rare opportunity of playing time impending. Like a child courtside at his first NBA game, the 22-year-old beams watching his teammates run up and down the floor.
He subs in for the final possession to the crowd’s approval.
Gentile Arena erupts as Billy’s hands corral a pass.
He dribbles until the final buzzer sounds and then lets fly a straightaway 3-pointer, which hits the rim twice and caroms to the floor.
He jogs to the handshake line, still grinning.
“Fun comes first,” Billy says. “That’s just the way I go.”
Billy has scored 15 points in his three-year career at Loyola. Three points in four minutes against Northern Iowa marks his best stat line this season.
He sits in Gentile Arena’s press room after practice. Only two guaranteed games remain in his senior season, depending on how Loyola fares at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament next weekend.
On the court he looks overmatched by scholarship players, but up close his 6-foot-4-inch, 207-pound frame is still that of an athlete.
He walks to a framed photograph of the 1985 Loyola team hanging on the wall. His smile matches the smile of the black-and-white man at whom he points.
That man is Bob Clark, Billy’s father, who helped Loyola to the 1985 Sweet 16. Bob was also a co-captain on the 1987 team.
Both of Billy’s grandfathers also played ball at Loyola, making Billy a third-generation Rambler.
Billy credits his father, who coached him until college, for injecting the lighthearted, fun-loving attitude into the his personality.
“His motto was ‘Fun, Learn, Win,’” Billy says. “I play the most confident when I’m having fun.”
That motto applies even when Billy is on the bench, where he celebrates his team’s on-court achievements.
Billy says one of his favorite celebrations is the “bow-and-arrow” routine for when a Rambler nets a 3-pointer.
“First you’ve got to grab the arrow,” Billy says, reaching his right hand behind his head.
The hand returns to sight in the popular 3-point sign: thumb and pointer making a circle with the other three fingers held up. He arches the imaginary bow with his left hand, fingers in the same formation, and shoots the imaginary arrow with his right hand.
The benchwarmers also partake in Super Mario Jumps, silent cheering and other celebrations.
Junior London Dokubo, Billy’s roommate and fellow walk-on, says the bench players embrace vying for television recognition with their antics. That and trying to get as much free stuff as possible — walk-ons pay tuition unlike scholarship athletes — are two main tenets of being a walk-on at Loyola.
Billy says he tapes his ankles instead of wearing braces in case a camera ever pans to him.
“If I ever get on TV, I’ve got to look good,” he says.
Those television opportunities — though rare to begin with — almost never happened for Billy.
He rolls his shooter sleeve down his right arm to reveal a wide scar on his forearm. Billy was chasing his sister through the family’s house in Valparaiso, Ind., when he was 14 years old. She shut a glass door, and Billy ran straight through it, cutting his extensor tendons.
“They call it spaghetti wrist, all the tendons going everywhere,” Billy said. “There was just a hole in my arm. It was gruesome.”
The surgeon told Billy he would never play basketball again.
“Don’t say never, doc,” Billy said before the surgery, according to Bob.
Even being able to hold a pen or shaking a hand was uncertain.
After months of therapy, Billy tried out for his high school team and made the junior varsity squad. His senior year, he averaged 6.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists on varsity as he helped Mount Carmel High School to a regional championship.
Billy received scholarship offers to play at low-end Division II and NAIA schools but wanted to stick to Big Ten country, his father says. He attended Indiana his freshman year as a non-athlete but realized he needed basketball in his life. Billy says his grades were okay but not great, and his days lacked structure.
“I was getting to the point where I was just going to class and sleeping all day,” Billy says. “I saw basketball was the way to get a structure and daily regimen.”
Loyola head coach Porter Moser offered him a walk-on spot. Billy transferred.
Saturday marks Loyola’s last home game of the season and the program will honor Billy and two others, Tony Nixon and walk-on Derrick Boone. Then Billy will continue to work toward his dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. If that fails, he considers a career as a basketball coach.
Billy plans on returning to Loyola next year as a graduate assistant on Moser’s staff. He performed worse than he had hoped on the MKAT last summer, so medical school is not in the cards at this point.
“I’d be wearing a suit, but I’ll try to bring some energy,” he says.
Dokubo calls Billy a high-IQ player. He says the team views Billy as a leader because he instructs teammates on what they do wrong and how to improve.
“I know I’ll probably have a tear at some point because it’s all over,” Billy says. “I’ve done the same thing every day for three years. I won’t have that anymore.”
Bob says he has held great pride in watching his son don the same colors he wore as a Loyola basketball player. He says Billy’s qualities can make him successful after college, as an orthopedic surgeon or a coach.
“When the ball stops bouncing in the gym, you’ve still got to be a good teammate in your family and work life,” Bob says. “Billy’s basketball career wasn’t textbook, but one thing he’s always done well is be a great teammate.”