Hunter Clarke has plenty of reasons why he’s excited to be joining the Cockburn Cougars and not only to successfully return from a nasty injury and press his NBL claims beyond the 2024 NBL1 West season, but to be fully part of all levels of the Cougar Family.
Clarke might still only be 22 years of age, but has already spent a lifetime in basketball and that started young with his father, Marty, an NBL champion as a player who has gone on to coach at the Australian Institute of Sport, at Saint Mary’s College and in the NBL at the Adelaide 36ers.
Clarke is carving out his own career which also saw him attend the NBA Global Academy and the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence before briefly attending college at the University of Montana.
After returning to Australia, it was time to pursue his dreams of playing professional basketball and the Canberra native made the move west to play at the Willetton Tigers where he has played the past three seasons on top of spending the NBL23 campaign at the Brisbane Bullets.
After undergoing an ankle reconstruction when a broken leg ended his 2023 season nine games in, he was after a fresh start with his basketball and couldn’t be more excited to be getting that with the Cougars in 2024 and beyond.
Reasons behind decision to join Cougars
As Clarke works his way through his rehabilitation after the first serious injury he’s suffered in his career, he both wanted to find a new home that could help him continue to develop as a player but also to give him more chance to be part of the basketball community.
Clarke has a passion to coach juniors and to help the younger players at any club he’s part of and he is also looking at the 2024 NBL1 West season as a chance to show what he can do to try and get another NBL opportunity.
On both fronts he felt like Cockburn would be the ideal new home for him.
“I’ll be as politically correct here as I can and I’ll say that I prefer the way that Cockburn appears to go about the development in both their NBL1 program and juniors,” Clarke said.
“Coaching juniors and giving back to the community is something I wanted to be part of and do as much of as possible, and Cockburn will give me a better path to help do that.”
Being part of Cougar Family
It hasn’t taken long and pre-season training is still a little while away from starting under new Cougars coach Mark Clayden, but already Clarke has no doubt he has made the right decision to come to Cockburn with all the support he’s been provided.
“I kind of want to be around the club as much as possible and involved in as many areas as I can be on top of obviously training and playing,” Clarke said.
“Already Cockburn has started helping me out tremendously in the off-season and I’m already in the gym, have access to the stadium to get on court whenever I want to and everything is just easy.
“It feels like thway wants to help you succeed and will give you all the help you want, and it just feels good to be part of that.
“Already Tyrone (Thwaites) is allowing me to do little things like having access to the stadium whenever you want that just makes you feel welcomed and supported. Things just seem to get done – which is a credit to the professional environment they have created.”
Expectations of what he’ll find at Cougars
Clarke has proven himself a terrific two-way versatile player in the NBL1 West competition who can play any of the two, three or four positions on the floor and that’s what earned him an opportunity in the NBL at the Bullets last season.
He is a good athlete, can handle the ball and take it to the rack, he can shoot and set up his teammates while also being a standout defender, and he has no doubt the style Clayden will have this Cougars team playing in 2024 will suit him to a tee.
“From what Claydo has pitched to me, he’s got a heavy emphasis on defence which I love. A lot of people don’t seem to have a big focus on defence these days, but if we’re young and have a team that can run, then it will be pretty exciting,” Clarke said.
“Gav and Seva are still capable of playing that fast basketball so that’s what we are going to try and do by the sounds of it while getting after it defensively.
“I think playing both ends of the floor suits my game and it’s a lot more fun to be a part of as well. I’m pretty excited by the way it looks like we’ll play and I can’t wait to get out there in the pre-season.”
Being part of Gavin Field’s last season
Clarke’s interactions so far with inspirational Cougars captain and seven-time club MVP and life member Gavin Field might so far have been limited to trying to stop him as an opposition player, but being able to call him a teammate is something he’s already excited about.
“We’ve honestly only ever had one conversation with each other so far but we did have a bit of friendly banter with each other on the court in the few times we played against each other,” he said.
“I like the way that he goes about things, he seems like he’s a bit old school and might not be flashy, but can fill up when he wants and he just looks like a guy that’d do anything for his team.
“I have a lot of respect for him and he looks like someone I’d like to play with and if it’s his last year, then that will be fun to be part of and then if he changes his mind to keep going, even better.”
Getting back from broken ankle
In a lot of ways 2023 was anything but the year Clarke was hoping for. While he was getting to live out his dream by being a development player at the Bullets in the NBL season, that was a campaign that proved a disaster for the club and wasn’t always a lot of fun to be part of.
However, the positives were he developed plenty by going up against the likes of Nathan Sobey, Jason Cadee, Tyler Johnson, Tanner Krebs, Andrew White III and Rasmus Bach every day at practice.
He also got to play the first four games of his NBL career, but then early this NBL1 West season at Willetton he broke his ankle and is still working his way back from that now, which is a new experience for him.
“I had played every game except one in my first year back in the first year of NBL1 West and then the following year I played every single game except the last one of the year because I had to go to Brisbane,” Clarke said.
“Then last year I only played eight games and got injured in the ninth one, but before that I really hadn’t missed many games in my whole career and this is the first serious injury I’ve had to deal with.
“I broke my ankle nine games into last season, so fractured my lower leg and fully ruptured one ligament and damaged four or five others.
“So I needed a full ankle reconstruction after I landed on Wortho’s foot and then when he took his foot out, I went a bit wobbly and my ankle went the other way and then I ended up sitting on it.
“It just blew the whole thing up and I’ve had to have surgery to put it all back together and I’m still working my way back from that now.”
Still holding on to NBL dream
Clarke is still only 22 so has time on his side and already has a taste of what it takes to play in the NBL, but he does feel like the 2024 NBL1 season is going to be crucial for him to prove that he deserves another chance as a professional.
That’s why it was such a big decision where he would play and why he has no doubt Cockburn is the best place for him.
And while the overall goal is to just be anywhere in the NBL this time next season, the ultimate dream would be part of the revived Canberra Cannons franchise if it could be part of the expansion of the league in coming years.
“I think this next year especially coming back from injury is going to be make or break time really for my career,” he said.
“So from now up until about next August I’m either going to develop and show that I deserve an opportunity in the NBL or as a professional somewhere or I’m not. I feel like this is the time now for me where it’s time in my career that I either might get one more year as a DP or crack a full spot.
“There might be some new NBL teams coming in over the next year or two so it might open up a few more opportunities so it might open up a chance for me if I show that I deserve it.
“The ultimate dream would be to play in Canberra which is where I’m from so if they get a team again, to play for that team would mean the world to me and I wouldn’t really want to play anywhere else if I had the choice.
“A big reason why I’ve chosen to come to Cockburn is because I think it will give me the best chance to develop as a player and put my best foot forward.”
Teaming up with your dad at some point
Playing under his dad might no longer be a realistic dream because Marty doesn’t really have coaching ambitions in the NBL anymore, but Hunter can’t help but think about the possibilities of what could be possible if that Canberra team does eventuate sometime soon.
“I think he’s done with the pros and will retire in the job he’s got at the moment because that’s what I enjoys and wants to keep doing,” Clarke said.
“Really, he has coached every level he wanted to and has assisted with the Boomers, he’s done the AIS thing and has gone back to the Centre of Excellence, and obviously had that stint in Adelaide.
“I think he prefers to help develop players and helping them reach their potential and he feels like he’s better in that space.
“I think he prefers doing what he’s doing now instead of trying to coach in the pros so I don’t think it’s something he’s really looking for.
“But we’d all be really excited if a Canberra team could happen even if dad’s not involved. You never know, Bevo might want to coach again because he’s from there and they might even be able to catch Patty on his way out of basketball when he’s done with the NBA. It could be pretty exciting.”