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By LARRY VAUGHT
He was the official who ruled that Christian Laettner’s overtime shot that beat Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Tournament East Region final beat the final buzzer to cost UK a Final Four berth, but few people know that Tom Clark had actually grown up a Kentucky basketball fan.
“I was a huge Kentucky fan back in the days before my officiating days and then I became nobody’s fan,” said Clark, who lives in the Cincinnati area. “I was a basketball junkie at age 8 in the late 1950’s. I would go to bed, turn the radio on and was recruited to be a UK fan by one of the greatest recruiters in UK athletics — Cawood Ledford. Once I heard Cawood on the radio, I was hooked. I became an avid UK fan. Between 1960 and 1980, you would be stunned at how much I know about UK basketball.”
That rubbed off his son, too.
“After the UK-Duke game, my boy was only 8 and he didn’t talk to me for two weeks,” Clark said.
Clark, who also officiated football, did the first UK-Louisville football game when the series started and notes that Kentucky won. He also did a Kentucky-Indiana football game that UK won.
“In basketball, I did a Kentucky game in the NCAA against Montana that they obviously won. Also the year after the Duke game I had Kentucky in Nashville against Utah in the NCAA and they won. I had UK-Michigan State in Lexington the year Michigan State won the national championship and Kentucky won. Basically, Kentucky was 7-1 in games I did, but everybody remembers the one they lost.
“I understand the passion of the Kentucky people. In all my athletic travels, I have never seen a better and more passionate fan base than Kentucky. That Duke game put Kentucky back into national prominence. It put Kentucky basketball back in the elite where it belonged. Say what you want about (coach) Rick Pitino, but when Kentucky needed an elite coach he was there.”
Clark said there’s no doubt that UK-Duke game was the best collegiate game ever. There were four lottery picks playing, including Jamal Mashburn of Kentucky, and the story line was set with Duke aiming for a fourth straight Final Four berth and UK coming off probation.
“The game stood the test of time. In 1992, everyone said it was the greatest game, and nothing since then has been close. It was two elite coaches, two elite programs. Was it superbly played? Obviously. Did it have drama? Yes.”
Clark said it amazes him how many people still remember where they were when that game was being played.
“I’ve never had a person not tell me where they were when that game was being played,” he said. “I got back to the hotel after the game and called my wife. She didn’t ask me if I was okay. She said, ‘Honey, I think that was the greatest game ever played.’ That solidified it for me. I had big games in basketball and football, but only two times did the hair on my arms stand up. One was Ohio State-Michigan football. The other one was Kentucky-Duke. You knew immediately you were part of something special.”
Clark said something few knew was that the crowd noise was so loud that the officials could not even hear the horn sound when it was set off at the scorer’s table.
Clark called the timeout with 2.1 seconds left in overtime after Sean Woods hit a shot to put UK ahead. “Four Duke players had their hands up screaming timeout and I was ready for it. If they are a little bit later calling timeout, the game probably ends different,” he said.
The official expected Bobby Hurley or Grant Hill to probably get off a desperation shot from around midcourt after the timeout. He was worried about watching the shot and then immediately checking the clock since he had the center position and would be responsible for both calls.
“I am thinking my whole career is on the line and that I have to see the shot and clock,” Clark said. “(Official) Tim Higgins told me, ‘Don’t call a foul unless they put someone in the Naval hospital across the street.’ If Pitino had known that, he might have changed a lot of things.
“But they didn’t guard the inbounds pass and Mr. Hill grabs it, passes and (Christian) Laettner catches it. Thank God from an officiating standpoint that (John) Pelphrey and (Deron) Feldhaus fall back. He releases the shot and I see there are .2 seconds left. No foul, shot released. But I am never dreaming the shot will go in. When it does, I am stunned. It’s my call. Good or not? I signaled good and we were out of there.”
Clark still remembers having the Kentucky dressing room adjacent to where the officials were after the game.
“I remember looking out a little window in our door and seeing the Kentucky players all crying. I remember John Pelphrey not even making it up the hall. He was sobbing so hard. You could see tears dropping like a rain storm as he came up,” Clark said.
Clark’s ordeal wasn’t over. His return flight from Philadelphia to Cincinnati was filled with Kentucky fans.
“I see that and am thinking that is not good. I don’t have NCAA logos on my bag or anything, but I am thinking I need a very low profile. I find a Cincinnati Reds hat and pull that down so low I can barely see,” he said. “Everybody is great, talking about the game. I didn’t hear anything. Then about halfway home to Cincinnati, a guy said, ‘You refereed the game.’ I thought I wasn’t going to live. But he was a newspaper reporter from Tennessee. But the flight was fine and I always tell folks that Kentucky was not losers in that game. They were winners. They just lost the game.”
Clark is now retired from officiating and has even been to a Kentucky game since he retired.
“I am a Kentucky fan again now. I am just not quite as passionate as most UK fans might be because I have been on the other side (officiating), but there’s no doubt I was a UK fan before I officiated and I am a UK fan again now,” he said.