LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -Less than two weeks after bolting for the pros last spring, Earl Clark made one last call to Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
``I asked him if I could come back, that I thought I wasn't ready yet,'' Clark said.
And Pitino's response?
``He just asked how fast could I get back to campus,'' Clark said with a laugh.
Pitino wasn't laughing last April, just days after the Cardinals lost to North Carolina in the NCAA tournament regional finals. His voice was flat. No anger. No rage. No pontificating on the folly of youth.
``Earl Clark will not play basketball at the University of Louisville next year,'' Pitino said.
lottery pick.
Clark called the move ``a business decision,'' one Pitino went along with even if he didn't think it was time for Clark to move on.
``I didn't think it was in his best interest to move on, but I respect other people's opinion,'' Pitino said. ``I wasn't disappointed. He was making what he thought was the right call.''
During those lonesome nights in a Houston hotel, Clark's thoughts kept drifting back to his teammates, his friends and his coach. Clark never did fill out the paperwork to drop out of school and enter the draft, never did sign with an agent, never did really mentally check out of a program a step short of the Final Four.
But after his about face, Clark returned to school fast enough to finish out the semester and earn back the trust of his teammates.
``I could see the temptation,'' said senior guard Andre McGee. ``He had a great year. I know a lot of scouts were after him. He's a great talent. To have that option to go pro, I understand. We weren't mad.''
Neither was Pitino, who didn't make Clark run the steps at Freedom Hall or order him into the training room at 6 a.m. The humbling life lesson his soft-spoken star learned during his foray out on his own was punishment enough.
``I was happy he came back,'' Pitino said. ``But he needs to go to work. He needs to learn just showing up isn't good enough.''
g over and over since the precocious but mercurial Clark arrived on campus two years ago. Clark dominated at Rahway (N.J.) High, averaging 25.2 points and 13.2 rebounds as a senior on his way to being named a McDonald's All-American.
Clark thought his transition to life in the Big East would be easy. It wasn't. He soon found out that he was too skinny - 220 pounds - to have his way in the post and not quick enough to play the point forward position he'd become so spectacular at in high school.
Sometimes, the growing pains were only too public.
During one game as a freshman he tried an acrobatic scoop shot only to throw the ball over the backboard. A few minutes later he got so excited after making a lay-up he forgot to get into position on the press and was beaten badly for a layup.
Clark's nighttime habits didn't help. A restless spirit, he'd walk the halls in the middle of the night looking for someone to hang out with. While his game evolved on the court - he eventually cracked the starting lineup late in the year to help Louisville make it to the second round of the NCAA tournament - he still had plenty of growing up to do off it.
``When I got here, I just thought I'd come in and start,'' Clark said. ``But coach had someone (forward Juan Palacios) he was loyal to and I just had to accept that and try and work harder.''
uisville's deep tournament run, including a 17-point, 12-rebound, four-block performance in a win over Tennessee in the regional semifinal. He thought it was enough to make him a surefire NBA pick. Turns out, the business decision to leave made him realize there was unfinished business at Louisville.
He'd like to lead the third-ranked Cardinals back to the Final Four, starting on Saturday against Moorehead State. But Clark will have to make the journey without good friend Derrick Caracter, a talented but erratic power forward who joined Clark at Louisville two years ago before leaving the program over the summer after a series of run-ins with Pitino.
The good friends still talk and text frequently, but Clark knows his friend has turned into a cautionary tale.
``He's got to do what's best for him, I've got to do what's best for me,'' Clark said.
That includes hitting the gym before the sun rises to work on his game, going to be earlier and trying to become a leader, not the easiest thing for a guy Pitino joked sounds like Michael Jackson when he talks.
Clark is working on it, just like he's working on everything else. He's thankful for the second chance Pitino gave him. He doesn't plan on having to ask for a third.

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