August 19, 2011

Cliff Sammet’s Continuing Journey

by Kevin McCarthy and Cliff Sammet

The arc of life as envisioned by teenagers usually focuses on the dream of becoming an space-walking astronaut or a wildly successful business person or a wealthy professional athlete and so on. Roadblocks and other obstacles -- which some adults might call reality -- don't materialize, at least not in the imagination of young people. But they did with a vengeance for Cliff Sammet.

Sammet's life is a cautionary tale but ultimately one of personal success. For he has come to know himself, albeit not in a process of his own choosing nor one that he would recommend for others. The magic Sammet experienced in landing a D-1 scholarship dissipated in the business arena in which college basketball operates, then the ultimate of health concerns intruded, reducing his striving to one of pure survival.

Despite his years numbering just 24, he has faced more obstacles, and therefore adjustments professionally and personally, than many adults can recall at the end of their lives. More importantly, he has emerged stronger, better and wiser.

Sammet played toward the end of his freshman season at Santa Clara before his career came to an abrupt halt. A major component of Santa Cruz High's CIF Division III state championship team in March 2005, Sammet displayed a soft touch from outside, the ability to maneuver inside and solid rebounding skills. At the time, Sammet knew he was headed to Santa Clara University on a full ride scholarship. All was going according to plan, or more appropriately, dream, and it was a pretty heady direction for the former San Jose State University basketball ball boy.

It was something Sammet put in the necessary time and effort to earn. He participated in local recreation leagues and joined Team Santa Cruz, a basketball club team in the area. In high school, Sammet played on the freshman squad while standing 6-foot-1 at the time. He was noticed as Pete Newell Jr., the Santa Cruz High coach, wanted him to play varsity as a sophomore.

Then over the summer, Sammet sprouted to 6-foot-5 and earned a starting spot on the varsity.

He also joined the West Valley Basketball Club in order to face tougher competition. As he put it "working with Coach [Bobby] Bramlett and Coach [Al] Grigsby really helped. Plus I was working out at the Riekes Center, an athletic fitness facility in Menlo Park. It all really expanded my confidence." He also participated in the open gym at West Valley College matching up with teams from Stanford, San Jose State University and junior college teams from the region.

Already sporting an offer from Holy Cross, Sammet blossomed as a junior. "It was my best year for personal success," he explained. Sparkplug backcourter Junior Russell was out with a knee injury and greater contributions from the remaining team members were needed.

But for the second straight season, Santa Cruz High lost in the semi finals of the CCS.

That spring and summer, interest in him grew as Pepperdine and Santa Clara got involved. Then Fresno State and Washington State entered into the recruiting equation. More time and effort in the West Valley open gym and Riekes Center produced greater results, but little did anyone know the alchemy of skills, experience and leadership would produce a run that concluded with the Cardinals cutting down the nets at ARCO Arena in Sacramento as state champions.

That they did to the tune of 67-56 over St. Augustine-San Diego. The latter entered the contest undefeated, riding a 32-game win streak, with Santa Cruz also owning 32 consecutive successes.

"We had no issues about shots or minutes and four of us [Sammet, Russell, Austin Swift, Eric Van Vliet] were top 50 players so personal success was taken care of -- we just wanted to take care of business."

Sammet had signed a letter-of-intent with Santa Clara in November, and his future was set.

Why did Sammet decide to become a Bronco? "Because I liked the school and the Jesuit education, the conference, they had a successful season the year before and my family could go to games."

However, as Sammet explained, "I was impatient at the time [of his signing]. I was getting other offers, new ones but I went with Santa Clara."

It turned out he walked into a cauldron of sorts, one with the temperature rising.

"There was a lot of pressure on the coaching staff -- a sense of urgency [to win]," Sammet said. "I didn't know Dick Davey too well; I had gotten to know the assistants. He didn't know me as a player or how to use me; I was a fast, athletic guy and they liked to play a slower tempo."

He added, "seeing how things worked behind the scenes, I saw the politics and how the timing of contracts ending is important. Jobs were on the line and I got a heavy taste of the business aspect. Basketball comes first and you have to perform."

Today, Sammet's offers a three-word sentence advising recruits: "Do your research."

The idea was for Sammet to redshirt his first year at Santa Clara but he ended up playing towards the end of the season. He also suffered a tendon injury on one of his hands and ended up having surgery on that finger.

At the conclusion of the season, Sammet was bluntly informed: "You're not going to play next year."

This came out of the blue to Sammet: "I had better grades than most of the team and everyone was shocked. But I was dead to them. I tried talking with one of the assistant coaches and he pretended he didn't know me."

A year later, Davey and his staff were dismissed.

A puzzling aspect of Sammet's time at Santa Clara involved his basketball interaction with an upperclassman on the team. "He made practices really hard for me at the time." Looking back later, Sammet realized the behavior was simply illustrative of the sense of the squad at the time -- not team-oriented. "It gave me an adverse sense of the team."

Yet that very senior was the lone Bronco player who reached out to Sammet when the news broke about not having his scholarship renewed. "He called me and we went to lunch," Sammet said. "He told me he was sorry and felt terrible [about his behavior], that he came here [to Santa Clara] as a happy high schooler but became an angry, frustrated person because of the team culture. He told me ‘I was lucky to have the chance to go where I would be wanted.’"

That get-together allowed Sammet to realize "it [the behavior] was nothing personal, it mirrored the culture."

At that point, Portland State and a number of junior colleges began pursuing Sammet and he decided to enroll at West Valley College. A new start with a new coach, Danny Yoshikawa. "At that point, I wanted to go to a place where I would play, where I had some friends and could work on increasing my skills," Sammet said. Junior Russell was also on the team.

The squad got to the NorCal finals but lost to Yuba College by two points. According to Sammet, "it was a very disciplined system with a lot of running, weightlifting and shooting. You would play for three minutes, rotate out and come back in three minutes. It was an ego check but it was all right. I kept at it and had faith in the system."

He continued, "I was getting stronger and playing well. I was told Long Beach State offered me a scholarship during the season and that Northwestern was talking."

Then, something seemingly insignificant -- at least at the time -- happened.

As Sammet put it: "I banged my knee against a teammate and developed a knee bruise."

That was followed by "Coach Yosh turning off recruiting halfway through the season. He wasn't happy with the team and stopped our recruitment. It was frustrating, and then two weeks after the season, he left for UC Santa Barbara."

So Sammet turned to his West Valley Basketball Club Coach Bob Bramlett for assistance. "He began sending out tapes and Sacramento State, Idaho State, Maine, Troy State and Cal Poly showed interest."

Sammet made the rounds on a number of visits and "I was playing well but my knee was hurting. I felt off and subconsciously I knew something was wrong."

Intuition told him it would be best to stay close to home so at that point he accepted an offer from Cal Poly and Coach Kevin Bromley as an invited walk-on.

He told the team doctor during a physical in June 2007 that his knee wasn't right. The medical guess was that he had a meniscus tear.

It wasn't.

In late July, an MRI showed something more serious.

The eventual interpretation was that Sammet had an osteosarcoma in his knee, a bone tumor. Two biopsies, one with a needle, the second using a drill called a surgical biopsy were needed to check on whether the cancer was benign.

It wasn't.

"When something like that happens, your perception changes. It's a worst nightmare come true."

Sammet was given the prospect of a 40% chance of living.

"The hardest part was seeing my family, the people who think you are invincible and the people who protected you, having no power," Sammet explained.

Call it serendipitous or kismet but Andy Joselson, a friend of Sammet's, told him about a film -- "Way of the Peaceful Warrior" -- and suggested that he see it.

The night before the invasive biopsy, he did.

Sammet's take: "it takes place in Oakland featuring a gas station and when I was young, we lived close to there. It dialed me into acceptance, into being in the moment, just like with basketball."

It tripped something in Sammet that "got me seeing connections with my cancer and my career in basketball, an intersection. I took a lot of lessons from it."

Eventually, a pair of inspirations struck him.

"One time driving to the hospital, I had a flash, an appreciation for the game and the times my knee was there for me. It made it all peaceful, that I was blessed and not a poor victim."

Then during a spinal tap procedure, "I had a reawakening. I had my game plan, a new outlook, one very appreciative and thankful for being alive."

On August 21, 2007, Sammet turned 21 just before the second biopsy and a celebration of sorts took place. He had dinner out with family and some high school buddies, not knowing what was ahead for himself but determined to face it head on.

"Some friends were scared and distanced themselves but some were there for me," he explained. "The older guys like Maurice Stewart, George Murphy and Chris Futch [upperclassmen when Sammet joined the Santa Cruz High basketball team] started talking philosophy. We had some really cool conversations."

Sammet said "it was frustrating at times not having friends come and visit but then I remembered I was that person too. Earlier, I had a cousin with cancer but I was scared and too busy with other obligations to visit."

After four months of chemotherapy, with the usual nausea, weight and hair loss, limb salvage surgery was scheduled for December 12.

"The doctors were going to remove six to seven inches above my knee and three to four inches below it and put in a titanium replacement," Sammet detailed. "They found 100% necrosis so I was able to reduce my chemo to nine months instead of a year."

His chemotherapy ended on May 9 but his knee replacement forced him to sit with his leg straight for a number of weeks.

Alluding to both the chemo and his new knee, Sammet said, "you make it happen, you have to get zen with it. It became a lifestyle, a job."

But to his relief, Sammet found the Cal Poly coaching staff very supportive. "They were calling and checking in. I developed a really good relationship with Coach Bob Lowe -- we would talk a couple of hours a week. They set me up for enrollment the next fall. It was nice to have that sense of security, really the opposite of my previous relationships and a beautiful part of the journey."

What Sammet also discovered is that his vigorous coaching and training really helped his recovery.

But the mysterious aspect to this day is that doctors cannot officially call his tumor an osteosarcoma. "The doctors said the tests were not conclusive but we'll treat it as such," Sammet said. "I kind of wanted to know for sure but they said they were unable to put a label on it. But it was a hot tumor and had cancerous cells."

He made it to San Luis Obispo in the fall -- "I kept working out, trying to build muscle in my leg. I could still dunk and play."

But what was necessary to participate in pickup games in no way equaled the requirements demanded for D-1 college basketball membership.

"I was rehabbing and playing on the side but the reality was I wasn't really going to be able to play," Sammet explained. "I'd come in and visit with the coaches and give them updates -- I was trying to find a role. It was a challenge being around the game but not being able to play."

He added, "The coaches and players were under pressure to win and I wish I could have played a bigger role in helping out."

Then yet again as if his life was an update of the film "Groundhog Day," the Cal Poly coaching staff was let go at the end of the season.

At that point, Sammet turned his focus to school and graduation.

Currently, he's finished with school down there and "I'm graduating in December and working on my senior project. That will be it and I have my degree in communications studies."

Sammet is involved in an internship at a local hospital as a physician relations director. His career plans are to earn a Masters of Social Work and to work as a therapist, especially with cancer patients and their families. He is also back on the basketball court, involved in city league basketball.

He holds no hard feelings towards anyone. As he put it, his former coaches were "all trying to succeed. I got some hard lessons and discovered something bigger than basketball. I'm prepared for a bigger test."



Now the Associate Head Basketball Coach at USF, Coach Yoshikawa’s response to the article above:

"It is unfortunate that we even have to have this discussion and that Cliff's recollection of his experience at West Valley is different than mine, especially given the fact that he has won an incredible battle over the most ruthless of opponents in the game of life. For that, I am so proud of him and so happy for him, his friends, and his family."

For the record, Cliff was an outstanding talent and great basketball player. He was, and is, an even better person. Cliff helped us get all the way to the Northern California Final in which we lost at the buzzer in a year that was supposed to be “rebuilding” after the state championship run the year prior. Sometimes recruiting does not go the way young student-athletes hope. Long Beach had indeed offered, but their staff was let go in the spring and with it Cliff's recruitment. Northwestern never offered, never became serious, and faded away. Cliff's recruiting also suffered due to his knee injury down the final stretch of the season. To place blame in any other person is absolutely senseless.

My job at West Valley College, as it is today at USF, was to coach and be a servant to my players. All of the scholarships given during my tenure at WVC were earned by great players who worked very hard and received attention from recruiters. Our former players (including Cliff Sammet) will tell you that nothing in life is free, and we can only give energy to those things in life that we can control. Consequently, their reward (scholarships and otherwise) had nothing at all to do with the coaches promoting them, but was rather a product of their attitude and their effort (and in some cases their health). I can tell you this with 100% certainty, now that I am a recruiter on the other side.

The facts are that year, we had six sophomores, and five of them received scholarships to: Cal-State Fullerton, Chaminade University, Concordia University, Notre Dame, and Cal-State East Bay - ALL AFTER I had left and taken the job at UCSB (The 6th player had an offer at a school in the Midwest but turned it down). We had a team the year before that reached the state championship and won 33 games, but I can honestly tell you that I have never been more proud than I was with Cliff's team. They were a young, gritty and over-achieving bunch that competed and improved every day. Cliff is absolutely wrong on this point. I loved coaching that group immensely and would never cease anyone's recruitment. That was not part of our culture at West Valley."

Now at Stanford, Dick Davey’s response to the article above: Davey offered that Cliff was a really good athlete who had a lot of potential and would probably have to change from playing the four to the three. He also said, "we never ran a player off at Santa Clara, and whether we were right or he was right is anyone's judgment."

Sammet’s response to the article above:

"There are some very good people in the coaching profession. It's critical to find out who they are before signing."