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Rockets rookie Gary Clark relishing chance to learn from his mentor, Chris Paul

The man who replaced Melo in Houston is leaning on his other legendary point guard

UPDATE– The Houston Rockets have converted the two-way contract of forward Gary Clark into a standard NBA contract.

HOUSTON — Young hoops players dream of playing alongside their favorite NBA superstar. For most kids, it’s a dream that goes unfulfilled.

For Gary Clark, however, his wish came true as an undrafted NBA rookie for the Houston Rockets. Earlier this season, he played alongside Carmelo Anthony, who was Clark’s favorite player growing up.

“I remember Melo with the braids,” Clark told The Undefeated. “At his position, I loved watching how easy it was for him to score. He was just unstoppable.

“The first time I seen him was MTV Cribs. He had just gotten his condo in Denver. That’s when I truly started following him. I never even told him that, but he was my favorite player growing up.”

Of course, it’s ironic that Clark ended up taking Anthony’s minutes in Houston, which resulted in the Rockets parting ways with the 10-time All-Star — a matter that Clark is uncomfortable talking about.

“I just love Melo, man,” Clark said. “I hope we can play together again.”

Clark added: “It’s tough, but it literally didn’t matter who was there. I was going to make sure I got on the court, because I know what I can bring to the table.”

Clark’s most impressive performance came in a blowout win against the defending champion Golden State Warriors on Nov. 15, as he knocked down three 3-pointers in a row in the third quarter and was vital in helping hold Golden State to its lowest point total of the season at 86.

But Clark has recently seen a drop in his minutes as he has struggled with his shooting.

Fortunately for the 24-year-old swingman, he has another legendary teammate he can turn to for guidance on his NBA journey.

The goal of every elite young basketball player growing up in North Carolina is to play for Team CP3, Chris Paul’s AAU team in Winston-Salem. Clark, who says he got serious about basketball when he started dunking in the seventh grade, was dominating at Clayton High School as a freshman.

“I wasn’t playing that much talent in high school, so I wanted to play the best guys in AAU. I knew with CP3’s team that it would probably be the best situation. They were always very honest and hands-on.”

He was accepted into the Team CP3 program, and he recalls the first time he felt how special it was to be part of the program. It was during the 1998-99 NBA lockout.

Clark was 14 and got invited to CP3’s charity game in Winston-Salem. Paul, Anthony, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, John Wall and JR Smith were all on hand.

“I was able to go and see all those guys after the game,” Clark said. “That was the first time I got to meet Chris Paul in person. And it was even crazier that he introduced me to everyone else. …

“When I met Melo, I was in awe. It was just so crazy.”

Paul, who would spend time FaceTiming with players on his AAU team and attend games, has been a part of Clark’s life ever since.

“It’s crazy to see Gary up here,” Paul told The Undefeated. “With my AAU team, you know I’m with them during the summer.

“I obviously followed [Clark] in college. He used to talk junk, saying, ‘If I could play against you, I can do this to you and I can do that to you.’ Now to have him on my team, it’s really special.”

Gary Clark, while playing for the Cincinnati Bearcats, goes up for the dunk against Naji Marshall (second from left) of the Xavier Musketeers at Cintas Center in Cincinnati on Dec. 2, 2017.

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Clark spent four years at the University of Cincinnati, where he was the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year and the AAC tournament MVP in 2018. He was also the AAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 and 2018. Despite his success, the 2018 NBA draft came and went without him being selected. Clark said a nagging ankle injury throughout his senior year “scared teams off,” which only added to the devastation of not being drafted.

“When you don’t get taken, it’s really upsetting,” Clark said. “Not just the reality of not getting picked, but then when I looked over at my family and siblings, they were all looking forward to me getting picked.

“I’ve got three younger siblings. They had never seen me not get what I wanted when it came to basketball. For them, this is the one thing they knew I wanted more than anything, so they were more upset. Like, both my sisters left before I could even address the group. That crushed me.”

But within the hour, Clark’s phone started ringing with teams interested in signing him to their summer league teams. He was shocked when the Rockets called and was thrilled at the idea of attempting to earn a spot in Houston.

Despite another injury setback during summer league, the Rockets saw enough to sign him to a two-way contract. Clark would be stepping into the locker room with the same guys he dreamed of playing with as a kid.

Chris Paul of the Houston Rockets (right) is greeted by teammate Gary Clark (center) during the first half against the Indiana Pacers at Toyota Center on Nov. 11 in Houston.

Tim Warner/Getty Images

“It was a relief knowing I’d have such vets in the locker room I was going to,” Clark said. “You know I’m big on learning and taking it all in. Knowing I’d have all these brains to pick was amazing. Knowing how CP3 carries himself, and how competitive he is, it was incredible to think, ‘Wow, I get to watch this up close every day.’

“Then you add in other stars like James [Harden] and Melo, I just said to myself, ‘I’m going to get better. I have to get better. There is no way that if I’m in the locker room with these guys that I won’t get better.’ That’s been my approach every day coming in here, to keep learning from Chris and all of the guys.”

The dynamic between Paul and Clark has changed since they became teammates. The future Hall of Fame point guard understands he needs to let his former AAU player grow into the player he’s going to become. And there is a North Carolina bond between the two that will always be the foundation of their relationship on and off the court.

“I’ve had so many people try to tell me what to do, giving me their opinions and expect to force me to do what they’re saying,” Clark said. “He’s the complete opposite. It’s a relief because he knows that when I come to him with something, it’s probably something that’s really bothering me. So I know if I go to him, I’ll get his best opinion, his best effort, to help me figure it out.”

Paul agrees that this is the best way to help a young player. Even if it’s a guy he watched grow from a boy to man.

“I’m a thinker,” Paul said. “I always understand the dynamics of it. I get the big brother mentality, but he’s also a man himself. So I try to give him advice as much as I can, but only when he asks for it. That’s what’s cool about it. I try not to bother him, because he is growing, but he’s in the NBA. I’m not going to hover over him or nothing like that. But anything he needs, I want him to know that I’ll be there for him to talk about any and everything.”

All these years later, Paul’s words still resonate with Clark.

“Biggest thing I tell myself every day is something CP told us back in the AAU days: Never let someone tell you what you can and can’t do, or how things are going to go. They can’t determine your willpower or what you’re capable of doing.’ ”

Stefano Fusaro is a bureau reporter for ESPN, and has covered sports in major markets for 13 years. He’s a proud first generation American of Hispanic descent, but he was too short to make it to the NBA. So he settles for being an NBA 2K Hall of Famer.