If it wasn’t for the welcoming family atmosphere, Ella Clark wouldn’t be a 49er.
The 49ers’ junior forward made a decision early on in her life that few people are forced to make: she uprooted her life in London for a chance to play collegiate basketball here in the states.
But given her unique style of play and exposure to a different type of basketball in London, the 6-foot-3 Clark plays a game that is completely different than that of most 6-foot-3 players native to the United States.
“In America, if you’re 6-3, you’re told never to dribble, and you’re pretty much told to play with your back to the basket,” head coach Jody Wynn said. “But in Europe, the bigger players play like the guards. All the fundamentals of ball handling and shooting are taught at an early age for the taller players as well.”
After a rough start to her junior year, the co-captain has improved her level of play, looking more like the Ella Clark coach Wynn saw last year. Since opening the season with just three points and one rebound against California, Clark has come back and averaged 7.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. She has also registered a team-high 12 blocks.
Clark’s thin, wiry frame allows her to play a level of defense that’s second to no one on her team. Clark is the tallest starter, and given her family history, it’s no surprise that she’s got the type of build that she does.
While Clark yields an impressive 6-foot-8 wingspan, her mother has her beat with a wingspan of 6 feet 10 inches.
However, the helpful basketball genes don’t come from just one side of Clark’s family, as she comes from a popular basketball family in London. Her father Mark also played basketball and is currently the head coach of the Great Britain senior women’s national team that Clark was added to earlier this year.
Clark’s older brother Dan made similar use of his top-of-the-shelf genes, moving out of the house at age 14 to play basketball in Spain. He eventually joined the Brits on the court and became an Olympian in 2012. Clark said she and her brother spent a substantial amount of time taking jumpers in the driveway, with her father coaching them.
“Growing up, we had a hoop in the driveway,” Clark said. “Always being around [the game] made a big difference because I got to hang around players with so much experience.”
Like her brother, Clark was given the tough choice of deciding where her basketball career would take her next. Unlike her brother, Clark made the decision to uproot herself and travel to the other side of the globe, choosing Long Beach State over east coast schools like St. Joseph’s, Drexel and Maine.
Wynn said she wouldn’t have known about Clark if it weren’t for a former club basketball coach that Wynn knew from her high school days. Wynn talked to the coach, and after some more steps and calls, she eventually talked to Clark on the phone.
“We reached Ella [Clark’s] father and talked to Ella [Clark] on the phone,” Wynn said. “We saw a lot of video of her and brought her out on a visit.”
Despite the visit and positive vibes from said visit, Wynn said she and her staff were worried about location being a problem for Clark.
“It’s a lot easier for those European kids to go to the east coast because it’s a six-hour flight or an eight-hour flight versus two flights that are 11 or 12 hours,” Wynn said.
Clark admitted that at times, the separation between her and her family is tough.
“There are times when I wished I was closer so my parents could come out more often for those long weekends,” Clark said.
But teammate Alex Sanchez has been a key part of the welcoming family atmosphere that has kept Clark in 49ers black and gold.
Two weeks ago when everyone was sharing their Thanksgiving meal with friends and family, Sanchez and her family shared their meal with Clark.
“With her being outside her country, I kind of took her under my wing,” Sanchez said. “Whenever we have family events and she’s not doing anything, I always include her.”
For Clark, it’s that sense of family that allowed her to get through the lonelier nights.
“You feel like a part of her family as well,” Clark said. “It’s nice being so far away [from my family] and actually having an extended family.”
Clark is looking forward to returning the favor next summer when the 49ers are planning and fundraising a trip to London as a scheduled foreign tour in August.
“Because I came here not knowing anything, I’ve always had to have someone around me to do things,” she said. “Back there, I can be that person for them.”