Manhattan — Denis Clemente is driven by the legacy of a man he never met.
Passionate, competitive, motivated to become the best at whatever he does — so much of what defines Kansas State’s point guard comes from his connection to a second cousin who died 14 years before he was born: Puerto Rican baseball great Roberto Clemente.
“He’s always with me,” said Clemente, who wears No. 21 in Roberto’s honor. “I’m very proud of the relationship when people ask me about it.”
Roberto Clemente is one of the most revered figures in Puerto Rico’s history, as much for his humanitarian work as his athletic achievements. A Hall of Famer who played 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Clemente was killed in a plane crash in 1972 while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Denis Clemente only knows his father’s cousin through the stories told by friends, family, even strangers. A great baseball player, a better person, he was told.
Clemente listened intently, soaked it all in, used the story of his famous relative as a guiding force in his own life.
The connection pushed Clemente to move from his hometown of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, to Miami as a 16-year-old to pursue his dream of playing college basketball. It helped him mature after being dismissed from the team by Miami coach Frank Haith and become one of the best point guards in the Big 12 Conference at Kansas State.
His ties to Roberto still push Clemente, driving him to demand the best out of himself, even opponents, fueling a passion on the basketball court that never wavers.
“He is one tough customer,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. “He doesn’t back down from anybody. He’s a fighter, he’s a winner, he plays with tremendous passion and that’s what I’m about. I love guys who play with passion and he definitely has it.”
Though blessed with similar speed and quickness, Clemente chose not to follow Roberto’s path athletically, preferring the movement of basketball over the idle moments in baseball.
A whirling dervish of speed who can score in bunches, Clemente once outscored Tyler Hansbrough and Kevin Durant at an AAU tournament and was called the fastest player in college basketball by TV analyst Billy Packer while at Miami.
After adjusting to a new system and a year of watching from the bench, Clemente has become the catalyst for a Kansas State team trying to reach the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1989-90.
The junior leads the Wildcats with 15.3 points per game, and is second with 83 assists.