Shaquille Cleare looked around the bustling food court inside the University of Maryland student union and thought about everything he will soon leave behind. The decision to transfer from the men’s basketball program had lingered in his mind for months, through disappointing games that ushered sleepless nights. Now, at the end of his sophomore season, he felt ready to accept reality.
“I’m not blaming anyone but myself,” Cleare said. “I’ll apologize to the fans.”
Ranked as a four-star prospect exiting high school two years ago, the prize catch of Coach Mark Turgeon’s first full recruiting class, Cleare met for an interview over lunch Wednesday afternoon to discuss his release, which was granted the night before. In the hours since, his phone had buzzed nonstop. No eager teams hoping for his services, only friends wishing him well. They were sorry to see Cleare go, they said. Cleare told them it was okay. He just needed a change.
The move seemed inevitable, given how Cleare had labored through two seasons with the Terrapins. As a freshman, he played behind Alex Len, a future top-five NBA draft pick. As a sophomore, he started 20 out of 32 games but never found a groove. He scored 3.4 points and grabbed 2.6 rebounds per game at Maryland, and the highlight of his career, he said, came against Virginia this season, when he tipped a missed free throw toward a teammate, who iced the win over the No. 5 Cavaliers. But the hard work lauded by Turgeon and the Terps coaching staff — Cleare was often seen doing extra cardio workouts after games — never translated beneath the spotlight, so Cleare found himself awake in his apartment, trying to reconcile how things could go so wrong.
He thought back to his recruitment, when ESPN ranked him the 30th-best player in his class and coaches vied for his services. Cleare had first played basketball at age 15, a young Bahamian seeking opportunity outside his native land. He moved to Houston and endured cramped living conditions, nearly leaving the United States for good before a new coach invited Cleare into his home. Around that time, he received his first recruitment letter, a handwritten note from the head coach at Texas A&M named Mark Turgeon.
Turgeon came to College Park and Cleare, who had already signed under Gary Williams, decided to come too. He traded body blows with Len during practice, earning rave reviews for his strength. He went toe-to-toe with Duke’s Mason Plumlee, turning into the immovable object that one of college basketball’s best big men could not break. Last summer, the Terps played three exhibition games in the Bahamas. The trip was booked to take Cleare home.
“I love Shaq,” Turgeon said by phone Tuesday night. “I’ve known Shaq since he was a freshman in high school. Really going to miss him. Enjoyed coaching him and he gave me everything he had. I’m just sad it’s not going to work out.”
A back injury sidelined Cleare for that trip to his home country and it put his conditioning behind entering the preseason. Soon, he felt caught up in the pursuit of perfection and worried about being benched after mistakes. At times, Cleare speculated, he should have been more selfish on offense, dipping into the bag of tricks few saw outside of practice.
“Playing in quicksand,” he called it.
Given every chance to continue starting for the Terps, Cleare blamed only himself. He knew he struggled this season, scoring more than eight points only once. The ebb and flow torpedoed his confidence. His voice was twinged with regret, not for how Turgeon used him or how Maryland treated him, but for how he failed to take advantage.
“I feel like I’m disappointing a lot of fans,” Cleare said. “That’s all on me. I’m going to take the blame. I’m mature enough to shoulder that burden. Some people are happy. Some people are sad. Even though they’ll hate on me, I want to thank them.”
Cleare felt good about passing the torch to incoming freshmen Michal Cekovsky and Trayvon Reed, both 7-footers, and hoped Turgeon will “get the ball rolling” in the Big Ten next season. He considered ditching class and enjoying his final weeks at Maryland, but soon realized that has never been him. He wants to finish his schoolwork. He looks forward to the offseason. He wants to prove that he is not some fluke, some over-hyped recruit swallowed up by the college game.
“I got to bring it up,” he said. “I’ve got to play. I’ve got to ball. I’ve got to show people. I’ve had enough. It’s time.”
Cleare has not begun thinking about future destinations and, quite frankly, has no desire to hear from anyone at the moment either.
“I may be in Saudi Arabia riding camels,” he said. “Wherever I am, I’m going to be doing some cardio, man.”
When Cleare and Turgeon met on Tuesday, they talked about old times, like that first recruiting letter. Cleare asked if he could still call. Of course, Turgeon said, whenever he needed anything. Cleare asked if Turgeon would take him back, if something happened that changed his mind. Of course, Turgeon said. He would do that too.
As his eyes wandered around the food court once more, Cleare seemed caught between his heart, which still lies with Maryland and its community, and the desire for change on the basketball court. He could not risk a third season in quicksand.
“Sometimes you just got to see what’s out there,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know where I’m going to go.”
He took a bite of his lunch and packed up the leftovers. He was headed to Comcast Center for study hall.
“Just think I need a fresh start,” he said. “A fresh start.”