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Youth basketball icon Joe Clarke, founder of Watts Magicians, dies

January 5, 2012 |  5:37 pm

Joe-clarke_300Joe Clarke, a youth basketball icon in Los Angeles for nearly 40 years who founded the Watts Magicians travel team and helped dozens of boys and girls try to reach their basketball dreams on and off the court, died Thursday morning at Lakewood Regional Medical Center after an illness, according to family friend Ronald Scipio. He was 75.

Born in Panama on Jan. 11, 1936, Clarke teamed with Willie Naulls to create the South-Central L.A. Athletic Club that evolved into the Watts Magicians travel team. It became an outlet and opportunity for young boys and girls to play basketball.

Among the players who went through the program were former NBA players Marques Johnson, Michael Cooper, David Greenwood, Roy Hamilton, John Williams, Cedric Ceballos, Dwayne Polee and Reggie Theus, plus former WNBA players Cynthia Cooper and Lisa Leslie.

"He's touched many lives on and off the court," Scipio said. "This was the guy who pioneered travel basketball."

He also was known for "vocabulary basketball," which he used to educate his players.

"I devised a list of vocabulary words, which became the 10 commandments of the Watts Magicians," Clarke said in a 1985 Times article. "I'd put the words on a card and during practice, if someone wasn't doing his job, I'd stop and say, 'What's this word?' If it was responsibility, I'd explain what the word meant and its importance to the individual. A lesson, not just bouncing the ball."

Scipio said Clarke's health had deteriorated in recent years. He is survived by sons Luis, Ray and Jose. His body is expected to be cremated.

-- Eric Sondheimer

Photo: Joe Clarke