KOKOMO, Ind. — A season-ending knee injury couldn’t sideline Antoin Clifton.
Well-regarded as a leader for the Indiana University Kokomo men’s basketball team, Clifton took on a coaching role, contributing to his team from the bench when he couldn’t be on the court. He also used his skills to give back in the Kokomo community as a youth sports volunteer.
“At first, it was really hard, just to be at this point in my basketball career,” said Clifton. “Everything I had done before led to this point. It was hard to have it taken away. As time went on, though, it was a good experience. It helped me become a better leader and teammate while I couldn’t be out there with them.”
He became an informal assistant to Coach Eric Echelbarger, providing advice and encouragement for the Cougars.
“We had a lot of success, and it was fun to see them enjoying themselves,” said Clifton, from Chicago. “I think the coaches appreciated what I could add. Coach Echelbarger speaks highly of me, and asks for my input. He’s one of many who makes me feel like I’m still part of the team, and he values what I have to say.”
Echelbarger said Clifton has been a “tremendous asset” during his IU Kokomo career — both on and off the court.
“He is a player who has the ability to take over a game and contribute to winning at a very high level,” he said, describing him as one of the smartest players he’s coached in his 18-year career.
“AC understands the game, and has been a big asset in helping our players understand tactically what we are trying to accomplish against our opponent,” Echelbarger said. “He has been a valuable voice to our coaching staff on things he picked up on in games and practices that can benefit our team. I am proud of him for his growth and development, and even more proud of the way he tackled his injury setbacks and kept pressing forward and finding a way to impact our program.”
Clifton has also coached younger players with J.C. Barnett III, IU Kokomo financial aid counselor, who runs a youth basketball program. In addition, he volunteered at Unified Youth events, a free field day held during the summer.
“I enjoy being there to give back and teach, and help them out,” Clifton said. “There’s stuff as a kid you learn in the moment that stays with you your whole life. You never know when something you’ve said will make a difference for them."
Barnett said whatever Clifton does, whether it’s in the classroom, on the court, or volunteering with youth sports, is done to the best of his ability.
“Anything he puts his mind and heart into, he makes sure he’s giving maximum effort,” Barnett said. “The kids really like him, and are drawn to him quickly. He’s fun, he’s personable, and just has a presence that people, especially the kids, enjoy being around. I’m extremely proud to know him, of our friendship, and of the growth that I’ve seen in him since we’ve met. I know amazing things are to come for him in the future.”
Clifton graduates in May with a business degree, and, with athletic eligibility remaining, hopes to return to IU Kokomo as a graduate student next year. After that, he will see if there are opportunities to play at the next level or to coach.
“It just depends on if my body heals right, and the right thing comes along,” he said. “These last seasons have given me the chance to see the game from a coaching standpoint, so I know I can coach if I want to. We will see what the opportunities are at that point.”
Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.