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St. John Neumann’s Hanief Clay keeps moving forward

Hanief Clay suffered through Thanksgiving without eating as pain overtook him. The next morning he learned the root of those problems and his appendix was removed.

It was the latest painful hit Clay absorbed. Some wondered if he could make it back in time for St. John Neumann’s first basketball game.

But to know Clay is to understand he would definitely be there. The Neumann point guard has dealt with more personal tragedy in his young life than many adults, but he cannot be broken. He has taken the hits but has kept moving forward.

And there Clay was last Saturday, starting his first high school game at Neumann, running the offense well, playing tough defense and helping the Knights defeat Montgomery, 93-55. Clay is back doing what he loves most and his spirit is as impressive as his talent.

“I take pride in where I come from, where I am and who I am. It’s a blessing to be out there,” Clay said. “I just stay humble and do my best to get better and to help my teammates get better.”

Clay became one of Neumann’s most popular players and students last year without playing a game. After transferring from Williamsport following his freshman season, Clay had to sit out his sophomore campaign. Others were frustrated, but Clay stayed positive, kept smiling and kept revealing his character.

He never missed a practice and he never sulked. Clay treated each practice like a game, made his teammates better and made a big contribution as Neumann captured the District 4 Class A championship.

“Last year he never once complained in practice due to his situation. He embraced it and made us better every day,” all-state Neumann guard David Hill said. “For a kid to practice that hard knowing he won’t be able to play in the game the next day just goes to show who he is.”

“He could have just walked into the sunset, but he took it with a grain of salt,” Neumann coach Jamie Spencer said. “The one person who didn’t complain was Hanief and I’m so proud of how he handled it. It made him a better person, a better basketball player.”

Neumann fans and non-basketball students did not see the type of player Clay was last year, but they instantly liked the person he is. The next person who says something negative about Clay likely will be the first. Hard-working, polite and gracious, Clay set a positive example and made quite an impact before he even picked up a basketball last winter.

Once the season did start, Clay put his team first. He couldn’t play in the games, but he could get hist teammates as ready as possible. An excellent ball-handler who can shoot well, see the whole floor and swarm opponents, Clay gave his best to bring out Neumann’s best. Both Hill and his younger brother Davion earned all-state honors and it certainly helped going against an exciting player with a relentless motor like Clay each day.

“Hanief has a dog mentality. He’s the energy to both our offense and defense,” David Hill said. “For him to go through what he’s went through and still keep his head just shows what kind of person he is and he’s bound to have a breakout season.”

Clay often has had to work his way back. He broke his thumb early in his first JV game at Williamsport and missed nearly his entire freshman year. After missing last season, Clay had to wonder if his junior year would go by with no games as well due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then he lost his appendix.

Obstacles have blocked his path at times, but Clay has never felt sorry for himself or quit grinding.

“During that time I was keeping my head up and staying with my teammates and moving forward and getting better,” Clay said. “I feel like I learned to be patient and understand the process. I just had to stay humble and keep working to get myself better for when I came back.”

Now Clay is back and the only ones happier than he are his coaches, teammates and fans.

“Hanief was tremendous last year. He set the tone. We challenge the kids in sprints to beat Hanief and nobody could do it,” Spencer said. “For him to get an opportunity is special. It’s well worth the wait.”

Clay joins a backcourt which includes the Hill brothers. Forward Keon Burkholder is another returning starter and the bench potentially could be deep. Having Clay at point guard, allows Davion Hill to go back to shooting guard and could push Neumann from being a district title again to state title contender.

He scored 11 points, made four steals and added three assists against Montgomery, but Clay’s value goes beyond the stats. He brings an attitude, an edge and makes sure his teammates are giving their all. Without playing a game last year, Clay earned immense respect and quickly became a team leader. All those qualities could make what already was a very good team, great.

“In practice, Hanief is a bulldog. If someone is not doing their job he’s the type of kid that leads by example but also will be that vocal leader,” Spencer said. “He can get on anyone and they will listen to him because they respect him so much.”

The last two years were difficult and Clay did not know if this season would happen. Now he finally is playing games again. But even when he could not play in the games, this profile in perseverance viewed each day as an opportunity. Each day provided the chance to grow and Clay has grown more than many can imagine.

“I always try to lead the younger guys, especially the freshmen and sophomores and try to get them to understand that this is a blessing,” Clay said. “I’m always pushing and making sure everyone goes hard and gets better each day. Every day is an opportunity to get better.”

Every day, Clay reveals his best. And through it all, he remains unbreakable.

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