Schea Cotton greets you in a tank top, and you think, This is not a just world we live in. Schea is barely 16, with a physique that makes Michelangelo's David look wispy. Only his bashfulness and mouthful of braces remind you that he is an adolescent.
Schea collects baseball cards and, to his exasperation, still doesn't have his learner's permit. The braces will be on for another year. In three years—he has confided to his parents, Gaynell and James—he would like to be good enough to leapfrog from high school to the NBA. Don't laugh. This kid could pull it off. You will only be hearing more about Schea.
First off, consider the numbers: He is 6'5" and 215 pounds and has a vertical jump of 42 inches. He was in the sixth grade when he first dunked in a game. Last July, at 15, he was a co-winner of the the dunk competition at a summer-league tournament that featured some of the best schoolboy basketball players in the country. He was, according to those whose business it is to know such things, the best high school freshman in the U.S. last season, when he averaged 21 points for Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., and led the Monarchs to the semifinals of the Division I state tournament. Mater Dei is Latin for "Mother of God," which doubles as an appropriate exclamation after one of Schea's bestial slams.
One of those slam dunks was the Dr. J-like sideways tomahawk number that Schea threw down last week in the Great Western Shootout, a schoolboy tournament in Huntington Beach, Calif., during the third quarter of a game against an overmatched all-star team from Kentucky. The dunk ended a shooting slump for Schea. After making his first seven shots of the game, including a pull-up 12-foot jumper, a three-pointer from the top of the key, a reverse layup, a baseline leaner off the glass and a lane-driving finger roll, he'd finally missed. Once.
July 24, 1994
Looking on as Schea conducted this clinic was Arizona coach Lute Olson—staid, stoic Lute—who was reduced to giggling and shaking his head and marveling at the deeds of the precocious youngster. Olson has successfully recruited three Mater Dei players in recent years and would dearly love to make it four.
Olson, Arizona State's Bill Frieder and Jim Harrick of UCLA were just three of perhaps three dozen college coaches in the Ocean View High gym that night. College coaches are prohibited by NCAA strictures from writing to Schea until he is a junior or phoning him until after his junior year, and their only hope, for now, is to be seen by him. So they crowded the bleachers, striving to make eye contact with the sophomore-to-be and soaking in his every move. "I'm so used to them by now that I just zone them out," says Schea. "I think of them as fans."
Worshipers would be more accurate. Schea figures to be the kind of player who could bring them job security; bring them a better job and a more lucrative sneaker deal; bring them to the Final Four.
While they worry about that, Schea worries about such things as who's going to give him a lift to summer school. Says Gaynell, "Every morning it's, 'What should I wear? What's for breakfast?" He's still a boy in a man's body."
A boy in a man's body playing an inhuman schedule. For soon-to-be blue-chippers and Division I wannabes, July is the crudest month. Recently passed NCAA rules that limit coaches to three off-campus visits per recruit have magnified the importance of July basketball. Summer tournaments allow a coach to see a prospect, in as many as five or six games that count as only one visit. So for 27 days of this month, the NCAA has decreed, coaches can watch prospects to their hearts' content. "For college evaluators, their very livelihood rests on these 27 days," says Bob Gibbons, who puts out All-Star Sports, a recruiting newsletter. As a result, the high-profile camps and sneaker-company-sponsored "shoot-outs" are now crowded into the seventh month. While competing at half a dozen tournaments in Deerfield, Ill., Dallas, Southern California, Las Vegas and Phoenix, Schea will have played in as many as 35 games this July.
Schea's month began at the Nike Festival in Deerfield, to which 140 of the nation's premier schoolboys are invited. Last year he was one of two ninth-graders at the Nike camp. This year, despite being one of only five sophomore invitees, "Schea was one of the 10 best players there," according to Gibbons, who chooses which players attend the Nike Festival. "He was not intimidated by older, bigger players. He did not back down."
Gibbons tempers his praise with a dose of caution: "Over the years, there have been a lot of phenoms who matured before other kids their age. The danger is that things come so easily to them that they stop working on their games."
Schea's sentinel against stagnation is Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight, who is challenging him to become the best defensive player he can be. "He'll get bored with just scoring," says McKnight, who has had 35 players earn Division I scholarships in his 13 years at Mater Dei and who calls Schea "the most talented offensive player I've ever had. He can put the ball on the floor, shoot the three, and he can outjump anybody I've ever seen."
But Schea's best safeguard against complacency is his family. He learned his work ethic from his parents and his big brother, James Jr., a.k.a. Little James, a 6'5" swingman who won the Big West Conference's freshman of the year award last season at Long Beach State.
"It's tough to survive in our house with an ego," says Big James, a contractor whose gentility and ready smile belie his toughness. James looks good for 50; he looks even better after you find out that in 1968 he had to jump from a truck he was driving when the brakes failed on I-40 outside Salt Lake City. "Broke both legs, busted up my shoulders, had my face reconstructed," he says. "I've had to wear a corset ever since."
The Cottons believe in doing things the hard way. Schea doesn't have to be in summer school: That was Gaynell's idea. In the spring he pulled a gentleman's C in a math course—didn't even flunk it. But there he is, hauling his butt out of bed at 6:45 because his mother doesn't want a C on his transcript.
Despite their obvious virtues, Big James and Gaynell are no pair of wide-eyed na‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤fs, wading helplessly through the swamp of big-time basketball. They know how to play this game and are not above manipulating the system for their benefit. Though they frequently remind listeners of what a fine student Schea is, they had him repeat the sixth grade. This kind of holdback, which gives a kid an added year of physical development, is a common ploy of ambitious parents angling for athletic scholarships for their children. However, Gaynell says that wasn't her motivation. She says that the Cottons moved from San Pedro, Calif., to Lakewood in 1990 because of fears about gang activity in San Pedro, and that there were no openings in the seventh grade at St. Irenaeus Catholic School, so Schea had no choice but to repeat the sixth.
The move to Lakewood was made after James Jr.'s sophomore year at Artesia (Calif.) High, when he transferred to St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, about five miles from Lakewood. According to a friend of the family's, Gaynell and Big James were displeased with the fact that, at Artesia, Little James had been playing in the shadow of blue-chippers Avondre Jones and Charles O'Bannon, who went on to play at USC and UCLA, respectively.
Schea was set to follow his brother to St. John Bosco, but after playing in a summer league for the Braves' coach, Brian Breslin, he transferred to state powerhouse Mater Dei before classes started, in part because of differences that arose between James Sr. and Breslin. "He was trying to break Schea," says Big James. "He wanted to tear him down and start from scratch, and we've got too much time and money invested in him for that. [Breslin] was six years too late."
Breslin's rebuttal: "The defense Schea plays is based on his athletic ability. We wanted to teach him better defensive technique. If James wants to call that tearing him down, so be it."
St. John Bosco survived without Schea, going on to win the state's Division II championship. Meanwhile, in the Division I semifinals, Mater Dei lost by four points to Crenshaw High. Olson, the Wildcat coach, flew in to watch the Monarchs' quarterfinal game against Fresno's Bullard High. Olson was there to see Mater Dei forward and Wildcat signee Miles Simon, who had his thunder stolen by Schea, who went for 36 that night.
"When that three is falling, the points can pile up pretty quick," says Big James in the Ocean View gym, smiling at the memory of the Mater Dei-Bullard game. While he talks, he seldom looks from the monitor of the camcorder with which he is taping this night's game. Like clockwork, Big James arrives 30 minutes before tip-off with his camcorder. He has taped, he estimates, about 300 of his sons' games. "I like doing it," he says. "I'm the kind of person who's got to have a routine."
This puts him in mind of the routine awaiting Schea in August. "He's going to work," says Big James. When Schea finally does get his driver's license, he'll be tooling around in a '66 Mustang, a gift from his great uncle Teddy Lawrence. Says James, "Schea wants new wheel covers, a paint job, a stereo system. I told him that's fine. But he'll work to pay for it. I can't stand a lazy boy."
On the court Schea rejects the shot of a Los Alamitos player. Then he takes a pass, dribbles the ball through three opponents, explodes from the floor like an Olympic long jumper and unleashes a cataclysmic jam. A tight smile flashes on Big James's face, then disappears. "He's got a lot of work to do yet," the father says. "Long as you work hard, I'm happy. You don't have to be the best player in the world."
And Schea isn't. He is merely its best 10th-grader.