PEAKING TOO SOON

Before Demetrius, before LeBron, there was teen sensation Schea Cotton, who couldn't live up to the hype
January 24, 2005

WE'VE SEEN the Demetrius Walker story before, haven't we--the one about the very young teen who might be good enough to leapfrog from high school to the NBA? In fact, we wrote those very words in this magazine (July 25, 1994), and the subject was 16-year-old Schea Cotton of Los Angeles, a rising sophomore at Mater Dei High in nearby Santa Ana, Calif. "Don't laugh," we said of Schea's straight-to-the-NBA ambitions. "This kid could pull it off."

He's still hoping to. Ten years, 17 teams and four continents later, the Schea Cotton story is a cautionary tale for Demetrius Walker and other hoop dreamers. "If most kids had to go through what I went through, 85 to 90 percent would be strung out on drugs," says Cotton, who, having been cut last May from the Cedar Rapids River Raiders of the USBL, is back in L.A. living with his parents, Gaynell and James. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be in this position now, seemingly begging for a chance."

As the 1994 article noted, the teenage Cotton, who was already 6'5" and 215 pounds and had a vertical leap of 42 inches, dominated his foes at Mater Dei, where he averaged 20 points as a freshman. The following season the shooting guard--small forward scored 24.0 points per game and carried the Monarchs to a state championship. But after he suffered injuries to his left hand as a junior and to his right shoulder as a senior, his play deteriorated. As his prospects dimmed, Cotton notes, the glad-handers and hangers-on "started falling by the wayside."

Still, he got scholarship offers. In 1997 he committed to Long Beach State, then suddenly switched to UCLA but was denied admission there after the NCAA invalidated his SAT scores. He then enrolled at St. Thomas More Academy in Oakdale, Conn., and played well enough to earn an offer to North Carolina State. But Cotton's SATs again came under scrutiny, and the NCAA once more refused him eligibility. So he spent a year at Long Beach (Calif.) City College, was declared eligible by the NCAA and qualified for a scholarship at Alabama. In 1999--2000, playing power forward, he was the Crimson Tide's leading scorer, averaging 15.5 points. Though he had two years of eligibility remaining, Cotton hired an agent and declared for the 2000 NBA draft. He was not selected. "If I were a basketball coroner, it would be an easy cause of death: Too much, too soon, and he wasn't 6'11"," says a senior executive with an NBA team. "As he got older and other players matured and advanced their skills, he was stuck in neutral with horrible habits."

Since that draft, the closest Cotton has come to the NBA was playing for the Los Angeles Clippers' 2003 summer league team. Among his many stops were the CBA in Sioux Falls, the NBDL in Huntsville, Ala., the USBL in Fort Worth and the ABA in Long Beach. He's played in Venezuela, for Vlade Divac's former team in Serbia and for Yao Ming's former team in Shanghai.

While awaiting the next call, Cotton leans on his older brother, James, a guard who played two seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics. The brothers have teamed up on real estate investments and a line of designer T-shirts, and are shopping a film treatment about Schea's odyssey. Schea Cotton cautions latter-day phenoms like Walker to keep a level head and steer clear of the hype. "People have to realize that you can be hot this morning and cold this afternoon," he says. "It happens that quick."

--Andrew Lawrence

COLOR PHOTOAt 16 Schea was wowing foes and scouts at Mater Dei and thinking NBA. COLOR PHOTOAfter a 17-team hoop odyssey, a still hopeful Cotton, 26, is living with his folks in L.A.

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