In the visiting locker room at KeyArena, Kevin Garnett, then a first-year Celtic, was deep into his pregame ritual before Boston faced the Seattle SuperSonics. In the midst of his meditation, he was handed a 13-year-old high school basketball magazine that outlined the nation’s top players from 1995, including he and Paul Pierce.
In that magazine, a reporter detailed how a burly phenom dominated Garnett in an AAU game. He used his physicality to push around the lanky, 6-foot-10-inch Garnett, using his lefthanded dribble to score at will, stunning onlookers because he was just a freshman. That wunderkind’s name was Schea Cotton, and while Garnett’s Celtics teammates were chiding him for the magazine story, Garnett made a statement that has stuck with Cotton the past decade.
“Y’all don’t understand,” Garnett told his laughing teammates. “This dude was LeBron before LeBron.”
Indeed, Cotton was LeBron James before we ever heard of St. Vincent-St. Mary. He was a powerfully built forward who was 6-4 and 220 pounds by his freshman year at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. He was tabbed the best freshman, sophomore, and junior player in the nation. But he never played an NBA game, spending just one year at the University of Alabama before a 10-year sojourn around the world in a quest to make the big time, getting as close as the Orlando Magic summer league team in 2000.
Nearly two decades later, the 36-year-old Cotton is at peace with his place as one of the greatest players of his generation never to make it to prominence. He has his own basketball academy in Southern California and is also coaching an AAU team of 11-year-olds.
Cotton recalls leading Mater Dei to the Division 1 state title as a sophomore, shortly before Garnett was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves. He also recalls his downfall, undrafted after he left Alabama in 2000, and left to play overseas until finally retiring at age 30.
“What I am doing today is more special than what I did when I played and I think I did a lot in a short time when I played,” Cotton said. “My career was cut short because of stuff out of my control and obviously having an injury and going from being super hot to cold and trying to warm back up again. It just seemed like I was before my time. It’s not for everybody, and God wanted me to take a different route. I had a good ride but what I’m doing is paying it forward and helping everybody else.”
Cotton transferred from national power Mater Dei to St. John Bosco in Bellflower, Calif., after his sophomore season, and those final two years of high school became chaotic. He was distracted by agents, recruiters, and hangers-on, all fully aware of his mindboggling potential. There were women attempting to lure him at his high school games; there was an offer of a house and two cars before his freshman year.
“I was 15 years old at that time,” he said.
He was academically unqualified to play at UCLA, where he committed, and then spent a year at Long Beach City College before transferring to Alabama. By then, the next megastar was an undersized power forward with a bad left shoulder. His stock and reputation plummeted.
“Back then it was a fishbowl, I couldn’t do anything without scrutiny,” said Cotton, who averaged 24 points and 10 rebounds as a high school sophomore. “I was 15 years old with parents idolizing me, wanting me to train their kids for $100 an hour, and I’m just trying to make it through my day and get my nap in. It was crazy.”
While his contemporaries soared toward college scholarships, Cotton’s career was derailed by off-the-court issues and shoulder surgery that caused him to miss his senior season. His game remained impressive but he never experienced a second growth spurt.
Cotton has carried this “whatever happened to you?” tag for years and it was something that caused great discomfort as he played in France, Yugoslavia, Venezuela, and in the USBL. He has since become more comfortable with himself.
“When I hung my sneakers up and my daughter was born, I knew the fight was over,” he said. “As an athlete, you never want to hear you’re not going to make it. So when I realized my NBA dream was shattered and I got tired of traveling to play the game that I love, I had peace. I developed a different type of peace. I’ve been through a lot of dark times, man.”
Garnett sparked the second generation of prep-to-pros players in 1995 before players such as Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal followed a year later. College remained the primary choice for great high school players, but when Cotton left St. John Bosco in 1997, he opted for prep school in Connecticut, beginning an odyssey that would never result in the success he desired.
“I had so much pressure on me but I didn’t allow it to get the best of me,” Cotton said of his early high school years. “I wanted to show people I was special. I felt I was a pioneer at the time to put the spotlight on the West Coast, primarily the Los Angeles area.”
Yet Cotton said he rarely enjoyed any benefits from his stardom.
“You know, some days I would come home and there were 15, 20 people at my house,” he said. “It was absolutely crazy, from agents to handlers to parasites to leeches, everybody wanted a piece of me. They wanted to be around, just to get a taste of that high life. It was a like a roller coaster ride that never ended. When I woke up from it, it was like a nightmare.
“I’ve been in a dark alley for a lot of years and now I’m coming out of that alley. I feel like I have a second chance to make it right and make sure it doesn’t happen to somebody else’s kids that I’m dealing with.”
Cotton has developed a documentary, appropriately entitled “Manchild,” and he has also started a foundation for children. He still looks as if he can play, not far from his high school size, and in clips of his documentary, Pierce, Metta World Peace, and BaronDavis rave about Cotton’s dominance during those early years.
“That’s what I miss, not playing and being around those guys, you lose touch,” Cotton said. “It’s been really lonely for me for a lot of years. I really enjoy being involved with the youth because they bring me back to a really happy time in my life. I’m doing something for them that people didn’t do for me at that age.
“You know, I was the guy before everybody else. They forgot about me. I just want to tell my story to the world. I did everything I was supposed to do and it just wasn’t in the cards for me, and when you accept that, you move forward and grow.”
Youth will be served again in Philadelphia
The Philadelphia 76ers have one player above the age of 27 as they enter another transition season: veteran guard Jason Richardson. Besides that, Philly is painfully young and just dealt one of its more experienced players — seventh-year forward Thaddeus Young — to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the three-team Kevin Love deal that also involved the Cleveland Cavaliers.
General manager Sam Hinkie once again has put together a team expected to be among the worst in the league as he orchestrates the 76ers’ molasses-paced rebuilding plan. Entering training camp, Philadelphia has 12 players age 23 or younger. So leadership could be a major issue.
“It is important for our young players to have other players to look up to, players to show them the way,” Hinkie said. “A lot of that responsibility last season fell to our coaching staff. We have a very young, vibrant, aggressive coaching staff. Our players look to our coaching staff to show them the ropes. These are all things that are incumbent on us to help our young guys. Many of them see this as an opportunity to make a name for themselves.”
Hinkie has been extremely active since taking over as GM in May 2013. He acquired former second overall pick Hasheem Thabeet last week from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Scores of players have been rumored over the past few months to be going to the 76ers because of their fluid roster and salary-cap space.
“Honestly, there have been hundreds of these guys that have been floated out there, it’s one of the things that comes when you have a lot of flexibility,” Hinkie said. “Often teams or agents have particular needs of their own, which might cause those names to be out there. We were rumored for a very long time to have a deal to acquire Omer Asik, who has since been traded [from Houston to New Orleans] and there was nothing there either. We just hope people see over time that there aren’t a lot of leaks to come out of [our organization].”
Hinkie held out Everett native Nerlens Noel for the entire 2013-14 season after he sustained a torn left anterior cruciate ligament during the end of his freshman year at Kentucky. And there has been speculation Hinkie will do the same thing with rookie Joel Embiid, who slipped in the draft because of a fractured foot that required surgery. Hinkie would not count Embiid out for this season — yet.
“Right now he’s still in a boot and not able to do a whole lot,” Hinkie said. “Without knowing where the finish line will be, how can we be sure we do everything in our power to put him in a position to have a really long, productive NBA career? We’ll try to put down on paper — here are all the benchmarks we’ll have to meet for us to know that it is the right decision for [Embiid] to go out and play NBA basketball. And when he meets that, he’ll play, however long it takes.”
Noel is healthy and played in the Orlando and Las Vegas summer leagues, averaging 13.4 points and 5.6 rebounds in five games, with the 76ers holding him out of selected games to rest his surgically repaired knee.
“He’s had a pretty good summer,” Hinkie said. “He worked very hard last season, and at the very end of last season he sort of met all the benchmarks we laid out in our protocol. That’s really important for us. The ability to maximize your gifts is the key, and Nerlens has incredible gifts. He has the ability to change the game very quickly with his shot-blocking.
“He’s got real quickness with the ball. I don’t think we saw as much as I’d like to see with his ability to run the floor, which is a difference-maker for him and a real gift, and I thought he ought to be able to put real pressure on defenses, a pick-and-roll player. I think that’s going to be a place where he could do some damage.”
ON THE RISE
Pelicans’ Davis comes of age with Team USA
Anthony Davis was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft but his development has been somewhat overshadowed after two non-playoff seasons with New Orleans. Yet his contributions to USA Basketball, competing with the top young players in the NBA, has been sparkling as Team USA enters the FIBA World Cup.
In four games leading up to the World Cup opener with Finland, Davis averaged 13.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.7 blocked shots in just 20.5 minutes. As expected, Davis is looking more comfortable and dominant as he grows physically into his frame. And watching intently is Team USA assistant coach Monty Williams, Davis’s coach with the Pelicans who will be banking on the third-year forward to make a playoff push.
“As far as how it helps us going forward, all of the guys who play in this, if you look at it from a historical standpoint, they’ve all taken huge leaps when they left the Olympic team or championship teams,” Williams said. “I think Anthony along with all of our guys [on Team USA], they look forward to taking that leap because they understand the different atmosphere — and what we do every day is certainly an environment where you can get better.”
Davis was the top player in college basketball during his lone season at Kentucky and he has turned into one of the NBA’s top defensive big men. His improvement has been aided by two appearances with USA Basketball, including his surprising entry in the 2012 London Olympics.
“It’s a big jump [this year], especially since I didn’t play that much in 2012 [Olympics] but I learned a lot from just being there, being around all those guys,” said Davis. “So to get my opportunity to be one of the main guys on the team, that means a lot, and I don’t want to take anything for granted.”
Davis has suddenly turned into a voice of experience with his Team USA résumé, as players such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Love declined invitations to play, Kevin Durant left the team last month, and Paul George sustained a gruesome broken leg on Aug. 1.
“I think my role definitely got bigger when Kevin dropped out and Paul got hurt,” Davis said. “I think that me and James [Harden] being the guys on the [previous] Olympic team, we’re trying to do a job of leading the team. All the guys are stepping up and saying what they have to say. I think we all lean on each other for advice.”
Perhaps a forgotten man in the Celtics’ rotation is swingman Gerald Wallace, who became a valuable reserve last season before missing the final 23 games after undergoing surgery to repair a torn left meniscus and suffering from bone spurs in his left ankle. Wallace has been rehabilitating this summer and is expected to join the team in training camp. He has two more years and more than $20 million on his contract but did serve as a strong mentor for the team’s younger core last season . . . An intriguing free agent who remains available is former Celtic Jordan Crawford, who finished last season with the Golden State Warriors and was hoping his production there would land him a new contract. Crawford has been a victim of the bizarre free agent market that also has squeezed out players such as Andray Blatche and Ramon Sessions. Much of the rest of the free agent lot is made up of aging veterans, including Jermaine O’Neal, Antawn Jamison, Emeka Okafor, and Charlie Villanueva . . . Former Celtic Fab Melo has signed with Paulistano in Brazil, looking to resurrect his career after disappointing stints with the Celtics and Dallas Mavericks. Melo, 24, has told Brazilian media members that the Celtics never truly gave him a chance before trading him after one season. Although the Celtics made a rather expeditious decision to move their former first-round pick, they already had determined the process of developing Melo into an NBA-capable center would take longer than the organization wanted. Melo also flamed out with Dallas, having gotten into a heated exchange with Texas Legends coach Eduardo Najera while playing for the Mavericks’ D-League affiliate . . . Among players to watch in the FIBA World Cup that began Saturday: Andres Nocioni (Argentina), who is seeking another NBA shot; Dante Exum (Australia), drafted fifth overall this year by the Utah Jazz; Alex Abrines (Spain), a second-round pick of Oklahoma City in 2013; Bogdan Bogdanovic (Serbia), a first-round pick of the Phoenix Suns this year; and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Ukraine), a 6-8 swingman and the youngest player in the tournament at 17.