Almost Famous: LeBron Before LeBron
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because stardom is often undone by a series of unfortunate events.
Schea Cotton never really had a childhood. He was too damn good at basketball. When he was just 12, The Los Angeles Times profiled the 6-foot, 180-pound sensation. ESPN and Sports Illustrated followed suit. By high school, the 6-foot, 5-inch, 215-pound guard with a 42-inch vertical and smooth left-handed shot had “future NBA superstar” written all over him, his talent eclipsing rivals like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh and Lamar Odom.
Cotton was fast and strong. He was explosive off the dribble, he finished above the rim. Cotton was a man-child playing with boys. He was unprecedented. He was “LeBron before LeBron.” So says Garnett. So says Pierce. So says just about everyone who saw him play.
Then Schea Cotton vanished. He took his talents to obscurity. He never played a single NBA game; he wasn’t even drafted. His largely pre-Internet-age exploits became the stuff of urban legend, his fall the subject of rumors involving NCAA violations, injuries and just plain overhype. So what really happened to Cotton? And how good was he? A new documentary about Cotton, Manchild, which recently premiered at a private screening in Hollywood, seeks to answer those questions.
Cotton was never able to recoup those two lost seasons he spent among inferior competition.
Sports Illustrated profiled Cotton in the summer of 1994, when he was a 16-year-old sophomore at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, California, where he had averaged 21 points as a freshman. He wore braces on his teeth and didn’t have a driver’s license, but he already had a physique, wrote SI’s Austin Murphy, that made “Michelangelo’s David look wispy.” The week before, in a clinic set up against an all-star team from Kentucky, Cotton had dazzled the crowd with everything from three-pointers to reverse layups to a sideways tomahawk dunk. Precluded from making contact with Cotton until his junior year, dozens of college coaches, including Lute Olson of Arizona and Jim Harrick of UCLA, watched from the bleachers in covetous awe.
Cotton’s fame spread the old-fashioned way: by word of mouth. After averaging 24 points and becoming the first sophomore ever to win Cal-Hi Sports’ Division I Player of the Year, he transferred to St. John Bosco High School, where the teenager’s life truly became a fish bowl filled with would-be agents, handlers and hangers-on. “From that point, I was definitely a marked man,” Cotton tells OZY. “It rose the stakes.”
Garnett made the leap from high school to the NBA in 1995 and Kobe Bryant followed a year later, but college remained the predominant route to the pros when Cotton finished high school in 1997. But by that time, things had already started to slow down for the young phenom, and his formidable physique even began to let him down. He missed his entire senior season after a major shoulder injury. Still, the future looked bright: Cotton committed to play college ball for UCLA — just days before future NBA guard and fellow Los Angeles baller Baron Davis did the same.
What tripped up Cotton next is something that has tripped up so many aspiring college students, particularly athletes: the SAT. Cotton’s score of 900 was safely above the 700 mark required to qualify for NCAA competition, but Cotton had received extra time to take the exam after being diagnosed with acute test-related anxiety by a psychologist. The dispensation had been approved by ETS, the company administering the exam, but because Cotton did not have a recognized learning disability, the NCAA refused to validate the test, and the academically ineligible Cotton — caught in the crossfire between the two organizations — lost his scholarship right before classes began.
Unable to attend UCLA, Cotton enrolled in a Connecticut prep school before returning home to California to dominate at Long Beach City College. Cotton eventually earned a scholarship to attend Alabama but was never able to recoup the two lost seasons he spent among inferior competition, and things went downhill from there. And, as the injured Cotton got older and started facing stiffer competition, he came to be viewed by some in the game as a “tweener” — a player who’s not quite fast enough to keep up with elite guards and not quite big enough to push opponents around at the forward position in the pros. Cotton’s once-exceptional size and talents were no longer so exceptional.
In 2000, Cotton finally entered the NBA Draft. Not a single team bid on the former phenom. He would spend 10 years playing in France, Venezuela and five other countries, learning multiple languages but never getting a crack at the NBA. Now 37, Cotton is still active in the game he loves. He runs his own basketball academy in Southern California and seems to have come to grips with the fact that he will always be known as one of the greatest who almost was. In addition to promoting the new film, he is working on starting a foundation to help underprivileged children attend college.
“I’m looking forward,” Cotton says defiantly. “I’m not looking back.”