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�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.