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.
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."