Around 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1986, reporters, TV crews and fans began gathering in a room at Fairfax High School in Hollywood, Calif. They were anxious to hear Sean Higgins, a high school forward as fine as any in the land, announce his choice for college. Kentucky, Michigan, UCLA, Texas and Louisville led the hundreds of contenders. It was also an important moment for Sean's family. His mother, Vickie Benson-Bey, had prepared a press release and invitations and mailed them to the media.
As Fairfax principal Warren Steinberg laid out coffee and doughnuts, those in attendance speculated on the future of the 6'8" high school All-America who had held his own in summer pickup games at UCLA against the likes of Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper.
But 7:30 came and went without the Higgins family. Soon it was 7:45, then 8:00, and still there was no sign of Higgins, his mother or his stepfather, Clifford Benson-Bey. Steinberg called the family three times, only to reach an answering machine. Finally, at 8:20, Steinberg's secretary handed him a note. Vickie Benson-Bey had called to say that something had come up and they would be unavailable. But, she said, Steinberg could make the announcement himself: Higgins had signed a national letter of intent to enroll at UCLA. Two hours later, Higgins's mother called Steinberg. "She said they'd been up most of the night." Steinberg recalls. "They were all pooped, so they weren't able to come. She indicated it had been a hard night."
As Sean Higgins now tells it, it had in fact been a very hard time generally. One hour before the press conference he had indeed signed the letter of intent. But he alleges he did so only under coercion by his stepfather and after being offered improper inducements. Higgins is now trying to withdraw that commitment, and the NCAA and Pac-10 are investigating his case.
The Higgins affair is a cause célèbre in Los Angeles, where newspaper stories have told of a tug-of-war in the player's family over his choice of schools. Sean's mother and stepfather pressed him to pick nearby UCLA, and his father. Earle Higgins, a former Eastern Michigan star who played briefly in the American Basketball Association and now lives in Southfield, Mich., favored the University of Michigan. Sean, who grew up in Ann Arbor, now says he preferred Michigan all along.
He also paints a sordid picture of how he came to sign the letter of intent. Although the NCAA and Pac-10 refuse to comment on their investigations, Higgins has told SI that a wealthy UCLA alumnus offered him a car and other enticements if he became a Bruin. He also gives his version of why he and his family were no-shows at the Nov. 18 press conference. Higgins, who now lives with a cousin, says his 6'9", 250-pound stepfather struck him during a quarrel early that morning, after he made clear his desire to attend Michigan. Higgins contends that he signed the letter against his will, only after Clifford Benson-Bey had menaced him with a baseball bat.
Up to the moment Higgins signed with UCLA, even some of the people closest to him were not sure which school he would choose. He had been sending conflicting signals for weeks. Claude Mills, whose son, Chris, is a teammate of Sean's at Fairfax, thought Higgins was headed for UCLA. But Pat Barrett, who coached Higgins in a summer league for two years, felt Sean was Michigan-bound. "It was his first love," Barrett says. "I think he was afraid to tell his mom because of [her] reaction. He waited as long as he could." Sean's father and his half-sister, Jamie, a student at Michigan, say he assured them he would play for the Wolverines.
The young man who is the subject of this cross-continent drama was born to Vickie Dempsey and Earle Higgins in Detroit on Dec. 30, 1968. The couple never married and eventually drifted apart. Vickie later married and divorced once before marrying Benson-Bey, a Los Angeles city bus driver, in 1985. Sean spent his first 11 years in Ann Arbor before his mother took him to Los Angeles. But he never quite detached himself from his Michigan roots. "Michigan is in here," he says, pointing to his heart. "By the time I was seven I knew the Michigan fight song by heart."
Higgins's mother, a computer analyst, is "a bright, able woman," according to Steinberg. After raising Sean, she was opposed to his returning to Michigan. "I'm an only child," Sean says. "She wanted me close to home. But I'm not her little boy anymore."
According to Higgins, after his one official visit to UCLA, but a few weeks before the early-signing period, he was driven to the Los Angeles estate of UCLA and Fairfax alumnus Steven Antebi by Marty Biegel, a former Fairfax basketball coach. One source alleges that Bruins coach Walt Hazzard helped arrange the visit. Biegel says that he took Higgins to Antebi's house at Antebi's request; he says he did not talk to Hazzard about the visit. He says that he and Higgins were joined at Antebi's home by Benson-Bey who drove his own car.