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In simple terms, what Bellfield is doing is gambling with his future. Last week, during the eight-day window for senior basketball players to sign letters of intent, Bellfield did not commit to a college. It was not because he lacked the talent or the grades (he has a 3.2 GPA and a qualifying SAT score). Nor did he lack for suitors; San Diego State, Santa Clara, San Francisco and Washington State all offered him a scholarship. Bellfield didn't sign because he has always dreamed of playing for a prominent Pac-10 program. There is a chance that between now and next summer he won't receive an offer from a program fitting that description, and also a chance that the four schools that currently want him will give their scholarships to someone else. But the 6'2" Bellfield, a starter at Westchester High (26--7 last season), was once offered a scholarship by Washington and just last spring was being recruited by Oregon and Kansas. He believes he can get at least one of those schools interested again. "It's kind of like I am betting on myself," he says. "Do I really believe in my talent?"
Bellfield is one of an untold number of good players across the U.S. who aren't ready to settle. The risks are real: With schools encouraging kids to verbally commit earlier and earlier, players who haven't signed with a school by November of their senior year seem like spoiled fruit; they are assumed to have flaws. "I know some people would say, 'You got a scholarship offer, you take it,'" says Lawanda Bellfield, Oscar's mother. "But Oscar, like a lot of boys, has a dream, and I wouldn't ever want him to give up on his dreams."
A CONFLUENCE OF factors put Bellfield in this position. Following his freshman year at Taft ( Woodland Hills, Calif.), he received his first scholarship offer, from Washington. But Oscar and Lawanda felt (and rightfully so) that a player who gets an offer from a Pac-10 school before his sophomore year is like a stock on the rise. "We thought if he committed then, it might scare away other schools," Lawanda says.
After his sophomore year, Bellfield also received offers from Washington State and UNLV. He was getting letters and the occasional phone call from coaches at a dozen other major schools, despite not even being the most heralded guard on his high school team. He shared the backcourt with Larry Drew Jr., a top 50 guard. For his junior year, Bellfield transferred to Westchester and stepped out from under Drew's shadow. He was named second team Los Angeles all-city and led Westchester to the Southern California Division I regional final, averaging 14.3 points and 5.6 assists a game.
Last February the coaches at Washington pressed him harder to commit, as did the coaches at UNLV. He resisted, he says, because "I didn't want to commit just to commit. I didn't know where I wanted to go. Looking back, maybe I should have committed and then just kept my options open."
In the spring Bellfield played for EBO/ 2K Sports, a powerhouse AAU team based in Las Vegas that counts Washington Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson and Utah Jazz forward Carlos Boozer among its alumni. During tournaments in Houston and Las Vegas, he starred. USC, Oregon, Utah, Boston College, Gonzaga and Kansas began calling regularly. They weren't offering scholarships but the message was clear: If Bellfield played well through the summer, the offers would pour in. "It seemed like everything was going to work out perfectly," says Lawanda, a nurse case manager.
Two months later, however, Bellfield pulled his right groin. He thought about skipping some tournaments, "but if you don't play, colleges will say you're not tough," Bellfield says. The injury was slow to heal, and he struggled the entire summer. The low point came in late July at the Adidas Super 64 in Las Vegas. "I had lost all my lateral quickness and couldn't jump," he says. "It hurt so much I could only play a minute or two at a time."
After that tournament, as if on cue, every school that was enamored of him in the spring suddenly lost interest. Moreover, Washington and UNLV, schools that had been pushing him to orally commit, stopped recruiting him.
Coaches rarely tell a player why they've lost interest (and it is against NCAA rules for them to comment on Bellfield for this story). Bellfield, who has since recovered from the groin pull, could only assume that they didn't know about his injury. "They had to be thinking that I was lazy, that I wasn't playing to my full potential," he said.
Bellfield watched as two other top point guard prospects from Southern California, his former teammate Drew and Brandon Jennings, signed with North Carolina and Arizona, respectively. "You read or hear about other kids committing or signing and you think, Wait, but that was my spot."