The performance took place on a summer evening on a windswept outdoor court in a little Pennsylvania town named Mechanicsburg. It was July of 1987, the summer before Billy Owens's senior year at the high school in nearby Carlisle, and Jim Boeheim, the coach at Syracuse, had come to town to watch Owens play in a summer league game against a team of former college players.
Owens had by then narrowed his list of prospective colleges to three: Syracuse, North Carolina and Villanova. Boeheim had driven 6½ hours to Mechanicsburg that day, and after the game he would go another five hours, home to Syracuse, all to be at courtside for what amounted to a glorified pickup game.
That night, Owens sailed. Like wings, his arms and legs seemed to sweep him from one corner of the court to another. Boeheim can still see it: There's Owens, 6'7", bringing the ball down the court, changing hands, a righthander crossing the ball over to his left and then swooping in and scoring on a lefthanded layup, underhand; there's Owens soaring for an offensive rebound and seeming to hover in midair before snatching the ball and stuffing it; there's Owens double-teamed but quickly dishing off to an open man under the basket.
Owens, at 17 a kid among the men on this court, scored 63 points that night, and he shot, with touch, from all points of the court. "He had eight three-pointers in a 15-mile-an-hour wind!" says Boeheim. In all his years of scouting high school players, he had never seen such a performance. "It was just a pleasure to watch," he says. "I don't want to sound corny, but to watch him play was like seeing a work of art. I walked away from there shaking my head. I kept saying to myself, I've got to get this kid!"
Owens has left more than Boeheim shaking his head. Basketball guru Howard Garfinkel, a codirector of the Five-Star summer basketball camps, says, "Going into college, Billy Owens is the best all-around player of the 1980s. He's a tremendous shooter from any range—from one inch to 30 feet. The 21-foot shot is easy for him. Very good dribbler. Explosive moves. And what a passer! Passing is his best thing, really. Left and right hand. On the break. He's so unselfish with all that talent—and that's why he's the player of the decade."
Dean Smith and Rollie Massimino did not have much of a chance to land the player of the 1980s. Owens's brother—and best friend—Michael, 20, is a junior running back on the Syracuse football team, and both his parents, Bill and Marsha, wanted Billy to wear the orange. For the youngest of five children in an extremely close family, those opinions carried weight.
Bill, himself a three-letter athlete at Carlisle High, has at times held down three jobs to support his family; during the 1970s, one of his jobs was as the nighttime director of a community athletic center where his three sons, including Perry, the eldest, played hoops. The two younger brothers went at each other like warrior ants. Says Michael, "I used to tell Billy, 'If you can concentrate enough to make the basket while I'm beating you up like this, you can make it any time.' "
At Carlisle High the brothers were teammates for two seasons. In 1984-85, the first of Billy's four consecutive state championship years, he was a freshman; his teammates included Michael, a junior, and senior Jeff Lebo, who would be a starting guard the next season at North Carolina. The coach was Jeff's father, Dave, and under the elder Lebo's disciplined system, Billy's game blossomed. Stick-thin as a freshman, he had to learn to handle the ball. "I was weak and skinny and I didn't like going inside," he says. "I learned I could do more things with the ball than I thought. Mr. Lebo put it in my mind that I could make the other guys better doing that. Pass the ball. Work it around. A good pass is just as good as a good shot."
By then, Magic Johnson was Billy's model. "Magic's been my idol since middle school," he says. "He'd rather pass the ball than shoot, and get the ball to the guys who have the best shot." Playing in the do-everything Johnson mold, Owens became so obsessed with team play that Dave Lebo had to implore him to shoot more. Says Lebo, "I'd tell him, 'It's time, Billy, for you to take over. You've got to score more.' He was so easy to coach because he was team oriented. He loved to execute a play. He enjoyed running the fast break. He loved doing things correctly."
By his senior year, Owens was 6'9" and a shade over 200 pounds, and consistently inspired comparisons with Johnson, especially for the 53-point show he put on in March's victory over Pittsburgh Central Catholic for the state championship. "He scored in all ways," says Dave Lebo. "Inside, outside, on the fast break. Great passes! It seemed like every time he touched the ball, something happened. He completely dominated the game."