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There have been just a handful of others like Johnson—7-footer Michael Olowokandi didn't play basketball until he was 18, when he cold-called the University of the Pacific. So catalogued and cross-referenced was every young big man in the country that it seemed there were no undiscovered gems. Yet when Cantu first saw Dewayne Dedmon in July 2009, months before he played his first official game for AVC, he didn't see a gangly kid who'd never played in a college game. He saw Ervin Johnson.
The setting was a junior college showcase at USC's Galen Center. It was essentially a window-shopping event for big schools: About 30 jucos from around California brought their teams and played two days' worth of games so coaches could scout transfer prospects. For Horton, the exposure would help his players get Division I scholarships, and those scholarships would help sell his program to future recruits.
Dedmon arrived as an afterthought; he had no stats, no scouting file and no buzz. Then, 30 seconds into his first game, he pinned a shot against the glass. Then another. Then he ran the floor and got a dunk. He missed a lot of easy shots, and he looked lost at times, but it didn't matter. Cantu and new Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill were standing on the baseline, smitten.
By the second day so were plenty of others. USC had an advantage, though: Cantu and Horton were old friends. "Are you friggin' kidding me?" Cantu said when he called Horton a couple of days after the event. "Have you been holding out on me with this kid?"
"No, Bob, I told you about him. You just didn't believe me, remember?" Cantu had to give him that: It had been an unlikely story.
By fall the word was out: There was a tall, raw kid at Antelope Valley with an incredible motor who was still growing. That Dedmon was nowhere near graduating didn't seem to matter, nor did the fact that he still hadn't played a college game. The coaches had begun showing up en masse during the recruiting period: Clemson, USC, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, LSU. There were so many that Atkerson and fellow AVC assistant Brad Wiggs felt more like bellhops than coaches. Line up the chairs, get water, make small talk.
Dedmon was shocked at first. He hadn't thought he was any good. Now, after the Fullerton game, he felt as if he belonged. It was time to commit. He thought about all those schools, all those faraway places. He wanted to stay near his sisters, the two people to whom he was closest. That narrowed the list considerably. Then he visited USC. Riding shotgun in a golf cart with Horton, he toured the campus, awed by the buildings, dorm rooms and giant auditoriums. What really got him, though, was the training room in Little Galen, where the football players ate. Dedmon stared at the menu: tri-tip steak, chicken, pasta. "You mean I get to eat all that?" he asked, incredulous.
"Yeah, Dewayne, you get to eat as much as you want," said Horton.
This was Shangri-la. The way Dedmon's body had been growing, he couldn't take in calories fast enough. He'd probably been eating only 3,000 or so a day, many of them empty, when his body needed 5,000. Just the idea of being on scholarship overwhelmed him; add to that the quality of the school and the coaching staff, and he was sold. Though he wouldn't officially sign for another five months, he verbally committed to USC that November.
From that day, whether it was freezing or 90º out, Dedmon wore his USC sweatshirt. Around town he became a hero. The Antelope Valley Press wrote about him. Students high-fived him. His teachers marveled at how he'd changed and what an unlikely path he had taken. After all, most of the time we hear about wayward young men who one day find God. Dedmon, however, was the opposite. As history professor Cynthia Lehman says, "He just walked into the gym one day and found basketball."