Before LeBron, there was Schea Cotton. He was a California legend that was going to be an NBA Hall of Famer when all was said and done. Unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned. Injuries can ruin expectations, but they can’t ruin someone’s love of the game. In September’s SLAM 141, we took a look at Cotton’s new basketball path and the impact he is making. — Ed.
by Aggrey Sam
Langston Hughes’ classic poem, “A Dream Deferred,” could easily apply to the saga of Schea Cotton. Just as the (Harlem) Renaissance man’s words ring true so long after the famed wordsmith left this Earth, Schea Cotton-at least the arc of his basketball (playing) career-was also before his time.
“I really didn’t have a childhood,” says Cotton, who was featured in the Los Angeles Times as a 6-foot, 180-pound 12-year-old. “I was getting recognition as a fifth-grader. By the sixth grade, [ESPN's] Scholastic Sports America was already doing stories on me.”
“It was like living in a fish bowl, which kind of forced me to make a decision, where, Do you want more of this or do you want to get away from this?’ I fell in love with the sport, it just consumed me. I saw the levels it took me to and the places I was able to go because of basketball. It just motivated me more to work harder and be that much more successful.”
Before reaching high school, Cotton fit the more recent profile of the modern AAU kid, an innocent virtual child mercenary living a professional’s existence in the sneaker wars of late last century. “Everything just started changing,” remembers Cotton. “Packages were being sent left and right-that was normal-flying in and out of town, around the country.”
Entering high school ranked as the country’s top player in the class of ’97, Cotton justified the hoopla with a magnificent freshman campaign, averaging 18 ppg with a mature game to match his frame.
“Phenomenal…he had the combination of speed, power and physical maturity about him then. He was playing well over the rim in middle school,” reminisces Dinos Trigonis, a long-time SoCal grassroots events director and AAU coach. “The interest to see him play was huge, with way above-average crowds. It was almost kind of the way LeBron was in high school, way before the Internet.”
“He was the first famous basketball player of my peers that I had heard of and seen play,” concurs Casey Jacobsen, who was in the sixth grade during Cotton’s freshman year and played for the same AAU organization. “Anytime I watched him play or was in the same gym, I was a little bit in awe. He looked like a man out there. His body and the way he played were well beyond his years.”
“[Cotton had] a huge impact…He was so big-time that I wanted to be like that. When you see one of your peers reach that level, it inspires you to imitate his success,” continues Jacobsen, the all-time leading scorer in SoCal schoolboy history and an All-American at Stanford. “At that time, before LeBron and the Internet or games on TV, for him to reach that level was really impressive…[Cotton's] notoriety spread literally by word of mouth.”
Recalls Cotton: “I came in and hit the ground running. I was playing against Jimmy Jackson and Eddie Jones [along with local stars, in those vaunted off-season pickup games at UCLA's Pauley Pavillion] and holding my own against them.”
“The transition was smooth because I put so much work in…I developed a name for myself where I just came in with supreme confidence. I never worried about the opposition; they always had to worry about me. Whenever I touched the floor, I wanted to show everybody I was arguably the best to come out of here for a long time.”
Prior to his sophomore year, Cotton was the focus of a memorable Sports Illustrated feature, touting his brilliance as a 6-5, 210-pound phenom with a 42-inch vertical. With the secret out nationally, Cotton backed up the hype, whether lighting up Stephon Marbury’s Lincoln HS squad for 30-plus or out-dueling top senior Ron Mercer (although Mater Dei would fall to Mercer’s Oak Hill team) in national tourneys or leading Mater Dei to a second consecutive Cali state chip en route to state Player of the Year honors. It was clear that the 10th grader was at a different level than his peers.
“Schea was as gifted athletically as anyone I’ve seen in the 35 years I’ve been watching the game,” notes long-time talent evaluator Van Coleman of Hoopmasters.com. “Schea was a tremendously explosive player off the dribble, attacked the basket and finished above the rim. He did everything at a very high level, played very hard. It was almost too easy for him athletically. Sometimes that’s what catches up with you.”
Before his junior year, Cotton transferred out of Mater Dei, and then his seemingly stone-like physique suffered the first chink in its armor, as a broken hand would sideline him for a large portion of the season, followed by a shoulder injury the next summer that forced him to miss his entire senior campaign.
“It was a turning point for me,” recalls Cotton, “because after the injury, a lot of people started doubting me. They didn’t know if I’d return as strong or whatever the case may be. Articles were written like I’m going away, like I’m done, so I took it personal. [There was] a lot of motivation sitting out that year and not playing, watching people like Baron Davis emerge because of the injury.”
While he was still considered one of the nation’s best, he was no longer the consensus top prospect (even in his own state), as other players around the country would creep up on him in size, athleticism and stature.
“He was always so strong, but the older he got and the higher up he went in basketball…his strength and size ceased to be a dominant issue,” says Frank Burlison of the Long Beach Press-Telegram. “He wasn’t a great ballhandler-all left-handed, kind of a tweener, probably wasn’t laterally quick enough to guard guards.”
“They had an incredibly stable family, but he didn’t have basketball stability, as good as he was,” Burlison adds. “Schea was never any place longer than two years, even in high school. He never had any continuity.”
Despite the hype he received, the Cotton clan was a pretty down-to-earth bunch, as far as basketball families go. Schea’s father, James Sr, was a truck driver who also ran his own construction company, for which his mother, Gaynell, kept the books, together raising their two boys in gritty San Pedro, on the outskirts of L.A. In short, they were humble people who didn’t seek out the fame their sons garnered, although they supported their hoop dreams.
Schea’s older brother James Jr had started his prep career at famed Artesia High School but truly blossomed after transferring to St. John Bosco for his final two years, gaining acclaim as a perimeter marksman and tough defender, then moving on to local Long Beach State, where he would lead the conference in scoring as a junior. “Work was easy for me, talent was different-I had to work hard at that. Schea was naturally gifted. Along with his talent and his work ethic, he was so superior to kids his age. He looked like a man when he was 14,” asserts “Little James,” who would declare for the NBA Draft after his junior season and was a second-round pick.
After the injury-plagued end to his high school career, Schea committed to UCLA where he was expected to link up with fellow L.A. phenom Davis in a spring coup of a freshman class for the Bruins. A late qualifier, Cotton scored a 900 on the SAT, well above the then-mandated 700 mark needed to be eligible to participate in NCAA athletics as a college freshman. However, that four-letter organization ruled his test score invalid on the basis that Cotton supposedly took an untimed test with large-font letters.
“The reality of life is that when you’re successful, there’s always somebody looking for a knock, something negative to say. So they would utilize the grades, they tried to use the SAT, they would try to use this and use that, but none of it was true,” says Cotton, who insists he did nothing wrong. “I think it was me being targeted more than anything.”
Cotton left the City of Angels for Connecticut prep school power St. Thomas More, where scores of high-level players-such as Ed Cota, Quincy Douby and Devin Ebanks, among others-have matriculated to rehab their academic profiles and prepare for the next level in a college-like environment featuring challenging competition.
“I’ve been at St. Thomas More for 32 years. If you looked back at the top 10 plays during my career here, Schea probably had three of them,” says Jere Quinn, the school’s coach and not a man prone to hyperbole. “He was such a talent, but I think everybody tried to rush the process. This whole process, if you rush it, it’s unkind to you. I’m a firm believer that kids don’t succeed when you rush the process, if you don’t enjoy the moment.”
No longer bound to UCLA, Cotton would be re-recruited by college basketball’s prominent programs while at St. Thomas More, and by the end of his prep year, he signed with North Carolina State. But the NCAA wouldn’t budge on its ruling, and he would never play for the Wolfpack.
Forced to go the junior-college route, Cotton went home, where he would suit up for nearby Long Beach City College. “[People] couldn’t believe I was actually on a JC roster. A lot of guys would come out just to see it was true…I could be playing anywhere, but instead I’m at Long Beach City,” says Cotton, who attracted NBA scouts to his games in his lone JuCo season before signing with Alabama.
Playing in the SEC afforded Cotton the opportunity to regain national exposure and although he performed capably as a college sophomore-averaging 15.5 ppg and 4.6 rpg-the team didn’t fare particularly well, and being miscast as a power forward didn’t exactly help influence the naysayers that still held doubt about his perimeter skills. “Everything played out a little different than I thought…It was a business deal gone bad,” Cotton claims cryptically, expressing bitterness for the first time. “If I had known what I know now, I would probably have skipped college.”
At 22 years old, Cotton entered the 2000 NBA Draft. He was not selected.
“If you talk about California high school basketball, he is the first name or one of the first names mentioned as the best of all-time,” says Jacobsen, reached in Germany, where he now plays pro ball-and writes a blog for SLAMonline.com-after a stint in the NBA. “Honestly, I thought it would all eventually get cleared up and, regardless if he had to go JuCo or DI, I thought, It doesn’t matter, he will find his way [to the NBA].”
But it wasn’t to be.
“I started out playing with KK Partizan in Serbia, Vlade Divac’s team. I was out there for five months and made some good money,” Cotton recounts. “Playing in the EuroLeague against Maccabi Tel Aviv and Anthony Parker, giving them 18 and 7 in like 12 minutes and then not playing again for three games-who does that?”
“I didn’t really have the opportunity to play, but I learned how to embrace life and enjoy it, even if it’s not the NBA,” adds Cotton, who picked up the basics in several languages as a result of a 10-year career that took him to seven countries and multiple domestic leagues. “I really appreciate what the world has to offer. I’m just blessed to have experienced all of that at 32 years old with my life ahead of me.”
“I’m not getting pimped anymore. I was used in the business, but at the same time, now I can help kids-I want to show them you don’t have to fuck people to get ahead,” says Cotton, now a basketball trainer and coach in the L.A. area for Millikan High and the Belmont Shore AAU team. He also holds summer camps and is working on a documentary about his story.
As Cotton says, “The basketball stops bouncing a lot sooner than you think.”