by Marcus Arman

“I think of them as fans,” Schea Cotton emphasized in a 1994 interview with Sports Illustrated. Who was he talking about? Three Pac-10 head coaches, in Arizona’s Lute Olsen, UCLA’s Jim Harrick and Arizona State’s Bill Frieder—among three-dozen other college coaches in attendance that night. All of them there, of course, to watch a 16-year-old Cotton do things teenage players fantasize about. This is not to say Cotton was cocky. In fact, quite the opposite for someone better known today as “LeBron before LeBron.” That’s simply indicative of how Schea-Mania engrossed a city, captivated a nation and changed a culture. No one was excluded from Stan-esque levels of fandom. Not even big-time college coaches.

Though his playing days are, for the most part, behind him, Cotton’s lasting impact on hoops is still running its course. Sneaker company AAU sponsorships? Thank (or blame) Schea. Pre-prep star pandemonium? Schea again. NCAA politics? Well, it didn’t start with Schea, but it certainly reached new extremes. Despite a massive public profile, which began when he was in 6th grade, much of the Schea Cotton story is shrouded in intrigue and controversy. The forthcoming documentary Manchild aims to expose these myths, dispel reoccurring rumors and provide an intimate look at the best who never was.

SLAMonline had the chance to sit down with Marcus Gradney, the director of Manchild and childhood friend of Cotton. Painting the scene for one of the most compelling hoops documentaries in years, Gradney shared his memories of Schea outplaying Kevin Garnett, his belief that Schea was one of the best basketball players ever (at age 16) and what he hopes current players will take away from his documentary.

SLAM: Last we spoke, you had your eyes set on an October release. Obviously, that’s been pushed back a bit. How’s the whole process coming along now?

Marcus Gradney: We’re shopping it around. We’ve had a couple companies approach us, but we didn’t want to speak on it until we were done. Because that’s how things get rushed. But now it’s finally done. It’s been pushed back since April, you know? But it’s finally come together. Schea’s on his way over to watch the final cut as we speak. This is a project I’ve wanted to do for the last 8 years or so. Obviously, growing up with Schea, I got in touch with him and told him what I wanted to do. Being that he is who he is, he’s heard everything from everyone about making a movie or documentary—with no follow through. But I told Schea, “I want to do it.” I kept telling him and telling him. So finally, he must have got tired of me bugging him and called up some of our initial investors. And we grinded it out. One weekend we were in Vegas for five days, drove home to L.A. to shower and do laundry and got back on the road to Arizona. All of this was just to get interviews from coaches [coaching at the biggest prep tournaments of the year]. It was a whirlwind man. We just had so much fun. But the thing is, every time we would cut it off and agree to do no more interviews, we’d run into somebody else with another piece of the story.

For example, I was done weeks ago, but then I ran into Earl Watson. And I know that’s crucial. I have the UCLA recruiting class—Baron [Davis], Earl, Rico [Hines], Billy [Knight]—and all of them talk about how hyped they were to play with Schea. And then when he didn’t get too? It’s just crazy—all of their emotions. And the other day, I was talking with Danny Walker, who played with Schea growing up. He was like, “Schea was a rock star.” That’s what people say throughout the documentary. Paul Pierce, Baron Davis, the Collins twins, they all talk about this game that Schea played against Kevin Garnett going into his sophomore year of high school. It was Schea and his team against Baron, Paul and Kevin. And this game is legendary. Danny was there and he told me he remembers it vividly. Schea dropped 48 or 52 on KG and completely chested him one play he drove baseline. I wanted to throw that in there [the documentary], but with stuff like that, you have to show it. Nowadays, if there’s a cool dunk, it’s on the web the next hour. That’s just the time we’re living in. It’s just funny because everybody talks about this game.

SLAM: You describe this game almost like an urban legend, and that resonates with me. ‘Cause growing up, I’d hear these stories about Schea that made him out to be this mythical figure. His story sort of preceded him. Is that what made you guys get the wheels turning on this project?

MG: Well, we met up in 2009 and started talking about it. By January 2010, I was just bugging the hell out of him. It’s funny, I called him one day and I’m like, “Schea, we have to do this documentary,” and he’s like, “I’m on a plane to Valenzuela.” He ended up calling me when he got back and finally said, “Let’s do it man.” We walk into the Fox Hills mall together and meet up with Jason Hart. And all of us had grown up together. I had just gotten robbed of all my video equipment the other week. So Jason asks, “What do you need?” And that’s when the ball started rolling. Over the next two or three weeks, we got everything settled. Our first day of official filming was the 2010 Pangos Camp in Long Beach where Schea was giving a speech to the kids [playing in the high school camp]. It was just a learning process for both of us. It’s a poor comparison but Schea playing was just like the Beatles. You can’t describe what he did and do it justice. Unless you were there, you won’t get the full scope. But this documentary does its best to paint that scenario. And we’ve known each other for 24 years now so it gets close.

SLAM: Put it into a present-day perspective for us. How good was Schea?

MG: I’ll tell you like this: I saw LeBron play. I’ve seen LeBron play. When people hear us say, “Schea was the first LeBron,” they think we’re hating or downsizing LeBron. But that’s not the case. Schea was just that good. In the documentary, [Paul] Pierce says, “Schea was my motivation,” and he was two years older than him! Baron and Paul are huge in this documentary—not just because of who they are—but because they played with Schea. In 1995, Schea was the best basketball player in Los Angeles, California—high school, college or pro. Straight up. You know how players get together at UCLA for pick up games? Schea’s a freshman and Magic Johnson would pick him first for games. Over guys playing in the NBA. That’s no BS. There’s no denying that. When you say, “can’t-miss prospect,” that was Schea. Take, for instance, Shabazz Muhammad [No.1 ranked high school player in the nation]. I love Shabazz, he’s a great kid and he might get mad at me for saying this, but if those two played in their prime, it’s not even a question. They’re both left-handed but it wouldn’t even be fair.