Originally published in SLAM 158

by C. Vernon Coleman II / @Vernon_Coleman

It doesn’t happen every time George Lancaster speaks at a basketball camp. But it happens often enough.

Lancaster, the legendary coach at Highland Springs (VA) High, will step up to the dais and speak about the game he loves. At some point in his heartfelt presentation, he’ll open the floor to campers’ questions. All around the gym, excited hands will shoot up. Lancaster will take their Qs, one by one. Finally, from amongst the sea of dwindling hands in the air, one aspiring player will ask the obvious:

“Who’s the best player you’ve ever coached?”

Lancaster, who has stalked the sidelines in the  Richmond area for more than 40 years, will pause thoughtfully and then rattle off a handful of NBA vets.

Even now, a decade after the true answer to the query rose and fell like Icarus, someone will follow up with the question, the one that instantly floods Coach Lan’s memory with thoughts of limitless potential and fatal flaws.

“What about Jonathan Hargett?”

After his father, Samuel Hargett Sr, died in prison from pneumonia in 1989, a 6-year-old Jonathan was cared for by his four older brothers. Raising him the only way they knew how, the brothers often brought Jonathan along to the sun-baked blacktops, uneven backyard courts and humid hardwood gyms of Richmond’s East End which they frequented.

“They were some of the best athletes I’ve ever been associated with,” says Lancaster, who schooled the entire Hargett clan, except for the eldest, Bruce. “Jonathan was probably the most athletic point guard I’ve ever coached. He could do a lot with the basketball.”

Even before the youngest Hargett played a single high school game, Lancaster knew he had a human highlight reel on his hands. As a 5-9 middle schooler, Jon got above the rim, shot from NBA range and possessed yo-yo handles. On the back of those skills, Hargett took his U-13 Richmond Metro Gold AAU team to the national championship game.

That early life success cemented Jon’s future goal in his mind. “I wanted to leave a mark on basketball in Virginia,” says Hargett, whom we interviewed via eight hand-written letters from Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake, VA, where he currently resides.

A starter from jump at Highland Springs, Hargett averaged 18 ppg and earned a spot on the ’98 Richmond Times Dispatch All-Metro First-Team. After dominating on the AAU circuit the ensuing summer, Hargett was considered one of the top sophomores in the country. In the middle of that season, though, Hargett, who was having what Lancaster deems “attendance issues,” decided with his family to transfer to an out-of-state prep school.

“I really wanted to stay, but my mother wanted something different for me,” says Hargett. The idea behind the transfer was two-fold: escape the negative draws of Richmond, and seek out a larger stage on which to showcase his skills. “I’m pretty sure she didn’t want me to leave, but my brothers were like, ‘Go make a name for yourself.’”

The wunderkind landed at Mt. Zion Christian Academy in Durham, NC, which was then rich with talent. For the first time in his life, Hargett had to prove he belonged on the court. “I had to play my way to varsity,” he recalls. It didn’t take long. “The JV team had a game my first night there. [Coach Joel Hopkins] must’ve thought the hype was just hype until I scored 55 points against Word of God. Ever since then I was on varsity.”

The summer of ’99, between Hargett’s sophomore and junior seasons, stamped his name in high school hoops lore. During an all-star game at adidas ABCD Camp in NJ, Hargett pulled a move that he’d been working on for months. While dribbling the ball at the top of the key, he fired the ball high and hard off the backboard. As the defense turned their heads toward the basket, Hargett took a few steps  toward the basket and elevated. His hand met the ricochet, and he finished with a filthy one-handed slam. Picture Vince Carter as an NBA All-Star, minus eight inches of height.

“They were shocked when I caught it over two giants,” the 5-10 Hargett says. “Then to pull it off in an all-star game with stars like Ben Gordon, Kelvin Torbert and TJ Ford—I had New Jersey buzzing the whole adidas Camp.”

Legendary VA-based coach Boo Williams remembers Hargett’s game fondly. “He is one of the best guards under 6-0 I’ve ever seen,” says Williams. “He just ain’t the average cat. He was really that good.”

Around that time, Hargett says he started being approached by men after practice. They asked, “Is anybody representing you?”

“I was very green to agents coming up,” admits Hargett. “Nobody ever warned me about them. I had one very early, 15 years old or so.”

The next season at Mt. Zion, the roster included Hargett, Jarrett Jack, Harvey Thomas, Tyrone Sally and Amar’e Stoudemire. Hargett, the owner of sprinter speed, archery range and a body-builder frame, was named MVP of the 25-1 team that was ranked 15th nationally.

“Hargett is probably, by far, the best player I’ve ever played with,” Stoudemire, a six-time NBA All-Star, told us recently. “I’ve never seen a point guard as fast as him, jump as high as him and dribble better than him. I’m speaking of NBA players and all. That boy was something else.”

“Prep school elevated my game to another plateau,” recalls Hargett. “I felt like Eddie Murphy in Coming To America, like a king. Home was foreign to me. My friends, family, girlfriend rarely saw me. Without any question, I envisioned myself in the League in the future.”

Having left his mark on basketball in Virginia, Hargett decided to play out his final AAU cycle with the Atlanta Celtics. An already stacked squad, the Celtics featured future NBA center DeSagana Diop and four other DI talents (Ismail Muhammad, BJ Elder, Sani Ibrahim and Greg Tinch) when Hargett joined. Not surprisingly, the AAU dream team swept the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Tournament of Champions. Then, weeks later, Hargett terrorized the prestigious adidas Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas, scoring 21 points in the championship game against Julius Hodge, Francisco Garcia and the rest of the New York Ravens.

For the upcoming school year, after a books-worth of moves and maneuvers by shady coaches, Hargett was a boy without a school. Ultimately, Hargett materialized at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, MD. Even in yet another new setting, another dominant season ensued. With high school All-American status in the Class of ’01 tagged on him, Hargett had a decision to make: Attend one of the handful of top-tier colleges who were vying for his services, or attempt to become the first small guard to make the jump to the NBA. “I regret not taking that chance,” Hargett says now.

“He definitely was talented enough,” says former NBA journeyman and Richmond mainstay Cory Alexander. “But at that level, talent is extremely important, but the mental side becomes even more important.”

In the end, Hargett chose to attend West Virginia University, with the thought being that a run through the Big East would ready him for the L. “Knowing what I know now,” he says, “that was the wrong approach.”

As usual, his name preceded him and he was named Pre-season Big East Rookie of the Year. After the team started 7-2, with Hargett having breakout games versus New Mexico (28 points, 8 rebounds) and Pitt (26 and 4), and hitting game-winning threes against Tennessee and New Mexico, the season imploded. Hargett finished the year averaging a decent 13.8 points, 4.6 assists and 1.8 steals per game, but West Virginia suffered through their worst season in decades. Many fans blamed the team’s piss-poor 8-20 showing on the freshman guard. For the first time in his  basketball life, Hargett had failed to live up to expectations.

To make matters worse, after the season concluded, Hargett was investigated for hiring an agent in high school and receiving improper benefits during his freshman year. The NCAA came down hard. Hargett would never play a college game again.

From there, Hargett’s life took a downward spiral. He was arrested with weed in his car shortly after the WVU split and spent 45 days in a Maryland jail. With few places to turn to and a lot of people in his ear, Hargett entered the ’03 Draft and, though he says a number of teams showed interest, he ultimately went undrafted.

“Most people that get drafted have an impressive season,” says Hargett. “I was coming off one of the worst seasons in my life. Plus, I wasn’t in shape or mentally ready. It was another bad decision.”

Following his Draft-day disappointment, Hargett was a regular at the Greater Richmond Pro-Am Summer League and competed for the VA All-Stars on the Street Ball Celebrity Hoops Tour. Eventually, in ’05, a 22-year-old Hargett attempted to enroll at hometown DII power Virginia Union University but was denied eligibility by the NCAA.

Hargett resurfaced that season in the semi-pro ranks, hooping for the WBA’s Southern Crescent Lightning in Peachtree City, GA, where he averaged 13 ppg and his coach labeled him “unguardable.” The solid play and good assessments led to workouts with the Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies. And though neither signed him, the player who was once thought to be the next Allen Iverson was hearing positive feedback for the first time in a long time. “I felt like I was getting closer to my goal,” recalls Hargett. “I just didn’t have the patience to see it through.”

Playing in the WBA didn’t pay much, so Hargett began selling drugs to support his family. “There was so much pressure for him to be successful that I think he gave in to that a little bit and started to look for the fast money,” surmises Alexander.

On March 22, ’08, Hargett was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana with the intent to distribute and given a five-year sentence. His hoop dreams were instantly deferred.

“Sometimes basketball consumes you and, in that consumption, you get eaten up and regurgitated,” says Coach Lancaster. “That’s what happens a lot if you don’t have that balance that’s necessary to be successful. You wonder what would have been his fate had he had the opportunity to live a young life.”

Some people will tell you Hargett was the most exciting high school player they’ve ever seen manipulate a Spalding. Though he never got a chance to put his mark on the game as he and many others anticipated, Hargett’s impact was still felt. So much so that, to this day, high school kids at camps 10 years removed—and even NBA All-Stars—still ask.

What about Jonathan Hargett?

“I’ve still never seen a player that does the things he can do on the floor,” says Tyrese Rice, a Richmond native and former standout at Boston College. “Guys like Deron Williams and Chris Paul, they still ask about Hargett every time I talk to them.”

Hargett offers simplistic, yet often overlooked, advice to young ballers traversing the treacherous landscape that is competitive basketball:

“Have character, discipline and patience. Be yourself. Keep a book, because basketball is temporary. Most importantly, keep a relationship with God,” writes Hargett, noting that the thin line between doing these things and not doing them can be the difference between NBA riches and commissary money.

These days, dressed in his state-sanctioned prison uniform, Hargett still works on his game, albeit in a very different way. Yes, he hoops daily at the state prison. Mostly, though, he gets his run in cerebrally. He lies in his bunk, closes his eyes, visualizes every jaw-dropping pass, every head-shaking shot, every ankle-breaking crossover. Along with biding his time by penning a book about his life, he also works out three times a day to stay fit. “Preparing for the future,” he calls it.

“My goal is to pursue basketball,” Hargett says. “I’m not going to stop trying until I’m dead or God won’t allow me to play. Overseas, NBA D-League, semi-pro, whatever, that’s the way it is. A few minor adjustments, I know I’m the man for somebody’s team.”

Hargett will be 30 years old when released next January. His NBA window will be open less than a crack, if at all. The League just isn’t keen on undersized guards with checkered pasts who haven’t been coached in five years, even ones who may still harbor capable athletic ability.

Getting a shot on the semi-pro level may be more plausible, but is it probable? “He’s one of those guys,” says Rice, who currently balls for Lietuvos Rytas in Lithuania, “who I think can pick up the ball one day and be the best player out there. That’s just how much talent I’ve witnessed from him.”

“Whether it’s playing, coaching, teaching camps or whatever, I’m with it,” a realistic Hargett notes. “The main thing is being a better parent, person and friend than I was before I left.”

Photo 1: Chad Dowling; Photos 2 and 3: All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks