Tyson Chandler: Compton’s Most Wanted

by September 21, 2007

by Michael Bradley

Here we go again.

Tyson Chandler is 18. He plays for Dominguez High, straight outta Compton. He’s going to the NBA. Soon. Of course, that’s not the official word. “I have no idea,” says Dominguez coach Steve Singleton. “It’s all Tyson’s decision.” But we know. Chandler is every bit of 7-1. And when he walks down the hall of the Radisson Hotel in Trevose, PA, his stand-at-attention ski cap brushes the lights and sprinkler fixtures, making him look like some kind of mobile support beam. You don’t find people his size in college basketball these days, unless they’re reclamation projects or immigrants who’ve spent their formative years kicking a soccer ball. Chandler can play. Can he benefit from a year or two of college ball? Absolutely. That’s a stupid question. Can he make many millions going straight to the NBA? Absolutely. Also a stupid question.

Of course, there are a lot of stupid people out there. People like Temple coach John Chaney have other names for them, but we won’t use them here. Tyson Chandler is tall, young and talented. And black. The first three characteristics are fine. The last is where the trouble starts. No one criticizes the 12-year-old figure skater or the 10-year-old gymnast, both of whom abandon friends and school and family to cultivate their talents at sport-specific factories. Nobody says Andre Agassi has spoiled tennis because he didn’t spend a minute in college. Bobby Convey joined a Major League Soccer franchise last summer, at the tender age of 16. He was hailed as a prodigy, as an example of how the American version of the game is improving and could some day catch up to its international counterparts. As if anybody in this country cares.

None of those sports has a college version that generates so much interest—or money. And none of the aforementioned athletes are black. For some reason, “suburban” kids can leave home and go chase their athletic dreams without being challenged. But when people like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal, Darius Miles and others get their chances to take the stage, amateur sociologists hold forth on how the evils of “instant gratification” have grabbed American culture by the throat. That’s why Singleton is duty-bound to remind everybody that Chandler is “a good kid.” It’s as if he’s laying the groundwork for the future, when Chandler announces that he isn’t going to college. That way, people might think that the young man’s decision is not motivated purely by cash or the bright NBA lights. And so what if it is? He’s a good kid. Just like all those other “good kids,” who happen to shoot, hit, throw or kick a ball better than all but one-tenth of one percent of the American population. In a way, Chandler is more than just a good kid. He’s an honest one. He doesn’t want to go to college. He doesn’t want to snooze through a world history survey course or grapple with freshman composition. He doesn’t want to live in a cramped dorm. To worry whether a ride he accepts from an assistant coach could render him ineligible, thanks to one of the NCAA’s countless ridiculous rules.

So, he won’t be taking up space in a university, helping it perpetuate what is constantly becoming a larger and uglier lie. Colleges are becoming increasingly aware that their missions aren’t meshing with those of their athletic departments. When Sacramento guard Jason Williams says he wishes he spent more time on his game than learning how to read and write, we should all shudder. He spent two years at the University of Florida because that was the only route for him to the NBA. Does that sound like he cared a bit about his GPA or progress toward a degree? Not hardly. At most, Williams did enough work to stay eligible.

Can’t say I blame Chandler for wanting to work on his game, not some paper on Dickens’ use of metaphor in Great Expectations. Nothing’s official, and he may still take a year or two at a college to grow stronger and develop. But his ultimate goal doesn’t change. Chandler doesn’t want to be a social worker or a bank executive or a chemist. He wants to be an NBA player. An NBA star. “Whatever I played [growing up], I wanted to be on top,” he says. “I’m never going to settle for being middle or low.” Just like that little sprite who can tumble forever dreams of Olympic gold—and don’t give me any crap about how the Games are about pure sport, given how nasty that cesspool has become lately—Chandler has big aspirations. So, please, shut up and let him dream.

They tried to make him a poster boy. The segment was called “There’s No Business Like Shoe Business,” and 60 Minutes sent one of its big guns, anchor Lesley Stahl, to Southern California. To Chandler. Here was this impressionable, 14-year-old eighth-grader, the subject of a war for his affections between evil Nike and satanic adidas. It was too delicious. Clearly, Chandler was being exploited. Wasn’t he? These awful men in sweatsuits wanted to take him away from his family, give him free gear and jet him around the country. They wanted him to change schools, to travel hours from his home, so he could be more visible. So the product could be more visible.

The nation watched in amazement. Surely, this would ruin Chandler. Anybody that young was completely ill-equipped to handle something like this. Of course, Chandler saw it differently. Imagine being 14. Imagine somebody wanting to lace you with the freshest new gear. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? “I was too young to be overwhelmed by it,” Chandler says. “I was too young to know how big it was. Not until I got older did I realize how big of an impact it would have on my life.” Chandler decided to go with Nike, and Nike decided he would play for Dominguez, one of its signature schools and a 2,000-student powerhouse. Led by a nationally renowned coach (the recently fired Russell Otis, who at press time was awaiting trial on charges of sexually abusing a former player), Dominguez has produced star athletes in football (UNLV QB Jason Thomas) and basketball (Tayshaun Prince, Kenny Brunner). Problem was, the Dons hung on the edge of Compton, nearly two hours from Chandler’s San Bernardino home. So, he set his alarm clock early. Real early. The good news was that his father, William Brown, worked down that way. Chandler got up, got dressed, got in the car and got back to sleep. “With the traffic, it was around two hours,” he says. “I would sleep the whole thing, so it was a burden on [my father]. For me, I was just asleep.”

Chandler spent one year as a commuter before eventually moving closer to the school. About the only serious concerns he had—other than that hellish wakeup call—was the address. Let’s face it, Compton doesn’t have the best rep in real estate circles. “Our school is not really in the base of Compton, it’s on the border,” Chandler says. “It’s on the outskirts. The students, it’s like any other school. I thought the same thing. On my first day of school, I was expecting gang members and stuff like that. It was nothing like that. Once you come in, it’s just like any other school. The students all get along.” On the court, Chandler moved along quickly. By last season, he was the main man on the nation’s number one team, according to USA Today. And everybody who paid serious attention to prep basketball had noticed him. That included NBA scouts, who had checked out Chandler since he began at Dominguez, since he had made little secret of his ultimate goal. “He made no bones about it, even in ninth grade,” says highly respected prep talent analyst Bob Gibbons. “He said he doubted he would ever go to college.”

The ’00-01 season became a full-fledged showcase for Chandler, as he lined up against the nation’s top big men, often in front of scads of NBA execs and scouts. The college eyes were on him, too, but few in that community felt Chandler would spend any time on campus. “I call Tyson every now and then, but I just want to find out if he has any openings in his posse,” one college coach jokes. Chandler isn’t the type to have much of an entourage, unless you include his teammates. In many ways, he’s a normal high school kid, more interested in playing tricks on his boys. Before sitting for an interview at the hotel, Chandler was trying to bean a friend with a piece of candy and at first seemed more interested in the happenings on an afternoon talk show than discussing life. “He’s just a normal kid,” one of his teammates assures us. OK, so he has to sleep diagonally on hotel mattresses. He’s still normal.

Oncourt, he’s anything but. Chandler’s game is different from what you’d expect of a seven-footer. He doesn’t like to bang much, preferring to use his speed, athleticism and quickness to work outside-in, working the baseline, running the court and helping key the Dominguez press.

“Since I started basketball late, I didn’t know where I fit in,” he says. “I got put on the block, and I got used to being a big guy, but my coaches could tell that wasn’t my type of game, so they started moving me around and actually seeing where I fit. I tried different positions, and I think that worked for me, because it gave me options when I’m on the court. I can virtually play any position, so I don’t just stick on the block.

“I can guard big dudes and keep them from bodying and banging,” he adds. “I can guard guards. I can post up, but I can dribble and shoot. I see myself fitting in, wherever I need to be, at the five, four or three.”

Most look at this versatility as a bonus. How many players that big can move that well? “He’s a mobile, active big guy,” Gibbons says. “His agility and conditioning are impressive.” Others aren’t so sure. They like Chandler’s skill level but have trouble with his aversion to physical play. If you’re 7-1, 225, you should be able to handle some contact. A lot of contact. Particularly if you’re going to be playing in the League next year. “He has good motor skills and athletic ability, but he doesn’t like contact,” an NBA scout says. “That scares me.”

Chandler’s performances in showcase games this season seemed to support theories that the 7-1 giant has the heart and soul of a guard. When he played against mammoth Chicago prep star (and SLAM Diary writer) Eddy Curry in the KMOX Shootout in St. Louis, Curry controlled the lane, while Chandler sought the safe haven of the baseline and the wing. “Chandler couldn’t stop Curry around the basket, and Curry couldn’t stop Chandler away from the basket,” Gibbons says. Chandler agrees. “I thought we both played good games,” he says. “We’re two totally different players. He’s a big guy who bangs down low, and I’m more fast and athletic. I move around a little quicker.”

NBA scouts are certainly paying attention, to Chandler, Curry and other senior big men like Ousmane Cisse, Kwame Brown and DeSagana Diop, all of whom could enter the Draft early. Gibbons reports that 26 professional bird dogs were on hand for the Chandler/Curry showdown. They’ve followed Chandler’s progress with interest since he was young. And Chandler hasn’t minded the attention. “I get happy and excited when somebody is actually watching me for the first time,” he says.

By the time he makes his decision, NBA reps will have seen him more than once. Much more. Chandler’s day is coming, and it’s not hard to guess what his choice will be. No matter what he chooses, count on him to follow through. “I never have doubts about myself,” he says. “Of course, you’re going to sit back every now and then and second-guess things. I would never doubt that I can handle anything like [the NBA]. I know, going into any situation, I’ll make the best of it.”

No matter what the rest of you think.