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After a decade playing basketball in Europe instead of the NBA career many thought he was destined to enjoy, Schea Cotton is coaching AAU teams in leagues much like the ones that exploited his talents.

Schea Cotton sharing his story about the dangers of being a basketball prodigy

STAFF WRITER

They were always there, unrecognizable faces that hung around after every sold-out basketball game. They wanted to talk, listen. They wanted to be close to the action, close to greatness.

They were fans, agents, recruiters and corporate types, all with the same desire. They all wanted a piece of a young Schea Cotton.

It didn’t stop once the gym doors closed. Agents, college coaches and others, again people Cotton didn’t know, would gather around the kitchen table to talk to his mother. He would come home after practice and in his room and garage were more boxes of athletic gear and shoes delivered earlier that day.

There were offers of houses, a car and women.

“Grown women,” Cotton said, shaking his head.

At the time, Cotton was the top high school player in the nation, a Parade All-American and a can’t-miss prodigy at Mater Dei High. He had been featured on ESPN and in a four-page layout in Sports Illustrated.

He also was just 15 years old.

Being the best high school player in the country was exciting, but it also was suffocating. Often referred to now as “LeBron James before LeBron James,” Cotton found fame overbearing and largely out of control.

“It became that my life wasn’t mine any more,” Cotton said recently at a restaurant in Long Beach. “It became crazy.”

Those years were crazy, confusing and then ultimately nothing.

Despite his explosive moves, crashing dunks and pillow-soft jumpers, Cotton never reached the NBA. He played one season of college basketball, a circuitous route that landed him at Alabama. After one season, he declared for the NBA draft.

He went undrafted and quickly the fans were gone. The agents disappeared. The clothing companies vanished.

Not ready to call it a career, Cotton headed overseas, where he played for a decade and then moved into local gyms, where ironically he now coaches AAU teams in leagues much like the ones that exploited his talents.

“All those experiences I went through prepared me for what I am today,” Cotton said. “I don’t regret anything I’ve been through.”

In addition to coaching, Cotton is promoting a documentary he co-produced about his basketball-driven life. He is hoping to get “ManChild: The Schea Cotton Story” into several film festivals, including this summer’s Newport Beach Film Festival.

The film attempts to tell how Cotton’s rise to fame fell short because of unrealistic expectations, the NCAA and the pressure of being the next great player. It’s a message he hopes to share not only with the kids he coaches, but the rest of the basketball world.

“The thing about my story is that I was the No. 1 player in the country in 1995 and if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,” Cotton said. “That’s what’s most important about the film. That’s what needs to resonate.”

Cotton’s story isn’t new. Dozens of talented basketball players have come and gone, exploited by the system and then spit out. What makes Cotton’s cautionary tale is the lasting image of this child playing a man’s game.

“I had never seen nothing like that,” said the Clippers’ Paul Pierce, who like Cotton grew up in Inglewood. “I was a year older and he was playing with a junior high when I first saw him.

“We used to play against him in the youth tournaments and my team was one of the better teams. But I think every time we met in the championship, we lost to them every time.”

Cotton arrived at Mater Dei in 1994 with a résumé loaded with national press clippings, eye-popping spin moves and an ability to soar above the basket. His performances in AAU leagues generated enough buzz to make sports pages across America.

“I have been blessed with some good players but he had some jumping skills and athletic skills that I haven’t seen in high school,” Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight said. “He could just elevate so quickly, and being left-handed was an advantage.”

Cotton played his freshman and sophomore seasons at Mater Dei, having followed his AAU coach, Pat Barrett, to the Santa Ana campus, where Barrett was an assistant to McKnight.

“Playing at Mater Dei was great because it was a powerhouse for basketball and we got a lot of national exposure annually,” Cotton said. “It was a great fit, great timing for me when I went in. I had to prove myself on the team and didn’t start right away. A lot of people were getting familiar with my body of work, with who I was as a player and I think I proved myself pretty quickly.”

Cotton led the Monarchs to the State title in 1995 and was the first sophomore to be named Cal-Hi Sports Division I State Player of the Year.

But within weeks of holding the trophy, Cotton announced he was transferring to St. John Bosco, closer to his parents’ home but far from the greatness he had known in Orange County.

A shoulder injury suffered in a 35-point, seven-dunk performance in a summer AAU game against Lamar Odom kept Cotton off the court his senior year but not off the radar of college coaches. Cotton had his pick and chose UCLA.

The NCAA, though, ruled his SAT score invalid, erasing his chance of playing for the Bruins. It happened again at North Carolina State in 1998-99 after a year of prep school. Cotton said the NCAA took issue with how the test was administered.

Cotton wouldn’t discuss details of the test, saying only that he had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder shortly before the test date and was allowed to take the exam with a counselor present. The documentary delves deeper into the issue.

Cotton didn’t give up. He tried to enroll at Long Beach State, where his brother James Cotton played, but again the NCAA would not clear him. Cotton decided to go to Long Beach City College and his family sued the NCAA. The case was settled out of court, and after he was declared eligible by the NCAA, he earned a scholarship at the University of Alabama.

Alabama’s system, however, didn’t fit Cotton’s talents and after one season he declared for the 2000 NBA draft. When he wasn’t selected, Cotton went overseas, where he quietly played for 10 years.

“He didn’t make it, but that’s not everything,” Pierce said. “I think a lot of kids get caught in the AAU basketball limelight with all the gifts they receive from the coaches, agents and privileges and I think it gets to them at a young age.”

Although the hoopla died down over the years, few forgot him. Former Lakers guard Brian Shaw, who grew up in Oakland, remembers Cotton because of all the publicity he generated.

“He probably was one of the first guys, obviously LeBron got a lot (nationally) and Schea more locally here, but a lot of hype,” Shaw said.

Cotton doesn’t regret the path his basketball career took. He said he wouldn’t change anything and that he is no longer bitter about never having played in the NBA, another message played out in his documentary.

“I buried the hatchet about the time my daughter was born,” Cotton said. “I was 29 years old. I started thinking about what I wanted to do to impact the world for the greater purpose. Basketball is what I did; it’s not what I am.

“Now people will get to chance to see my other talents, the real person inside, not what the media conjured up. Not the hearsay, third-party stuff – you get to hear from the horse.”

Contact the writer: jcarr@ocregister.com


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