Shooting Stars

“For every Rip Hamilton, there’s five Eddie Griffins/ 10 Len Biases/ a hundred Ben Wilsons/ a thousand Will Gates/ daddy always told me that you seal your own fate” – Knaledge, Kidz in the Hall

A shooting star is nothing more than the visible part of a meteor that reaches the Earth’s atmosphere. However, it has come to symbolize other things, such as something you wish upon, or something that’s brilliant for a short amount of time before fleeing our eyesight. It’s that second interpretation of what a shooting star symbolizes that the title of this post alludes to.

There are about 400,000 boys playing basketball at the high school level. At the top of the next level, there are about 5,000 male basketball players in the NCAA’s Division I. The top of the next level after that is the NBA, which has a max of 450 roster spots available for its 30 teams. That’s about 0.001% of high school basketball players who will make it to the NBA.

Most come and go without anyone but their family and friends noticing. Others are anointed as future NBA players by scouts and such, and everything falls into place as if it were scripted.

Some, however, make the country take notice, entice us with their talent, force us to predict their impending stardom, and then we watch helplessly as their flashes of brilliance disappear before our very eyes.

The following three players from my childhood and adolescence perhaps best personify this. They all were all thought to be the next big superstar in their high school days, but none were drafted into the NBA, and thus none ever became the stars so many thought they would.

Schea Cotton

Schea Cotton was LeBron James before LeBron James. He was ranked as the top player high school class of 1997 coming into his freshman year at historic California powerhouse Mater Dei, and was the subject of a Sports Illustrated before his sophomore year. At 6’5″ with a chiseled physique and a 42″ vertical, Cotton was a man among boys early on in his high school career and clearly stood head and shoulders above everyone else as the best in his class and possibly the best in the country.

Things started going downhill after his sophomore season when he transferred from Mater Dei. He suffered a broken hand that kept him from playing most of that following season. His size and strength, which had been such an advantage for him before, became less so after everyone else got taller and stronger as well. Like most players that are high on scouts’ radars at a very young age, many began to see flaws in his game, and his stock subsequently fell some.

By his senior year in 1997, Schea Cotton was no longer the top player in his high school class, replaced by a kid no one had heard of back when Sports Illustrated did a feature on Cotton, a kid from North Carolina named Tracy McGrady.

Cotton was still a highly sought-after recruit, however, and committed to UCLA. Despite scoring enough on his SAT to qualify, the NCAA invalidated his test score due to some technicalities, and he never suited up for the Bruins. He spent some time at a junior college before committing to play for the North Carolina State Wolfpack, where that old NCAA ruling once again held him from stepping on the court.

Cotton ended up playing professionally overseas for a few years and now works with kids, trying to get them noticed and being a mentor to them. His impact is still felt throughout basketball to this day, however, and he is still regarded by many as a basketball legend.

Ronnie Fields

Basketball is a religion in Chicago, and with such a long and deep tradition of Chicago high school basketball, if you were to ask 10 different Chicagoans who the best high school player in Chicago history was, you just might get 10 different answers. Isiah Thomas. Derrick Rose. Kevin Garnett. Benji Wilson. Nick Anderson. Jabari Parker. The list of potential answers goes on.

And on that list you’d likely find Ronnie Fields, who was Garnett’s teammate at Farragut Academy in KG’s senior season in 1995. KG of course went on to NBA stardom and multiple all-star selections, but there are many who still argue Fields was the best player on that Farragut team, and possible the best player in the country at the time.

In Fields’ senior season, with KG gone off to make history in the L, he left no doubt that he was at the very least head and shoulder above other players in the state of Illinois, at times literally as his reported and mind-boggling 50-inch vertical leap allowed him to play above the rim. He was an uber-athletic 6’3″ guard who could play much bigger than he was, similar to Dwyane Wade who at 6’4″ plays like someone who’s 6’8″. In his senior season fields averaged 32.4 points, 12.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 4.5 blocks, and 4 steals per game won the Illinois Mr. Basketball award, and had committed to play for DePaul University.

In February of 1996, right before the city playoffs were set to begin, it all came to a halt. Fields was involved in a car accident that left him with a broken neck. Even that injury alone wasn’t enough to derail him, but his struggles to get his grades and test scores up hindered his ability to play for DePaul, and the school had no choice but to rescind the scholarship.

Fields went on to have a solid career in the ABA and CBA, the latter of which he finished as the sixth leading scorer in its history before the league folded.

Lenny Cooke

Much like people almost always seem to bring up LeBron James when Schea Cotton’s name comes up, the same rings true for Lenny Cooke. However, whereas in Cotton’s situation James is brought up in terms of Cotton being “LeBron James before LeBron James”, for Cooke it’s almost always along the lines of “LeBron James ended his career before it really started”, which is not true and unfair.

Cooke was a 6’6″ swingman born in Brooklyn, who had started playing basketball at a relatively later age but caught on quick. He was a tremendous scorer and had a killer instinct, often lighting up opponents both in high school games and in the AAU circuit. By his junior year he was being tabbed as one of the next great basketball players and averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds on the year. He was the top player in the class of 2002, ahead of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire.

At the 2001 adidas ABCD Camp, Cooke, who had dominated the previous year’s camp, found himself going head to head against LeBron James, who by then many were not just quietly whispering but downright announcing was the best player in the country. James got the better of Cooke, which in the eyes of many solidified James as the bonafide top player in the country regardless of class, and knocked Cooke down a few pegs.

The problem with Cooke started with him constantly moving from school to school, which in itself shouldn’t have been enough to derail his career, as others such as Amar’e Stoudemire have also done the same. However, there were also talks of Cooke lacking a strong work ethic, and having this sense of entitlement in that he was just destined to make it to the NBA, regardless.

In his senior season, Cooke dominated early on but after eight games when he turned 19, the state of New Jersey ruled that he had exhausted his eligibility. Perhaps as a result, he was not invited to participate in the McDonald’s All American Game. Despite having offers from North Carolina, Ohio State and others, Cooke signed with an agent and opted to put his name in the 2002 NBA Draft, where he went undrafted.

Cooke ended up playing in other leagues, such as the USBL and the CBA, where he excelled for the most part. In December of 2004 he was involved in a car crash that left him in a coma for a week. He spent the next year in a wheelchair, not sure about whether he wanted to try and continue to play or not. He eventually made a comeback, before injuries finished his career for good.

Now he focuses on his family and being a motivational speaker, determined not to let others make the same mistakes he did.

All these players could very well have gone on to superstardom in the NBA, were circumstances different. If they had focused more on academics, if tragedy hadn’t struck them, or if they hadn’t been hyped up too much, too soon.

Every year beneath the surface there will be kids who will end up wondering what might have been, what they could have done differently to improve their chances, why their dreams didn’t come to fruition.

The harsh reality is that so few will become stars that will shine bright for all to see, but many more might rather be shooting stars, a moment of brilliance before fading to black.

2 thoughts on “Shooting Stars

  1. Great read. It is amazing to think of how many things have to go right, even for supremely talented individuals, in order to attain success in the NBA. It’s almost mind-boggling.

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