CARLISLE, Pa. — Billy Owens lives in the same picturesque central Pennsylvania community where the legendary Jim Thorpe once played. He's been called the best basketball player to come out of these parts since a towering talent named Wilt Chamberlain played at Philadelphia's Overbrook High 35 years ago.
Owens is 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds, but he runs the floor like a sprinter, completes passes few other players would attempt and shoots 3-pointers with the same free-spirited confidence he displays on his frequent slam-jam dunks.
If he's not the most talented high school player in the country, the recruiting services agree, the 17-year-old Owens is a close second to 6-10 Alonzo Mourning of Chesapeake, Va.
His statistics--32 points and 12 rebounds per game, three state titles in three years and 2,600 career points--evoke comparisons to numerous great Pennsylvania players of the past. But, perhaps most of all, he resembles Magic Johnson: a fluid guard in a power forward's guise.
"Billy Owens does things on the basketball floor that big people are not supposed to do," scholastic superscout Howard Garfinkel said. "He is the best high school power forward of the 1980s."
"He not only scores, rebounds, plays defense, passes and blocks shots, he sees the whole court," Carlisle High Coach Dave Lebo said. "A lot of talented kids are known as scorers. Billy plays the whole game."
Owens, who has signed with Syracuse, comes not only from an athletic family, but an athletic town. It is no coincidence the two have aided his success. His brother, Michael, a sophomore running back at Syracuse, is the No. 10 rusher in state history and was called Carlisle's best all-around athlete since Thorpe.
"Those boys were always playing ball," Cheryl Knight, an aunt, said. "Billy's had a ball in his hands since he was 6 years old. Even when he was little, he'd watch games on TV and say, 'I want to do that.' Off to the playground he'd go and a little while later, he could do what he saw on TV."
Jeff Lebo, Dave's son and now a star guard at North Carolina, led Carlisle to the first of its three consecutive Pennsylvania Quad-A championships in 1985. Billy Owens, then a 6-3 freshman, averaged 12 points and eight rebounds a game.
He averaged 24.6 as a 6-5 sophomore and 29.7 as a 6-7 junior, when he scored 31 points in Carlisle's 48-47 title game victory over Meadville. Owens should break Lebo's career scoring record within a week, and probably will finish as the No. 3 scorer in Pennsylvania history.
"All that is nice, but my satisfaction comes from playing the best in the big games," Owens said. "Sometimes players are great against good teams but they don't play as well in the big games. I want the ball to come to me. I love pressure."
Although it was anything but a pressure game, Owens put on a three-ring-circus show in Carlisle's runaway victory Tuesday over Central Dauphin East. He had 36 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and six slam dunks in 23 1/2 minutes.
In one breathtaking sequence, he dunked home a missed shot, stole the in-bounds pass and whipped a behind-the-back assist to a wide-open teammate.
The statistic that most impresses Dave Lebo is Carlisle's 94-9 record with Owens in the lineup. Carlisle was 0-7 in state playoff games until he arrived; the Herd is 15-0 since. This season, Carlisle is 14-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state and 18th nationally by USA Today.
"More than anything else, he is a winner," Lebo said. "With his talent, he could have been content to be a big duck in a little pond, but he's always wanted to be a big duck in a big pond. Now, everybody in the state measures their success against him, against Carlisle."
"I've always wanted my senior year to be my show . . . not a one-man show, but a whole team show. I want to make all of our other players better," Owens said.
Just as Jeff Lebo made Owens better by pushing him, motivating him, being an extra big brother. Billy Owens picked Syracuse because his brother is there and he feels comfortable with the Orangemen players, but almost went to North Carolina because of Lebo.
"I think Coach (Dean) Smith's the best coach in the world. . . . He told me I had the potential to be a No. 1 draft choice in the pros," Owens said. "But, most of all, I would have loved to play with Jeff Lebo again."
The only question about this basketball wunderkind is whether he can play at all next year. Despite a respectable academic record, he hasn't met NCAA Proposition 48 guidelines. He can take the SAT test three more times and the ACT once more.
"At one game, the fans chanted, 'S-A-T, S-A-T,' " Owens said. "But those tests don't tell you how you're going to do in college. My brother's doing pretty well at Syracuse, he has tutors to help with his work and he goes to study hall every night.
"But I will play next year. If I have to sit out a year, oh, man, that would be bad."
Owens "will be a major impact player in the Big East Conference. . . . I think he'd be an impact player if he turned pro. In fact, I hope he does," said Pitt Coach Paul Evans, who faces the prospect of going against Owens the next four years.
But before college and, maybe, the pros, Owens wants to be the first in Pennsylvania history to play on four consecutive state title teams.
"I want to be remembered for the titles, for being a fun, exciting player," Owens said. "I want people in Carlisle to say 20 years from now, 'Those players today aren't anything. You should have seen that Owens.' "