It was a situation that would test the steadiest of nerves.
With 19 seconds left and his team trailing by two points, John Hardy went to the free-throw line Friday night with the noise of a standing-room-only crowd ringing in his ears at Rolling Hills High School.
Plenty of basketball players have dreamed about being in that situation. But when you are there, the pressure can make a accurate shooter toss bricks faster than a mason.
Not this 16-year-old.
Hardy, the laconic, sleepy-eyed center for Rolling Hills, calmly toed the line and sank two free throws. He hit nothing but net on both shots, sending into overtime a game that the Titans won over Palos Verdes, 45-38, in two extra periods.
"I try to hold my emotions," Hardy said. "I've got to keep my cool."
Hardy's laid-back mannerisms on the court have not always earned him admiration. Some interpret his placidity as a lack of desire.
"John can be as good as he wants to be," said basketball scout Don Mead. "But he needs to play with more intensity."
Others say that is no longer a legitimate rap against Hardy, who seems to be maturing as a player at a rapid rate.
"I can't question his intensity this season," said Torrance Coach Carl Strong. "Last year I could have. I don't think he came to play every game.
"Right now he's one of, if not the most dominant, player in the Bay League. I wouldn't be surprised if Hardy is the player of the year in our league. I'd vote for him right now."
This season has marked a coming of age for Hardy, a 6-4, 200-pound junior whose reputation in basketball on the Palos Verdes Peninsula was known when he arrived at Rolling Hills High two years ago.
"He was the best eighth-grader on the Peninsula," said Rolling Hills Coach Cliff Warren. "He had the most potential, by far, of any player."
After a disappointing freshman year on the junior varsity team, Hardy displayed his potential last season as a sophomore. He was the first player off the bench for the Titans, who won the Bay League championship and reached the CIF 3-A finals.
With added responsibility, Hardy has elevated his game this year. He ranks third among South Bay scorers, averaging 23.5 points, and is among the leading rebounders, averaging 9.2 boards. He leads the team in steals with 37 in 19 games.
Hardy's play is one of the reasons Rolling Hills, which graduated all five starters from last year, is off to a 15-4 start and leads the Bay League with a 5-0 record heading into tonight's 7:30 contest at North Torrance.
Warren says Hardy is improving with every game.
"About halfway through the year he picked up his scoring and his defensive desire," Warren said. "It has also helped that we're getting the ball into him better.
"I think he presents a picture on the court that is a little misleading. He has intensity and a desire to win. He is competitive. But he comes across, if you don't know him extremely well, like he doesn't care as much and is not trying. But he is. He's been the key to our improvement.
"Potentially, he's every bit as good as anybody I've coached."
Coaching is something Hardy has never lacked. His first basketball teacher was his father, John Hardy Sr., a guard at South Carolina State. His two older brothers, Doug and Greg, were standouts at Palos Verdes High.
"I've picked up some of my brothers' traits and some of my father's traits," Hardy said. "I had all those teachers to show me how to play."
In recent years his primary instructors have been Benny Davenport, coach of the West Los Angeles Blazers youth team, and Warren, regarded as one of the top prep coaches in the South Bay.
"A lot of his talent comes from the instruction," said Hardy's father. "But a lot of that is because he has a tremendous amount of talent. As a kid, we used to marvel at his ability to pass so accurately."
Hardy and his father, a veterinarian, used to play the older brothers in two-on-two games. Hardy also remembers taking his lumps against Doug, 22, and Greg, 21, in one-on-one confrontations.
"My brothers used to bully me," Hardy said. "I'm used to getting roughed up under the boards. I think it's made me a tougher player."
Hardy's father remembers when Doug and Greg would get the best of their little brother on the court but says those days are over. When Doug, who attends Tuskegee University in Alabama, and Greg, who goes to Morehouse College in Atlanta, come home from school, they no longer dominate the youngest of the Hardy boys.
"He plays at their level now," said the elder Hardy. "The older boys recognized that during the Christmas holidays."
Although he lives closer to Palos Verdes, Hardy says he chose to attend Rolling Hills because of "personal reasons"--unexplained. Hardy's father feels it was the right move.
"The best thing he could have done is be coached by someone like Cliff Warren," he said. "He's not only an excellent coach as far as putting a game plan together but has a fantastic ability to inspire his players."