James Cotton Jr. had an unusual request for the dozens of college basketball coaches who recruited him last year. The 6-foot-5 forward asked that he be redshirted in his freshman season.
The request could not be met by several schools, including USC.
Because Cotton, now a senior at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, wanted to stay on the West Coast, his options were limited. He signed in November to attend Cal State Long Beach.
"Most of the kids we recruit want some kind of a guarantee that they'll be able to challenge for a starting job right away," said Seth Greenberg, Long Beach's coach. "James' case was very different. But I couldn't be happier with the way things worked out. Right now, he's a boy in a man's body, and a redshirt year will give him a chance to mature and learn our system.
"It'll be like we're getting a high school senior, instead of a college freshman," he said.
One of the reasons Cotton wanted to redshirt was his age. He turned 17 last month, making him one of the youngest senior basketball players in the country. He and his parents, James Sr. and Gaynell Cotton, believed the extra year of eligibility would give him a chance to catch up with everyone else.
Cotton also wanted the extra season so he could spend his fifth year of college studying for a master's degree in physical therapy.
Redshirting was his parents' idea.
"My husband and I are raising young men and not basketball players," Gaynell Cotton said. "There are talented basketball players all over the country, and on any given day one of them can blow a knee out and be done forever. If that ever happens to James, we want him to have an education that will allow him to take care of himself and his family."
Basketball plays a big role in the Cotton family. James started receiving recruiting attention two years ago as a sophomore starter at Lakewood Artesia High. Younger brother Schea is a 6-5 eighth-grader in San Pedro who is already tabbed as a Southland player to watch.
James and Schea were raised in San Pedro and would have attended San Pedro High. But continuing budget cuts in the Los Angeles Unified School District worried the family. They moved to Lakewood when James entered high school.
Cotton enrolled at Artesia, which has one of the area's top basketball programs. The school won a Southern Section title in 1990 with Ed O'Bannon in the lineup. O'Bannon, a prep All-American, is a starting forward at UCLA.
The transition was smooth for James. He blended well with the students at Artesia and found an instant home on the basketball team. He was one of three sophomores who started for Coach Wayne Merino, along with forward Charles O'Bannon and center Avondre Jones. The trio, who were often called the "Super Sophs," led the Pioneers to their second consecutive section title.
Charles O'Bannon, Ed's younger brother, and Jones are two of the most-recruited players in the country this year. Each is undecided on where to attend college and will wait until spring to sign.
As Cotton was perfecting his game, Schea was having a more difficult time. He was teased about being the new kid in school, and on a couple of occasions said he was chased by gang members who wanted his basketball shoes.
When the school year was over, the Cottons moved back to San Pedro to be near family and friends.
"My little boy cried every day and was miserable in Lakewood," Gaynell Cotton said. "I wanted him to be in a safe environment where he was happy. San Pedro has always been our home."
The move meant that Cotton could not return to Artesia. When James informed the coaching staff he would not be back, he said he got a cool reception.
"If it had been up to me, I would have loved to stay at Artesia," Cotton said. "Charles and Avondre were great friends and super to play alongside. I loved being part of a team that was in contention for a championship. But when my family said they wanted to move, the coaches would hardly talk to me. I guess they felt betrayed. It really hurt."
Gaynell Cotton, who attended Catholic schools while growing up in New Orleans, decided to send her eldest son to a parochial school after returning to San Pedro. She and her husband decided on St. John Bosco, an all-boys school in Bellflower. Gaynell said the absence of girls would allow James to concentrate on academics.
The basketball program, however, was less than ideal. The Braves were 13-12 in 1990-91, 2-8 in league play.
Coach Tim Haley was replaced by Brian Breslin, a former Pepperdine and Drake assistant who had never been a high school head coach.
Cotton said last season was tough, because he went from being a support player to one who carried the load. But the new role allowed him to explore his game and find out what it's like to face the basket.
St. John Bosco finished fifth in the Del Rey League last year and was 15-12 overall.
Breslin said he was fortunate to inherit a player of Cotton's caliber.