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Can't-Miss Frustration

Amid the LeBron hype, former high school star Cotton has a game that made him a magazine cover boy at 16 and a cautionary tale at 25

August 18, 2003|Chris Snow | Special to The Times

Alone on a summer afternoon at her family's new home in Long Beach, Gaynell Cotton unpacked boxes in silence, deciding which shelves would be for glasses and which for plates, the same ones she used to feed the college coaches, agents, reporters, photographers, NCAA officials and friends who used to beat a path to her door.

A few miles away, her youngest son, Schea, 25, was playing for the Clippers' summer league team at Long Beach State.

He missed the two shots he attempted that day, finishing with a final line that read: 19 minutes, no points, three rebounds, one assist, three fouls.

His dad, nicknamed Big James, and 27-year-old brother, Little James, who was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1997, mingled among the standing-room-only gathering. Wearing his signature white cowboy hat, Big James could not be missed -- the main reason Gaynell chose not to attend.

"I don't want to deal with them people in the stands, listening to all that crazy stuff they say, that my son's confused, that he's troubled," she said later in the day. "I don't want to hear that no more.

"I challenge anyone to walk a day in his shoes. Anyone else's son or daughter would be lucky if they survive."


Schea Cotton was 16 and had recently completed his freshman year at Santa Ana Mater Dei High when Sports Illustrated profiled him in a July 25, 1994, article.

The story began, "Schea Cotton greets you in a tank top, and you think, This is not a just world we live in."

He was, already, 6 feet 5 inches and a steel-sturdy 215 pounds.

"At that time," Cotton reflected, "I was just a kid in a candy store having a blast."

And nearly everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece of him.

Girls, for example. He remembers approaching his burgundy '89 Chevy Beretta after a game to find that he'd left a door unlocked. Rummaging through his belongings to make sure nothing had been stolen, he discovered that someone had placed red underwear in his glove compartment. Everyone knew red was Cotton's favorite color.

As a sophomore, Cotton scored 33 points against Lincoln High of Brooklyn, N.Y., which had Stephon Marbury in its lineup. Marbury made eight three-pointers and piled up 39 points, but Mater Dei won by 15.

Led by Cotton, Mater Dei went 36-1 and won the state championship, its only loss coming in a Las Vegas showcase against Ron Mercer-led Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill Academy. Cotton outscored Mercer, 26-20.

"The whole crowd just stood up and was applauding because Schea was about to go one on one with Ron Mercer," recalled Clay McKnight, a former Mater Dei teammate who is a graduate assistant at Syracuse. "They were witnessing something special. That happened a lot with Schea."

Cotton laced up 37 pairs of sneakers that year: Jordans, Barkleys, Pippens, whatever Nike sent he wore -- a new pair every game.

"I basically had a shoe contract in high school, to be honest, without the money," Cotton said. "I grew up playing under a Nike endorsement."

In the Pro Summer League, he wore Kenyon Martins, and not because Reebok paid him to.

"I'm all about bargains right now," he said. "Those were about 60 bucks. Marked down from 90."

Speaking of money, if the Cottons can put enough together, they just might find someone to make the movie they've been planning for two years. The title of the script: "When It's All Said and Done."

"This story will be compelling and controversial," said Samuel Chi, a former Long Beach State student basketball manager who is helping the Cottons find investors. "It will raise people's attention to what really goes on."

Expect the NCAA, which the Cottons say they have spent $60,000 fighting, to be cast as a villain.

Cotton played his first Division I college basketball game for Alabama in 1999 -- two years and three schools later than originally planned -- because the NCAA invalidated his SAT score. Cotton, who has attention deficit disorder, was administered a test containing some boldface type and allowed extra time.

The NCAA also investigated the Cottons when Big James bought Schea a new Ford Explorer during his senior year at Bellflower St. John Bosco -- where he played for two seasons after transferring. Meticulous record-keepers that the Cottons are, the NCAA found nothing but boxes of receipts.

For Big James -- a self-described emotional man with a wide smile who has a physique in line with his chiseled sons' -- the issue strikes a nerve.

"I don't hate people," Big James said. "But those ... NCAA guys. I hate them from the bottom of my heart."

Cotton never played a minute at UCLA or North Carolina State, schools he would have enrolled at in 1997 and 1998, respectively. According to a timeline recorded by Gaynell Cotton, the family sued the NCAA in September 1998 and four months later the case was settled and sealed. A gag order prohibits the family from discussing the outcome, but it may be revealed in the movie.

"We need somebody [to make the movie] who's not afraid of the NCAA," Gaynell said.

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