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Renardo Sidney goes to great lengths to reveal choice of USC

ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

The Los Angeles Fairfax star, projected to be a future NBA player, makes his announcement at an elaborate party at his high school gym.

February 23, 2009|ERIC SONDHEIMER | ON HIGH SCHOOLS

If ever there was a sign that high school sports has reached a level of hype beyond reality, it happened Sunday afternoon in the gym at Los Angeles Fairfax, not far from where the Oscars were being given out.

The announcement by 6-foot-11 center Renardo Sidney of his intention to attend USC was turned into such an elaborate production that it made quarterback Jimmy Clausen showing up to his news conference three years ago in a Hummer limousine to announce Notre Dame look amateurish.

With 13 tables set up in the gym, complete with rose centerpieces, immaculate tablecloths, folding chairs covered with white linen, red and gold balloons and a catered meal of chicken and ribs for more than 100 family and friends, the Sidneys went all out.

"Back in the South, this is what we do," Sidney's mother, Patricia, said. "We celebrate big."

As Chris Rivers, the director of basketball for Reebok, sat at the head table and a family friend lectured the assembled media, "Try to get your facts straight," the 19-year-old Sidney walked to the podium and waited until a young woman brought out a gold box with blue and red ribbons.

Sidney struggled to open the box with his hands, so a knife from one of the tables was given to him. He still was having trouble, so scissors were found as the woman aided him. The box revealed a smaller box, and this time, what he found after getting through the blue and red wrapping paper was a USC hat.

"It was very close," Sidney said of his college decision. "It was a nail-biter."

Yes, Sidney projects as a future NBA player and one of the best college prospects in the nation. But Sunday's spectacle made him out to be the next LeBron James.

"I think it's warranted," Rivers said of the presentation. "You folks all showing up shows that this is a big deal."

Rivers' employer, Reebok, has paid Sidney's father, Renardo Sr., thousands of dollars for coaching his son in summer basketball competitions.

"I'm glad it's almost over," Renardo Sr. told the gathering before his son revealed his college choice. "It's been six years running."

Sidney moved from Mississippi to Southern California in 2006, and his immense basketball skills have attracted the attention of many. The Washington Post and New York Times have run long articles detailing his talent and journey to basketball star.

And the scrutiny is only going to get more intense, which might have been the reason one of Sidney's top college suitors, UCLA, pulled out of consideration last week.

Who wouldn't want a player the caliber of Sidney? He might be the most physically gifted center in City Section history because of what he can do, whether it's shooting from three-point range or dribbling the length of the court and dunking the ball on a fastbreak.

But nothing these days is simple in college recruiting. He has not taken the SAT, making it no guarantee he'll be able to attend USC.

Even more uncertain is whether Sidney, his family and friends can put off the circling agents until he finishes a year of college basketball.

As USC learned in the O.J. Mayo case, which the NCAA continues to review, even if warnings are issued, the best of plans can go awry when so much money is at stake.

As if a reminder were needed, one of the visitors in the gym Sunday was Claud Mills, the father of former Fairfax standout Chris Mills. In 1988, an overnight package from the University of Kentucky to the elder Mills broke open and revealed $1,000 in cash. Kentucky was put on three years' probation and Mills was banned from playing for the Wildcats.

College basketball can be an ugly business.

What's encouraging about Sidney is how much progress he has made in the last four months on and off the court. His weight dropped, his grades have gone up and his performances in basketball have been consistent, if not MVP-like. He has shown leadership, toughness and maturity.

For those reasons, UCLA seemed tempted to go after him, sending out its top assistants to monitor him for weeks, only to abruptly reverse course.

Now, USC and Coach Tim Floyd will get the best basketball player in Los Angeles, a McDonald's All-American who's averaging 24.0 points and 10.3 rebounds for Fairfax this season.

"I talked to O.J. and he said, 'Coach Floyd is a good coach. He'll get you where you need to be,' " Sidney said.

Sidney can't sign a letter of intent until April 8. Then the real fun begins.

Yes, Sidney deserved a celebration in finally making a college choice.

"It's one of the hardest decisions a player and family have to make," Coach Harvey Kitani said. "I see the stress on the players. I think it's a big relief."

But he's still only a teenager, and Sunday's extravaganza would have been more appropriate for celebrating the earning of a college degree.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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