On the day Renardo Sidney announced his college choice, the gymnasium floor at Los Angeles Fairfax High was filled with 13 tables decorated in white linen with rose centerpieces, where more than 100 family members and friends dined on a catered meal of chicken and ribs.
"Back in the South, this is what we do," Sidney's mother, Patricia, said proudly. "We celebrate big."
The Sidney family had left Mississippi for the Los Angeles area to further his basketball career, and the move had paid off.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, May 06, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Basketball star: A story in Monday's Section A about USC and UCLA withdrawing scholarship offers for Fairfax High basketball prodigy Renardo Sidney Jr. incorrectly identified Renardo Sidney Sr. as the player's stepfather. The family's attorney says he is the biological father.
It was Feb. 22, late in the high school basketball season, and Sidney was putting the wraps on a senior campaign in which he averaged 24.8 points and 11.2 rebounds and was the No. 2-rated power forward in the nation by Scout.com.
His college pick was about to surge as well. USC was gearing up a late-season run that would result in a third consecutive 20-win season, one it would cap with a Pacific 10 Conference tournament championship and a strong showing in the NCAA tournament.
Some thought the lavish affair -- the caterer estimated the total cost at about $2,000 -- was a bit over the top, but supporters didn't care. "I think it's warranted," said one, Chris Rivers, an executive with the apparel company Reebok.
With plenty of theatrical flair, Sidney signaled his choice by dramatically opening a box that contained -- surprise! -- a USC baseball cap.
The family even took to flying a USC banner outside their rented home.
But a little more than two months later, the player is headed elsewhere.
USC, as UCLA had before, rescinded its scholarship offer, leaving one of the nation's top talents temporarily without a team.
On Thursday, Sidney, 19, signed a letter of intent with Mississippi State days after visiting Starkville, Miss. The Bulldogs were, at best, his third choice -- but in the end, perhaps his only choice. When, after Sidney's visit, a family spokesman was asked whether Mississippi State was the front-runner for his services, the reply came that the Bulldogs were "the only runner."
A rare turn of events involving a 6-foot-10 prospect with a powerful build and uncommon shooting range for a big man.
"It's highly unusual for both of those schools to abandon their recruitment of a player of that caliber and potential," said George Raveling, a former college coach -- at USC and elsewhere -- who works the Southern California area for Nike. "They must know something the rest of us don't know."
UCLA and USC officials were prohibited by college rules from speaking publicly about Sidney while he was unsigned, and even now they have declined to do so. But sources on both campuses who have knowledge of his recruitment agreed to speak with The Times as long as their identities were kept anonymous.
Though they are from rival schools who often wage intense battles for the same athletes, the sources agreed on this about Sidney: The reward of suiting up such a prodigious talent was not worth the larger risk.
Bruins and Trojans sources both say they were wary of potentially intense NCAA scrutiny prompted by these issues: Despite what was perceived as a limited income, the family moved multiple times and resided in upscale homes during Sidney's high school years; and stepfather Renardo Sr. directed a club basketball team with financial backing that was unclear beyond a relatively modest shoe company sponsorship.
Plus there was this: A source intimately familiar with Sidney's recruitment said a university official thought the stepfather had strongly hinted that he expected to be compensated if his son signed with the school.
Renardo Sr. and Patricia, in person and through a spokesman, declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. But the family's lawyer, Donald Jackson, said last week that there was never a request for payment, noting, "That would be a violation."
Jackson, who is based in Montgomery, Ala., also said of the player, "There have been no violations of NCAA amateur regulations in this young man's life."
Details about the Sidney family's finances were "irrelevant" and "no one's business," the lawyer said, adding, "It is not the place of the NCAA to question someone's earning capacity or claim someone is living beyond their means."
The questions remain unanswered, but they have upended a promising young athlete's college career. And they will persist, even at Mississippi State.
On the day the Bulldogs received Sidney's signed letter of intent, the athletic program's compliance director, Bracky Brett, said the university would proceed with caution.
"We realize by simply signing him doesn't mean the process is over," Brett said. "We know there's a lot of questions to be answered."
He added, "Any issues related to his amateurism or extra benefits will be part of our discussions with all parties in the very near future. By all parties, I mean the prospect, his family, the NCAA, the Southeastern Conference and everyone here at Mississippi State.