By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Every few minutes, the man screams the same desperate sentence, hands cupped around his mouth in a futile attempt to be heard above the crowd. Hunched over in his seat high up in the rafters, he's like a jockey whipping a horse, urging it toward the finish line: "LaMarcus, you gotta step your game up!" His fellow fans shoot him confused looks over their shoulders. The guy he came with moves to another seat, but the man keeps yelling.
Down on the court, LaMarcus Aldridge doesn't hear a word and doesn't need to. He's been great all season, blossoming into the best basketball player in the state, one of the best in the country. He's been even better tonight.
It's March 7, and the two-day tournament at SMU's Moody Coliseum has come to this: one final game against the Lincoln Tigers. Aldridge's Seagoville Dragons finally beat the Tigers this season, their first victory against them in a decade. Now they need one more. The winner goes to the state tournament in Austin at the University of Texas' Frank Erwin Center. The loser has a long bus ride home.
Avoiding a seat on the bus--that's the only thing that matters to Aldridge tonight. He doesn't know if he's going to be a University of Texas Longhorn or an NBA project next season. All he knows, all he cares about, is that right now, he's a Seagoville Dragon. He's still in high school, and he has a game to win. As the game winds to a close, Lincoln can't stop him. Not once the ball is in Aldridge's hands. Doesn't matter if he's a foot away from the basket or 15, it's going in. Jumper. Layup. Hook shot. Dunk. Rinse and repeat. Foul him and he makes you pay for it. Smother him like a steak and he hits the open man. Force his teammates to shoot and he uses his 7-foot frame to retrieve the miss. Everything Lincoln tries only results in another two points and the back of his No. 12 jersey running the other direction. How's that for stepping up his game?
Down by 11 points early in the fourth quarter, Aldridge has brought the team all the way back. He scored 15 in the first half, but he was just getting warmed up. In the second half, he hasn't missed a shot, leading the team on a torrid 15-2 run that gives the Dragons a brief lead. Every basket looks easier than the next, every two points giving the fans a glimpse of the talent that has NBA scouts in the stands on a regular basis and pundits penciling him into the first round of their mock drafts.
With seconds left, Aldridge makes his first mistake of the night. On the free-throw line with his team behind by one point, he converts only one of his two foul shots, sending the game into overtime instead of ending it. It's a costly miss: At the end of the extra period, the Tigers' Joel Bosh--brother of the Toronto Raptors' Chris Bosh, a player Aldridge is often compared to--hits a put-back to end Seagoville's season.
After the game, Aldridge wanders around the court, looking lost. He has nothing to be ashamed of: He finished the game with 39 points (on 16-of-18 shooting from the field), nine rebounds and six blocked shots. But this wasn't part of the dream. Of either dream, actually. In the first, he leads Seagoville to a state championship, enrolls at the University of Texas, leads UT to a national championship, then enters the NBA, ready to lead his team to a world championship. In the more recent one, he skips to the end, straight to the NBA. Either way, Moody Coliseum isn't supposed to be the last college arena he plays in. But it might be.
"He's going to have a tough call," says ESPN.com columnist Chad Ford, the site's NBA Insider. "If he stayed in college a year or two and played well, because of his size, he's a top-five pick of the draft. If he gets injured or struggles with the system or doesn't pan out right, it may be tough for him to come back and get his stock where it is right now. He's in one of those what I call gray zones. But I think he should have no concerns about not getting drafted in the first round. He will get drafted in the first round. So you've got that money and that guarantee and that safety net."
For some, it seems an easy choice: If you can be a millionaire right away, why wait? Why chance blowing out a knee or breaking an ankle playing for free in college? But the NBA is not a sure thing, not for a skinny kid fresh out of high school. Make no mistake, Aldridge is no LeBron James, a physical freak ready to dominate a man's game at a young age. He needs more time, more strength, more development.
Who knows what could happen? A few years from now, LaMarcus Aldridge might be the subject of a cautionary tale, another could've-been with a bright past and a dim future. Or he could be a rising star, a young force whose present has caught up to his potential. It all rides on one decision.