By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Several months later, his hard work in the weight room is evident. As Aldridge steps on the court at Forester Field House in South Dallas for a crucial district game against Lincoln in early February, he looks like a man among boys. His lanky frame has been filled out with 10 pounds of muscle, bringing him up to a respectable 238 pounds.
Later, he estimates he needs another 20 pounds before he's NBA-ready. "I don't want to be too big," he says. "I just want it to be all muscle, so they won't say that 'he's too little' or anything like that. Chris Bosh is doing a good job, and they said he was too little. But he's doing good, so that's good for me."
It's a long way to go, but he's getting there. Besides, his two favorite players--"Kevin Garnett in the post and Tracy McGrady handling the ball," he says--were both on the slender side when they arrived in the league. Both straight out of high school, by the way.
For most of the Lincoln game--a 69-66 Seagoville victory--Aldridge throws around his new weight, muscling his way to the hoop. He runs the floor like a player a foot shorter, and he brings the ball up himself when Lincoln's pressure defense rattles the Seagoville guards. He appears to already possess an NBA game.
Which is why, much of the time, he looks as though he might as well drive his Toyota Celica over to the American Airlines Center so he can get some real competition. But not all of the time. Early in the second half, Aldridge corrals a loose ball and tries to lay it back in. A Lincoln player, at least six inches shorter, pins it against the backboard. He retrieves the ball and tries again. Same result. There is no third opportunity.
Aldridge can't afford those kinds of mistakes, not if he wants to go from playing in tiny gyms like Forester, where everything smells like nacho cheese, to the plush palaces of the pros, where he'll play in front of more fans in a single night than he has all of this season combined. A week later, in a gym that makes Forester look like the Staples Center, Aldridge redeems himself, taking out his frustration against a much weaker A. Maceo Smith team at Kimball High School. He so thoroughly dominates the lane, the game turns into little more than a series of practice drills. But is his play good enough for the NBA, or just good enough?
As the fourth quarter drifts away, one Seagoville fan thinks he has an idea of where Aldridge will be next year.
"You're up 30, coach, time to take out the franchise!" he calls out after Aldridge is hammered on a layup attempt. Everyone around him laughs, encouraging him. "You see that guy at the free-throw line? That's I-35. Headed down to Austin! I-35 South! Sound the horn."
The franchise still isn't tipping his hand. In Seagoville coach Robert Allen's office after the game, Aldridge tries to say he's leaning toward attending UT, but his own words trip him up when the topic turns to former point guard T.J. Ford's exodus to the NBA last year after two seasons as a Longhorn, including one trip to the Final Four.
"Man, if he would have stayed one more year," he says. "But with all that money, though, you can't stay."
You're kind of facing the same thing, he's told.
"A little bit. I mean, coach [Rick] Barnes and everybody, they're like, 'If you're a lottery pick or whatever, we don't expect you to turn down the chance. Because that's just crazy. To turn down your dream to come here. You know, we want you, but we don't want to ruin your dream.'"
It can be easy to forget that's what he is, given his talent and his size. Strip all that away, and you have an A/B student who likes hanging out with his friends, tying up the line on his cell phone and cruising the Internet for Jay-Z MP3s. Just a normal 18-year-old. Except he's not. Not really.
In the next room, Seagoville coach Robert Allen, who coached Bosh at Lincoln before coming to Seagoville five years ago, is preparing his team for the off-season--and life without Aldridge.
"When we missed a shot, who was there to dunk it in?" Allen asks. "LaMarcus. When we were out there running, who was at the front of the line? LaMarcus."
Back in the coaches' office, Aldridge isn't ready to be held up as an example. In his mind, he's still part of the team.
"I'm still not over it all the way, but I'm getting better," he finally says, keeping his shoes under surveillance. "I really haven't started thinking about my decision yet. I'm still trying to figure out why we lost the game and stuff. Next is going to be the McDonald's game. After all my All-Star games, then I'll start thinking about it."