By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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.
Still, he knew he could play. He's always known that, ever since he walked into Seagoville High School as a 6-foot-9 freshman point guard. Four years later, he has the quiet confidence of a five-year NBA veteran.
"There's always some nervousness," Aldridge says. "But I feel like if I play my game, no one should be able to be on my level. I should be able to just do what I want to do. So I can't ever go out there thinking somebody else is better than me."
But even if he knew he had the skills, no one else did. Not nationally, anyway. He wasn't like the rest of the high school studs whose progress has been monitored since they were freshmen. Some even before that: Sebastian Telfair, a point guard from Brooklyn who may enter the NBA draft rather than attend Louisville, was first touted as a top prospect in 1999 in a lengthy profile in The Dallas Morning News. He was in seventh grade. Aldridge's press clippings are a few inches thinner, and the scouting reports aren't as well-developed because they haven't seen him enough in the summer camps and leagues run by the sneaker companies.
As one NBA scout puts it: "I think he's probably been the least talked about of the high school kids."
Yes, he'd more than held his own against Chris Bosh when Bosh was a senior star at Lincoln and Aldridge was an upstart sophomore, averaging 23 points and 13 boards in two losses. His play in those games quickly made him a coveted college recruit. But he'd yet to emerge on NBA scouts' radar because, back then, Bosh wasn't considered a pro prospect either. If Bosh was thought to be too skinny for the pro game, then Aldridge was just a younger version of him. He'd make a nice college player, a tall kid who could benefit from a few years in the weight room.
No shame in that. The high-school-to-NBA phenomenon has become the norm in only the past few years, and even now, there are more misses than hits: In the 2003 draft, five high school seniors were selected, and only one, LeBron James, seemed to make the right choice to bypass college. The others--Travis Outlaw, James Lang, Ndudi Ebi and Kendrick Perkins--are long-term projects, at best, players probably better served honoring their college commitments.
Skipping college is a risk that doesn't often pay off. Think about it: For every Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant, there is a Leon Smith. The Dallas Mavericks took Smith, a high school star in Chicago, with the last pick of the first round in the 1999 draft. After arguing with the team, which wanted him to play overseas for a few years to develop his game, Smith left a home game early and took more than 200 aspirin in an attempt to kill himself. Eventually, he returned home to Chicago and got into a scrape with the law involving guns and his ex-girlfriend. The Mavericks negotiated a buyout of his contract, and he never played a game for the team. This is how quickly things can go south if you go pro before you're ready.
But last year, Aldridge didn't have to worry about ending up like Smith, and not just because he's a much more mature kid, emotionally if not physically. To end up like Smith, he'd have to start like him: in the NBA draft. That wasn't a consideration. Yet.
Then Bosh was taken by Toronto with the No. 4 pick in the draft, after spending one spectacular season at Georgia Tech. All of a sudden, those old Lincoln-Seagoville game tapes became much more relevant, especially when Bosh proved his slight frame could withstand an NBA beating. Not long after, Aldridge was one of a handful of high school players invited to Michael Jordan's Flight School in Santa Barbara last summer, a prestigious opportunity to play with college players and Jordan himself. For a baller, it's like being granted an audience with the pope. Summer camps like Jordan's are the key to making the transition from college recruit to pro prospect.
Aldridge's mother, Georgia, already knew she was living with a potential pro athlete: "Oh, my God," she says, "I could tell the difference from when he first started in the ninth grade. By the time he was in the 11th grade, he was real good. He just blossomed." If the invite to Flight School seemed to confirm this, his play at the camp all but guaranteed it.
"We had, like, I think, three or four selected high school players from [around] the country, and then all these top college guys, like Sheldon Williams from Duke, Sean May from [North Carolina], all the big-time players were there," Aldridge remembers. "And I played with them, and I was averaging a good 15 or 16 [points] with them. I felt like, you know, if I could do it now, when I haven't finished my senior season or my weight training, I feel like if I get on my training hard, I can do it."
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."
Yes, the McDonald's All-American Game, the most storied high school All-Star game since its inception in 1978. More than 100 current NBA players took part in the event, including four from last year's game alone. This is the deciding factor. If Aldridge wants to make his NBA dreams a reality, he can't just play well in the McDonald's game, can't just be a name in the box score and a sentence or two in the accompanying story. He has to be in the headline.
Because now, every NBA scout knows about him. They've seen tapes, and most have seen him in person. But they also know plenty about the other 23 players in the game, especially the other kids expected to put their names in the draft: point guards Telfair and Shaun Livingston, center Dwight Howard, forwards Josh Smith and Al Jefferson. Aldridge has to stand out, has to push scouts onto his side of the fence.
"[Now], everyone's aware of him," one scout says. "He needs experience, like all the young guys. It's a little early--we don't know all the foreign kids, and we don't know all the underclassmen that are coming, so it's a little hard to make a determination for him today. The other guys are locks--I mean, you know, Jefferson and Telfair and Livingston. If they all decided to come, they're certainly first-round picks. This kid is a little bit further down the pecking order."
Before the game, ESPN's Chad Ford is less dubious of Aldridge's chances.
"I think he's definitely a first-rounder if he goes in," Ford says. "From what I've heard from the scouts, anywhere from the late lottery to number 20 in the draft--so somewhere between 12 and 20, I think, is looking like his draft range right now. I think what scouts like about him is he has a lot of skills for a guy that size--in some ways, he reminds them of a European young big man, in that he can handle the ball a little bit, he can shoot the ball, he's very coordinated. He has skills that a lot of American big men just don't have."
Unfortunately, they never appear during the game in Oklahoma City on March 31. While Telfair rings up 11 assists, J.R. Smith wows the crowd with his 30-foot shooting range, Josh Smith displays a tantalizing inside-outside game and Howard dominates as expected, Aldridge doesn't do much of anything, other than striking up fast friendships with two of his fellow UT recruits, Danny Gibson and Mike Williams. He plays less than anyone on either team (11 minutes) and finishes with five points on a pair of unassuming layups and one free throw.
Aldridge never looks comfortable on the court: Seconds after checking into the game, he launches an ill-advised 17-foot jumper, as if he has to prove he's more than just a post player who can destroy smaller high school competition. It never gets much better for him.
In the second half, one of ESPN's commentators suggests that of all the players here, Aldridge might be the most talented. The only person who can hold LaMarcus Aldridge back, he says, is himself. It's telling, because that seems to be what Aldridge is doing. Every time he gets the ball, he's double-teamed by what's going on in his own head, the pressure to do more, to be more. After almost a year of keeping the pressure at bay, it has finally gotten to him.
Just like that, just as suddenly as his NBA chance appeared in front of him, it disappeared. Not for good. It'll be there a year or two from now. He just needs to go to school first.
"He didn't knock anybody's socks off," the NBA scout says. "I think he played like we expected him to. But not well enough to leapfrog, you know, to get everyone salivating about 'God, I hope that this guy puts his name in the draft.' I think he's making the right decision."
The tide rises higher when LaMarcus Aldridge arrives, along with his coaches and his mother, Georgia. At 6-foot-2, she's tall enough to stand up to a 7-foot-tall son. But she probably doesn't have to very often; they share the same easy smile and easygoing manner. It's an exciting day for her, but a bit bittersweet. It means she's losing her baby.
"I'm already trying to deal with that right now," she says. "Emotions and everything--it's real hard, because he's my youngest son. He's just nice to be around. He's a chosen kid."
As Aldridge takes his seat in front of the UT display on the wall, the girls from the homemaking class whisper to each other. "He's so nervous," one says. "You can tell."
"Smile, LaMarcus," another one says.
He does smile as he picks up a pen and prepares to sign the paper in front of him, as the flashbulbs pop. It's his letter of intent to play basketball at the University of Texas. It's April 14, the first day of the NCAA's late signing period. No sense waiting another day. But he prolongs the wait for just one more moment, faking uncertainty with a twinkle in his eye.
"Hmmm, do I want to sign?" He strokes his chin as everyone laughs. He does, too, then finally writes his name at the bottom of the sheet. It's finally over.
Except this is all for show. Aldridge filled out the paperwork and faxed it to the proper authorities this morning. And he called UT coach Rick Barnes the night after the McDonald's game to tell him of his decision. This ceremony is just a chance for everyone who helped him along the way to revel in one last LaMarcus Aldridge highlight.
He traces his name again and again for the next 30 minutes, posing for a shot with his mom and coach, then another one with the coaches and Seagoville's principal, Judith Klaus.
School counselor Betty Brown takes in the scene like an approving mother, perhaps because that's precisely how she feels. "He's doing exactly what I wanted him to do," she says. Well, except he chose UT over Oklahoma State. "He's a sweet kid."
Brown probably feels even prouder when Aldridge--who initially said he would attend UT for only one year before declaring for the draft, like Bosh and Carmelo Anthony--admits that he "might get there and not want to leave for four years." It probably won't happen that way, but all school counselors are allowed some wishful thinking.
Once the signing ceremony is over, Aldridge and his mother line up for the lunch the homemaking class has prepared. After filling his plate, he turns off the spotlight. Now that the decision has been made, he has a few months to be a kid again.
"I'm gonna go in the kitchen so no one can watch me eat," he announces.
"Trying to act bashful," his mother says to no one in particular, smiling to herself. "He's something else. "