Related: John Staggers Interview
In conjunction with the Boost Mobile Elite 24 on Aug. 28, ESPNHS is profiling California's 24 greatest streetball players. Some went on to become NBA stars, some were high school stars and pro flameouts, while others were beset by unlucky breaks or tragedy. The countdown continues with No. 2 on our list, 1988 Crenshaw (Los Angeles, Calif.) standout John Staggers.
Visiting Venice Beach for the first time in recent memory, 40-year-old John Staggers looks around, pauses, and speaks as the last 20 years flash before his eyes.
People come and go, but the facts remain: Venice Beach is the West Coast's premier streetball court -- and Staggers its best all-time regular.
"In high school, I would go up to Venice Beach around 4 o'clock [on the weekends]," Staggers said. "I was really a no-name, playing with older guys like Freeman Williams, John Williams, Darwin Cook and others. It was always about basketball. I just wanted to play."
Staggers played at Inglewood (Inglewood, Calif.) as a ninth-grader, but even upperclassmen told him, "Man, with your skills, you gotta go to 'The Shaw.'"
Crenshaw (Los Angeles, Calif.) was the West Coast's premier program, winning eight CIF state titles between 1983 and 1997. As a sophomore, "Staggs" paid his dues on a senior-oriented team that won state and finished No. 8 in the country. Crenshaw "only" reached the city semifinals in his junior year, but the team eagerly anticipated the 1987-88 season.
Add this to his legend: The top player on one of the most talented teams in state history did not start a single game.
"At first, it was a discipline thing for missing a practice and things like that," Staggers said. "I didn't think it would last whole year. I couldn't understand that."
It did and with spectacular results: win after win for a team that eventually rose to No. 1 in national ratings with eight Division I-bound seniors and 14 eventual scholarship players.
Another thing that didn't go as planned: With Crenshaw at 28-0, the Cougars faced a Manual Arts (Los Angeles) team they already defeated three times. Crenshaw lost after being shutout in overtime, 89-82, but not before Staggers gave them a chance by nailing a NBA-range 3-pointer with 23 seconds left in regulation.
Staggers was named L.A. City Section 4A Player of the Year. Over top five national recruit Chris Mills of Fairfax. Off the bench.
Staggers didn't last long at UTEP after the school's unconventional eligibility methods backfired. He played briefly at Salt Lake Community College, but the NJCAA banned Staggers when he admitted another player passed his equivalency exam for him. Ironically, Staggers could have attended a California community college, regardless of academic standing, once 18.
"I probably should have stayed at UTEP," said Staggers, whose on-court battles against Miners' star Tim Hardaway added to his reputation. "I didn't want to go to school in Los Angeles. I wanted to be a plane ride away, not a drive away."
After a stop at Columbia Community College in Northern California, he finished his eligibility as an NAIA All-American.
By then, visits to Venice Beach were more frequent and in the mid-90s, he put in serious work. Staggers showed up on the boardwalk and single-handedly defeat teams that had won for two or three hours. He's considered one of the greatest playground scorers ever, alongside New York's Joe Hammond.
Staggers never lost his drive, playing pro ball in China for mentor Joe Weakley, a former Crenshaw assistant who passed in 1999.
"I was close to him and his son Paul," Staggers said. "I wouldn't have played in China if it wasn't for him."
Through all the academic roadblocks that kept this top 25 national recruit from Division I ball and eventually led him to Venice Beach, Staggers never forget what's important in athletics -- fostering meaningful relationships that endure.
He appreciates those still around after the adulation of his high-profile high school career ended.
"My teammates and friends are still there for me," Staggers said. "When I left UTEP, I kept my head up and I don't hold any grudges.
"I would tell kids to take care of their grades in school. I should have taken care of my business. I have nobody to blame but myself."