MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Sitting in the K-State Student Union building, Michael Beasley's attempts to inconspicuously fold himself into a coffee shop armchair have failed miserably.
Barely 19, the basketball prodigy is analyzing the concept of fame. As he grapples with why his ability to "put a ball in a basket or snatch the ball off the rim" warrants celebrity status, other students and Kansas State people spy the guy who is impossible to miss, the self-described giant lounging by the fireplace.
Most people look at Beasley but try desperately to act like they're not looking, taking double-shot glances out of the corners of their eyes. Some just crane their necks and point without shame; others -- like the two girls who walked by Beasley as he entered the building -- look at him, look at each other and giggle as he walks by.
This is actually better, a subtler Beasley-mania. At the downtown, mall random people scream "We love you" and elderly people beg Beasley not to leave for the NBA after this season. Teammate Bill Walker's idea of a good time is to scream "Oh my God, it's Michael Beasley," then hide while his buddy handles the onslaught of gawkers and autograph seekers.
"It's like being a giraffe in a zoo," Beasley says.
On this, the last day of February, Beasley sits at a peculiar intersection. In two weeks the NCAA Tournament will begin, and in a little more than a month the last strains of "One Shining Moment" will fade and the college basketball season will be over. And then Beasley, debatably the best player among debatably the best freshman class, will have a decision to make. Stay or go?
Most people figure it's about as much a debate as it was last year for Kevin Durant and Greg Oden. As one athletic administrator at Kansas State described Beasley's draft options, "You can't get much better than No. 1."
Beasley dances around the question about his future, a tap dance patented last year by Durant and Oden, but he does seem legitimately uneasy about the leap everyone presumes he will make. He knows that the adoration he receives in tiny Manhattan is little more than a warm-up for what will happen when he gets to the NBA. Beasley isn't sure how to handle it now, and the thought of handling fame on a larger scale gives him the jitters.
"I'm still a kid; I'm still irresponsible and I want to still be irresponsible sometimes," Beasley said as the fans circled behind him. "When I go to the NBA, that's over. My life is America's life. LeBron James gets a speeding ticket, the cop goes on with his day and LeBron is all over 'SportsCenter.' Britney Spears shaves her head, it's everywhere. You shave your hair, who cares? That's why I'm not sure I'm ready for the NBA.
"I mean, what's being famous anyway? It's a popularity contest. Don't get me wrong. I'm lucky. I love my life, but I just don't understand it. I brush my teeth with the same Crest. I use the same bar of soap. My house gets junky just like yours. I'm just a regular guy who can play basketball. I'm normal."
The thing of it is, Beasley is not normal, not when he steps on 94 feet of hardwood with two hoops at either end. Blessed with oven-mitt-sized hands that catch basketballs like a Venus flytrap, he is a low-post virtuoso who also can step out and hit a jumper (he shoots 38.4 percent from beyond the 3-point arc).
I mean, what's being famous anyway? It's a popularity contest. Don't get me wrong. I'm lucky. I love my life, but I just don't understand it. I brush my teeth with the same Crest. I use the same bar of soap. My house gets junky just like yours. I'm just a regular guy who can play basketball. I'm normal.
Against Texas on Monday, Beasley's fingertips barely grabbed an alley-oop pass, but he still managed a basket-rattling throwdown.
He had 30 points and 15 rebounds in the loss to the Longhorns, padding his NCAA freshman record for double-doubles (now at 24). Forget the Kansas State record books. They're outdated. Beasley's 26.2 points per game is third in the nation and his 12.6 boards leads the country, and he already owns the school's rookie scoring and rebounding records, as well as the mark for most games with 30 points or more (he has 11). And if he continues at his current tear, he will own the school's single-season scoring and rebounding records by season's end.
Beasley's decision to bring those talents to Kansas State was like Mozart opting to play at the local corner bar. A regular in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament back in the 1970s, K-State long had been a hoops afterthought, absent from the NCAA Tournament since 1996. The stepchild to the program down the road in Lawrence, the Wildcats didn't have an inferiority complex; they were inferior.
To say the school was begging for a hoops savior would be understating it. Bob Huggins started the revival. Last year was the first time in 24 seasons that the school sold out its season tickets. But Beasley has resuscitated the program.
Beasley's path to Manhattan has been well-documented: his decision to renege on the verbal commitment to Charlotte after assistant coach Dalonte Hill, Beasley's longtime AAU coach who was on the 49ers' bench, took a job with Huggins at K-State; the angst Wildcats fans suffered after Huggins bolted for West Virginia before Beasley came to Manhattan; and the school's decision to hire Frank Martin as Huggins' replacement, viewed by many as a move made simply to assure that Beasley would come to campus and Walker would stay.
Beasley doesn't deny that Hill is the reason he is in the Flint Hills of Kansas.
"Trust," he replied when asked why he's at K-State. "Trusting Dalonte."
But Hill bristles at the notion that some package deal was cooked up by Huggins to lure Beasley to campus.
"I've been hearing that stuff so long I don't even think about it anymore," Hill said. "I never asked him to come with me. The job offer came and the first recruit I called was Mike. He said, 'Do you think I can come with you?' I told him there was no doubt in my mind he could come, but I wasn't going to tell him to do that. I told him it was a good opportunity for me, but I needed to see if it was the right fit for him."
It's certainly an odd fit. The first time Beasley came to campus for an official visit, the Washington, D.C., kid hopped a 14-seat plane from Kansas City to Manhattan, but the ride was so bumpy that he asked to be driven back to the K.C. airport. That car trip didn't exactly make him feel better. Interstate 70 between Kansas City and Manhattan offers little in the way of sights. There are signs for Alma's Famous Cheese, others touting the nearby Oz Museum and a University of Kansas billboard with the requisite purple-painted graffiti, but you can practically count the number of buildings on one hand.
"Back home, it could take you 20 or 30 minutes to get to the gym because of traffic," said Beasley, who insists he'd never seen a cow until he got to Kansas. "Here, if you're driving for more than four minutes you're lost."
No doubt choosing this tiny outpost of a college town -- where there are few other athletic superstars -- has quadrupled Beasley's star wattage. Beasley might be less like that giraffe if he were at Southern California with friend O.J. Mayo, where Brad and Angelina take the heat off college basketball stars; or at Memphis, where pal Derrick Rose is but one star on a team filled with hot names; or even at Texas, his buddy Durant's choice, where football players shine as brightly as basketball gods.
In the Little Apple, Beasley is the big man on campus, literally and figuratively. At home games, the stands are filled with Beasley-inspired signs, from "I'm 10 but I love 30" to "What Would Beasley Do?" in the student section. Then there are the Beasleys on a stick, the black-and-white head shots students hold up during a Beasley Cam timeout, with the song, "Be like Mike," playing in the background.
It's all a little surreal to Beasley and his mom, Fatima Smith. In her cell phone, the BMOC is "Lil Mike."
Smith and her four other children -- ranging in age from 21 to 4 -- all moved to Manhattan after Beasley decided to enroll at K-State. The cross-country relocation raised more than a few eyebrows, with people questioning how and why a single mother of five would ditch her hometown for what likely will be a very short stay in the heartland.
"What I'm doing here is what I've been doing my whole life," said Smith, who is renting a townhouse and manages receptionists at an area medical practice. "I've been working since I was 16 years old. I work, take care of my children, do the laundry, do the grocery shopping. I don't know who's taking care of me but myself. Bills have to be paid, and Fatima goes to work."
Smith said she uprooted everyone because Beasley wanted and needed her to. Her second child spent most of his high school career -- an itinerant one with seven stops -- away from the D.C. area. He wanted his family close for college, and Smith didn't mind being near the child who she said was "challenging" growing up.
Beasley is not a bad kid; if anything, he is guilty of wanting to have too much fun, a happy-go-lucky goofball who sometimes behaves at about the same maturity level as his idol, SpongeBob SquarePants. He loves pranks -- when team manager Sam Schartz voluntarily crawled into a duffel bag to win a bet, Beasley one-upped the bet by dumping the manager-stuffed bag at midcourt during a dance team rehearsal -- and can't seem to avoid mischief.
Waiting in the tunnel outside the locker room earlier this week, Beasley simply couldn't help himself when he spied a small forklift. He hopped in the thing and turned the keys hanging in the ignition. It never turned over, but when he shut it down, it rolled downhill a few inches and bumped into an extra hoop. Walker, watching nearby, doubled over in laughter as Beasley's eyes grew wide as saucers while he stomped furiously on the brake.
"I was a schoolteacher for 16 years. I wish half the students I dealt with had the problems he had," said Martin, the first-year coach. "It would have made my life a lot easier. He doesn't steal. He doesn't hurt people. He doesn't run on the other side of the line. Everything he does is in humor or playful."
And when playful crosses the line, that's where Smith comes in. Her key chain holds the spare set to Beasley's Chevy Tahoe, and Smith has been known to repossess her son's car if he scores parking tickets or steps out of line. After Beasley failed to show for an interview, the 911 went out to Smith from the school's sports information office. Less than a minute after Smith received a text message, Beasley magically surfaced.
Those examples notwithstanding, people who have known him longest say Beasley has grown up tenfold in the months he's been at K-State.
"College has benefited him," said Curtis Malone, who runs DC Assault, Beasley's AAU team. Malone was at K-State's shootaround before the Texas game. "He's really grown up. To see it is a shock to me. To not see him for a few months and to see him now, it's incredible. He's still a kid, definitely can't forget that, but he's so much more responsible."
Responsible enough, at least, that Beasley believes he's ready to cut the cord. Whenever, wherever Beasley is drafted, Smith is ready to move to his new NBA home, but Beasley isn't so sure.
He loves the reliability of his mom but worries that having her around stunts his maturity.
"She's Batman and I'm Robin," Beasley said. "I like getting in trouble and letting her fix it. At the same time, I want to grow up, and that's hard to do with her by my side. I think maybe I need to be Batman a little more."
Really, Beasley is not unlike any other college student, at once trying to cling to his childhood while simultaneously embracing adulthood.
The difference for Beasley is he can't wrestle with his maturation in a vacuum. He joined teammates at an Applebee's recently, slinking to the back of the room he thought unnoticed.
That night, the dinner play-by-play was on a message board.
Nothing untoward happened but what, Beasley wondered, if he was too loud? Or spilled a drink?
Martin bristles when he talks about the magnifying glass Beasley lives under. He knows it's a double-edged sword, that the fanaticism and fan support for Beasley is what fills the seats and builds a program. But he is agitated by the criticism that goes hand-in-hand with the adoration, challenging anyone to put their 19-year-old selves out for public consumption.
"We have a bunch of guys who eight months ago were worried about a high school prom date and now we're asking them to act like men," Martin said. "People want to treat them like they're pros, and they're not pros. The day Michael puts his name on the dotted line, he's fair game. It's on him. He no longer has the responsibilities of a college student, of class, of getting home at 2 a.m. from a road game and then going to a psychology class and being in a bad mood all day because he's tired like I used to be when I was 19."
Not one to trust easily, Beasley questions people's motives even more now. He was pulled over on campus a while back, the officer explaining that he was doing 32 in a 30-mph zone. He wasn't issued a ticket or even a warning but did receive a, "Hey, thanks for beating Kansas."
"So was I pulled over because I was speeding, which I wasn't really, or just for that?" Beasley said. "The whole thing lasted maybe 10 seconds."
The scrutiny and attention all has made Beasley painfully conscious of who he is, and it is not because he believes he is a somebody. Just the opposite: He's a somebody who'd like to be a nobody.
The player in him wants the next level; the kid in him would rather not pay the bills. The player has dreamed about the NBA since he and Durant went at it at the rec center back in D.C. The kid jokes about putting a McDonald's in his future house to avoid going out to get a cheeseburger, and longs for the days when his lone responsibility was taking the trash out every day.
The very definition of a man-child, Beasley is on the precipice of fame, fortune and adulthood. Yet he is terrified of making the leap.
"I honestly feel like I don't belong sometimes," Beasley said. "I'm just a regular guy, little ol' me, but then I'm not. When I leave here, it will be even worse. This is the last stage of fun, sort of. After this it's all business and I'm not sure I'm ready for that.
"How do you prepare for that? How do you prepare for something you don't know?"
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.