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. 20 on our list, 1997 St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) graduate Schea Cotton.
Compared with the story of Mo Spillers, that of Schea Cotton bears little resemblance.
Expectations for his future were as great as any pre-high school aged player ever, even LeBron James.
Today, 32-year-old Cotton spends his time on a basketball court teaching young players, instead of schooling them. He's still in good shape, around 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, roughly his same size as a sophomore at Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.).
His size is problem No. 1.
Cotton was the first -- and only -- sophomore ever named Cal-Hi Sports Div. I State Player of the Year.
That occurred in 1995, problem No. 2.
Cotton was reared during the explosion of AAU basketball, expanding media coverage of high school athletics and an increased emphasis on sport-specific training at a young age.
After summer basketball pioneer Sonny Vaccaro parted ways with Nike in 1990, shoe companies fought over allegiances to the nation's elite high school talent. The infatuation with the elite players was hard to corral. And Cotton was the best among his peers.
"He was our LeBron James," said 1996 North (Riverside, Calif.) graduate, SoCal AAU veteran and former NFL linebacker Chris Claiborne.
"Schea was very good, but he was put on top of the mountain, without ever really climbing the mountain," said Vaccaro, founder of the ABCD Camp. "What happened was many California kids didn't maintain that competitive edge. Those kids were further along in their development. It showed when they played teams from other regions."
"When we played AAU teams from California and New York, we were automatically intimidated," said Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh, a product of Lincoln (Dallas) and Texas Blue Chips AAU. "Once we got over that, we realized we could play with anybody."
The intimidation factor and Cotton's early exposure to the high-level performance training methods of Marv Marinovich (Todd Marinovich's father) likely worked against him in the long run.
"It turned into a dunk and power show," said ESPNHS Vice President Andy Bark, who first met Cotton in the fourth grade. "Schea could just overpower kids. That's works in high school, but when you're 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, that's not necessarily going to work against 7-footers in the NBA."
Could Cotton see those three aligning forces in high school? Was it was all too much, too soon?
"I was a 15-,16-year-old kid," Cotton said. "Tell me, what were you doing when you were 16? It's kind of hard to see that at 16 years old. The hardest thing to do is remain the best, not be the best, especially when all they want to do is chip you down."
Cotton says another force, namely the NCAA, was a larger hindrance. After missing his senior year with a shoulder injury -- suffered in a 35-point, seven-dunk performance in an AAU game against Lamar Odom, Cotton signed with UCLA. The NCAA, though, ruled his SAT score invalid.
He wasn't able to suit up for UCLA -- a huge blow in Cotton's estimation -- nor N.C. State in 1998-99 following a year of prep school.
"There are certain things I can't discuss, but the NCAA invalidated my test scores and took two years from my career," said Cotton, who has a documentary on the topic in the works. "I could never recoup them."
A different point of view why Cotton didn't reach the NBA also emerged: perception.
He wound up at Long Beach City College, his seventh straight season of dominating mostly inferior competition after repeating a grade in middle school. Cotton evolved from a 13-year-old with unlimited potential to a 20-year-old with a perceived low ceiling and a rap sheet of dominating younger, lesser opponents.
Cotton doesn't focus on that seven-year period to explain what went wrong.
"I think the big question is: What would have Schea done with those two years at UCLA?" said Cotton, who feels declaring for the NBA out of high school would've been the right move. "If the competition was up to par, great. But if it was not, there was nothing I could do about it. That was out of my control."
In a brief moment of realization, Cotton speaks on the prevailing conditions that surrounded him – and their affect on his pro career.
"Honestly, a majority of the best players didn't make it. When you're hot, then you go cold, it's kind of hard to warm up again."