lebron before lebron

VICE Sports Q&A: Schea Cotton, the Hoops Phenom Who Never Panned Out

We talked to Schea Cotton—dubbed "LeBron before LeBron"—about what it was like to be a high school basketball phenom, the media, and falling short of the NBA.
14 February 2016, 9:40pm
Photo by Daily VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

Welcome to VICE Sports Q&A, where we'll talk to authors, directors, and other interesting people about interesting sports things. Think of it as a podcast, only with words on a screen instead of noises in your earbuds.

When Schea Cotton methodically contorted his 6'5" frame out of his UberXL, the manchild moniker made sense. Practically the same size at 16 years old as he is today at 37, I could see why every magazine and sports writer in the mid 1990s dubbed the high school hoops phenom, who was equipped with an explosive 42-inch vertical, as the next best thing.

READ MORE: VICE Sports Q&A: Masai Ujiri

His story shares an eerie similarity with others in the cannon of the "best that never was"—influencers whispering in his ear, controversy surrounding grades which prevented him from attending UCLA, and eventually declaring for the draft too soon from Alabama on the heels of his father's illness. The California native became another cautionary tale of too much too soon, falling short of his NBA all-star billing.

What stood out most about Cotton wasn't his alpha two-guard build or the stories about how he got the better of Kobe in 1995 at a summer camp. It was his peace with the past and coming to terms with the outcome of his hoop dream.

Cotton is currently in Toronto promoting the documentary Manchild, which focuses on his journey and the culture of hype that still plagues youth basketball today. We caught up with him while he was sharing his story with the Toronto Gauchos basketball program.

VICE Sports: The "LeBron before LeBron" nickname. What do you think of that one?

Schea Cotton: I think dominance. He is a mismatch for everybody. So when I hear that, that sounds about right because I was dominant. It's fitting.

I am 5'10" and will never know what it's like to have that type of dominance on the court. What is it like to have the ability to just put anyone on a poster?

[laughs] Man, well, it's better than sex, it lasts longer. I used to want to dunk on the center because it was a mental thing. If I could put it on the center, then he is second-guessing every shot that I am going to attempt going to the basket. Dunking is a powerful thing but on somebody, it's a game-changer.

What was it like growing up in Los Angeles in the '90s?

Great music and a basketball hotbed. The talent level was better than I have ever seen at that time. Guys were really driven, we wanted to make a name for ourselves on the West Coast. A lot of the writers from the East Coast were biased, so we had a chip on our shoulder and my shoulders were heavy. I wanted people to know I am from L.A. and we can play. It's not just sunshine, blue skies and surf boards; I grew up in the struggle. I was all about the drive.

Schea Cotton talking to a group of kids from the Toronto Gauchos basketball program. —Photo by Ryan Sidhoo

You were one of the first California phenoms to come up in the '90s when agents, sneaker companies and top-tier universities became heavily involved with players at such a young age. What was it like navigating that ecosystem?

It was unreal. I can't put it into words. It was moving at an alarming rate. Sports Illustrated, ESPN, I had 'em all covering me. It was all in play. At 15,16, I am going to dinners, movies and everybody was stopping me—that's when I realized the business of it.

Schea Cotton in 2016. What does that look like with YouTube and the digital ecosystem of today?

Today with the media hype, I think it would be out of hand but it's a gift and a curse. They would be critiquing everything down to my shoestrings and how I tied 'em. But in this generation it would be easier because we worked harder back then, so I would really stand out now.

For a young ball player today, are there more hoops to jump through if they want to go to school or the pros?

For sure. The business of it is starting much younger. The media is out of hand. It's an engine now and if you are not coddled the right way, you're going to get lost in the shuffle. Look, I was the number one player in the country in 1995 and here I am 20 years later telling kids my story about the pitfalls that happened along the way that were out of my control.

It's NBA All-Star Weekend here in Toronto. Is there a part of you that feels you should be playing in that game?

It's interesting. I just want to enjoy the experience. These are my peers that I came up with, so to see guys like Kobe playing for 20 years, I know we were doing the right things.

How do you get over living in the "shoulda, coulda, woulda?"

Having my daughter seven years ago helped me bury the hatchet and it gave me peace. I was fighting it daily. But when things didn't work out, I didn't run. I showed my face. I was the same when I was on top and I was the same when things were terrible at the bottom.