Schea Cotton: 'Zion Williamson is probably the closest to what I was'

Schea Cotton high school Manchild basketball

Schea Cotton: 'Zion Williamson is probably the closest to what I was'

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Schea Cotton: 'Zion Williamson is probably the closest to what I was'

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On this episode of The HoopsHype Podcast, Alex Kennedy is joined by Schea Cotton, who’s widely regarded as one of the best high-school basketball players of all-time. However, the phenom didn’t make it to the NBA. A new documentary, “Manchild: The Schea Cotton Story,” looks at his basketball journey. Schea discussed the film, his career, life as a child star, his battle with depression and more. The film is now available on-demand and on all digital platforms. You can listen to the interview above or read a transcribed version below.

This new documentary (“Manchild: The Schea Cotton Story”) is about your journey as a basketball player and I really enjoyed it.  When did you first come up with this idea and how did this film come together? 

Schea Cotton: My production team, Artru Group, did a great job along with the director, Eric “Ptah” Herbert. The documentary came into existence in the last 10-to-15 years when we had the idea. Then, within the last 10 years, it went into production and we did a lot of editing and fresh takes. We did a lot of high-definition late footage. With all of the NBA players that you see in it – Baron DavisElton Brand, Paul Pierce, Stephen Jackson, Metta World Peace and Tyson Chandler – a lot of that stuff is the newer content [whereas] a lot of the old, pixelated footage is stuff that my father shot when I played… This film came into existence because I wanted to do something with the latter part of my life that was greater than what I did when I played. I felt like putting my life on the canvas and telling my story to help people avoid some of these pitfalls that I had to go through was more important than any game I played or how well I played when I was at the pinnacle of my career. 

We showed it at the 2016 L.A. Film Festival and it ranked Top 5 out of 4,200 films, so we knew we had a good product. They were very pleased with the project and we’ve been really motivated since then. But it’s been a difficult process. It’s been four years to get to this point to distribute, but we’re blessed to be in this position now. We’ve partnered up with 1091 Media, who did the Stephon Marbury documentary recently (“A Kid From Coney Island”) as well as the Lloyd Daniels documentary (“The Legend of Swee’ Pea”), so we’re excited. Obviously, everybody was hooked on “The Last Dance – the Michael Jordan 10-part docuseries – which was great; I watched it myself. But I feel like our timing is good right now (unfortunately) with the state of our country with COVID-19. It will be available on all digital streaming platforms – iTunes, Amazon and anywhere you can purchase movies.

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You were described as a “manchild,” “a man among boys” and “godlike” by talent evaluators. When did you have your growth spurt? And when did you realize that you were a special athlete?

SC: I think I hit my growth spurt between [the end of] middle school and going into high school; I went from like 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-4 in a period of, like, two years. And when that happened, my body was developing and I was training at an alarming rate. Me and my brother would challenge each other for countless hours, and I think that’s what separated me – the physical component, understanding the game and not being scared to play against bigger, stronger opponents and older guys. I’d probably say, for me, the maturation process really started kicking in around 15 and 16 years old and that’s when I started separating myself. I was training at a much, much, much, much more aggressive pace than my peers. I had the opportunity to glean from my brother (who’s two and a half years older) that wisdom and that insight, and I developed a different level of work ethic at the same time.

You were so ahead of your peers, as people like Baron Davis, Randy Moss, Stephen Jackson and Paul Pierce say in the film. When did you dunk for the first time?

SC: My first dunk was in the sixth grade in Roanoke, Virginia. It was in the AAU national championship game, which was very surreal to actually get my first one in a game and in a game that big and of that magnitude.

When did you sign your first autograph?

SC: My first autograph? Great question. It was around that same time. I believe it was after that [AAU national championship] game actually because, at that time, nobody was really dunking. I mean, I’m in the sixth grade and I’m 5-foot-9, but I think I had almost a 30-inch vertical leap at that time. It was interesting. At that time, we didn’t have social media, so everybody that knew who was who had to come watch the players play or you had to get the newspaper the next day and check the scores and stats and stuff like that. It wasn’t as readily accessible as it is today, so I think it was a bigger deal because there was less opportunity.

At 12 years old, you were signing autographs and getting a lot of media attention. In the film, your family talks about how you had to grow up quickly and get used to being under the microscope. What was that like?

SC: I mean, I was living in a fishbowl. I was a national figure at 12 or 13 years old. I’m on ESPN, Scholastic Sports America and Sunkist Kids and that was the pinnacle at the time. People need to understand, I came along before social media so I didn’t get the YouTube and those IG likes and stuff like that from what I was doing in my prime. If I would have had access to social media, we would have broken the internet! So, for me, it was more about, “What do I want to be remembered as?” There’s a lot of people that play basketball, but I wanted to separate myself from my peers with my play, and that took a work ethic, that took a desire, that took a lot of courage and commitment day in and day out.

There were a lot of days when I didn’t feel like playing, but guys were coming after me because I was already a national figure. I had a name, so everybody wanted to make a name off me, which means I couldn’t have any off-days. And we had Nike reps coming to all of the games along with a slew of high-DI college coaches. I remember I was 16 years old, playing with my AAU team, the SoCal All-Stars, in the summer. In the front row of the bleachers at UNLV, I see Jerry Tarkanian, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim, Lute Olson, Jim Harrick… I’m looking around like, “This is wild!” I mean, these are the biggest names at that time from the universities – Arizona, Duke, UCLA, Syracuse… I mean, it doesn’t get much bigger than that, and I’m 16 years old. I’m 16 years old and a lot of these coaches are recruiting me – along with some of my other teammates and guys that we were playing against – but primarily, they were coming to see me. 

If I would have had access to social media, we would have broken the internet!

If social media had been around, it would’ve been crazy. The closest thing we’ve seen is probably Zion Williamson (who became a household name in high school) or Andrew Wigggins (who had a viral mixtape at 13 years old). Are you glad that you didn’t have to deal with even more attention online or do you think it would’ve helped you?

SC: I mean, it would have helped me because you have a ready-made marketing tool with social media. Back then, you couldn’t get any bigger than Sports Illustrated! All these mixtapes and stuff, that’s great man, but you got to remember before all of that, the pinnacle was Sports Illustrated and I think it still has an impressive stature today. The issue that I was in, the cover was when Brazil won the World Cup. The title was “Viva! Brazil” There was a four-page layout, and I was 15 years old when that happened! We’re talking about Zion Williamson, and Zion Williamson is a freak of an athlete today… Zion is probably the closest thing to what I was as far as the explosiveness, but my skill set was much better at this phase in the game. I think if he can develop his guard skills and his mid-range, he’s going to be unstoppable because he’s already a problem around the basket.

What advice would you give to someone like Zion Williamson or any phenom who’s dealing with a lot of national attention and heightened expectations from a young age? 

SC: Stay humble and don’t believe the hype. Keep working. You’re only as good as your last game and the ball is gonna stop bouncing someday… Zion has to prove himself and show that he’s worthy of not only the money but the No. 1 pick. There’s the media that’s pushing him, that’s behind him, and he has to make good on that. So, stay focused, don’t believe everything that you hear and just work. Stay in the lab, just work and stay away from distractions because when you have that bullseye on your back, everybody’s targeting you. It’s one thing to get to the mountaintop, it’s another thing to stay there.

Schea Cotton Basketball documentary Manchild

Speaking of people targeting you, the NCAA investigated how you got your car, your stereo, etc. They invalidated your SAT score, so you couldn’t play at UCLA. Did it feel like the NCAA was targeting you and picking on you because you were getting so much attention?

SC: Absolutely. And I wasn’t taking money from anybody; I wasn’t in bed with those people, which was not the norm at that time. This was before everything [we see] right now; I was at the forefront of the AAU basketball scene on the West Coast. Our AAU team was the best in Southern California and on the West Coast, for that matter. There were a lot of things that were coming my way that I wasn’t really prepared for and I was learning on the fly because my parents weren’t basketball people; they didn’t play sports growing up. My father was a hard-working construction worker, drove trucks cross-country and had his own business. My mother was very astute and she handled all the paperwork and money and things like that; she’s college-educated and she graduated from UCLA. Then, she met my father and conceived two children – me and my brother.

We took this opportunity and ran with it, and I think we were still successful in our own right. My brother made it to the NBA and played four years. I didn’t, but I was able to play at a high level for 10 years internationally in Europe, South America, Asia, all throughout the world. I have a wealth of knowledge and experiences to give back to the youth. This isn’t for everybody. This life is not for everybody. Everybody’s not gonna make it. If you want me to quote statistics, let’s talk numbers now. Out of high school, a student-athlete has a 1 percent chance of making it to a high Division-I university. You have less than a 1 percent chance of making it to the NBA. So, my message is to never quit and diversify. That way, you’re not left starving and when the ball stops bouncing, you have options and you have more of a smooth progression into the workspace.

You spent one summer at UCLA before your SAT score was invalidated and Baron Davis mentioned that you were dominating the UCLA pick-up games against Magic Johnson, Penny Hardaway and Hakeem Olajuwon. In the film, writers also talk about how you outplayed Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett in high school. These are NBA legends! What do you remember about those pick-up games?

SC: I was having fun! (laughs) It didn’t really matter who was in front of me, I had a killer mentality. These same legends that you talked about? I mean, I came out with guys like Kobe Bryant – rest in peace. Kobe couldn’t do nothing with me either when we played! I was a problem because I had a chip on my shoulder… I played against Kevin Garnett, and Kevin has talked about my legacy and my career and what it was like playing against me. These are guys that I came up with and made my name against. These guys were the best in their area and we all came up together. It was a magnificent experience. I don’t know if they’ll ever see basketball like that again, because we’re living in a different time. 

In the film, a number of people talk about how you were LeBron James before LeBron James – as far as your game and the hype. I don’t think LeBron gets enough credit for the way he handled the national attention at a young age and somehow exceeded the crazy expectations. LeBron went through many of the same things that you did – the national attention, a Sports Illustrated feature, an NCAA investigation into his car, etc. Were you impressed with how he handled everything?

SC: I was very impressed. I mean, it’s not easy when that bullseye is on your back and they’re targeting you. I think when you achieve a certain level of success, everybody loves to bring the top dog down and they want to see him fall. So, to see him handle that with class and dignity and to be a man of integrity and obviously all about his family – with no issues outside of basketball and stuff like that off the court – it’s great. He’s maintained his relationship with his wife and taken care of his kids, and he has a good track record and a clean image. As a professional, that’s important, especially in the black community, because there are a lot of things that can tear us down along the way (that’s obviously put there for a reason). So that’s impressive to me, but what he’s doing today as far as social injustice is more impressive to me, considering some of the other athletes with big names from the inner city had platforms and opportunities to do it and chose not to. I really respect him for that, especially in the temperature of our nation right now.

You and LeBron were essentially child stars since you were in the limelight from such a young age. Child stars who are musicians or actors often struggle as they get older. Fortunately, we haven’t seen that with basketball phenoms so much, but do you agree that being a phenom is very similar to being a child star?

SC: I think so. I mean, it’s a gift that you’re blessed with – you’re able to entertain. Basketball is like art, you know? You go through these progressions, this process, to get to a certain level as a supreme athlete and then you have to become a student. So, you’re studying the game, you’re learning your body, you’re learning about nutrition, you’re learning about your opponents and you’re learning about the media and how to interact with leeches and parasites and agents and handlers from a young age. I mean, I had grown-ups running up to me at 13 or 14 years old, man. Like, how do you prepare for that? You need to have somebody who’s been where you’re trying to go and who’s been successful to mentor you in order for you to have a leg to stand on and be successful because it’s very difficult.

Nobody knows how they’re going to handle that kind of situation until they’re in it. In the film, a number of experts and players are asked, “Why didn’t Schea make it to the NBA?” But we didn’t hear your answer to that question. Why didn’t you make it to the NBA?

SC: It wasn’t meant for me. God had a different plan for my life, I think, and I’m coming into that now. People have to remember that in life, there are four quarters. I’m in my third quarter right now and the goal is to finish strong. It doesn’t matter how you start, it’s how you finish. I put everything I had into it. It didn’t work in my favor long-term as far as making it to the NBA and having a 20-year career like the likes of Kobe (may he rest in peace). But I feel like my lane that I’m taking is going to be more valuable for me than what I did when I played on the basketball court. What I’m doing off the court now – to build up the youth of America and make this a better place one kid at a time – is more important because this is going to impact their lives from here on out.

At one point in the documentary, you were talking to a high-school team and Ivan Rabb was one of the prospects who’s in the crowd. He obviously went on to play in the NBA. What’s your message for these young players and how receptive are they?

SC: Just to take advantage of the opportunity you have. Be the best you can be while you can, take advantage of your academics, get the best grades you can get, build friendships and rapport with your classmates and take advantage of your coaches. If you don’t have any positive role models at home, cling to your mentors or coaches or aunt or uncle or somebody who is invested in you and who wants to see you succeed and who cares about your well-being. I think that’s what’s more important. Here’s what people are missing today: Everybody is about [instant] gratification and the microwave mentality like, “I need it right now!” They don’t like the process. If they can’t see it happening, they don’t believe it’s gonna happen. It’s about the process and life and the journey. Ivan was very receptive. And a lot of kids are receptive because when they do their homework on me and when they ask their coaches about me, they give them the same advice and they are like, “No, this dude was legit. He was the man.” When you hear that from people that you respect, it’s a built-in understanding and I don’t have to really sell anything, I’m just giving a message.

Schea Cotton Manchild Documentary teaching basketball

Your father said in the film that he would love to see you coach or mentor the next big phenom, helping him develop and reach the NBA. If you’re able to do that and help a fellow phenom succeed, what would that mean to you?

SC: It would be a dream within a dream. It would be the epitome of a sacrificial lamb, where it didn’t work for me, but it could work for someone else; I could pour all of my experiences and knowledge into that one individual, so they can take that opportunity and truly flourish. Then, they’ll have the experience off the floor to know how to handle things as a professional, which is a pitfall for a lot of guys. I think, eventually, before it’s over with, that will happen and I think it’s not going to be just one person. I think it’s gonna be several guys, to be honest, before my time is up. I have kids that I’ve impacted right now in this area. I mean, there are at least five or six of kids who will probably go on to play high Division-I basketball, and my AAU team was ranked Top-20 in the country in 16 months with no sponsorship (just private money). We went from no ranking to that title. And now, I have a kid who is [ranked] Top-5 in the country who plays on my team: Marquis “Mookie” Cook out of Jefferson High School in Portland, OR. In ESPN’s Top-25 rankings, he’s No. 5 right now. There are blessings that are in disguise sometimes, but it’s how you view life and whether you see the glass as half full or half empty.

After you couldn’t play at UCLA because your SAT score was invalidated, you talk about how you were depressed and suicidal. When Greg Oden was on the podcast, he talked about going through something similar when his basketball career ended because it was all he knew and his self worth was tied to basketball. How tough was that period and realizing that life is about more than basketball even though that’s what you were known for from age-12 and on?

SC: It was life-changing. It really tested me to the core – every fiber of my being – to see how bad did I want to succeed and be somebody that my daughter can be proud of, that my mother can be proud and that my father would be looking down and smiling at me? [Can I be] somebody that’s a tool that can be utilized and help people for the better? Where I struggled, I want people to succeed. Where I did well and where other people may struggle, I can give back and give them insight to help with those learning curves and things like that. That’s more important to me today. Aside from what I did playing basketball, my mother and father wanted to raise an accountable, hard-working man of God in myself and my brother, and I feel like he and my mother accomplished that goal. 

The basketball thing, it’s a 50/50, man. Not everybody is gonna make it. People don’t realize how hard it is to make the NBA. I was ranked Top 10 in the country all through high school! So, people can say whatever they want. They want to call me a “high-school legend” and this and that, but I played a lot of basketball after high school – even after I was getting the “jerk chicken,” as I like to call it, with people screwing me over throughout my career. Take LeBron; if you take two years away from his career, where he has to pretty much wait on the sideline, you think he’d be the same player he is today? Not close. Not a chance, because 85 percent of the game is mental. I fought through those difficult periods and even through the suicidal tendencies at times because I knew at the end of the day, there was something more out there for me. So, when people watch the documentary, I think they’re gonna see that resilience and that determination and that hunger, just from watching all of the hardships that I’ve overcome. That’s why I’m the man that I am today – all those adversities I’ve had to face.

I fought through those difficult periods and even through the suicidal tendencies at times because I knew at the end of the day, there was something more out there for me

I’m glad you aren’t in that dark place anymore. How excited are you to show this documentary to your daughter someday and help her understand your story?

SC: Yeah, it’s just dope for me to be able to bond with her and connect through a film. She’s a smart girl and she’s athletically inclined; she has the genes, obviously. I don’t know if she understands the magnitude just yet, but I think as she gets older, people will fill in the gaps for her when it comes to those things. I think my relationship with her is more about the time that we can share together because I don’t get as much [time] with her as I’d like because her mother and I separated. But I want my daughter to know that her father fought for everything that he was able to accomplish, and he never quit. That’s my message for kids. No matter what you face, don’t ever give up. And nobody can tell you what you can and can’t do. You have to believe in yourself when no one else does.

You went undrafted in the 2000 NBA draft even though you had a ton of potential. What was that draft night like for you?

SC: Draft night, for me, was demoralizing. I cried like a little baby after the draft. I had my family there, and my agent and trainer were there. Me and my brother went to grab some hot wings right before the draft started. I spoke with, I believe, the Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves and LA Clippers. They were all expressing interest and said that they heard I’d be a mid-to-late first-round pick.They expressed that they had some draft picks and that if I was around, they were considering grabbing me, so I was feeling pretty good about my chances going into the draft. We got back home and I watched the first round. Obviously, my name wasn’t called. They had my name on the board as one of the sleepers [according to] Kenny Smith and some of the other analysts that were covering the draft at the time. The second round approached and I watched the whole second round, but my name wasn’t called. I quietly got up from my seat, walked out of the house and took a walk around my neighborhood for about 20 minutes. I proceeded to cry like a baby and think about what I wanted to do with that next part of my life because that door had been shut, that dream had been shattered.

I had to basically reinvent myself in the toughest way. I’m at home and I made this name for myself and everybody just knew I was gonna get my name called; now, here it is and I don’t even get drafted. And I’m still at home and I have to show my face and figure out what’s next for my basketball career because I’ve turned pro. I felt like I was being denied the right to work where I know I’m capable of earning a living, so I had a lot of pitfalls. And I was young when I was going through a lot of this stuff. This stuff breaks people; this stuff changes people. Like, you talked about Greg Oden. At least he made it to the NBA and he got the multi-millions. I never got my payday. That’s what people don’t realize. For me to be here today, it’s not easy. Okay? But it’s a blessing and I’m so grateful to have this platform. We’re really excited about June 23 and the impact that this documentary is gonna make – not just nationwide, but globally, because it’s going across the water too.

Draft night, for me, was demoralizing. I cried like a little baby after the draft

As you mentioned, you had a 10-year career overseas, playing in Serbia, China, France and the Dominican Republic among others. How was your experience playing overseas for a decade?

SC: It was good. It was tough early on in the first few months. In new countries, it was always tough to get acclimated with the cuisine, the language and just the lifestyle. Things are a lot slower. When you go abroad, typically in Europe, it’s more of a simple lifestyle. You learn that you can live with a lot less and you can be happy without things that you take for granted in America. I grew up so much because I went over to Europe at 19 years old. I didn’t have my handler or my agent going with me; I didn’t have my girlfriend or my family members going with me. I went over by myself. I would talk to my mother daily and talk to my family as much as I could, but I tried to do it on my own because I felt if I could handle [playing] internationally by myself, I’d be ready for life as an adult, no matter where I’m at. And I feel like I was able to accomplish that. 

The European experience basketball-wise was difficult at times because I would play well and then I wouldn’t play for two or three games. So, there were some politics there, which normally wouldn’t happen in the NBA. Typically, when you play well in the NBA, you get more minutes and you make more money too. So, there were some challenges that I had to face early in my career, but as I started to grow and get older, I handled things a lot better and I enjoyed the experience a little bit more. But there’s nothing like playing in the NBA. I mean, I still feel like my pro career was basically a slap in the face because I was denied the right to work where my talent basically allowed me to play. How do you deal with that emotion? I felt like I handled that the best I could, and I was actually glad when I was able to retire because I didn’t have to worry about, “Why didn’t I make it to the NBA?” and, “What could I do to get there?” and, “Why aren’t they calling my name when they’re picking up all of these other guys?” I mean, I played in the ABA with Dennis Rodman and Matt Barnes and DerMarr Johnson, and all of those guys got called up from there. As soon as they left, I was averaging almost 40 points a game and the scouts were long gone. So, it’s a timing thing and it’s a situational thing as well.

“Manchild: The Schea Cotton Story” is available on-demand and on all digital platforms on June 23.

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