The narrators are reliable because they still can’t believe what they saw. Imagine, for a moment, being a scout or college recruiter heading out to evaluate some rising high school seniors. You have seen this player, you’ve heard about that player. You have your list of guys. Then you look over and see a 6-foot-11, 240-pound smokestack galloping down the floor, dunking on cowering souls and blocking shots across the building.
Who, you ask, is that?
Today, or for most of the last quarter-century, really, this would be impossible. By the time a basketball player reaches the summer of his senior year, he’s been rated, reviewed and processed by the churn and burn of the recruiting world. And the prodigies? The physical specimens plucked from the pages of a Marvel comic? They’re incubated and monetized. They are commodified on social media. Their names are written in the sky.
Think about it. Who was the last basketball phenom that needed to be seen in person to be believed? When was the last time a transcendent American player just … appeared? You have to go back, way back — pre-internet, pre-ESPN, pre-everything — to come upon the perfect combination of extraordinary circumstances.
This month, college basketball coaches across the country are returning to the road and in-person recruiting after a dormant year spent behind screens. Maybe it’s a good time to go hunting for those extraordinary circumstances.
Maybe it’s a good time to remember the summer of 1988.
“You know, if it were today, he would’ve had 10 million followers as a 16-year-old,” says Sonny Vaccaro, the don of grassroots basketball in America. “But back then, he was a total stranger.”
How’s this for extraordinary?
“No one,” Vaccaro says, “knew who Shaquille O’Neal was.”
OK, so technically, two people knew.
In the summer of 1985, Dale Brown was coming off his 13th season as LSU head coach. His tenure in Baton Rouge was one of wild swings. His teams won four of the previous seven SEC titles and reached the 1981 Final Four, but were often rebuked by Tiger fans for underachieving. Brown was an unapologetic nonconformist. His program was a favorite target of the NCAA and he ducked and dodged bad headlines. He countered by waging war on the establishment, clapping back against those investigations with claims of the NCAA’s “monumental hypocrisy.” He was one of a kind, and LSU opted to keep him around, signing Brown to a five-year extension in April 1985 after rumors emerged that he might jump ship for a potential opening at Oral Roberts.
Brown was, more than anything, a master motivational speaker. He often told the story of his father splitting three days after he was born and his mother raising him in a one-room apartment above a bar in North Dakota. Basketball became a substitute for his father, he would say. It gave him discipline and direction. His story resonated.