MOUTH OF WILSON, Va. – Dwayne Bacon accepts countless high-fives and fist-pounds from a drove of his classmates as they file out of Turner Gymnasium at Oak Hill Academy just after a recent midday pep rally.
The gloomy overcast sky does little to thwart the crazed fans’ excitement; relative since in a few hours Bacon and the Warriors, who are No. 1 in the USA TODAY HSS Super 25 rankings, are going for a school single-season record 45th win and an undefeated regular season.
Almost instinctively, Bacon grabs a ball and launches jump shot after jump shot from the corner.
Swish… Swish… Swish…
No one’s here now, no giddy peers screaming, “Bake, you’re the man!” or hounding him about which unreal dunk he has in store for the capacity crowd this time. It’s just him and the ball.
Occasionally he peers up at the banners in the basketball museum that is Turner Gym as he maneuvers around the glossy hardwood from spot-to-spot knocking down jumpers. The school proudly shows its national title banners, jerseys of past Oak Hill players turned NBA stars and homages to the Warriors’ seven undefeated seasons.
There’s a staggering irony here that’s as baffling as it is plausible.
Up until this season, Bacon has never felt worthy enough to be hoisting jumpers in a place synonymous with winning.
“I’ve always lost,” says Bacon, a senior shooting guard. “My whole life, on the court, I always played well; I’ve always scored, but I never won. Man, I just wanna be a winner; that’s all, I just wanna be a winner.”
THAT’S JUST ‘BAKE’
Bacon couldn’t wait to shut ‘em up — all the haters and naysayers who were quick to offer their uninformed opinions about his supposed propensity to take shots… Lots of shots.
“People used to say I was selfish,” Bacon says with a laugh. “To be honest, I’m still not sure where all that started. I’m really competitive, but selfish? Nah, can’t see that. I’ve always been a player that’s scored — always.”
Bacon played varsity as a seventh grader at McKeel Academy (Lakeland, Fla.); even started some games. He averaged 16 points a game as an eighth grader, 20 as a freshman and 24 in route to winning conference Player of the Year as a sophomore.
“And we never won anything,” Bacon says. “I think people would just look at the fact that we were always losing and say, ‘Oh he’s averaging all the points that must be all he cares about.’ I tried not to let it bother me, but, if I’m being honest, I didn’t like that people thought I was a selfish player.”
He transferred to IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) for his junior season, partly in attempt to shed the label, and averaged 20 points while running the point.
“When I told people that he was coming to Oak Hill they would say, ‘No, don’t do it, that kid’s gonna mess up your team,’ ” said Oak Hill coach Steve Smith, who was named Naismith Coach of the Year on Wednesday. “I’ve been coaching for more than 30 years. No one’s gonna ruin my team. I knew that he could be successful here, but it’d have to be with him embracing who he was as a player.”
Surprisingly, that didn’t fit with Bacon’s plans initially.
“I knew coming to Oak Hill I’d be surrounded with talent,” says Bacon, who is signed to Florida State. “I figured I’d be one of five guys in double figures and I’d do everything possible to help the team win. I wanted to prove people wrong, and I thought the best way to do that was not to put up big numbers. Then before the season coach told me straight up, ‘I need you to score!’ ”
Seems like a no-brainer for a guy who ESPN recruiting director Paul Biancardi said would, “eventually make a good living as a scorer in the league with three letters.”
“That’s what he does; he scores,” Biancardi said. “I love his ability to not settle for any one particular shot. He’s got a great balance with the three-point line, the drive and the mid-range game. He’s got all levels and he’s got the size and body to have success for a long time. Bottom line is that he’s one of the best in the country at putting the ball in the basket.”
Need more perspective?
Bacon’s 24.8 points a game is the highest point total at Oak Hill since Brandon Jennings, now with the Detroit Pistons, was lighting the opposition up for 35 points a game in 2008.
“Sometimes I think about where I’d be if I hadn’t come to Oak Hill,” Bacon says. “I know I wouldn’t be here in this position. I know that. I’m definitely grateful.”
Before the season, Bacon was ranked anywhere from No. 38-40 nationally; now he’s sitting at No. 20 in the ESPN 100 and is a finalist for the Naismith Player of the Year award.
“I told Bake before the season he’d probably average around 20,” Smith said. “He’s obviously a little over that. He’s been extremely coachable as well as being our best player. He’s blown up being who he is. He’s underrated in his ability to get his teammates involved, but he can score with the best of ‘em. That’s just Bake.”
Bacon parks his 6-foot-6 frame down on the padded leather chair adjacent to the door inside of Smith’s office, drops his head back and lets out a deep sigh.
Here it is mere hours before he and the Warriors host Southwest Christian Academy (Little Rock, Ark.) in the regular-season finale and he has to answer the question he “knew” was coming.
Does it bother Bacon that he and the Warriors lost to Hamilton (Memphis) 87-76 on Jan. 10?
“It definitely does!” Bacon says. “I mean we ended up getting the win by forfeit because they had an ineligible player, but that one bothers me. I definitely don’t think about it all the time, but, put it like this, I wish we were playing them tonight. There’s no way we’d lose. No way!”
He poses for commemorative snapshots to celebrate the milestone victory and greets fans with politically correct grins and handshakes, but Bacon’s unrest couldn’t be more visible.
“I just wanna be a winner,” he says. “I’m not there just yet.”
OK, yes, technically he’s right, there are potentially three wins and a national title trophy left to grab.
He’ll stop in Chicago to suit up for the East in the McDonald’s All American Game on April 1 before heading to New York City the next morning to play for the DICK’S Sporting Goods High School Nationals title.
Still, c’mon, a perfect regular season (45-0) complete, the No. 1 ranking in the Super 25 strongly solidified. On the most basic level how does a guy who hasn’t lost all year not feel like a winner to some degree?
“I don’t, I really don’t,” Bacon says matter of factly. “I never get ahead of myself and I still haven’t won anything yet. But ask me again after the DICK’s; my goal is to have a different answer for you.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY