Before Michael Jordan was making Bryon Russell fall with a killer crossover and draining the go ahead jumper to win his sixth NBA title with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan was a skinny, determined athlete dominating the competition at Laney High (Wilmington, N.C.).
Before Adrian Peterson was trucking opposing defenses and racking up 2,097 yards in a single season for the Minnesota Vikings he was shining bright under the Friday night lights at Palestine High (Palestine, Texas), averaging 12 yards a carry and scoring 32 touchdowns.
Before any athlete can become legendary they have to lay their foundation in the high school ranks.
Recently, I caught up with New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony’s high school coach at Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) Steve Smith.
On Wednesday in Rio, Anthony led the Americans past Australia 98-88, scoring a game-high 31 points and, in the process, becoming the all-time leading scorer for Team USA.
Here’s what Smith recalled from Melo’s prep days.
Jason Jordan: What’s your best memory of Carmelo on the court in high school?
Steve Smith: The one that stands out is the game against LeBron at the Prime Time Shootout in New Jersey. Of course they were the top guys in their classes and both teams were really good. I’ll tell you, I was worried the day of the game because they were such good friends and they were hanging out the day of the game in the lobby and in the room. I even said to him, “Are you gonna be able to play against this guy today!” Melo was like, “Coach, when the lights go on and the ball’s thrown up I’m a competitor.” He was right. LeBron had about 36 and Melo had 34 and we ended up winning. It was a great game. The whole crowd stood up toward the end of the game and cheered for both players. I think the crowd knew they’d just witnessed a great matchup.
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JJ: When did you know he’d be, not just a pro, but a potentially legendary pro?
SS: He was here in summer school before his senior year for about five weeks and there were only about two other players here and he wasn’t really keen on lifting weights. In the gym when we worked out you could tell that his skill set was really high. I remember the first time we worked out in the gym he looked at me and said, “Coach, we’re gonna do this every day?” Then in the middle of his senior year I had a pretty good idea that he would be a superstar. He worked hard and he never took days off.
JJ: Were you surprised when he didn’t go straight to the NBA?
SS: Well, he definitely could’ve gone. I was told that he’d be a top 10 pick. But he told me he really wanted to take the SAT because he promised his mom that he would go to college. As soon as he got his test score his mind was made up. He never considered going pro. It worked out well for him though. He obviously won the national title at Syracuse, he went No. 3 and he was much more marketable. He really benefited from that decision.
JJ: Give me a funny off-the-court story about Carmelo.
SS: He had cornrows when he came here and for whatever reason our school doesn’t allow cornrows so he wore a fro. But he loved his hair; he did not want to cut his hair for anything. I remember telling him that one day he’d have his hair as clean as he could get it and be on the cover of GQ magazine. Sure enough that’s exactly what happened.
JJ: How was it going to his star-studded wedding?
SS: It was great! I don’t know what that wedding cost, but it sure was nice. They’re a great match, he and Lala. It was a big event; LeBron was there, Serena Williams was there, Kim Kardashian was there… I remember them being really strict about no one having cell phones or taking pictures and I look up and the one person that was on the cell phone and taking pictures the whole time was Kim Kardashian. She didn’t pay any attention to that rule. That was pretty funny.
JJ: Does he amaze you with all the things he’s accomplishing?
SS: Yeah he is. He’s a strong, physical player and his shot has improved so much over the years. He’s a really complete player and he’s very cerebral. He’s just a really, really smart player, but to be at the level that he’s at now is great. I think he’s the type of player that can be even better because he knows how to play to his strengths in every situation.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY