(While I am on hiatus for the next month, I am leaving behind six articles--(July 1) Jamie Brandon, the former King basketball star, (July 2) a Q&A on Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, who grew up in the Chicago area, (July 3) thoughts about the 2010-11 basketball season, (July 4) the impact of head injuries to high school football players, (July 5) the rise and fall of Quincy basketball and (July 6) the release of my fourth book, "Dusty, Deek, and Mr. Do-Right: High School Football In Illinois. Please archive past articles. And enjoy the summer)
Twenty years ago, when a gallon of gas cost $1.16 and "Cheers" surpassed "60 Minutes" as the most watched show on television, Jamie Brandon was the most celebrated high school basketball player in Illinois.
"He was the Derrick Rose of his time, only with a better jump shot," said a former teammate.
"He was the Michael Jordan of high school basketball," a rival player said.
Brandon, a 6-4, 200-pound guard, was the leading scorer and rebounder on King's 32-0 team that swept city, state and mythical national championships in 1990. He was the Sun-Times Player of the Year. A rare three-time All-State selection, he became one of only five players in state history to score more than 3,000 points in his career.
Anyone who saw him play--from the time a year earlier when he dribbled across mid-court at UIC Pavilion and drained a 40-footer at the buzzer to beat South Shore in the Public League semifinals--acknowledged that he was an NBA star in the making. He was the stuff of legends, the next Cazzie Russell, Mark Aguirre or Isiah Thomas.
"That was the time of my life," Brandon recalled. "I was one of the elite players in Illinois history. Later, I was told if I stayed in college for one more year, I'd be a definite first-round pick in the NBA draft."
Then he was gone, like LaMarr Thomas, Raymond McCoy or Glen Grunwald, a celebrated player who never made it to the next level, for one reason or another.
Brandon's dream was to play at Illinois. To qualify academically, he was enrolled in a special bridge program in the summer. Inexplicably, he dropped out with one week remaining and the university's admissions office informed Illini coach Lou Henson that the youngster couldn't be accepted.
"I should have stayed in Champaign. That's where I really wanted to be, where my heart was," Brandon said. "But I got bad advice. I listened to the wrong people. But I was young and I made a mistake."
Instead, Brandon was persuaded by then LSU coach Dale Brown to join his program, which featured a rising star in Shaquille O'Neal. Brandon was a scorer but he became a passer in Brown's system. He played for three years, then decided to leave school early and applied for the NBA draft. It was another bad decision.
"I had a lot of fun playing at LSU with Dale Brown and Shaq (O'Neal)," Brandon said. "But it didn't work out for me. It was a new system and everything revolved around Shaq. So I decided to go to the NBA. If I had it to do over again, I'd have stayed in school.
"Some scouts said I would be chosen in the first round. I talked to Marty Blake (the NBA's chief scout) and he said I should stay in school for my last year, that if I did I would be a definite first-round pick. But if I came out early, he said I'd be picked in the second round or not at all.
"I decided to leave early. I wasn't drafted. He (Blake) was right and I was wrong. But I was young. We all make mistakes. We have to move on. It was a decision I made for myself and I had to deal with it."
King coach Landon Cox insists Brandon was black-balled by the NBA. Brandon and his white girlfriend got into a domestic dispute. She yelled "rape" and Brandon was arrested. Later, she recanted. They married, then divorced. But Brandon's life was forever changed.
He played overseas in France, Croatia and Finland. He also played in Honduras. He attended camps and workouts for teams in the CBA. Privately, he realized that his basketball career was over. Publicly, he refused to talk about it.
Ten years ago, when a newspaper reporter requested an interview, his mother said: "That part of his life is over. He doesn't have anything to do with basketball anymore. He doesn't want to talk about it."
Since then, Brandon has matured. "Once I got older, I started to realize about things that happened to me in the past. It wasn't hard to realize basketball was over. It was difficult to realize I had to take another avenue in life. That's difficult to understand when you are young," he said.
"I realized it was just a game, not my whole life. There are other things you can do to occupy your life. There are more important things to do than dribble a basketball. Finally, it didn't hurt anymore."
Today, Brandon serves as a basketball official for Public League and suburban games. He also organizes basketball camps for kids. He counsels them, reminding them of his life experiences. And he has renewed friendships with his old high school teammates, including Fred Sculfield, Johnny Selvie and Ahmad Shareef.
"What do I tell the kids today?" he said. "The main thing is to get your books, get a good education and keep your GPA (grade-point average) up. Stay in school, stay out of the streets and listen to your family. Don't listen to people in the streets, to people who want to buy you a pair of shoes.
"Remember, your family will have your back, whether you make it or not. Get your college degree. It will take you a long way. If you don't have a degree, what will you have to fall back on? Believe me, I know how it feels. Yes, 1990 was the time of my life, a lot of fun, a lot of great experiences, a lot of awards. But it's over now. You have to move on with your life."