Walking the ball up the floor in a packed Belleville West High School gymnasium, the sinewy six-foot, five-inch point guard with the heavy eyelids looks utterly devoid of urgency -- narcoleptic even. If his team, the East St. Louis High School -- a.k.a. "East Side" -- Flyers, were ahead by nine points, such blasé on-court temperament would be almost permissible. Almost.
But Liddell's Flyers are down 31-22 midway through the third quarter, poised to succumb to the talented Maroons just as they'd done a month earlier in embarrassing fashion on their home floor. So far Liddell, the Flyers' best player, has done little to stop the bleeding, chipping in a measly five points. On the last trip down the floor, he missed a breakaway dunk over Belleville West rival Xavier Price.
As the clock ticks past the four-minute mark, Liddell passes midcourt and sets to yo-yoing the rock to and fro at the top of the circle in front of Maroon guard J.B. Jones, the defender assigned to blanket him. Then, as if a switch flips, he draws the ball and his body hard to the left, only to cross back over swiftly to the right, shedding Jones and penetrating into the paint, where he swishes a twelve-foot runner over the outstretched hands of two other defenders.
Moments later Liddell is fouled on another crossover in the lane and sinks two free throws, pulling the Flyers to within five with 3:20 to go. Back on defense, Liddell blocks a Price jumper, gains control of the ball and brings the East Side crowd to its feet with a forceful one-handed windmill dunk to narrow the gap to three.
Another Belleville brick, another Liddell swoosh, and East Side's sea of orange is really barking now: "De-fense! De-fense!" Liddell, a superb defender with arms long enough to tickle Wilt Chamberlain's chin in heaven, obliges by deflecting a pass -- followed swiftly by yet another nylon-nudging shot from long range that puts the Flyers up for the first time since they led 4-2 in the first quarter.
The Maroons' main marksman, Arthur Sargent, answers with a three-pointer at the other end to recapture the lead, but thanks to Liddell, it's short-lived. Walking across halfcourt, the Flyer senior shifts into overdrive and emulates his idol, Tracy McGrady, throwing the ball hard off the glass, only to run around his opponents, catch the rock at the rim and drop it through the net to tie the game at 34 with 45 seconds left.
Another defensive stop and Liddell has the ball once more with a chance to take the lead heading into the fourth. He stops. He pops. Two more points from long range, with nary a slice of rim. The buzzer sounds: 36-34, Flyers lead.
The Flyers will go on to lose the game despite Liddell's heroics, victimized by the offensive-rebounding prowess of burly Maroon center Sean McPeak. Nevertheless, in these past four minutes, relying exclusively on dribble drives and a smooth southpaw stroke, Liddell has single-handedly outscored one of the best teams in all of Illinois, 14-3.
"He's got this game that will lull you to sleep at times," says Flyers head coach Dennis Brooks.
"And then he'll explode."
Half a continent away, a full-throttle Darius Miles flushes home a who-got-tha-crunk dunk on a fast break, punching both hands against his temples to incite the adoration of the devoted Trail Blazers throng. If he can keep this up, the six-foot-nine Miles must figure, he'll have a chance to stick in Portland, the third stop of his four-season NBA career.
Unlike Tommie Liddell, Miles has no pause button. He does everything quickly, and he's truly comfortable only when receiving a bounce pass on a fast break. After a stellar career at East Side, Miles didn't even have time for college. On draft day in 2000, he became the NBA's top high school pick ever, when the Los Angeles Clippers tapped him third overall. (In subsequent years, Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler and LeBron James would go higher in the draft). The decision to turn pro was based in part on subpar test scores that would have left him academically ineligible to play in his first year in the NCAA. But if Miles needed any validation for his decision to forgo higher education, well, there he had it -- not to mention a three-year, $9 million contract, with a fourth-year option at $4 million per, his current salary.
"He was like Gumby with tennis shoes on," recalls Rusty Lisch, the ex-St. Louis football Cardinals quarterback whose son, Kevin, a junior at Althoff High in Belleville, is one of the metro east's foremost hoopsters. "All arms and legs."
At the end of an eye-poppingly productive -- for a player straight out of high school -- inaugural season, Miles was named to the all-rookie team and was weighing lucrative apparel and movie deals. On the court, he was being touted as the second coming of Kevin Garnett, the Minnesota Timberwolves seven-footer who went prep-to-pro in 1995 and whose perimeter skills have since revolutionized the game.
Darius Miles lives life in the far-left lane. Tommie Liddell can often be found going nowhere fast.
You'd think it would be the former who's happier in his present situation. Think again.
Ain't no pep band to be found at East Side on Tuesday night, just the looping thump of Atlanta rap group Trillville and its underground hit single, "Neva Eva." The track gets the Flyers pumped during warm-ups; a glance at their half of the floor reveals virtually the entire team gyrating to the beat, cranked at full volume on the school's substantial, rafter-suspended sound system.
The entire team, that is, except for an expressionless Tommie Liddell, who, as always, looks as though he's about ready to slip into his jammies and count sheep, even as he ascends to rim level during a lay-in drill.
After the music cuts and starting lineups are announced, Liddell and his teammates huddle near center court and begin to sway in unison.
"Whose side? East Side! Whose side? East Side!"
If the Flyers' opponents are rattled come opening tip, that's the idea. When you play for the only high school in the most distressed little city in the nation, you find ways to turn that to your advantage.
"It's a cultural divide," says McCluer High School coach Erwin Claggett, the ex-Venice (Illinois) High and Saint Louis University great who coached Liddell this past summer in the Amateur Athletic Union, where Liddell and an all-star cast of area schoolboy ballers known as the St. Louis Eagles had the chance to tour the nation and test their skills against AAU squads in other states. "The mentality of players is different in Illinois. Where we at, it's almost like the country. Where I came from, where Tommie comes from, basketball is everything. Kids from Illinois have a me-against-the-world mentality."
On this January night in the East Side gym, Liddell will do no more than is necessary to lead the Flyers to a nail-biting, 51-49 victory over conference rival Belleville East. His final stats: sixteen points, nine rebounds, five assists. Impressive, but hardly dominating. In short, it's just the sort of preciously passive performance that causes the blood pressure of coach Dennis Brooks to rise.
"He likes to get the other kids involved," explains Brooks, who played at East Side in the 1960s and took over for legendary coach Bennie Lewis Sr. after the 1999-2000 season, the same year Darius Miles graduated. "But I'm looking for him to be a little more selfish."
High above the action on the floor sits a solitary Coach Lewis, retired from the helm but still an East Side constant, his excuse being the inclusion of his grandson, Bennie Lewis III, on Brooks' roster. Lewis won 519 games and four state titles, all in the 1980s, at now-defunct Lincoln High and then assumed the head job at East Side when the two schools consolidated into one after the 1997-98 campaign. Like just about every other Lincoln player, Darius Miles followed Lewis to East Side, where coach and superstar would close out their high school careers with a third-place finish in the 2000 Illinois state championships.
"That's gonna always be a thorn in Darius' side: He went there twice and didn't make it," Lewis reflects. "That's how they'll be judging around here. They'll say, 'You went pro and everything, but you didn't win the state championship,' which is our Super Bowl or NCAA championship."
Most observers give East Side a remote shot at making the Illinois Class AA state finals next month in Peoria. The favorite to win it all is hometown defending state champion Peoria High, led by Duke University-bound six-foot-seven point guard Shaun Livingston, who played in the two most recent KMOX Shootouts at the Savvis Center and has drawn comparisons to Magic Johnson.
If East Side is to make it, Liddell will have to assert himself more consistently on offense, a fact the eighteen-year-old is well aware of.
"When I'm walking the streets, people tell me to shoot more," says Liddell. "I just change the subject. I don't like taking a lot of bad shots."
In November Liddell signed a letter of intent to attend St. Louis University on a full basketball scholarship, eschewing offers from bigger, more established programs. Unlike the athletically freakish Miles, going straight to the pros was not a serious consideration for Liddell. While his all-around talents and athletic ability are prodigious, he's still a work in progress, and he knows it.
Lewis thinks Tommie needs to get faster. Claggett says he needs to get stronger. National high school talent scout Bob Gibbons thinks he needs to play harder. Mark Melvin of Illinois-based Cutting Edge Recruiting says his outside shot needs work. Brad Soderberg, who will be Liddell's head coach at Saint Louis U. next fall, thinks he needs to shoot more often. And Miles, an acquaintance of Liddell who comes back to visit East Side a couple of times a year, thinks he needs to get tougher.
"He don't got no killer instinct," Miles says of his alma mater's current go-to guy.
Three individuals who are certain Liddell has what it takes to make the NBA are SLU alum Claggett ("No question in my mind"), SLU coach Soderberg and Lidell himself, who offers a terse, confident "Yep" when asked if he's got the juice to go pro one day.
"Tommie is a six-five whatever-he-wants-to-be," says Soderberg. "He's as good a guard as I've seen in twenty years of coaching. This young man has the ability to play beyond SLU."
Lofty prognostications are generally accepted as the routine currency of collegiate courtship. Nonetheless, they rankle North Carolina-based prep scout Dave Telep of TheInsiders.com.
"That statement is way out there," Telep says. "It does a disservice. The statistics are in no one's favor in the grand scheme of things. We use the words 'NBA' with so many kids; it creates false expectations. Why does the NBA have to get asked of any guy? The question with Tommie should be, 'Can he be an all-conference guy?' Anything beyond that is putting the cart before the horse."
If Soderberg is prone to bouts of hyperbole, he's done a bang-up job of insulating his staff against the long-held criticism that the Billikens do a lackluster job of recruiting locally. Besides Liddell, next year's freshman class will include Vashon High point guard Dwayne Polk and Borgia swingman Luke Meyer, two talented players whose games are more specialized and whose natural assets are more limited than those of the rangy, versatile Liddell.
"Saint Louis U. is convinced that one way to build a program is to keep some of the best players from leaving," says Floyd Irons, principal and coach at perennial St. Louis prep powerhouse Vashon. "Kids like to go places where they know people, where they fit in. You have to give Brad a lot of credit for what he's doing over there."
Another person who gives Soderberg credit is East Side baseball coach Maurice Scott, a steadfast community presence who has served as mentor to Miles, Liddell and other schoolboy studs.
"I think it was Soderberg's straightforwardness," Scott says of SLU's key to beating out the likes of Kansas, Marquette, Illinois and DePaul in the sweepstakes for Liddell's services. "Tommie's mom fell in love with him during their home visit."
Liddell's mom, Diane Rhodes, has fond memories of the visit. Tommie, having lost track of time while playing pickup ball at a nearby community center, showed up late, giving the Wisconsin-bred Soderberg time to bond with Rhodes over a televised Green Bay Packers game in the living room of the Liddell family's tiny apartment.
"He was like family," Rhodes says of the impression the SLU coach made.
Near the intersection of State and Tenth streets, on the outskirts of the rotting retail core of East St. Louis, sits an old farmer's market. In place of vendors hawking fresh plums, peas and peppers reside a hollowed-out Oldsmobile and a chalkboard bearing two telling words: "Third World." Around the corner on Sixth Street are the Samuel Gompers Apartments, a barracks-style compound of buildings erected in 1943 as East St. Louis' first public housing development.
In the kitchen of one of Building 27's spartan units, Tommie Liddell, fresh from practice, scoops taco meat into hard tortilla shells as his mother mops the linoleum. Plate prepped, the Flyer joins his littlest brother, nine-year-old James, in front of a small TV set showing a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond. Liddell is clad in his standard leisure-time outfit: orange East Side practice jersey, pressed blue jeans and a black baseball cap pulled low over his braided black hair and inscribed with "ESTL" and the town's area code, 618. On his left shoulder is a tattoo of a basketball player carrying a rim, which Liddell co-opted from a picture in The Source magazine. Around his neck dangles a gold necklace with the symbols "T-Mac 25," a homage to his favorite player, Tracy McGrady of the Orlando Magic. McGrady wears a jersey numbered 1, though. Twenty-five is the exclusive domain of the talented Mr. Liddell.
No one in the Liddell family can figure out how Tommie grew to be so tall and lanky. Both of his parents are comparably compact, Tommie Sr. standing five-eleven and Mom about five-eight. Tommie's got his mama's lush eyes, while his demeanor, marked by a gentle speaking voice and delayed-reaction laugh, is more akin to his laid-back dad.
Tommie was born when Diane Rhodes was a junior at East Side. She and Tommie Sr. had another son, twelve-year-old Montrez, together. They never wed, though they remain on good terms. These days Tommie Sr. works the graveyard shift at Big River Zinc in nearby Sauget and shares a tidy apartment with his wife, Euronda, in Belleville, where his eldest son sometimes spends the weekend. Diane, who works at the President Casino, gets along fine with Euronda, to the point where both of Tommie's mommies attended the press conference at which the hotly recruited point guard, with an assist from close family friend Maurice Scott, declared his intent to accept the SLU scholarship.
Liddell's strong family support network enables him to buck the absentee-dad stereotype of the young, black, urban male. But if he intends to don number 25 in SLU blue next year, he'll need to hit the books. With a grade-point average hovering around 2.5, he must either dramatically improve his GPA during the balance of his senior year or ratchet up his score on the ACT standardized test, which he's already taken once, by two points. If he fails to achieve the minimum standard, Liddell will probably have to spend a year beefing up his grades and his game as best he can at a junior college or prep school -- and hope SLU stays interested.
"Tommie's a good student," says Claggett. "But he just gets lazy sometimes."
Staying on the academic track in the belly of East St. Louis has required Liddell to make down time a top priority, under the watchful eye of his mother and in the constant companionship of his best friend and fellow Flyer guard and co-captain, Mark "Twin" Howlett. On any given night of the week, Tommie and Twin can be found watching Martin Lawrence movies and crashing at one another's cribs, activities their more privileged peers on the other side of the river might equate with junior high.
"I try to keep them where I can see them," Diane Rhodes says. "Most kids be runnin' the streets."
Upstairs in Rhodes' apartment, Liddell's little brothers share a room. The eldest gets his own, equipped with a TV set much nicer than the one downstairs. This, Tommie reveals, is a gift from his father, who is also responsible for taking Liddell's meticulously pressed designer jeans to the dry cleaner on a regular basis. ("He won't let me wash them," a smiling Rhodes puts in.)
The white walls of Liddell's cramped bedroom are stark, save for a few plaques and clipped newspaper photos of himself dribbling or dunking. But tucked in the closet along with Liddell's clothes is a big blue plastic tub filled with clippings chronicling his exploits. Opening the chest, East Side's most highly regarded player since Darius Miles breaks into a proud grin.
Perhaps the two most dreaded words in the National Basketball Association's historical lexicon when, like Darius Miles, you opted to go pro straight from the high school ranks.
Never mind that Willoughby, then a New Jersey prep phenom, wasn't selected until early in the second round of the 1975 NBA draft. Or that Moses Malone had made a successful leap from high school to the upstart American Basketball Association's Utah Stars the prior year, before going on to a hall-of-fame NBA career. Willoughby, guilty of the crime of being merely average during his eight-year journeyman career (lifetime averages: six points and four rebounds per game), was branded a dullard for skipping college. In the final analysis, he was seen as a failure whose pedestrian exploits would scare prep stars away from the NBA for the ensuing twenty years, until Kevin Garnett boldly declared his eligibility in 1995 and touched off the current leapfrogging epidemic.
During his first two seasons with the Clippers, where he averaged more than nine points and five rebounds per game, Darius Miles was mentioned in the same breath with Garnett, who's now a bona fide NBA all-star and MVP candidate on one of the best teams in the league. In fact, Garnett's rookie production -- ten points and six rebounds per game -- was almost identical to Miles'. Two teams and two years later, though, pundits nationwide began evoking the ghost of Willoughby when writing about the good-natured forward, who was still averaging the same nine and five.
After his second season in LA, Miles was met with the shocking news that the Clippers had dealt him to Cleveland for all-star point guard Andre Miller. The yeoman-like Miller's contract would be up for renewal after the next regular season, and management at the then-woebegone franchise on the shores of Lake Erie decided they didn't want to give a lucrative deal to a player who didn't put fannies in seats. Miles and his electric high-wire act would, they figured. And his stock was high enough to cause some experts to say the Cavaliers got the better of the swap.
Bennie Lewis, Miles' high school coach, didn't see it that way.
"I'm not knocking Darius," Lewis says today. "But how can you trade one of the best point guards in the league for Darius?"
Either way, consensus was that Miles would do well to spend his summer working on his biggest flaw: his jump shot. Instead, he shot a movie -- the recently released The Perfect Score -- and arrived at training camp out of shape and struggling to hit the broad side of a barn from anywhere beyond twelve feet from the basket.
"At the time, I thought it was a good experience," Miles says of his silver-screen summer, in which he portrayed, ironically, a schoolboy basketball star in need of better test scores to gain college eligibility. "But I don't think it was a good choice to make now."
Factor in a nagging knee injury and a career-low field-goal percentage (41 percent versus 51 percent his rookie year), and Miles didn't exactly endear himself to Cleveland's already cranky fan base.
That was then -- James is now. As in LeBron, the prepster point guard with a power forward's body whom the Cavs selected first in the 2003 NBA draft. While Miles continued getting his nine and five off the bench, the six-foot, eight-inch James -- Miles' closest friend on the team -- established himself as a superstar from game one, further diminishing whatever steps Miles was taking to improve. Some 40 games into the campaign, Miles slept through a morning practice session and Cleveland, seeking to solidify its veteran core of players around James, promptly traded him to the Portland Trail Blazers for journeyman point guard Jeff McInnis, a former teammate of Miles in LA.
"From a fan's standpoint, they gave up Andre Miller for this guy," says Tom Withers, who covers the Cavaliers for the Associated Press. "His first year here, he spent the summer on a movie set. He wasn't in basketball shape when he got here. And Darius had a hard time transitioning from LA to here. I don't know if [playing for the Clippers] stunted his development as much as it got him into an acceptance of losing. He had a hard time shaking that, and the Cavs were just a disaster last year."
Cleveland power forward Carlos Boozer suffered through that disaster alongside Miles in the Cavs' starting frontcourt last year. But unlike Miles, Boozer, an underrated second-round draftee out of Duke, had come to Cleveland amid modest expectations. By developing into a poor man's version of league MVP Tim Duncan, Boozer has far exceeded those prospects, becoming one of an elite handful of players in the league who average a double double -- ten points and ten rebounds per game. That's a time-tested template for becoming a crowd favorite, a status that affords a relaxed Boozer time to wax philosophical about whether it's essential to invest in college ball.
"I'd like to say yeah, because I went to college," says Boozer, chewing on a Three Musketeers bar in front of his locker in Cleveland the day after the Miles-McInnis swap. "You could make an argument that you go to college and learn fundamentals. But you could also make an argument that if you go to the NBA, you learn the game more quickly. There's no simple answer."
Cavaliers guard Dajuan Wagner, a prep prodigy who chose to play one year of college ball at Memphis before turning pro, concurs.
"It gets you right for the NBA," Wagner says of the NCAA. "But it depends on what position you play. If you're D-Miles, you oughta come out."
And if you happen to hail from a rough neighborhood and a family where money's tight, passing up the immediate promise of financial security might cause locals to shake their heads in disbelief.
"If you look at Darius' decision, he needed the money," says Bennie Lewis, Miles' old high school coach. "He definitely did the right thing."
In Lewis' mind, the central problem was, and remains, the fact that the Clippers took him so early in the draft.
"I didn't think he was gonna go that high," Lewis says. "When they drafted him, they knew he wasn't a scorer."
And it's easy to lose sight of the obvious.
"This'd be my senior year [in college]," says Miles, who committed to St. John's University before declaring himself eligible for the pro draft. "And I don't see nobody in college that's better than me."
"We forget that he's only 22," echoes the AP's Withers. "Imagine if D-Miles was a rookie? If he can get that thirteen- to seventeen-foot jumper down, he could be deadly. He's been more explosive to the basket this year. I could see him sticking in Portland, because they like to go up and down."
Miles will be a free agent at year's end, allowed to negotiate with any team. Right now he appears to be holding his own in Portland, a one-sport town viewed as the Green Bay of the NBA. Should Miles develop into a steady, everyday starter, it probably wouldn't surprise anyone -- even the coach who presided over his jettisoning from Cleveland.
"I felt that he probably improved as much as anyone," says Cavs coach Paul Silas. "I can foresee him in the future being a very, very good player. He's got it -- he just has to continue to work at it."
Then again, Silas could be feigning diplomacy, as polished pros are apt to do. Longtime high school talent scout Bob Gibbons, who has followed Miles' career since he was a sapling, is less charitable.
"He was every bit as talented as Tracy McGrady in high school," says Gibbons, comparing Miles to Tommie Liddell's Orlando Magic idol, who also made the jump from high school to the NBA. "But now, what is Darius Miles? What's his position? I don't know at this stage. I think the clock is ticking."
While Dennis Brooks' East Side roster boasts an impressive collection of skilled role players, the Flyers are most assuredly Tommie Liddell's team. He is the only player capable of creating his own scoring opportunity every time down the floor. It is a role Liddell accepts, albeit reluctantly, and one he'd be happy to relinquish once he arrives at SLU.
If he's permitted to, that is.
"To me, sometimes a kid can be selfish by not shooting," says coach Soderberg. "If Tommie passes up good shots, he may be being selfish."
Rusty Lisch is convinced that Soderberg, the feisty yin to Tommie's mellow yang, is not the type to let his prize recruit fall victim to lethargy.
"There's no laid-back style with coach Soderberg," says Lisch. "He's like a chihuahua, nipping at your heels."
Liddell smiles when he hears such descriptions of his coach-to-be. He knows what he's in for, knows it'll be good for his game.
But staying home to play college basketball can be a double-edged sword.
"When he wants to hide away and study, he's going to have more distractions, because his buddies are going to want a piece of him," predicts Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "The other side of that is he'll have a built-in support mechanism. So if he does have a tough time, he'll have people to go to. Sometimes a home-cooked meal and a hug are pretty medicinal."
Then there's the fishbowl mentality of a downtrodden town like East St. Louis, which might lump extra pressure on a hometown hero. "Everybody is, in some way, wanting the kid to do well because it's a validation of themselves," Roby says of Liddell's situation. "I think it has to do with the fact that the area is so depressed and they've had a tough time. Where do people get their cues in regards to feeling good about themselves? Jobs are hard to come by. There aren't too many people with college degrees. If this is a kid who can put a little shine back on the community through his basketball talents, people really get behind that. So kids end up feeling the pressure as well."
Darius Miles didn't have to endure the pressure; he simply left -- not that anyone would blame him. And while he expresses a certain fondness for East St. Louis, he says he's happy to have found a way out. "My mom goes where I go," adds Miles, whose mother keeps a residence in the old neighborhood but now lives full-time in whatever home city her son is playing in. "It's every kid's dream to get out of the hood. God gave me a gift to get out of there."
Tommie Liddell has received that same gift. But along with it, he's availing himself of the bonus gift of time. Time to get his shaky academics in shape to ensure his eligibility at SLU next season. Time to crack jokes at the free-throw line with his friend and rival Xavier Price, who's going on to Purdue. Time to take in a screening of a certain movie starring Darius Miles at the Esquire with his family. Time to grab a post-game bite with Twin at a Belleville Denny's, drowning a difficult loss in pancakes, syrup and prom plans.
Time, for now at least, to keep going nowhere fast.