August 18, 2009

Where Are They Now? XI (2007, Updated 2009)

This edition of Where Are They Now includes two names you maybe haven't heard. Or maybe two that you THINK you haven't heard.

(January 2007)
Victim #11 - James Felton

A sad story, but James Felton died in October 2006. "Natural causes." Heart failure, technically, at the age of 27. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of America will ask, "who the hell was James Felton?", and rightfully so. But the truest, bluest of Nasteedunx fans, and perhaps one mega-millionaire in Texas, will immediately place a cap over their hearts and offer an R.I.P. to a man whose turnaround ended before it ever could really begin.

James Felton was destined to create a Legend. As the summer of 1996 approached, the 6-foot-9 Felton had transferred high schools and was preparing to guide his new team to a New Jersey regional title, and gain more national exposure in the process. Kentucky was laying on the recruiting pressure thick, and his high school coach quoted Rick Pitino as saying Felton was one of the top ten basketball talents he had ever seen. Ever. SLAM Magazine placed him on a photo spread with two other nationally-hyped names, Elton Brand and Lamar Odom. In the pros, KG was the young stud of the moment, and NBA execs were ready to pluck the next 6-foot-9 star from the high school sky and offer millions. Rising out from the Jersey City projects and comparable to a young Derrick Coleman, Felton had no doubt he'd soon be that star.

James Felton was determined to create a Legend. Scouts, recruiters, sneaker company reps and reporters flocking to the prestigious adidas ABCD Camp in Teaneck, in his home state, were the perfect vehicles to cement his future superstar status. He played well enough during the camp to justify playing in the ABCD All-Star Game for seniors.

July 10, 1996, and James Felton was just moments away from creating a Legend. A wiry, 17-year old, 6-foot-8 wing player, not among the top 500 ranked players entering the summer and unknown to most scouts outside of Central Florida, began to make a name for himself in the scrimmages, upstaging the prime camp draw (Lamar Odom) with sweet shooting, precision passing and wild hops, earning his way into the all-star showcase. It was in this game when Felton found himself isolated in front of the basket as the player, whose name to this point had only escaped the lips of the most serious scouts, emerged from the left wing on a fast break to hurl a violent windmill dunk over the 6-foot-9 manchild who leaped in a futile attempt to block the shot. Like Doctor J, this young man had just "rocked the baby to sleep," and powerfully punctured the ball on the head of a player who was supposed to be the hometown headliner of the camp. In what could only be described as an understatement, pandemonium ensued in the gym.

Said the wonderchild in retrospect: "After I made that dunk, I had chills run through my body. It's like the moment I knew I had finally arrived." Manhattan (now Seton Hall) coach and famous uber-recruiter Bobby Gonzalez said of the dunk, "It was unbelievable. The whole camp stopped. It was like a moment in time when everything stood still."

And with that, James Felton helped create a Legend. Only it was not his own. Within one year, YOU would come to know that Legend simply by the moniker "T-Mac." But at that moment, the shockwaves were reaching every corner of the continent. You should appreciate that this was an age that preceded the capacity of cell phones, video recorders, e-mail and the Internet to get the word out instantly. You should also recognize that the summer of '96 was just the start of the NBA's decade-long obsession with high school players. Pro scouts having witnessed KG's raw potential in the League were convinced to take a chance with kids like a smug Kobe Bryant and a less-confident Jermaine O'Neal in that year's draft. But those players had been watched closely for many years. Like James Felton, the world never saw Tracy McGrady coming.

ABCD Camp creator and adidas basketball director declared T-Mac to be something like a phenomenon.“Nothing like Tracy had ever happened before at ABCD… His name spread through the camp like wildfire.We’ve had kids come out of the woodwork before, but at least they were known by somebody. Tracy was a complete unknown.”

Hoop Scoop proclaimed the sleepy-eyed Florida prodigy the "sleeper of the decade," and a young man who entered the camp not touted among the top 500 prep prospects ended his summer at number two, right behind the much-hyped Odom. Hoops reporters scrambled to find this McGrady kid. Desiring to become a factory for blue-chip basketball recruits, Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina made it easy to find him. Pitino began wooing McGrady with a scholarship offer… instead of Felton. SLAM and SI wrote feature articles on McGrady and his new nationally-dominant team. USA Today names him the National High School Player of the Year. A 1997 McDonald's All-American, he wowed the crowds at both Mickie D's and Magic's Roundball Classic.

You know the rest of the story. If not for the electrifying dunk over James Felton, Tracy McGrady would not have been the ninth pick in the '97 draft. He might never have had the chance to discover that a teammate on the Raptors, Vince Carter, was actually his cousin. We might never have seen the spectacle they put on together at the 2000 Dunk Contest. The ABCD Camp sponsor, adidas, would never have the chance to offer a $12 million dollar shoe contract, unheard of for a high school kid (say thanks, LeBron), and ride the T-Mac hype train out from under the shadows of MJ's Nike and AI's Reebok. No free agent pay-day with the Orlando Magic. Nounreal 13-points-in-33-second torching display with the Rockets against the Spurs. If you don't know the rest of the story, just ask Kornel David, Alonzo Mourning `n P.J. Brown, Yao Ming, Othella Harrington, Drew Gooden, and Shawn Bradizzle what T-Mac did to them.

You may know a whole lot less about James Felton. While it's easy to claim him a victim of McGrady's success, he was really a victim of diabetes plus undiagnosed mental imbalances that led to bouts with depression, alcoholism, multiple personalities, and kleptomania in a community where crime pays. If these flaws were ever diagnosed, they went largely untreated because people wouldn't look at a 6-9 specimen, who could "run like a deer" and put the ball in the hoop, and see a troubled young man.

In his senior year, he burned his bridges with Kentucky staff during a Midnight Madness trip and, following the advice of a former assistant coach, decided to stay close to home, heading to St. John's instead.

His teammates included Queens' Finest (freshman Ron Artest), Felipe Lopez, Lavor Postell, and Zendon Hamilton. With Felton, recruits Erick Barkley and Roshown McLeod, the Red Storm would have been a certain lock for an NCAA title in a couple years. But within months he'd miss a flight to the season-opening tournament, invite friends to MSG practices who'd pick the locker rooms clean, and try to pawn off Lopez's sneakers. When he finally did play, he got schooled by Elton Brand in a matchup with Duke. Lethargic attitudes at practice caused the Johnnies to rescind their scholarship after just six games. He would tell the media he was sent packing because he failed a test for marijuana, but the NCAA didn't test for this drug.

Florida State would give him a second chance that same year, only to find players with clothes, money and jewelry missing, and a VCR lifted from the locker room. The sticky-fingered Felton, now at 6-foot-10 and 260 pounds, couldn't hide from disgrace and was dismissed by the `Noles before he could reach eligibility.

After toiling at a community college in Jersey to regain eligibility, St. Peter's College would give him a second second-chance at Division I-A ball. The Peacocks' bridge got burned too. Showed up at practice drunk and pushed the coaches around. Promised he'd get his alcohol problems, and his legal troubles from trying to pawn stolen property again, behind him. His head coach bent over backwards to arrange a final exam that would help him become academically eligible. For whatever reason, Felton skipped the exam, then lied to his coach, insisting he took it.

Felton's strange trip brought him full-circle back to Teaneck, New Jersey, the town where fate took a wrong turn when he crossed paths with McGrady. He regained just enough trust to get a third second-chance, this time a scholarship with Fairleigh Dickinson in 2000. He got suspended for most of 2000-2001, the season McGrady earned his first All-Star Game appearance and the Most Improved Player award. In 2001-2002, T-Mac was an All-NBA First-Team selection. In 2001-2002, Felton managed 24 games and was All-Northeast Conference at center, putting down 20-and-7 per contest for the Knights, although at 4-25 it was the team's worst hoops season ever.

Beside a training camp tryout with the Nuggets in 2002, the NBA never really came calling for his services. He spent time that fall with one of the roving Nike Elite exhibition squads colleges used to thump just to get their season started with a home win. Played Ohio State twice in a month, once with Nike and then weeks later with the Harlem Globetrotters , lining up with "Officer" Olden Polynice and "Blindman" Cedric Ceballos. An overseas league would show a little interest, but another outstanding arrest warrant for robbery kept him from securing a passport.

His last notable stop was in the fledgling ABA league with the Boston Frenzy . Felton spent a few games in 2004 sharing the bench with Kobe's pop and Frenzy head coach "Jellybean" Bryant, plus 7-foot-7 Neil Fingleton, Moses Malone, Jr., and three AND1 ballers: Spyda, Helicopter and Prime Objective.

He eventually returned to the Garden State and worked as a substitute teacher for the Jersey City public schools, but sadly never could tear himself away from the bottle. His wife found him dead in their apartment in October, and many believe it was a combination of binge drinking and failure to take his diabetes meds.

We'll never know, had fate had sent him in a different direction (say, if Felton were the dunker that day instead of the dunkee) whether he could have found his way into the pros like his colleagues and received some real help to straighten out his life, or if instead his eventual death would be as high-profile as Len Bias'.

We'll never know. But we do know that Tracy McGrady would not have become "T-Mac!" without the role played by James Felton. Hopefully, Tracy McGrady knows, too.

(2009 UPDATE: About a year and a half after this Nasteedunx article, ESPN Magazine sportswriter Bruce Feldman offered a personal synopsis of Felton, who caused now superstar McGrady a momentary bout of amnesia. When asked if he remembered Felton, McGrady replied, “Nope… Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. He was That Guy. The Dunk.”)

Facializer #11 – Zachariah "Dunk on Anybody" Andrews

Put down your Kleenex! After such a sad tale, I promise no more sob stories.

I would just like for you to know that Zack Andrews was named Missouri Valley Conference player of the week for Bradley University in November. The 6-foot-8 forward joined the Braves as a transfer from Yuba College last year as the team joined the NCAA dance for the first time since 1995.

I'd just like you to know that Zack is leading the Valley in field goal percentage, and leads the team with 7.4 rebounds to go along with 10.9 points per game.

Stop looking at the screen like that. Whaddya mean, "Who the hell is Zack Andrews?"

Well, a not-so-aptly named "guard" from Sierra College would definitely NOT like you to know what Andrews did above his head in a community college bout in 2005. You'll recall it made Sportscenter's #1 play that night.

(2009 UPDATE: Still a Playa, still throwing it down. Zack was last seen professionally overseas in Spain, in 2008 with El Costa Urbana Playas de Santa Pola, and up until this past May with C.B. Rayet Guadalajara.

He's also been spotted frequently in North Cali, bopping on ballers as an alumnus with the Sacramento Professional Development League -- alongside NBA players Bobby Jackson, Mike Bibby, Matt Barnes, and Kevin Martin -- the Blue Collar Preps program, and YayArea'sFinest Mixtape.

Also a touching blog from 2006 on why Thanksgiving Day holds a heart-wrenching place in his mind -- on second thought, you'd better hang on to that Kleenex...)


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