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Big Earl Smith, the super scout of the playground basketball courts, had been watching Arthur Agee for a day, maybe two, before he made his move and asked Arthur if he would take him home to meet his parents.
It was mid-July 1987, and Arthur was all of fourteen years old, 5'6" and 125 pounds. Big Earl tracked him down at the Delano school's scruffy, two-court playground over on Wilcox near the Expressway on Chicago's West Side. The air was filled with the buzz of cars whirring past the West Side toward the suburbs; mothers calling their children; and a half-dozen young kids, all elbows and bones and dressed in cut-offs and sweaty tanktops, shouting and playing between banged-up cars, in the streets and all around the tenements. Hovering high to the east were the skyscrapers of the business district, walls of steel and glass. Some of the players on the Delano courts could live and die in Chicago and never see the other side of that wall. But they had been playing basketball practically noon tin night almost from the day they were born.
Recently Big Earl had been having doubts about scouting playground talent. He was starting to think these boys should search out other dreams. But he was in no mood to challenge the status quo, at least not today. It was dreadfully hot. And he still had some faith in the dream, and he still had dreams of his own.
Arthur was playing against guys two or three years older, and at least six inches taller. They called him "runt." In defiance, Arthur dribbled the ball from one end of the court to the othercoast to coast, as they saythrough his legs, around his back, and straight up the middle. Hedidn't dunk -he was too short for thatbut he charged strong, drawing cheers from the kids on the edge of the court waiting for their chance to play.
Big Earl liked to be pragmatic, and had a built-in immunity against inflating talent. He could see right away, though, that Arthur Agee was special. He had speed and he could jump, but it was a combination of talents and traits that caught Earl's trained eye. Arthur had long, sinewy arms that swept along the ground and spidery fingers that iron-gripped the ball. He probably had another six or so inches to grow. He was quick with the first step and watched the court as he ran. He had a head, toohe knew when to pass and when to drive, and he controlled the flow of the game. He had this little spin move, not unlike Isiah Thomas's, and he could bring the ball behind his back or between his legs. When he got hot the shot fell, and he wouldn't miss. He wasn't afraid to shoot, even with the older, taller guys in his face.
This kid was born to play the point, born to run the show, and true point guards are hard to find. You can't hide talent like this, Big Earl thought. He's going to be discovered sooner or later. Alight as well be by me.
"Hey, son," Big Earl called out to Arthur. "Come over herefor a minute."
Arthur strolled over, sweat dripping from his brow. He had, in fact, been watching Big Earl while Big Earl had been watching him. He figured that Big Earl had to be a scout, why else would he come to the West Side on a hot, sticky day to watch a bunch of kids scramble after a ball.
They stood face to face by the fence. Big Earl, well over six feet tall and closing in on three hundred pounds, towered over Arthur. He extended his hand, swallowing Arthur's in a grip. In his meandering, amiable way, he introduced himself. "I'm Earl Smith, and I do some high school scouting," he said as he handed Arthur his business card. Arthur slipped the card into his pocket with barely a glance. It was the first business card Arthur had ever seen.
"What's your name, son?" Big Earl asked.
Big Earl drew a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his forehead.
"Uh-huh. And what high school are you planning to attend?"
Arthur shrugged. He hadn't given it much thought. The closest school was Marshall over on West Adams, where the neighborhood kids went. "Marshall," he said.
"What about St. Joe's?"
Arthur gave him a blank look. St. Joe's meant nothing to him.
"That's where Isiah went," Big Earl said.
That made Arthur's face brighten.
"I can arrange a visit, if you're interested. I scout for St.Joe. I know the coach, Gene Pingatore. He coached Isiah, and there isn't a finer high school coach in the suburbs or city."
Arthur had long ago learned from his father that the first rule in negotiationsand that's what this waswas never to show your hand. But when Big Earl mentioned Isiah's name all rules were forgotten. Isiah Thomas was Arthur's idol: a sixfoot tall point guard, another West Side kid who against all odds climbed his way out of poverty and into the NBA. Arthur had Isiah's picture on his wall. He had even adopted Isiah's old playground nickname, Tuss, as his own.
"Yeah," said Arthur a little too eagerly. "I'm interested."
Big Earl smiled and wiped his brow again. "I tell you what, Arthur. Let's not get ahead of ourself. This is a very important decision in your life. I should meet your momma ... does your daddy live at home?"
"Then I should meet him, too. And let's take it from there."
They shook hands again and then Arthur took off. He was too excited to play any more basketball that day. He darted home to tell his parents, taking a shortcut through a vacant, weed-filled lot to their six-room apartment on the top floor of a two-story walk-up near Madison and Pulaski. His mother, Sheila, was ironing in the living room and listening to the Temptations on the radio when he flew through the door.