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Whenever superscout Bob Gibbons is in St. Louis, he makes a point of picking the brain of longtime Savvis Center security guard Jesse Whitaker, a 64-year-old hoop junkie regarded by insiders as a living tote board when it comes to spotting talent on St. Louis playgrounds. Whitaker, after all, was among the first to recognize such blacktop prodigies as Darius Miles, Larry Hughes and Anthony Bonner -- all of whom went on to the NBA.
But when Gibbons recently staked out the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Shootout, a premier high-school basketball tournament at Savvis, he was concerned that his friend's age had finally caught up with him.
"Gibby, you heard about SheBron?" the guard asked Gibbons.
"You mean LeBron, Jesse," Gibbons replied politely, referring to LeBron James, the Ohio high-school prodigy soon to become the NBA's number-one pick.
"Naw, SheBron," Whitaker shot back. "She's twelve years old. SheBron don't play with other girls. SheBron can rock the rim. Wait'll you see."
SheBron, Whitaker explained, was one Sheila Bronson, of nearby Alton, Illinois, and she could be found running circles around the cream of the region's best teenage boys on any given Sunday at Salu Park in Alton, one of the nation's toughest stretches of hoop blacktop.
Skeptical but well aware of the park's legend, Gibbons agreed to meet Whitaker at Salu. When he arrived at the playground on an uncharacteristically balmy February afternoon, he found Whitaker there in his Sunday best, already engrossed in the SheBron show.
The game included an elite group of prep all-stars, among them East St. Louis's Tommie Liddell, McCluer's Grant Agbo, O'Fallon's Xavier Price, McCluer North's Quintin Nickerson, Althoff's Kevin Lisch and Hazelwood Central's Kalen Grimes -- all heavily recruited Division I prospects.
"This here is history in the making," said Whitaker, pointing at the sleek six-foot-two Bronson as she pulled a rebound and snapped a crisp outlet pass, "and I ain't missin' one goddamned second of it."
What Gibbons soon witnessed was a stunning combination of quickness, leaping ability and athleticism -- packed into twelve-year-old SheBron's phenomenally mature frame. In one quick span, Gibbons watched, amazed, as Bronson drained a shot from three-point range, stole the ball from Lisch and then soared over the six-foot-eight Grimes to nab an offensive board, slamming the rock home forcefully with two hands. It was a display of intensity, of hoops instincts that Gibbons rarely sees in the nation's best prep ballers, let alone a middle-school girl.
"SheBron's the truth, and can't no one handle it," says Whitaker.
But later that afternoon, as she lounges in her Alton living room, Sheila Bronson proves far more humble. "I'm blessed to be able to play basketball this well; God gave me a gift, and it's my job to use it," she says, her soft voice sharply contradicting her ferocious floor game. "I'm also lucky to have a mom who's such a good teacher. There is no way I'd be able live my dreams without my mom making me practice math and reading every day. There are some things that are more important than basketball -- that's what she tells me. And she's right."
But according to her mother, Terry Bronson, Sheila is far too modest. Mom proudly notes that her daughter is also an accomplished violinist and has a history of routing her classmates at school science fairs. Better yet, she has a good heart: Terry speaks at length of how Sheila routinely visits a nearby preschool to play with handicapped children.
Unfortunately, society doesn't tend to celebrate promising young scholars. It does -- as we've learned from LeBron James -- place a premium on roundball prodigies. And to anyone who's seen her play, SheBron definitely has game.
To put her ability in proper perspective, it is worth noting that only a handful of women have ever dunked in a game at any level, with six-foot-five Los Angeles Sparks Center Lisa Leslie becoming the first WNBA athlete to slam one home in 2002. Although the crowd went bananas, Leslie's dunk was decidedly pedestrian: The svelte center barely nudged the ball up and over the rim. SheBron, by contrast, has been know to stun -- and embarrass -- top high-school opponents with her one-handed tomahawk slams.
The Illinois State Scholastic Basketball Association prohibits girls from competing in school-sponsored boys' leagues. But with a special exemption, the Amateur Athletic Union allowed Bronson to play in a select ninth-grade-boys' league last summer. She was named MVP -- and averaged four dunks per game. Videotapes of her AAU battles with the boys show her as nothing short of dominant.
Gibbons, revered nationwide as the dean of college-basketball recruiting with his All-Star Report, first thought Sheila was an elaborate ruse. Whitaker, a known jokester, has some serious hoop connections. It wouldn't be beyond him to truck in a WNBA All-Star to mess with Gibbons.
But the game at Salu made a true believer of Gibbons -- especially after Terry Bronson provided the disbelieving recruiter a birth certificate proving that her daughter was indeed twelve. Now Gibbons thinks Sheila can go straight from middle school to the WNBA.