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By Dennis Brown
Tommie Liddell is going nowhere fast.
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.
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