Shooting Stars

Tommie Liddell plays tortoise to Darius Milesí hare in the annals of East Side High basketball lore

"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."

"Tommie is a six-five whatever-he-wants-to-be," says 
Saint Louis University basketball coach Brad 
Soderberg. "He's as good a guard as I've seen in 
twenty years of coaching."
Jennifer Silverberg
"Tommie is a six-five whatever-he-wants-to-be," says Saint Louis University basketball coach Brad Soderberg. "He's as good a guard as I've seen in twenty years of coaching."
Baseball coach and youth mentor Maurice Scott has 
been a constant in the lives of Liddell, Miles and a host 
of East Side athletic prodigies.
Jennifer Silverberg
Baseball coach and youth mentor Maurice Scott has been a constant in the lives of Liddell, Miles and a host of East Side athletic prodigies.

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.


Bill. Willoughby.

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.

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