Known as the “LeBron James before LeBron James,” Schea Cotton was one of the greatest high school basketball players to come out of Los Angeles in the same class as Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. Due to a series of unforeseen circumstances, the high school phenom, who was projected to have a promising professional career in the NBA, never made it.
At his height, Cotton graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was named the 1995 CIF State Player of the Year after winning a championship at Mater Dei High School. He then transferred to St. John Bosco where he earned McDonald’s All-American honors. He played against players three to four years his senior at a competitive level and dunked on Kevin Garnett in packed gyms at premiere AAU tournaments.
Cotton’s search for a greater purpose led him to share his story nearly 20 years later in the form of a documentary film titled, “Manchild: The Schea Cotton Story,” which debuted in 2016. The film documents when Cotton elected to de-commit from California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). After transferring to UCLA, the NCAA invalidated the same test scores that had been accepted to CSULB. From there, it was a downward spiral to find a collegiate home where Cotton was deemed eligible. The documentary revealed that he battled with suicidal thoughts after going undrafted in 2000.
Cotton is currently the CEO of the Schea Cotton Basketball Academy (SCBA), an organization dedicated to empowering youth through education, basketball and mentoring. He also travels around the country sharing his story with rising basketball stars.
Los Angeles Sentinel (LAS): What does the term man-child mean to you?
Schea Cotton (SC): Men amongst boys, man-child is the moniker that I was given when I first started playing. I accelerated at an alarming rate because I played against older, bigger kids; I made it look easy against kids my age.
LAS: When was the first time you remember being called man-child?
SC: The first time I remember being called man-child was on my 12th birthday, I had 40 points at Carson High School in a tournament and after that, they started saying ‘man he played like a man possessed, that kids a man-child.’ After that, it just started steamrolling.
LAS: Describe growing up in Los Angeles.
SC: Challenging, the city has a lot of great things that it represents, then there’s a lot of challenging things that aren’t so good. Obviously, my peers, some of them went in different directions, gangs and drugs, the usual, but basketball gave me a different channel and an avenue to hone my skills and some of that energy and aggression that I had as a kid and I’m blessed for that. Now, I just give everything back to the kids and create opportunities where they can have as many if not more than I had.
LAS: How was it playing at Mater Dei High School?
SC: Mater Dei is an experience that I would say isn’t for everyone. It’s a great institution, great school. It’s like a college the way they rotate and schedule different class[es] every morning. They do a really good job at their sports and have a really big following. The alumni [are] very supportive and it’s a household name. The school gave me an opportunity to really hone my skills and develop at another level. I’m still very close with everybody in the organization, Coach McKnight and a lot of the players still come back. I was just there for the Nike Extravaganza, so it’s nice to go home and they have my name on the wall, they retired my jersey so it feels good. I’m a part of the fraternity.
LAS: What went into your decision to transfer to St. John Bosco halfway through your high school tenure?
SC: My father had a[n] LA County permit as a contractor, at the time we were living in Orange County and things became challenging financially at that time [and] it was the best decision to make, so I transferred back to Bosco where I initially started as a freshman. It worked out, everything worked out. As far as playing, there’s obviously a different experience playing at Mater Dei and Bosco from an athletic standpoint, but St. John Bosco is a well-rounded school as well.
LAS: What was your family dynamic like?
SC: The family business, my father was a contractor and my mother did the administrative work. It was a good marriage. My father passed away about three and a half years ago. My father filmed a lot of the documentary, so a lot of the footage we own, which has been a blessing. It’s almost like he had the foresight, he saw it ahead of time so our family is very close knit. I’m really close to my mom, she’s been my rock through all of this. Stay grounded and just remember how far I’ve come and where I’ve come from and just keep my faith strong.
LAS: What are you hoping that people receive from the video and documentary?
SC: I’m hoping that people receive a refreshed outlook on who I actually am. I think I was slandered over the years and there was a lot of stuff that was put out there that wasn’t true and now it’s time to clear the air and hear from the horse’s mouth. We have a lot of people that are big names in the NBA space who were involved in this piece, who did interviews on their own recognizance. It’s powerful everyone who sees it gets hit more in the spiritual realm and it moves you.
LAS: How do you manage the level of attention you received at such an early age?
SC: Just being grounded and the household. Your parents have to play a big part in keeping you driven and the value of integrity and work ethic. I’m a man of my word and that started in the house with my father. He would get up early, come home, work late, never complained and did it again the next morning. He had almost 19 back surgeries at one point, so I learned what true work ethic looks like and to have that grit to keep the hunger when you’re doing something that you enjoy you’ll never work a day in your life, so I took that to heart.
LAS: What was it like seeing your name and face on Sports Illustrated, ESPN and other major media outlets?
SC: Surreal after all the work you put in to actually see the payoff. That’s what used to drive me. It wasn’t the fame and all these other different things. It was just the rush I would get when people were pleased with the body of work. I wanted to be the best, I love to compete in that 1-on-1 challenge. I tested myself growing up with older guys bigger, stronger, faster because I knew when I got with my peers that I would reign supreme and it was more [for] confidence than anything.
LAS: What was the highest point for you?
SC: When I won my state championship in high school, 1995 at Mater Dei. We were in Oakland at the Oakland Coliseum, [when] we beat Oakland Freemont at that point I knew I had arrived. I don’t know if I’ve felt anything to that capacity sense.
LAS: What happened after high school?
SC: Graduated from high school, I had committed to go to Long Beach State with my brother (James Cotton). My brother chose to go [with] financial hardship to the NBA. I asked to be released from my commitment, they approved it, which opened up my recruitment process all over again and I chose to go to UCLA. No knock to Long Beach State, but it’s just a different level and I felt like my skills warranted that scholarship, all the national titles and this is the west coast North Carolina at the end of the day, so I trained at UCLA all through school playing at the UCLA men’s gym with the NBA players. I had an opportunity and I took advantage, me, Earl Watson, Bill Knight, we all came in together and everyone was excited. We went through all the freshman summer program classes, passed all my courses the last day of FSP, my proctor comes up and brought me a newspaper that reads, ‘UCLA Invalidates Cotton’s Test Score.’ You could’ve bought me for a dollar, something that was accepted to Long Beach State wasn’t accepted to UCLA, so I knew something was going on and then I was being slandered and everybody thought that I was dumb and I didn’t pass my test and you shouldn’t make exceptions for jocks when I wasn’t doing anything wrong I actually did everything the right way and I was being penalized for things that were out of my control.
LAS: What inspired you to finally share your story?
SC: It was some of the trials I went through. I’m an introvert, so I kind of went into a shell and just closed in didn’t want to be bothered with people. Every time I went to the gas station people asked me why aren’t you in the NBA and all these things. It just really hit my heart and I got to the point where I said I want to do something more, bigger than when I played. I got with my producer and the team who made the documentary and it was years of production. I pulled the trigger finally when I finished playing, which was right around 30 years old.
LAS: What’s the idea behind the brand Manchild Inc.?
SC: It’s not so much about basketball, but it’s about the game of life being taught through basketball and how to win at it by making the right decisions and build at it by getting the right people around you. Understanding that sticking to the circle when things are going well, take care of the people that take care of you.