The car pulled up and the young man stepped out and the kids from the basketball camp ran over and wrapped around him as if he were a cartoon character come to life. To them there was no past, no trouble, no jail sentence — there was only this guy in shorts and sneakers, Scott Skiles, who had just been drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, and they wanted to get close to him. This was a special moment. This was a moment Skiles once thought he might never see. With the kids surrounding him, he entered the Michigan State gymnasium, where a pickup game of his old teammates was already in progress
— he had come to join it — and a TV reporter was waiting.
“What’s all this?” the reporter asked, pointing to the midget mob.
“My bodyguards,” Skiles said. And he laughed.
Times change. Scott Skiles is laughing. Laughing? How long has it been? How long since every news story didn’t snarl at his past? His scuffles with the law? His 15 days in jail? How long since every photo did not feature a brooding face, flammable eyes, a jaw set so grimly that a fist would not budge it? How long?
Scott Skiles is laughing.
“Congratulations,” said Larry Polec, his teammate of four years, when Skiles
reached the court. “Congratulations,” answered Skiles, who knew that Polec, too, had been drafted that day, by the Pistons.
And they both laughed some more.
Fresh faces are what the college draft brings the NBA each year. But what does the draft bring those fresh faces? Laughter. A future. And, in certain cases, a sigh of relief.
Consider Scott Skiles one of those cases. The wait is over Despite his obvious basketball skill — All- America, 27.4 scoring average — Skiles, 22, could never be sure what his past would cost his pro career.
On Tuesday, he sat in his parents’ house in Plymouth, Ind., and watched TV as the flames of possibility were one by one extinguished. New Jersey. Denver. Houston. All supposedly interested. All took someone else.
Then Milwaukee’s pick came around. No. 22. The NBA commissioner announced Skiles’ name. And everything changed.
“My mother screamed, my grandmother screamed, everybody screamed,” Skiles said.
“And you?” he was asked.
“I was just sort of dazed,” he said. “I was a first-round pick. I was staying in the Midwest. I was . . . it was great.”
Soon Don Nelson was on the phone. Of all the interested coaches, only Nelson, 10 days earlier, had taken Skiles aside and said, “I love your basketball. Tell me about the past.’
Skiles told him. Told him about the mistakes, the drunken- driving charges. Told him about the 15 days he had served in a county jail for violating probation. Told him he’d learned his lesson.
“What did Nelson say when he got you on the phone?” Skiles was asked.
“He told me, ‘We’re happy to have you,’ ” Skiles said. ‘And I said, ‘So am I.’ “
A few hours later, Skiles was in his car, alone on the highway, driving back to school for summer classes — and the pickup game. No shopping for a Mercedes. No tuxedo dinners. Basketball. He sang with the radio as he drove that highway. He was the same young man he had been that morning. And he was completely different.Sweet, not bittersweet There has been speculation that Skiles was chosen as trade bait, part of a package to be exchanged by the Bucks for another team’s center — perhaps Seattle’s Jack Sikma. Maybe. But maybe not. Already Indiana has tried to acquire Skiles in a trade. Milwaukee said it had the guy it wanted.
“That’s part of being a professional,” Skiles said. And that — as soon as he signs a contract — is the new word after his name. Professional. It replaces other words: troubled, angry, convicted. He may have to warm the bench. He says he’ll do it. He may yet be traded. So? “After all that’s happened, was this bittersweet?” he was asked.
“No, not really,” he said. “Only sweet.” Scott Skiles never denied what he was accused of doing. Scott Skiles never said that jail was undeserved. Scott Skiles has tried to wipe the slate clean and leap into the professional ranks with no points next to his personality license.
So take a new picture. With the kids around him, and the jaw loose and relaxed. Get it now. Maybe, if men really can grow better from their mistakes, it will stay that way for a while.
Scott Skiles is laughing. Times change. CUTLINE Scott Skiles