The real Shabazz Muhammad
The No. 2 player is tired of talking about his recruitment and just wants to play
CHICAGO -- Shabazz Muhammad thinks he knows, but he has no clue.
He walks into the O'Hare Room at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Chicago in black-and-white McDonald's All-American gear and what he referred to as "nerdy-looking" glasses.
Muhammad plops down on the red leather lounge chair and poses what he means to be a rhetorical question: "We talking recruiting, huh?"
The assumption is fair.
As the No. 2 player in the ESPNU 100, Muhammad's recruitment is among the hottest stories in high school basketball, so it's no wonder that he feels right at home amid a sea of reporters and bloggers who repeatedly try and reword cliché questions.
No, proximity to home won't be the deciding factor. Yes, he does like Kentucky coach John Calipari's dribble-drive offense. No, Duke's loss to Lehigh in the NCAA tournament hasn't affected his view of the Blue Devils.
"I get so bored with those guys asking that stuff," said Muhammad, a 6-foot-6 senior swingman at Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas). "Those guys never have anything new. Ever."
So naturally, he's intrigued when he learns that this story isn't even about him. Well, not exactly.
"OK," he said with a smile. "You got me now. Who then?"
The who is just as complex.
It is about Muhammad. The real Muhammad.
Not the clean-cut, pristine Boy Scout who smiles for the cameras and is so polite you'd swear he was one of the Cosby kids.
It's about the cold-blooded, ruthless ballplayer who lives inside him. The one who's made him an 18-year-old brand. The one who dominates on the court by any means necessary, even if that means having to play the role of the jerk. The one who won't be denied and is so competitive he doesn't know how to just play for fun.
Because that's the real Shabazz Muhammad. That's the greater part (80/20, according to Muhammad, if you're into numbers) of who he truly is.
That's what basketball heads refer to as a "killer," and that's what will be on display tonight when Muhammad leads the West squad against the East in the McDonald's All-American Game (9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) at the United Center in Chicago.
"Killers are just born," said Austin Rivers, who led Duke in scoring as a freshman before declaring for the NBA draft. "It's just in you. That's what I love about Shabazz. I can identify with the killer in him."
Muhammad edges to the end of his chair, nods and smiles.
"Oooh, that's who this is about?" Muhammad asked. "Well then, whaddaya wanna know?"
Birth of a mentality
Muhammad doesn't have the whole child prodigy story.
He wasn't Damon Harge, the 12-year-old hoops phenom whose exceptional abilities allowed him to play varsity at Christian Faith Center Academy (Creedmoor, N.C.) this past season.
In fact, the only memorable thing about the short, fat 10-year-old with slow feet and high energy was that he had Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, involuntary movements called tics.
His condition made him a defensive liability when he suited up for the Agassi All Stars in the local Boys Club basketball league.
"He'd have bad episodes during the games and his man would just drive right by him," said Muhammad's father, Ron Holmes. "I knew I'd have to challenge him if he was going to overcome that. I couldn't baby him."
Holmes and his wife, Faye Muhammad, opted for tough love over medication. They felt he'd need to be strong mentally to overcome not only his condition, but also being the butt of his peers' jokes.
"I told him straight-up, if you're gonna play you can't be having episodes out there on the court," Holmes said. "I told him it was in him to control it on his own. He'd have to."
Added Muhammad: "My dad definitely didn't let me feel sorry for myself or anything like that, and now I understand why. I overcame that for the most part. Those guys picking on me made me want to just destroy them. That's where it all started for me. That's where the ruthless killer in me was born."
When the basketball skills caught up with the mentality, it was a perfect storm, only it created what Holmes called a "ruthless perfectionist."
"He would get so mad when guys didn't approach the game the way he did," Holmes said. "It would be so bad that I would have to step in a lot of times, and I almost messed him up because I was gonna try and change that about him. Then one day my wife said I'd be hurting him by telling him to change. She was right. He's a winner and he's gonna win no matter what."
Muhammad got it honestly, coming from a strong, athletic family.
Holmes played ball at USC and left in 1985 as the Trojans' seventh all-time leading scorer, while Faye starred in basketball and track at Long Beach State. Her brother, Stephone Paige, was a Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver from 1983 to '92. Shabazz Muhammad's younger brother and teammate, Rashad, is a Division I prospect and his older sister, Asia, is a professional tennis player.
"A killer like Shabazz makes you want to raise your level of play," said Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) forward Brandon Ashley, who will team up with Muhammad for the West. "I respect it. You know you've got to bring it when Bazz is on the court."
It was a lesson that some of Muhammad's teammates at Bishop Gorman found out the hard way, according to Gaels coach Grant Rice.
"When the guys guarded Shabazz, they knew to put in a mouthpiece," Rice said. "It's not even anything dirty; he'll just do what he has to do to dominate. Mentality-wise, he's cut from the same mold as Kobe Bryant."
Like Bryant, Muhammad owns the on-court "jerk" label.
His logic is simple.
"You've gotta tell them what needs to happen sometimes; forcefully if necessary," Muhammad said. "I'll be that guy. I'll be the bad guy if that's what it takes."
Hard to argue with a guy who has brought home three state titles in four years. This past season, Muhammad averaged 30 points and 10 rebounds per game.
"Closed mouths don't get fed," Muhammad said. "And I'm gonna eat every time I get on the court."
America's most wanted
With heavyweights like UCLA, Kentucky and Duke all in hot pursuit, Muhammad gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "America's most wanted."
Hometown UNLV and Kansas are also in contention for Muhammad, who said he'll announce on April 11 live on ESPNU's Recruiting Nation show.
"He's got some great options," Holmes said. "Type of situation where he really can't go wrong wherever he decides to go. A lot of guys want to play with him."
Kyle Anderson may be the most vocal in that regard.
Anderson, a point forward at St. Anthony (Jersey City, N.J.), is signed to UCLA and estimated that he recruits Muhammad "pretty much every week."
"I've gotta do what I can to get him to come with me," said Anderson, who is ranked No. 4 in the ESPNU 100. "I mean, come on man, it's Shabazz, ya know. He's a killer. He's the best player in the country."
Muhammad agrees with that. But then, a killer would.
It's a gift-wrapped segue into the enormous elephant in the room: Muhammad being dethroned as the top player in 2012 as a result of Tilton (N.H.) center Nerlens Noel deciding to reclassify from 2013 to 2012 in early February.
Muhammad anxiously repositions himself in the red leather chair and smiles.
The consummate professional, Muhammad is prepared to give his typical politically correct answer, but he knows it won't play well at this point. After all, Noel, a 6-foot-10 center, went from being ranked No. 2 in the junior class to claiming the top spot as a senior.
Muhammad continues to smile, but it's clear -- the killer is beating out the nice guy. He once told his dad that the reason he didn't make it to the NBA was because he was too nice.
Muhammad sits back upright and settles on the straightforward approach.
"Me and Nerlens are cool, so it's got nothing to do with him, but I just didn't get it," Muhammad said of the ranking. "He's a great player, but he's a shot-blocker. And I don't think that's a good thing to have at No. 1 for your service. But the whole thing taught me a lot. I see I've got more proving to do, and I'm up for that. Things aren't always gonna go your way."
Muhammad's most recent hardship came in late February, when CBSSports.com reported that the NCAA contacted schools recruiting Muhammad and made them aware of alleged financial dealings that could jeopardize his eligibility. The article claimed that the NCAA was interested in possible connections between Muhammad's family and two financial advisers.
On the advice of his lawyer, Holmes declined to comment specifically on the situation, but did say that the NCAA won't do much until Muhammad picks a school.
"They don't want me to saying anything," Holmes said of his lawyer. "So we're just gonna focus on Bazz picking the right school and let everything else take care of itself. I do believe that everything will be fine, though."
Muhammad's next move
A small crowd of NBA scouts lines the north side of the gym at Attack Athletics, where both McDonald's All-American teams are practicing.
"How's Shabazz been playing?" one scout asked.
"You know," another scout said with a smile. "The killer stays killin' 'em!"
He'll factor in the typical things when deciding exactly where to "kill 'em" in college: style of play, who will be on the roster, chance to win a national title, etc.
"Oh man, it's stressful," Muhammad said. "Just to be on the phone with Coach [Mike] Krzyzewski and listening to him really open up about how bad he needs me. Then talk to Coach Cal and Coach [Ben] Howland and Coach [Bill] Self. It weighs on you. It's not as glamorous as it sounds because I'm saying no to great options. That's rough."
By the end of the scrimmage, Muhammad's the only player still going at a Level 10.
He takes the ball, faces up on West forward Anthony Bennett and hits him with a sick stutter-step.
Bennett bites hard.
In a flash, Muhammad is by Bennett on his way to the hoop for what is almost certainly going to be one of his trademark monster jams. Then, out of nowhere, another defender reaches in and strips the ball just slightly enough that Muhammad can't finish the play, subsequently ending the scrimmage.
No one applauds the defensive effort. No one laughs. No one notices because no one cares.
No one except Muhammad.
He shoots the defender a stern scowl and, all in one motion, skies for a ferocious two-handed slam.
"Wow, hide your kids! Hide your wives!" one wide-eyed spectator joked. "And hide your husbands, too!"
Muhammad doesn't say a word or crack a smile. He doesn't have to. The ball bounces off to the side as he walks away.
The killer stays killin' 'em.
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