Maurice Spillers: Cali's late bloomer

Maurice Spillers wasn't a well-known prep player. Mentoring by an iconic L.A. coach put the Locke (Los Angeles) graduate on track for a lengthy international pro career.

Originally Published: August 6, 2010
By Ronnie Flores | ESPNHS

In conjunction with the Boost Mobile Elite 24 on Aug. 28, ESPNHS is profiling California's 24 greatest streetball players. Some went on to become NBA stars, some were high school stars and pro flameouts, while others were beset by unlucky breaks or tragedy. The countdown begins with No. 24 on our list, 1992 Locke (Los Angeles, Calif.) graduate Maurice Spillers.

When Maurice Spillers first picked up a ball in South Los Angeles, he didn't give serious thought to playing basketball in high school  much less professionally. It wasn't until the seventh grade that Schea Cooper introduced him to the organized game.

Spillers' first stop was Birmingham (Van Nuys, Calif.), a school never known as a hoops hotbed.

"At Birmingham, I was scoring," Spillers said. "I was putting up the same numbers as some of the city's other top players, but didn't really get any recognition."

His situation didn't change much during his senior season at Locke (Los Angeles, Calif.), where he was reunited with former teammates from Cooper's Warriors AAU team.

Although Spillers pumped in 21.3 ppg, players on better teams overshadowed him.

"Todd [Whitehead] had a big reputation and he went to the Nike Camp and things like that," said Tommie "Tank" Davis, who played with Whitehead at Fremont as a sophomore and later developed a streetball reputation of his own.

Adds Spillers: "At Locke, we played to make names for each other, but we lacked discipline and hard work. I didn't go to all the camps. A lot of times, it's who you know and I didn't take full advantage."

At the time, Spillers was a 6-foot-4 forward -- he's now 6-6 -- who showed glimpses of guard skills. The team lacked size, but had a plethora of quick guards -- a trademark of L.A. City ball.

Spillers helped the Saints win games, but it was Demetrius Nettles, then a junior, that flashed the most potential in scouts' eyes.

"Maurice Spillers wasn't that good in high school," current La Verne Lutheran (La Verne, Calif.) coach Eric Cooper Sr. said.

Spillers' journey continued at L.A. Southwest College -- one of many programs in California's fertile JUCO ranks. Spillers blossomed under the mentoring of Joe Weakley.

The late Weakley is an iconic figure in L.A.'s basketball community. He mentored Spillers and countless other kids throughout the city for nearly four decades.

"Joe Weakley got a hold of me and was a strong, authoritative figure for me at that time," Spillers said. "I played under guys like John Staggers in the Joe Weakly League. I played at the Drew League. I got to play with and watch guys such as John Williams and Lester Connor. I was not where they were, so I learned a lot."

As Spillers continued to grow physically, his game -- and reputation -- outshined many of his L.A. City peers from the early '90s. After his time at L.A. Southwest, Spillers' journey continued in Logan, Utah. The late-bloomer attended Utah State the old-fashioned way.

He earned his scholarship.

Spillers enjoyed two solid years with the Aggies, earning second team All-Big West honors as a senior in 1996-97.

"I knew all of those [Locke teammates] well," Spillers said. "I know the road they went down -- I see it. I'm not saying any of them gave up, but other things attracted them."

Spillers has played professionally in places such as Iceland, Korea, Argentina and Chile. Back home, he's excelled on blacktops on Venice Beach and in the SoCal Summer Pro League. Most importantly, the game has offered him the opportunity to make a living, something seemingly improbable when he was at Birmingham.

"Sometimes people approach me and recognize me on the streets," Spillers said. "They know I played and held my own in places like the Drew League and Nike Battlegrounds."

From where he started, Spillers can't point to one game or moment as most memorable of his career. He figures his whole career has been a highlight -- better yet a blessing -- considering the frustrations he encountered on his journey.

"I'm one of the few from my generation that is still playing," Spillers said. "That motivation (of being overlooked) is what keeps me strong. Of all those guys mentioned, nobody would have chosen me as the guy still playing, not from those guys whose names were highlighted in the newspapers."