- Anna Katherine Clemmons
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His basketball career began with two gloves and a hat.
As a preschooler living in northern Virginia, Mike Scott wore the clothing accessories every day to school during the winter months. One afternoon, he came home without a glove. The next day, he didn't have his hat. Soon after, his other glove was missing. His father, Michael, an officer in the Marines, wondered whether his oldest son was trading his clothing with friends or was just absent-minded.
After buying several replacements, Michael called the school. That's when he learned the truth: Mike was using each item as a mini-basketball, shooting it toward a makeshift basket -- a milk crate, a trash can, an empty box -- and forgetting to retrieve it by day's end.
"The ladies at the daycare told me, 'You may want to buy him a basketball goal so he'll have something to practice on,'" Michael laughs.
Those preschool improvisations have evolved into a prolific scoring career. Since arriving at the University of Virginia in 2007, Mike Scott has ranked among the Cavaliers top scorers each season. And after coach Tony Bennett arrived in 2009 and introduced a slower, defense-heavy style of play, Scott's all-around game has expanded.
An ankle injury last December sidelined Scott for the remainder of the season, and without him the Cavaliers faded, failing to qualify for the NCAA and NIT tournaments. This season, after being granted another season via a medical redshirt, Scott has led the 17-3 Cavaliers into the nation's top 25. The 23-year-old ranks amongst the ACC's top six players in points per game (16.7), floor percentage (62.1), true shooting percentage (63.7), offensive rebounds per game (2.7) and defensive rebounds per game (5.6).
Perhaps more importantly, he has provided a consistent offensive and defensive threat as his team has endured unexpected transfers (James Johnson and KT Harrell) and injuries (starting senior center Assane Sene, out through early March). In his final collegiate year, the fifth-year senior hopes to lead UVa to its first regular-season ACC title and NCAA tournament appearance since 2006-07.
"My dad always told me, 'Show them all aspects of your game,'" Scott says. "It took me so long to realize that. Now, I'm starting to do it."
Scott's first experience with competitive basketball came not long after his clothing practice sessions. In 1994, Michael moved the family to the Marine Corps base in Camp Pendleton, Calif. Five-year-old Mike began playing on the base's 5-and-6-year-old team. The now 6-foot-8 forward was already taller than his peers at 5, so coaches moved him to the 7-and-8-year-old squad, aptly named the "Shooters." In the league tournament that year, Mike scored 32 of his team's 45 points in its first game. In the next round, he totaled 45 of its 52 points.
Michael and Mike lived in California for three more years (Mike's mother, Lisa Mackall, lives in Washington, D.C.). While there, Mike also competed in several track events, qualifying for the AAU nationals and finishing in the top three in each event: second in the long jump, first in the 400m and third in the 800m.
In 1998, Michael retired from the military and returned to Virginia, settling in Chesapeake. Mike was 6-foot-4 by the start of his ninth-grade year at Deep Creek High School. He tried out for the basketball team but wasn't allowed to play (his father's orders) because of poor grades. His first appearance in a varsity game wasn't until the end of his sophomore season. He scored 22 points. In his second game, he scored 27 points.
AAU teams and college coaches began calling. Deep Creek coach Leroy Ricks played Mike at the 5-position and says that while his scoring and defensive talent was obvious, he sometimes lacked work ethic. Occasionally, Ricks kicked him out of practice when he felt like Mike wasn't working hard enough. Still, "I wish I had a Mike Scott every year since he left," Ricks says.
In his senior season, Mike Scott averaged 24 points, 13.5 rebounds, four assists and five blocks per game and was named first-team all-state and Southeastern District Player of the Year. Recruited by several schools, Scott connected with John Chaney and committed to Temple University. But in March 2006, Chaney announced his retirement, so Scott decided to play a postgraduate year at Hargrave Military Academy. Given the Academy's strict grooming rules (specific haircut and no facial hair) Scott was initially reticent, but his father insisted it'd be good for him.
That year was the first time Scott played alongside teammates who were as good, if not better, than him. "Everyone is coming from a team where they're the man," Scott says. "Some days, I'd get my butt kicked, and some days I'd do the butt-kicking. It was a great move for me."
Jeff Capel, then the head coach at Oklahoma, recruited Scott while simultaneously recruiting Blake Griffin ("I made that decision easy for him," Scott laughs). Texas assistant coach Rob Lanier, then a member of Virginia's coaching staff, also made numerous visits to Hargrave. Scott liked the direction that UVa was headed that year (having tied UNC for the ACC regular-season title), as well as the academic reputation of the school. He committed to the Cavaliers and, for perhaps the first time, didn't heed his father's advice concerning a major decision.
"UVa wasn't my first pick," Michael says. Mike Scott's father felt a stronger connection with Skip Prosser, then the head coach at Wake Forest, but respected his son's decision.
Scott came to UVa as a 215-pound freshman and started 21 games, playing in all 32 under then-head coach Dave Leitao. His sophomore year he again played in every game, starting 19, and led the Cavaliers in rebounds, double-doubles and field goal percentage. On March 16, 2009, Leitao resigned after a dismal 10-18 season and an 11th-place finish in the ACC.
When Bennett arrived, Scott says it took time to adapt to Bennett's defensive focus. "Sometimes I had that selfish mentality in that I wasn't a good team defender; I just worried about my man not scoring," Scott says. "I didn't know that being a good team defender was helping on ball screens, or helping get in the gaps -- that's really evolved into my game this last year."
Last season, the Cavaliers started a promising 7-3 before Scott injured his left ankle. Through the early games, he'd averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds as the team's leading scorer and rebounder while becoming the first Cavaliers player to post five consecutive double-doubles since Ralph Sampson in 1983.
My dad always told me, 'Show them all aspects of your game.' It took me so long to realize that. Now, I'm starting to do it.
”-- Virginia's Mike Scott
Scott underwent his first surgery and returned on Dec. 22, 2010, scoring 12 points against Seattle in what would be his last game of the season. He underwent a second arthroscopic surgery in January.
"That was hard," teammate Jontel Evans says. "My heart went out for him because he was so focused for his senior year and he ended up losing that season. For our team, that kind of hurt us because other guys had to step up and score the ball that weren't used to it."
Today, Scott sees the move from starter to bench cheerleader as a serendipitous experience. But at the time, he struggled watching his team lose a series of close games. "I was depressed about it sometimes, but to overcome that injury was probably the best move of my life," Scott says.
"I really saw him grow as a leader," says Sammy Zeglinski, also a fifth-year senior. "He learned more about the game and he worked as a coach for us, helping out the younger guys, offering encouragement and motivating players."
Typically the team jokester, Scott struggled to maintain his lighthearted demeanor. He often pranks his teammates, hiding their iPhones and Air Jordans or putting them in other teammates' lockers. But the "fun" side of basketball, which he'd relished, eluded him. At the end of the season, he weighed himself and read 254 on the scale. He'd gained 15 pounds.
On May 6, Scott learned that the ACC had granted him a medical hardship waiver, allowing him a final year of collegiate eligibility. He dedicated himself to losing weight and getting into better shape than before his injury and going on the self-described "Subway diet." Every day for lunch, he ordered a Subway melt with "everything green on it -- my whole sandwich was green," he laughs. He's now 235 pounds and says he feels much faster and can keep pace with every position on the court.
He worked out at home over the summer and spent time at Old Dominion University, playing pickup against a group of talented Virginia natives, including former Maryland guard John Gilchrist, UNC freshman James Michael McAdoo, Virginia Tech forward Dorian-Finney Smith, Duke junior Andre Dawkins and Marquette sophomore Davante Gardner. In the pickup games, Scott often played as a small forward and worked on driving to the basket, dribbling and passing more often.
"He's become more versatile -- putting it on the floor better, and his ability to pass, score, rebound, defend -- just becoming a complete player," Bennett says. "He's also become more mobile and really has gone to work on his body. What I've also liked is how he's matured his game and his mind each year, his leadership and mental approach."
On Jan. 11, ESPN college basketball writer Jason King highlighted his perspective 2012 Wooden Award candidates. Scott wasn't listed amongst the 15 potential recipients. The blog's comments section began to fill with arguments why Scott should be included. But the discussion thread transformed from defenses based on stats and analysis into Chuck Norris-esque facts, such as: "God created the world in 6 days; 5 were spent perfecting Mike Scott" and "Mike Scott wears sunglasses to protect the sun from his eyes" and "Mike Scott challenges bulls to ride on his back for 8 seconds." The thread is up to 785 comments. Scott was named a Wooden Award midseason Top 25 candidate on Jan. 17.
Scott first heard about the Norris parallels the night before UVa's game against Duke and has read through most of them, calling them "hilarious." He's experienced his own Norris-celebrity status on campus. Having graduated with his degree in December, Scott enrolled this semester in several graduate courses. In one of the classes, students were asked to list their professor's name. Thirteen of his classmates wrote "Mike Scott."
Scott has 13 tattoos (and counting), including the initials of his two little brothers, Antonn and Derrick, tattooed onto his wrists; his mother's initials are tattooed on one side of his neck and his father's tattooed onto the other side. He wears No. 23, the same digits worn by his childhood idol, Michael Jordan. He also attributes his name to the legend: Scott was born James Michael Scott but told his father when he was in elementary school that, in trying to "be like Mike," he'd now be called "Mike."
When he's not playing basketball, Scott is a self-professed video game addict. He defeated Kemba Walker to claim the EA Sports Video Game Championship last year at EA's Maui Invitational and says that "NBA 2K12" and "Call of Duty" are his favorites. He's also a frequent tweeter (3,093 followers of @MScottuva23), where amidst his free associations he coined the word "tragical" and posted a photo of Antonn getting a "23" shaved into the side of his head before UVa's home game against Virginia Tech.
Still, his focus right now is all basketball and qualifying for the NCAA tournament, which has eluded him the past four seasons. The Cavaliers huddle together after each timeout and Scott, a team tri-captain, is the player to break the huddle, reminding his teammates about "defense on three" or "unity." "I want to be the guy leading by example on and off the court," Scott says.
That includes putting in the extra work. Evans says that Scott is in the gym before and after practice every day, working on his shot.
Old habits are hard to let go.
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.