THE WRONG SIDE OF GREAT
Prep stars are hitting the summer sneaker camps again, hoping to prove they're worth the hype. That's what James Felton was doing 12 years ago, when a high-flying moment with a soon-to-be superstar sent him crashing to earth.
Tracy McGrady walks the hero's walk, gliding past smiling security guards and fist-bumping maintenance men in the bowels of the Toyota Center. His game against the Wolves, one assist shy of a triple-double, triggered crowd chants of "MVP!" and on this night last spring, as he moves through the tunnel, he looks every bit the part.
I catch his eye and ask about Bobby Jackson, the Rockets' latest addition. But that's only to get his attention so I can tell him what I'm really after. I want to hear about a guy he used to know. Kinda.
"Do you remember James Felton?" I ask.
McGrady doesn't break stride. "Nope," he replies.
A few steps on, he rubs his hand over his scalp and stops. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," he says, his face lighting up. "He was that guy. The dunk."
There's so much I want to tell him about what has happened to Felton since he last saw him, so much I think he should hear. McGrady first met Felton 12 years ago, in a redbrick gym on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University in northern New Jersey. On that muggy July day, the wooden bleachers were packed with a mix of baby-faced teens in tank tops and middle-aged men in shiny sweatsuits. Everyone was there to watch the Outstanding Seniors Game at Adidas' ABCD basketball camp. For 40 minutes, fans oohed and aahed at each flashy crossover and howling slam. It didn't matter at all that 24 hours later, no one would remember which team had won.
They would remember, though, in crystal-clear detail, one spectacular moment from midway through the second half. It started with a greyhound-skinny, 6'8" kid grabbing a loose ball and flashing into the open court. Another player, this one an inch taller but just as skinny, gave chase. The crowd fell silent, tracking the two teens as they raced to the hoop.
One was a star. One was a nobody. In a little more than 10 years, one would have a $155 million contract, a 24,000-square-foot house with a nine-car garage and a sneaker with his name on it. The other, after spending time at five colleges and in alcohol rehab, would be dead.
One of the most talked-about invitees at the 1996 ABCD camp was James Felton. The 16-year-old rising senior from Jersey City was a top-25 prospect, a smooth post player with nimble feet, a sweet stroke and sharp passing skills. "Of all the big men in our class, James Felton and Elton Brand were the best," says Lamar Odom. College coaches suspected Felton had the most promise of a gifted crop of New York-area talent that included Odom, Brand and Ron Artest. ABCD was his chance to prove it.
"AFTER I MADE THAT DUNK, I HAD CHILLS," McGRADY SAYS. "IT PUT ME ON THE MAP." LITTLE DID HE KNOW IT WOULD KNOCK FELTON OFF OF IT.
And in the week-ending all-star game, Felton was doing just that. Playing with and against future college stars and NBAers such as Quentin Richardson and Al Harrington, he dominated the lane at both ends. Then the ball bounced loose, and he found himself the only man with a chance to intercept a little-known forward named Tracy McGrady on his way to the rim.
Entering the camp, McGrady was a 17-year-old mystery from central Florida, unmentioned on most top-500 recruiting lists. So everyone in the gym took notice as he slowed at the top of the key to wait for the much-hyped Felton. When the big man caught up, McGrady stared him down, then took off a couple of strides inside the free throw line. Felton jumped too, but just as his fingers grazed the ball palmed in his opponent's right hand, McGrady whipped it down to his waist. In the next instant, he grabbed it with his left and windmilled it through the hoop so fiercely that it should have dented the floor. By the time the unheralded prep landed, he was the next big thing. Dozens of fans and players tumbled onto the court, yelling and high-fiving, temporarily halting the game. All Felton could do was shake his head, scratch his cheek and try not to look the victim. But the damage was done. The country's most-sought-after big had been owned. "It was one of the best basketball moments of my life," recalls Odom. "An I'm-ready-to-get-drafted type of move. I'd never seen anyone do something like that, not even in the NBA."
Nearing the Toyota Center's exit 12 years later, T-Mac says, "After I made that dunk, I had chills running through my body. It put me on the map."
And knocked Felton off of it.
Kenny Pignatello never thought that putting Felton back together after The Dunk was going to be easy. He'd first met the kid when he was a gangly, 6'8" eighth-grader with no fundamentals on the court and even fewer off of it. Felton's father wasn't in the picture, and his mother, stricken with complications from diabetes, struggled to raise her kids. Although James towered over his classmates in school, he was a year younger than most (his mom had enrolled him early to give him a chance to get out of the house), and he acted like it, frequently throwing tantrums in class. At 10, he was diagnosed as emotionally disturbed by school counselors.
Courtesy Rana Brookins
A year after Felton left St. John's, his good pal Ron Artest led the Red Storm to the Elite Eight.
Basketball, though, came easy. By the time Felton was 13, he was holding his own in Jersey City's rugged Audubon Park against eventual NBA first-rounders Roshown McLeod and Rodrick Rhodes. "I learned how to be a man on that court," Felton once told me. Soon after, Pignatello was hired to be a coach at Marist High, and before long he was acting as the teen's surrogate father, driving him home from games and paying the family's electricity bill to keep the lights on. Early on, friends warned that taking the kid under his wing would tear Pignatello's heart out. "There was something about him I couldn't desert," the coach says. "Plus, I think I was the only one who could yell at James without him running away."
From the beginning, Felton was a handful on the court—and not just for opponents. "Whenever he dunked, he screamed," Pignatello says. "If someone didn't pass him the ball, he screamed. We were always trying to channel his emotions." But after being humiliated at ABCD, Pignatello recalls, Felton looked lifeless, and his game went in the tank, most publicly at an AAU tournament a couple of weeks later. "I knew he didn't want to be out there," Pignatello says. Trouble was, James couldn't outrun talk about The Dunk. "He was always getting teased about it," says close friend Shaun Coleman. "Everywhere we'd go: 'There's the guy McGrady dunked on!' It was all he heard."
In the months that followed, Felton's behavior grew ever more sketchy. He hung out with what Pignatello calls "the wrong crowd," and whispers spread about his drinking—all at a time, with offers from Kentucky, St. John's and Clemson on the table, when Felton could least afford to be perceived as unstable. Then, at Kentucky's Midnight Madness weekend in 1996, Felton fell asleep during a meeting with an academic counselor and Rick Pitino sent him home. Soon after, Felton announced he'd play ball closer to home, at St. John's.
At one of Felton's first preseason practices at St. John's, in the fall of 1997, 12 NBA scouts showed up. "We had four guys who went to the NBA," says former Red Storm coach Fran Fraschilla. "But the only one the scouts asked about was James." Felton flashed enough talent to earn the team's sixth man spot to start the season, but it wasn't long before he was bickering with the staff and teammates. And he was drinking morning and night. "I always said James was going to the NBA before any of us," says Artest, one of his closest friends at St. John's. "He had so much God-given talent. But he never worked hard like a guy trying to get to the NBA." One month into Felton's freshman season, Fraschilla dismissed him for violating team rules. Translation: The drinking was out of control.
FELTON HAD A SECRET: HE DIDN'T LIKE BASKETBALL. DIDN'T LIKE PLAYING IT, NEVER WATCHED IT, TRIED TO AVOID TALK ABOUT IT. HE DIDN'T EVEN OWN A BALL.
Within weeks he was back on campus again, this time at Florida State. But far from home and lacking friends, he didn't last a semester, and he packed up without ever telling the coaches he was done. The following spring, he resurfaced at tiny Saint Peter's College in Jersey City, after Pignatello lobbied the Peacocks on his behalf. Felton was grateful for the lifeline. He was about to get married, to his high school sweetheart, Rana. But after skipping an exam, he never got to suit up for Saint Peter's, either. And when he was booted, he figured his playing days were over. He had just finished a semester at New Jersey City University—not on the basketball team—when Pignatello called with one last chance at, of all places, Fairleigh Dickinson.
During the 2001-02 season, the Knights were one of the worst basketball programs in D1. Still, Felton was the team's star. A channel-surfing Fraschilla was stunned, though, the night he stumbled onto an FDU game. "I'd watched James since his sophomore year of high school," he says. "He had lottery pick written all over him. Then I see this lumbering monster of a guy, nothing like I remembered." The once-rail-thin, 210-pounder was now a bloated 310. But even with all the extra weight, Felton averaged 20.5 points and shot 36% from beyond the arc for the Knights.
"It is weird finishing up here," Felton told me the night before his last home game at FDU. "I remember what happened on this court six years ago like it was yesterday." The next night, Felton burned Long Island University for 41 points. It was the best performance of his career. After the final buzzer, he hugged Rana, kissed his mom and hobbled out of the gym, looking almost relieved that, in all likelihood, it was almost over.
Of course, there's always another game for giants with elite skills. One month later, Felton got a call from Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant, Kobe's dad. A mentor to young players on the way up, Bryant had kept an eye on Felton since his AAU days. He told the 22-year-old he could help him fulfill his dreams, and two days later, Felton was on a plane to LA and Bryant's basketball boot camp. For three weeks, he was run through conditioning drills and schooled in fundamentals, perfecting post moves with Adrian Dantley. "James can be real special," Bryant told me at the time. By June 2002, Felton's weight was down to 275, and the mentor who Felton had taken to calling "Pop-Pop" had landed him a tryout with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Felton made the squad and soon was practicing against former NBA players Mike Brown and Olden Polynice. "Everyone dreams about the NBA, but my dream now is to take care of my family," Felton told me. He said he hadn't had a drink in seven months. But he was lying, and his teammates knew it; they could smell the booze when they guarded him. The team convinced him to go to rehab, but when he returned a month later, he was out of shape. Within weeks, he was cut.
For the next three years, Felton bounced around the ABA. He even got a tryout—thanks to Bryant—with the Nuggets in 2003. But none of it panned out, and by the time he was 26, in 2005, Felton was back in New Jersey, working a security job for Comcast. He had liver damage and diabetic neuropathy, a painful nerve ailment of the feet, and was in constant pain; sometimes he vomited blood. Eventually he had to quit working. The pain was so bad, he drank himself to sleep.
One morning, in October 2006, Rana went upstairs to check on her sleeping husband. When she tried to wake him he didn't move, and his body was cold. She called an ambulance, but it was too late. James Felton was dead at 27.
Rana Brookins met James Felton when they were high school sophomores. She remembers him as a shy, sweet boy who left her favorite candy, Swedish Fish, as a greeting on his doorstep. They were inseparable from the moment they met, and after marrying in 1999, they had three children: Annice, Jalynn and James Jr. When Felton played his last game at FDU, they all came. And when he was released by the Globetrotters in 2002, Rana and the kids were waiting to welcome him home. It was a family that stayed tight in good times and bad.
Rana, now a vice president at a large bank, says Felton didn't miss basketball after he finally walked away, content to make lunches for the kids and put in an honest day's work. And yet the game always haunted him. "It was so hard to live with other people's disappointment," Rana says. "People would say, 'You could've been in the NBA.' That would be hard for anyone to take."
According to Rana, the criticism fueled her husband's drinking. And it mixed badly with a secret no one in the neighborhood or gym knew. For as long as she'd known him, Rana says, Felton didn't like basketball. Didn't like playing it, never watched it, tried to avoid talking about it. He didn't even own a ball. "James lived in denial about basketball," she says. "Every day, he'd pretend it was something he liked. It ate him alive. Having to do what you don't want to do will make anyone sick."
Courtesy Rana Brookins
Brookins-Felton (far left) says her husband was always happiest off the court, spending time his three children.
So maybe one moment at an ABCD camp didn't ruin his life; his demons did. If, as he said when he was younger, he got his manhood from the game, maybe it was stripped from him that day on the court, for everyone to see. Or maybe it was just the tipping point for a troubled soul, one who never felt comfortable being what everyone said he should be. God had given him the gifts of height and skill, but Felton could never handle the expectations that came with them. "His family and people in the neighborhood always asked James, 'When you gonna buy me a house?'" Rana says. "I'd tell him, 'You don't have to do this. If you never play again, I'm okay with that.'" But Felton's life was
entangled in the game. It was all he knew.
When Felton passed away, word quickly circulated through New York's basketball circles. An old high school teammate told Odom. Artest isn't sure how he heard, but he knew Felton had been sick. McGrady didn't know until that day at the Toyota Center. "That's really sad," he said when I told him.
Rana was adamant, though, that sadness and disappointment not overrun her husband's funeral. There would be no crying in front of her kids, no talk about unfulfilled promises. "Nothing about James' life was beautiful, but he was a beautiful person," she says. "He was happy being a regular guy." Fittingly, among the handful of people who showed for the service, none were basketball stars.
James Jr. is 7 now and big for his age. Lately he's been begging to go to basketball camp, at Fairleigh Dickinson. "I wanna go where Daddy played," he says to Rana. She's tried to talk him out of it but expects she'll have to give in. "I just want to tell kids they don't have to play basketball just because they're tall, black and live in the hood," she says.
"Then again, after The Dunk even I said to James, 'You're 6'9"! You're not being aggressive enough! Be an animal!'"
"Maybe I didn't handle it right either."
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