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Fun-loving Henry keeps it loose on way to top

9/12/2008
Xavier Henry's oustanding summer made him the No. 1 player in the ESPNU 100 for the Class of 2009. Jason O. Watson for ESPN.com

Xavier Henry is different kind of guy. You might wonder what makes the nation's top-ranked basketball recruit tick, and then he allows you to enter his world.

For Henry, basketball is fun. No, really -- he doesn't pull any punches when he declares his unbridled joy for the game which has given him so much. He never seeks to be the center of attention, but the spotlight always seems to find him.

A senior at Putnam City High in Oklahoma City, he doesn't take for granted the importance of shooting a thousand jumpers, dribbling, working on strengthening his core muscles or picking up a slumping teammate.

Understand Henry is about winning, but as he says, "why not have fun when you're playing."

17-year-old Xavier Henry (he pronounces his first name Zah-vee-A) is also not your typical teenager. He possesses an innate wisdom which belies his years. He's articulate when explaining his recent rehab for knee and ankle ailments and the reasons behind it. He believes basketball is a beautiful game where he can pirouette in traffic, pull up for his NBA-range 3 and snap a cheeky pass to a teammate for an assist.

He's a shoo-in for the McDonald's All-American Game and all the national accolades pocketed by a player of his ilk. Yet you wouldn't know it by talking to him.

He's more apt to converse about everyday life.

If it's Wednesday morning during his third block (Putnam City's class period structure), he's at a local kindergarten class as part of his Leadership class.

The 20 or so kids do not know Henry is the No. 1 player in the ESPNU 100 (Class of 2009) rankings nor do they care. What they see is the hulking 6-foot-6, 217-pound older kid who attends high school. They listen as Henry reads aloud from the lesson plan about respect.

"You have to respect your family, the law, the [American] flag and even others," he said.

"There's nothing but raves about him," Putnam City coach A.D. Burtschi said. "He's down-to-earth and a wonderful role model for the younger kids."

When the kids crane their necks upward, Henry is flashing the grin that has cut the tension in many situations. He has the knack for delivering a witty one-liner; his timing is normally impeccable.

"My attitude is to have fun playing basketball; I can't overemphasize that fact enough," Henry said. "When you're happy, you're playing better, and above all it's fun to win."

That point was illustrated this summer at the Peach Jam, a high stakes Nike-sponsored event held annually in North Augusta, S.C.

When a teammate was dragging after he turned the ball over and the full-court press was gnawing at his waning confidence, Henry strode over during a timeout and dropped his A-list material.

"I needed to make sure he was smiling again," said Henry, who played for Athletes First, an Oklahoma City-based travel team the past five summers. "He was frustrated and I went over and goofed on him.

"You need to keep it light, especially in a game."

And that's what he likes to do in his downtime. He'll walk the golf course with a friend.

"No I haven't taken up golf, yet," he said.

He might head down to the batting cages for a few whacks. If you see him at Bowl 66, a bowling center at N.W. 39th Street near Putnam City High, he's rolling a few frames to take the edge off.

Instead of a 94-foot maple wood floor, Henry finds solace on the different kind of hardwood; he considers it a comfort zone.

Henry finds standing 60 feet away from the headpin is a therapeutic tool to decompress. Henry, a left-hander, usually rolls a 180.

"I'm a better-than-average bowler," he said. "Sometimes I'll go there to clear my head."

Decision '08
Henry has a lot on his mind these days. In less than two months he'll make a decision on college.

He's already boiled it down to Memphis and Kansas, a pair of teams that battled for the NCAA championship last April in San Antonio, after recently eliminating Texas and UCLA.

And that's where a painstaking decision must be made.

"I'll visit both schools in October and then make an informed decision," Henry said.

When weighing both schools, Henry is considering some family history.

Both his parents, Barbara and Carl, are Kansas alumni and played basketball for the Jayhawks. His older brother, C.J., originally committed to the school out of high school but opted to play baseball professionally after being drafted by the New York Yankees in 2005.

On the other hand, C.J. now attends Memphis, looking to give basketball another try, although he hasn't given up on baseball. Memphis coach John Calipari coached his father, Carl, while an assistant under Larry Brown at Kansas.

"It's a win-win situation for Xavier," Burtschi said. "He's probably worried that he'll hurt someone's feelings because he's become so close with both staffs.

"He's very serious about this decision and is scrutinizing every detail. There's a chance he'll be one-and-done but that won't factor in a decision. Regardless when he finally pulls the trigger, his family will be happy," he said.

This week Xavier Henry met with both coaches. At midnight Tuesday, he met with Calipari and assistants Josh Pastner and Orlando Antigua at a dinner. Later that day Bill Self of Kansas made an official in-home visit.

Henry will attend Kansas' Late Night or Midnight Madness on Oct. 17 and the following weekend he'll be in Memphis. When he visits Memphis, C.J., a 6-3 freshman guard, should be cleared to start practice.

Bumps and bruises

While C.J. Henry nurses a baseball injury suffered playing for the Class A Tampa Yankees, Xavier is also on the mend.

Xavier Henry currently has three weeks left to rehab an assortment of injuries sustained on the grueling summer circuit. He played a large portion of the summer with tremendous pain radiating in his ankle and knee.

Henry suffers from Osgood-Schlatter disease, a condition which is one of the most common causes of knee pain in young athletes. It causes swelling, pain and tenderness just below the knee over the shin bone (tibia). It occurs mostly in boys who are having a growth spurt during their preteen or teenage years.

In April Henry bumped knees with a teammate, which caused a flare-up of the Osgood-Schlatter. He sat out a few weeks but couldn't stand to watch as his team, Athletes First, lost games.

When he returned he split a bone in his ankle but continued to play. He refused medical treatment at first.

"I wore three or four pairs of socks and tied my shoe really tight; I don't like taping my ankle," Henry said.

He finally shut it down last month and should be ready when Putnam City begins its preseason program in October.

Shooting star
"He's an ambassador for our school, his family and represents the good in student-athletes across the county," Burtschi said.

If Burtschi sounds like he's gushing, well, he is.

So does Henry's exceptional scouting report by Scouts Inc., which reads like a Hollywood script:

"Henry has the body of an NFL tight end -- with a combination of power and skill. He shows great court presence, [and] when you walk into the gym to evaluate him it's easy to pick him out in the warm-up line.

"This physical and aggressive scorer is very athletic … [and] can be a nightmare for smaller perimeter players in the paint."

Paul Biancardi, Scouts Inc. national recruiting director and ESPNU analyst, coached Henry at the 2007 NBPA Top 100 Camp.
"What separates him are physical tools and talent," said Biancardi, who was head coach at Wright State and a veteran assistant with stops at Boston College, Ohio State and Saint Louis. "He has consistently dominated the opposition and doesn't take bad shots; he operates within the framework of his team."

Henry is foremost a shooter who utilizes his 6-6 frame to tower over guards, bust zone defenses and win games.

The Putnam City Pirates should be favored again to capture Oklahoma's large-school (Class 6A) championship. Last season's championship train was derailed in the state quarterfinals when Tulsa Memorial pulled off a shocker in a 40-38 upset.

Henry, who averaged 26.7 points and 7.2 rebounds, played with two damaged wrists.

"I couldn't flick my wrists at all," Henry said. "I was barely able to pass the ball."

A freakish injury occurred during a walk-through on the eve of the game. Henry landed awkwardly following a layup. He stuck out his hands to brace his fall, stretching ligaments in the process.

The Pirates (25-2), the state's top-ranked team, entered the tournament averaging nearly 80 points, but without a healthy Henry, faced early elimination. He could have won the quarterfinal game with 10 seconds left in a 38-38 tie, but he misfired on a 3-pointer. Memorial grabbed the rebound and hustled down court for the decisive basket.

Now Henry looks to close out his prep career with a second 6A championship (Putnam City last won the title in 2006). The Pirates have three starters returning and have added Oklahoma-bound Kyle Hardrick, a top-50 national power forward prospect, to give the team a legitimate post presence at 6-8.

"I'm used to being the team's tallest player, but that's Kyle's job now. His transfer makes us a great team," Henry said.

The Pirates will test the national waters with ESPN games against Lincoln (Brooklyn, N.Y.) on Dec. 11 and against St. Anthony (Jersey City, N.J.) on Jan. 19 at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass. They'll also play in the Iolani Classic in Honolulu before Christmas.

Henry will pass Alvan Adams (formerly of the Phoenix Suns) and his brother C.J. as the school's all-time leading scorer, but Burtschi said his star guard isn't fazed by his accomplishments.

"He's never asked me about how many points or what he averages per game. He wants to win," Burtschi said. "Xavier has a high basketball IQ. He's unflappable on the court and truly has an unmatched passion for the game.

"If the game's eating him up inside, he won't show it. Leaders never do."