By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2007
FITCHBURG, Mass. -- Michael Beasley waits for his NBA fortune in a drafty room on the third floor of a crumbling house. He sleeps on a battered mattress with no sheets. The smell of sewage wafts from a communal bathroom down the hall. Cold air leaks through cracks in the walls and windows, so Beasley warms his room by keeping an open toaster oven turned to 450 degrees at the foot of his bed.
How one of the country's best high school basketball players ended up spending his senior season here at Notre Dame Prep, in a small city 50 miles west of Boston, confounds even Beasley. His high school career -- a six-school, five-state odyssey -- stopped making sense long ago, he said. "I just go from one place to the next," said Beasley, who is from Gaithersburg. "I hardly even think about it."
Since he entered the eighth grade, Beasley's career has followed the same cyclical pattern: He's dismissed from one school for misbehavior and immaturity; then he's wooed to another school for the smooth left-handed jumper and forceful first step that make him a projected lottery pick in a future NBA draft.
At Notre Dame Prep, Beasley treats high school less like a destination than an obstacle he must bypass in order to reach the NBA. He counts down the days until he leaves for his freshman year at Kansas State, until he turns 19 next January and finally becomes eligible for the NBA draft.
"I'm just killing time here," said Beasley, who averages 28 points and 16 rebounds from the forward position. "Sometimes it seems like high school lasts forever."
Beasley had never seen Notre Dame Prep before he arrived at the school in early September. Based simply on the school's name and basketball reputation, he expected a stately campus with rolling green hills and striking dormitories. When he arrived at the actual campus, he briefly considered turning around and going back to the airport.
Notre Dame Prep opened in 1952, and its three-story school building has steadily deteriorated since. The front door is broken, so students come and go through a screechy side entrance. The nationally ranked boys' and girls' basketball teams play on a court with chipped blue paint and rounded backboards. Two nights each week, the court doubles as a venue for the town bingo game. Notre Dame Prep stopped resurfacing its basketball court almost a decade ago because elderly bingo players complained about the potential for slipping on a waxed floor.
As part of the financial aid package that pays most of his $17,000 tuition, Beasley helps set up and remove the bingo tables two nights each week. He has only two other responsibilities at Notre Dame: to help the basketball team retain its status as the best prep program in the country; and to attain the grades and SAT score necessary for college eligibility.
Practice becomes a centerpiece of the Notre Dame schedule, because half of the school's 60 students are basketball players recruited from out of state. Ten foreign exchange students from South Korea and a handful of locals make up the rest of the student population. Beasley practices for two hours in the afternoon, takes a nap and then practices again at night. "The basketball team is pretty much the only thing this school's got," Beasley said.
Beasley remains confident that he will gain NCAA eligibility despite his nontraditional high school education. He needs to score at least a 920 on the SAT later this year, he said. His grades at Notre Dame are mostly Bs and Cs. His favorite class is English -- taught by Bill Barton, the basketball coach.
During the summer, as part of its probe into prep schools with questionable academic practices, the NCAA sent an investigator to Notre Dame Prep and about 20 other nontraditional private schools, said NCAA Vice President Kevin Lennon. The investigator showed up unannounced, Barton said, and spent a full day observing classes at the school.
"With Notre Dame Prep, we were sufficiently satisfied that it was a high school where learning was going on," Lennon said. "We saw teachers. We saw a curriculum. We saw the things you'd want to see at a high school."
At various points in his career, Beasley planned to spend his senior season at five schools in four other states. He split the 2002-03 season between National Christian Academy in Fort Washington and Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute. He played a season at IMG Academies in Florida; then, the next year, an amateur basketball coach in Upper Marlboro home-schooled Beasley while he played basketball for Riverdale Baptist.
Last season, Beasley thought he'd found a perfect fit at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. He improved his academic transcript with solid grades, coaches said, and he averaged 21 points and 12 rebounds for a nationally ranked basketball team. Then, in August, coaches at Oak Hill gave Beasley the same bad news he'd heard a few times before: The school had decided not to invite him back.
Beasley said nobody gave him an exact reason for his dismissal, but he guesses that Oak Hill grew tired of his pranks. He wore pajamas to the school cafeteria. He threw sticks at teachers' houses. He snuck out of his dorm after curfew and organized games of hide-and-go seek.
"Me and Tywon Lawson had a competition at the beginning of the school year about who could sign their autograph the most around the school," Beasley said, referring to a teammate who now stars at North Carolina. "And I don't lose at anything, man, so I walked around with one of those Sharpies and signed graffiti everywhere. Every day, they were cleaning my name off water fountains, ceilings, desks, offices -- whatever. I just thought it was funny."
Oak Hill Coach Steve Smith blamed Beasley's poor behavior on simple immaturity. "He's really a good-hearted kid," Smith said. So, with two weeks left in the school year, Smith offered his star player one final chance: He told Beasley that, to be invited back to Oak Hill, he needed to impress administrators with flawless end-of-year behavior.
Two days later, Beasley signed his name in black ink on the principal's truck, Smith said.
"He'll definitely try your patience," Smith said. "You look at him physically and he's a full-grown man, and you think he's going to make good decisions all the time. But a lot of times, he just didn't."
At a practice here in Fitchburg last month, Barton gathered his players to give them a scouting report on an upcoming opponent. In less than 24 hours, the team played one of its most important games of the season. Barton stood still, with a basketball under his right arm, and talked quietly. "Pay attention, 'cause this is important," Barton said. His players leaned in to listen. Then Beasley started shouting.
"Hey coach, pass the ball!" Beasley yelled. "Come on, coach. You're being a ball hog, yo. Pass it. I'm open."
Teammates laughed, and Barton shook his head. Over the last six months, Barton had decided mainly to ignore Beasley's childishness. He finished his scouting report and divided his players into two teams for a shirts-against-skins scrimmage. As Beasley pulled off his cotton T-shirt to play for the skins, he danced across the court.
"I'm naked! I'm naked!" Beasley yelled. "Look, coach. I'm naked!"
Beasley said he's made sincere attempts at maturation since he arrived at Notre Dame. With his NBA future looming, he's tried to think of basketball as business. He learned to shake hands with opposing coaches this season, he said, instead of slapping careless high-fives. He shaves and cuts his hair every few days to look clean. When Beasley bought five new tattoos last month to celebrate his 18th birthday, he made sure none of the tattoos -- four names on his wrists and "FAMILY FIRST" across his collarbone -- would show when he wore a suit.
"People are starting to treat me like a professional because of how I play," Beasley said. "So now I'm trying to act like one."
In his Fitchburg bedroom, Beasley keeps 140 shoe boxes from Nike, Reebok and Adidas. He requested a full room in Fitchburg to store shoes, but Notre Dame Prep said it couldn't find the extra space. Each sneaker company sends Beasley a few pairs each week, he said, because they recognize his potential as a future endorser.
At 6 feet 9 inches, Beasley dribbles well enough to run the fast break. He prefers to play underneath the basket, but his soft left-handed jump shot remains reliable even from three-point range. He anchors the defense for Notre Dame, a team that has lost only two games this season.
Beasley believes he could play even better under improved conditions. Notre Dame travels by car to tournaments almost every weekend across the East Coast. Beasley has stopped lifting weights because he's worried about catching a cold in the school gym, a poorly heated third-floor classroom.
In his spare time at Notre Dame, Beasley tries to pretend he's somewhere else. He puts a sign on the door of his room that reads, in red block letters, STUDIO, DON'T DISTURB. Then he attaches a microphone to his computer and raps, recording his own songs. His room looks over Fitchburg's modest downtown, and Beasley likes to stay awake until 4 a.m. and stare at the city lights.
"It's comforting," Beasley said. "I can kind of pretend I'm just hanging around D.C., looking out at home."