Michael Sweetney and his mother, Joan, walked into a convenience store in April, intending to buy several copies of The Washington Post that included a picture of Sweetney and the rest of the All-Met basketball team. Before they could do so, they were stopped by a police officer who wanted to talk to Michael.
"It was [the officer's] tone of voice that made me think, 'Oh lord, what did my son do?' " Joan Sweetney said, laughing at the memory. "But the policeman says, 'I know you from somewhere.' So Mike says that he plays basketball, and then he opens up the newspaper and shows him the [All-Met] picture. The policeman says, 'I knew I knew you from somewhere!' Things like that happen all the time."
When you are 6 feet 8 inches tall and weigh over 250 pounds, you cannot walk through life--let alone a convenience store--without people noticing. When you are that tall and that big, and you also happen to be the best high school boys basketball player in the Washington area, everyone seems to know you.
That sort of attention and recognition used to bother the quiet and occasionally shy Oxon Hill High School senior, but this year, Sweetney finally has learned to accept it. Big Mike--the nickname tattooed on his right biceps--is getting ready for the Big Time.
It's a good thing, too, because the spotlight will only grow brighter. This season, Sweetney is the best player on the area's top-ranked team; next season, he will play at Georgetown University.
"I've gotten more comfortable with the attention this year," Sweetney said. "I guess I just got used to it."
Sweetney averaged 25.1 points, 13.5 rebounds, 5.2 blocked shots and 3.1 assists last season and was the only junior selected for the All-Met boys first team. He has led Oxon Hill, a school that had not made the state finals since 1957, to back-to-back 4A championship game appearances. The Clippers lost to Gaithersburg in five overtimes in 1998 and to Lake Clifton on a last-second shot in 1999.
Legendary DeMatha Coach Morgan Wootten calls Sweetney "one of the area's best players [this season], if not the best player." High Point Coach Ernie Welch takes his assessment one step further.
"Depending on what he does this year, he could be the best public school player in this county's history," said Welch, who has coached here since 1965. "He plays correctly. There have been guys in this county who score 30 points a game, but their teams don't win. Sweetney hasn't won a state title, but he has won a lot of games."
Oxon Hill Coach Billy Lanier said Sweetney always has been unaffected by that kind of praise. He said Sweetney is a hard worker, a good listener and an unselfish player. When Lanier told Sweetney that his short jump hook was not very good, Sweetney spent the summer working on improving that shot.
"I think that what we did for Michael was to give him a sense of how good he is," Lanier said. "As a sophomore, when he first started to get some notoriety, he came to us and said, 'I never thought I would be good enough to get a [college] scholarship.' I told him that the first time I saw him, I knew that he would. We knew that he'd be a good ballplayer."
Sweetney's mother has carefully saved every article written about her son in a scrapbook, and there are so many articles that "I can't even count them," Michael said. The articles all say the same thing: They talk about his life (how he started playing basketball at age 10 at the Oxon Hill Boys and Girls Club and how he does not play any other sports) and about his basketball skills (like how agile he is for a player his size, how well he sees the court).
Interviews have become routine as well. Reporters ask the same questions: How tall are you? How much do you weigh? What's your favorite part of the game? What do you do best? Sweetney has his answers ready.
"Reporters ask me how do I feel about losing in the state championship two years in a row," Sweetney said. "I say, 'It bothers me a bit, but it makes me work harder for the next year. Two years in a row--I don't know if we are unlucky or whatever.' "
"What people don't understand is that when he first started getting a lot of attention, he was just 14 years old," Lanier said. "It's hard to handle so quick; he had to adjust quickly to being in the spotlight a lot. Now he's become more confident talking with the media about himself and the team. It just comes with being more mature."
In May, Sweetney traveled to France to play in a tournament with a California Amateur Athletic Union team, the Nike Express. Sweetney, who does not speak French, did not know a single player on the team prior to the tournament. While he said he did not really enjoy the trip--his luggage temporarily was lost on the flight over and he did not care for French food--Sweetney said being on his own helped him mature. His mother agreed.
"He used to walk away from interviews," Joan Sweetney said. "He was very shy. At the end of games, he [was] gone--he [went] back in the locker room. But after going overseas and playing basketball, that's when he started to change. He's really started to open up; he doesn't shy away. We just need to work on his smile."
CAPTION: Oxon Hill center Michael Sweetney, who was the only junior named to the All-Met boys first team last season, has learned how to handle the increased attention that accompanies his accomplishments, which include two trips to the 4A state finals. "I've gotten more comfortable with the attention this year," Sweetney said. "I guess I just got used to it."