Growing up in tiny, rural Suffolk, Va., Michael Britt watched on television two young, little-known players on the old Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association. Although Britt was only in elementary school, their grace and artistry captured him totally.
That's what Britt wanted to be. The players who caught the boy's eye, long before they drew the nation's attention, were Julius Erving and George Gervin.
Now, with the pro draft not far away, some old hoop heads are wondering if, a few months hence, Britt will be showing the NBA a high-flying, uninhibited brand of ball that blends the best extravagances of Dr. J and the Ice Man.
"All I've dreamed all my life is to play in the NBA," says Britt, a 6-foot-7 senior forward who averages 25 points and 10 rebounds for the University of the District of Columbia, the defending Division II national champion.
"I don't think anybody in the world can stop me on the open court . . . You feel the vibes, everybody's eyes are on you . . . you just want to get the crowd on its feet."
"If Michael's not a first-round pick, then nobody in the NBA knows nothin' about ball," says Firebird Coach Wil Jones. "Ask the Bullets. He scored 52 on 'em in one game in the Urban Coalition last summer. He gave Adrian Dantley 35 in the second half of a game."
Few young men have come a longer distance to draw within sight of their dreams than Britt. If the NBA draft were today, he might well be drafted in the late first or early second round, according to several NBA coaches.
As a boy, when the Suffolk roosters awakened Britt before dawn, he'd go to the town's only outdoor basketball court and wait for sunrise so he'd be in the first game. He'd play until the big boys arrived. Then, Britt would chunk bottles over the fence so the bullies would tire of sweeping up glass and leave the court empty for him.
Often, when he should have been in school, Britt stayed on the playground (known as "Britt's backyard"), learning the game from adults. "Mostly, they were winos. In the morning, before they got juiced up, they'd show me the tricks."
In high school, Britt first became known as "P-Bird"--the country name for a guinea hen. Like that brush fowl, Britt could burst into the air in a sudden startling explosion.
When Jones came to town to recruit another player, he discovered the scrawny child with the gliding speed, the elbow-to-the-rim slam and the Gervin-like knack for leaving opponents humiliated and empty-handed in the open court.
"Did I know what he was?" says Jones. "Yes, Lord."
Britt, however, knew his high school transcript was a joke ("looked like a Chinese laundry ticket," says Jones) and tried to duck Jones' attentions, giving him a phony name (Hank Smith) and a bogus telephone number. Britt thought the playground was the end of his road and wouldn't take a UDC grant as a gift.
"But we went back after him," says Jones. "Look where all the great players like Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson and David Thompson come from--the country. (Memphis State's) Keith Lee was down in the woods so deep that nobody recruited him 'cause they didn't know how to get through the swamp."
"I wasn't interested in school or work," says Britt, "but coach said I'd be eating steak. I haven't seen a steak yet."
"You'd have been a bum," retorts Jones. "Now, Michael's got a 3.5 grade-point. He's disciplined. I told him I didn't want him to go through life being intimidated by anybody who passes himself off as intelligent."
"I'm very enthused about the way I've progressed through life . . . I'm just happy that I got to play four years of ball . . . got to play on a national champion and maybe another one," says Britt, who, at 185 pounds, is still chopstick-thin. "I'm just proud of myself for what I've done so far."
That's half the story. The gentle, modest and likable Britt is certainly a success story. "In four years, we've never had to come down on him. Even when you talk loud at him, his eyes start to fill up like a little boy," says Jones. "He's not like some players who had talent but took too long to get straight. Michael has nothing to wrestle with, none of the drugs or the anger in him."
From his wispy whiskers to his almost diaphanous fingers, Britt looks the esthete. "They say my (long, thin) fingers look like a piano player," he says. "Back in Suffolk, nothing happened after 9:30 at night, unless you were just looking to get in trouble. I'd go home and draw."
Jones can go on indefinitely about the wonders of Britt's sweet nature, then adds, "Of course, he's a devil, too."
"Everybody is," says Britt, seeming less devilish for saying so.
In the next few months, much of Britt's fate for the rest of his life will probably be decided. Despite his efforts in school, he remains many times more qualified for basketball than any other career. Yet no one, not even Britt, really knows how good he is, or isn't.
If, next February, he's the talk of the NBA, then it won't surprise those who've seen his open-floor game, his drives and dunks, his flicking steals in the press, his unselfishness. "I'm waiting to do my 360-degree dunk," says Britt.
However, if next February Britt is a pro washout, that also won't be a surprise. In his college career, he's almost never played against quality foes. It's not UDC's fault for being Division II, nor Jones' for recruiting a player who probably would not have gone anywhere without him. But it remains a hard fact that Britt must go from playing against small-time athletes to facing the best big athletes in America--the small forwards and big guards of the NBA.
Britt's free throw shooting is poor (57 percent), his jump shot is dubious ("That's all I work on every day") and his defense is flashy but suspect.
"Strength is the question," says Britt, who's never even been able to work with weights because, until this season, UDC was busy trying to find a gym. "But my quickness always gets me over."
In light of the tough questions in Britt's future, it was of interest when, three weeks ago, UDC learned that Britt was, in his coach's word, "blind."
"Yeah, he's blind," says the hyperbolic Jones. "He sees on an angle and double. Some kind of astigmatism . . . a lazy eye, the doctor says."
"Every year, I've flunked the eye test on the physical, but I was always afraid to tell coach . . . until last month," says Britt, who shoots a weird looking fall-away, head-cocked jumper so he can level up his view of the basket.
Now, contact lenses are on the way.
"It explains a lot about his game," says Jones. "The free throws, his (poor) depth perception on passes." Then, Jones breaks out his widest grin.
"Think what he'll be able to do when he can see the basket."