It was late February, a snowy day in East Lansing. Indiana had just finished a workout in Jenison Field House, a final preparation for that night's game against Michigan State.
As soon as the Hoosiers were gone, Scott Skiles appeared. As always, he had a basketball under his arm. Loosening up, he began working his way around the perimeter, launching 20-foot jump shots. Indiana assistant coach Ron Felling sat riveted as Skiles shot.
Felling was counting. "He hit his first 16," Felling said. "Then he missed one and hit 10 more. I don't think I've ever seen anything like that in my life."
If truth be told, very few people have seen anything -- or anyone -- like Scott Skiles.
"I have never in my life seen anyone who competes like Skiles does," said N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano. "It seems like he's in a constant fight from the minute he walks onto the court. He's so intense. When I'm watching him play on television, I'm afraid to leave because I think he may get mad at me, jump out of the set and say, 'Hey, where do you think you're going?' "
Skiles has been a great player, so tough, so hard-nosed that he seems capable of staring down an entire team.
But sadly, his story is not that simple. He has been arrested three times, the first time, in August 1984, when police found a small vial containing cocaine and a plastic bag with marijuana in it in Skiles' car. The second time, in April 1985, he was charged with drunk driving. The third time, last November, it was drunk driving again.
He once pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of marijuana possession and once to driving while impaired. He has been fined, placed on probation, had his driver's license suspended and served one night in jail. He is scheduled to serve 15 nights in jail at season's end because his third arrest violated the probation terms of his second arrest.
"I've had a pretty good college career," Skiles said recently. "But don't think I have no regrets."
His actions have made Skiles a target -- of fans, coaches, media. Several Big Ten coaches have said privately that Spartans Coach Jud Heathcote should not have let Skiles play this season. Other people have said so publicly.
Right or wrong, Heathcote let Skiles play. And, with boos, taunts and obscenities directed at him, Skiles has played almost miraculously. Single-handed, he has lifted Michigan State to a 23-7 record and a spot in Friday's Midwest regional semifinals against top-seeded Kansas.
He has averaged 27.7 points per game, shooting 56 percent from the field and 91 percent from the line. He has averaged 6.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds. He has 53 steals. In one three-game stretch this season, Skiles shot 20 for 28 against Minnesota, 15 for 20 against Michigan and 18 for 21 against Wisconsin. He averaged 40.3 points for those three games.
"He has had the best year of any guard in college basketball history," said CBS analyst Billy Packer.
Some opponents and fans haven't been so kind. He has been called "the cocaine kid," "the drunk," and a lot of other things that are unprintable. At Purdue, a school he once dreamed of playing for, he was spit on.
"When you go out to play, you try to shut everything out, good and bad," he said today. "But you really can't. You hear things. The only thing you can do is play as hard as you can. Just play until you drop."
Skiles looks like a dead-end kid. He is from Plymouth, Ind., a tiny town in the northern part of the state. As a high school senior, he led Plymouth to the state championship. But even then, even when there was no documentation, Skiles had a reputation as a troublemaker.
None of the three major schools in the state recruited him -- Indiana, Purdue or Notre Dame. Michigan State did, but when Heathcote first saw him play, he almost walked out on him.
"It was in the semi-state," Heathcote said today. "I was supposed to see Scott in the afternoon, then go see another kid that night. Scott was terrible, couldn't play that afternoon. I walked out and started to get on a bus to take me to my car. But at the last minute, I decided to go back and watch him play the final that night.
"He scored 35 that night. But more than that, he was a leader. Here's this fat little white kid out there and he's in charge. That's the way he's been almost since he got here."
Skiles became a starter in his third game as a freshman. Last season, he and fellow guard Sam Vincent teamed to get Michigan State into the NCAA tournament for the first time since another guard, one Earvin (Magic) Johnson, took the Spartans to the NCAA title in 1979. But with Vincent gone, no one expected much from this team -- or Skiles.
"I knew I was going to get a lot of attention this year," Skiles said. "So, I worked all summer on my one-on-one moves, working to get myself open. I thought it would be really hard to get my shot, but it hasn't been as tough as I thought it would be."
In fact, strictly in a basketball sense, nothing has been difficult for Skiles this season. He is almost impossible to guard because his range is extraordinary and his first step is explosive.
"If you play a step back on him, he'll bury you from deep," said Indiana's Steve Alford, a fair shooter himself. "If you play up on him, he's past you."
Skiles is not shy. The buzz word is cocky. Cocksure is more accurate. In a league full of mouthy guards, Skiles has outmouthed -- and outplayed -- them all. When Illinois' Bruce Douglas called himself the league's best guard, Skiles burned him inside and outside, then declared, "If he's the best guard in the Big Ten, I'm the best guard in the world."
When Michigan's Antoine Joubert "guaranteed" that the Wolverines would beat Michigan State in Ann Arbor (Michigan State had won at East Lansing), Skiles burned him for 33 points and, late in the game with Joubert looking for a shot, yelled at him, "Go ahead and shoot it, fat boy. Show me what you've got."
Skiles laughs a little uneasily when these incidents come up. "I think that's been blown out of proportion," he said. "I just go out just looking to play. But during a game, emotions come out. You know, the heat of the battle. Once the game is over, I just forget about it."
But no one who watches Skiles play forgets him quickly. Although NBA scouts say that Skiles can and will play in their league next season, others revel in his apparent lack of an NBA body.
"That's what I like best about him," Valvano said. "He's out there killing people and he looks like he'll be playing for Acme Hardware or something next year in a summer league."
Right now, Skiles is playing in the big leagues -- the NCAA final 16. He is, without doubt, the reason that Michigan State is the only Big Ten team still playing. And, through all his travails, he has emerged as something of a folk hero.
He struts onto the court, duck-walking the way people do when they are completely confident about what they are doing. Today, practicing in front of 2,000 fans in Kemper Arena, Skiles drew all the oohs and aahs with his look-away passes, his one-man forays against the defense, his 25-foot bombs.
"Scott is a player who has complete confidence in everything he does on the basketball court," Heathcote said. "Some people say he coaches the team. That's fine with me."
Valvano, whose team plays Iowa State in the other game here Friday said simply, "Michigan State cannot win the game -- unless Skiles hits every shot and scores 52. I have no reason to believe he can't do it."
Skiles, who has heard the obscenities and the boos and the talk that he shouldn't be playing, smiles almost shyly when he hears the accolades.
"I've always loved to play," he said. "I play for hours and hours. When I'm on the court, I'm completely at home, completely happy. It's where I belong."