Sometime this afternoon, probably late in the first or early in the second round of the NBA draft, a team in need of a point guard will call out the name Scott Skiles, and last season's most controversial collegiate basketball player will become a professional.
Being drafted by the pros is a very special moment in an athlete's life, a moment to celebrate the way one celebrates other special moments: a graduation, a marriage, or the birth of a child. Champagne would be appropriate, and Skiles may even have a glass. But he won't be driving afterward, you can rest assured of that. There are yellow slips of paper in his permanent folder that cite one conviction for marijuana possession and two for driving while impaired. For violating probation he spent 15 days in jail in his hometown of Plymouth, Ind. There may be worse embarrassments for a local hero than to be put jail in his hometown, and if you think of one, let me know. Skiles cannot afford any more trouble, and he knows it. "I've used up all my second chances," he said. "I've got none left."
It makes for a lifetime of looking in your rear view mirror: "I was on my way down to Indianapolis from Plymouth; I'd just gotten out of jail. I was on the highway and people were blowing by me. I just wanted to keep up, you know, but I looked down at my speedometer and saw 61 or 62 and I said -- 'Wait a minute, I can't get a speeding ticket.' I backed it down under 55. That's something I'm going to have to do for years. Even a parking violation on top of what I've got, and people will think I'm totally irresponsible, as if they don't already." He smiled ruefully, and his stark, angular face softened momentarily. It is not an angel's face. If it were, he might have been able to lie his way out of anything.
He was seated in a lounge at Middle Bay Country Club on the south shore of Long Island, relaxing in a deep, plush chair after playing golf with his agent and his agent's father on member-guest day. It surely was a long way and a far cry from the jail cell he had shared with seven others. No bigger than a dorm room, Skiles said. Night and day, lights always on, mattresses on the floor, no room to exercise, no room to even sit. All you could do was lie down and watch TV or read. They slipped the food in through a slot in the door. Wednesday and Saturday, they let you out for 10 minutes if visitors came. "It wasn't fun," he said, "and it wasn't supposed to be."
He went to jail because he deserved to.
"It was fair," he said without the slightest trace of anger. "I broke the law. You break the law, you go to jail."
His probation was for a year, and for a year he wasn't supposed to go into a bar. He made nine months. "I should have stuck it out," he said. "I didn't."
Some people said while he was on probation he should not have been allowed to play basketball for Michigan State. I was one of them. "People seem to hold it against me that I played," he said. "They shouldn't blame me. I had nothing to do with that. It was the coach and the athletic director's decision. I was ready to redshirt and I told them so." Had the decision been his, Skiles said, "I'd have kicked the guy off the team, no questions asked."
He played, and played great. He scored 27.4 points per game and shot 55.4 percent from the field, an amazing percentage for a guard. And there wasn't a better open-court passer in the country.
Scott Skiles would rather die than lose. You don't see much of that in the pros. He is a natural platoon leader, a working-class hero, and he will help a pro team. There are liabilities to his game. He is small, slow and unfamiliar with defense. Then there is his troublesome reputation, and he admits that jail is not a four-star item on a resume'. "If I was a general manager, especially of the New Jersey Nets, Houston Rockets or Chicago Bulls," Skiles said, obviously referring to teams that have been disrupted by guards with drug problems, "I'd be very hesitant to touch me. They shouldn't be. They should talk to me and get to know who I really am. But I'd understand their hesitation." Skiles wonders, and you can't blame him, if his reputation will keep him from being drafted as high as he thinks he should be: first among point guards, ahead even of Johnny Dawkins and Pearl Washington. I would not pick him that high, but I definitely would covet a player of his will, skill and temperament.
The first time I saw Skiles on the court, I thought he was a chain saw in a pair of sneakers, the kind of player who pesters you so much, you call time so you can shake his sweat off your uniform. Whatever had happened off the court, I knew on the court he must be a terrible opponent and a great teammate. I have since met him, and for what it's worth, he seems an earnest, sincere young man who is respectfully and responsibly contrite about what has happened. He also seems haunted by the self-perception that he is jinxed, that no matter how he tries to live up to everyone's expectations, he won't, because he is living under a black cloud. I asked him when he thought he might outrun this cloud, and he said, "I don't know. Ten years from now, if I've played in the pros, and I'm coaching at a college, say Michigan State or Kansas, when they write about me will they begin 'Scott Skiles, former NBA player . . . ' or will they begin 'Scott Skiles, who was arrested for DWI . . . ' It could last a year, or it could last forever."