The first of an occasional series of articles profiling the area's top boys and girls basketball players.
Michael Sweetney has a well-earned reputation as a graceful big man, a 6-foot-9 senior in the neighborhood of 270 pounds who is light on his feet and moves surprisingly well for a player his size.
But Richard Little, a longtime friend and teammate of the Oxon Hill All-Met center, knows better.
"He is clumsy," said Little, a 5-10 senior and the starting point guard for No. 4 Oxon Hill. "You think that his footwork is so nice on the court, but he is clumsy. He is known for tripping up steps."
That's a revelation that a teammate would know and only a good friend would reveal. Little is both; he and Sweetney have known each other since the third grade and have been teammates, first at the Oxon Hill Boys and Girls Club and then at Oxon Hill High School, since fifth grade.
Together, they won four league championships with the club (current Oxon Hill players Julian Payton and Jason Jackson also were part of those teams). They have led the Clippers to back-to-back appearances in the Maryland 4A championship game (they lost to Gaithersburg in five overtimes in 1998 and to Lake Clifton on a last-second shot in 1999).
But this will be the last season that Sweetney and Little suit up together as teammates. Sweetney, considered to be one of the country's top big men, has signed with Georgetown; Little is undecided about his college choice.
Their eyes are, desperately, still on the elusive prize of a state title. To get it, they will have to rely on each other, just as they always have. There was one season Sweetney and Little were apart--Little attended McNamara as a freshman, but transferred to Oxon Hill before his sophomore year because he wanted to play alongside Sweetney again.
"I wouldn't be where I am now if not for [Little]," said Sweetney, who is averaging 18 points and 14 rebounds for the 11-2 Clippers. "If you're a forward, you're not going to get the ball if you don't have a good point guard. We've played together since the fifth grade. We know each other well."
Little, who averages nine points and 10 assists, knows exactly where Sweetney wants to receive the ball in the post. When Little leads a fast break, he knows Sweetney is trailing him. On defense, Little will guide the player he's defending to Sweetney, knowing that if the player manages to get off a shot, Sweetney most likely will block--or at least alter--it.
"They've played with each other for so long and they have a great friendship," Oxon Hill Coach Billy Lanier said. "They have a great understanding of each other on the court, and they share a burning desire to win. They are quiet warriors who will do whatever it takes for our team to be successful. Each one wants to be as successful as the other."
Sweetney started playing basketball--the only sport he has ever played--at age 10. He wasn't very good that first year ("He basically just took up a lot of space," Little said), but he developed a love for the game. Sweetney gradually improved, adding skills to his size, and by the eighth grade, his coach had a standing rule for the Oxon Hill Boys and Girls Club team, according to Little: "Before anyone could shoot, Mike had to touch the ball three times," Little said. "On the first three plays, Mike had to touch the ball."
Although Lanier has no such rule, the Clippers abide by the same basic idea. "Mike doesn't have to touch the ball on the first three plays," Little said. "But he's still our first option. We work from the inside out."
Sweetney, who won a starting spot for good midway through his freshman season, has been the Clippers' go-to player since his sophomore year. He was named fourth-team All-Met after leading Oxon Hill to the state final for the first time since 1957. Last season, he again brought the Clippers to the title game, averaged 25.1 points, and was the only junior named first-team All-Met.
Sweetney orally committed to Georgetown as a 16-year-old junior and officially signed with the Hoyas in November. Even that decision can be traced to his days at the club. Sweetney attended his first Georgetown game when his club team went together on a team outing. He was fascinated by Georgetown--and particularly the Hoyas' tradition of standout big men--though at the time, "I never thought I'd be able to play for them," Sweetney said.
But Sweetney will play for Georgetown next season. He's looking forward to the challenge, but at the same time, he knows he's going to miss playing with his childhood friend.
"It's going to be weird," Sweetney said. "I've played with [Little] all my life, and he won't be there anymore."
6 feet 9
WHAT COACHES SAY
"Sweetney is the kind of kid you're going to see someday on a roster of a team that plays 82 games a year. He has `NBA` written all over him."
-- George Wake, coach at Fairmont Heights since 1983.
"Depending on what he does this year, he could be the best public school player in [Prince George's] County history. 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."
-- High Point Coach Ernie Welch, who has coached in Prince George's County since 1965.
"He has a knack for scoring close to the basket. He has very good hands, and he knows how to use his body to protect the basketball. He can jump and run, and he has a nice shooting touch for a big man."
-- Georgetown Coach Craig Esherick.
BY THE NUMBERS
1,685 Career points
664 Career rebounds*
329 Career blocked shots*
253 Career assists*
71-17 Oxon Hill's record in Sweetney's career
*Not including Friday's game.