Shaquille Cleare, left, who will play at Maryland next season, is averaging 26 points per game while shooting 83 percent for the Village School in Houston. (Eddy Matchette/for the Houston Chronicle)

As the Maryland men’s basketball team played several states away, Shaquille O’Neal Cleare, its most touted prospect in a decade, sat in the third row of a yellow school bus that rumbled over East Texas potholes and past roadside tumbleweed and the occasional skunk.

While teammates slept or joked, Cleare squeezed his size-19 Under Armour sneakers under the seat, adjusted his headphones and became lost in his favorite music, which includes Al Green and Gladys Knight & the Pips.

Cleare, an 18-year-old raised in the Bahamas, eschews graphic hip-hop for uplifting songs as he contemplates a life journey already as winding as these narrow roads near Beaumont, where his Village School team won that night.

The 6-foot-9, 280-pound Cleare has garnered attention as one of the nation’s top 30 high school seniors, averaging 26 points per game while shooting 83 percent. When he arrives at Maryland next fall, he will represent the cornerstone of Coach Mark Turgeon’s rebuilding project.

Not even Cleare envisioned such a scenario three years ago, when he was an introspective freshman who arrived in America having barely played organized basketball, a depressed teenager who so disliked his living conditions here that he vowed to leave America for good.

“I came from the gutter,” Cleare said. “I came from, like, the bottom.”

‘In a corner by myself’

Weighing more than 10 pounds at birth, Cleare’s parents named him after Shaquille O’Neal, then a young player with the Orlando Magic. But unlike promising American basketball players who fly around the country on shoe company-sponsored summer-league teams, Cleare spent his free time hanging out with friends on beaches and watching tourists parasail.

But Cleare’s parents wanted their son to have more opportunities than the Bahamas offered. So Cleare, then 15, entered the Elite Bahamian Education Program, a nonprofit organization run by Frank Rutherford, who became the first Bahamian to win an Olympic track and field medal with a triple-jump bronze at the 1992 Games. The foundation claims to have helped several dozen Bahamian teenagers use athletics to pursue a college education.

Rutherford directed Cleare to Houston’s Village School, where he tested into the private school that has no affiliation with Rutherford’s foundation. But Cleare’s first introduction to America came on Ash Point Lane in suburban Sugar Land, where Cleare shared a three-bedroom home with as many as 15 other Bahamians from Rutherford’s program. A trainer in his mid-20s slept in the home — owned by Rutherford — to watch the teenagers.

Without his own bed, Cleare slept on a mattress on the floor. Cleare, who recites scripture every morning, could not attend church on Sundays because the teenagers had as many as five mandatory workouts per day, beginning at 5 a.m. and concluding with a late-night session at the luxurious nearby Lifetime Fitness Center. Cleare would hobble up and down the stairs of the two-story home with blistered and bruised feet, his body worn down from the regimen.

“It was depressing, tiring,” Cleare said. “I used to be so tired I rarely even ate. I didn’t even have the energy to go into the kitchen and make something to eat. It was hard, man.”

Rutherford said he has no regrets about Cleare’s living conditions, adding that Cleare slept in a four-bedroom home with a den and that it never housed more than eight teenagers while Cleare stayed there. Rutherford said he spends as much as $80,000 per year on the teenagers, receives only a few hundred dollars occasionally from their parents and gives teenagers what he can, including a Chevrolet Suburban they share. Rutherford did concede there were “lessons to be learned all the way around from the school to us in our program, the adjustments we had to make.”

Cleare yearned to focus on academics in his new country. Exhausted, he slept through many classes.

Mikhail McLean, who at 17 was the oldest in the house at the time, views Cleare as a little brother and said training seemed excessive considering academic responsibilities, but it was necessary because Bahamians lagged behind American peers. McLean said Cleare’s depression was exacerbated because Cleare arrived unaccompanied by a close friend.

“We basically raised each other from 14 to 18,” said McLean, now a sophomore forward at the University of Houston. “It takes certain kids longer to adjust. I told people they had to clean their room, wash dishes, wash laundry because they are not being babied by parents anymore. It forced us to mature earlier.”

During workouts, Cleare sometimes lingered alone on one end of the court while Rutherford ran others through drills at the other end. Cleare recalled Rutherford telling him that he would amount to nothing and was a “waste of time.”

“A bad situation,” Cleare said.

But Cleare knew what no one else did: When he went home for the holidays, he was never coming back. It was not until Don Harvey, the Village School basketball coach, called a few weeks later that the Village School even knew that Cleare was not returning.

Harvey moved on because Cleare had enrolled in school in the Bahamas. Everybody from Cleare’s parents to friends to the janitress at a school in the Bahamas thought he had made a mistake by leaving and attending classes for two weeks at a new school in the Bahamas. But Cleare craved “balance and stability” that he did not find on Ash Point Lane.

“I knew what was going on,” Cleare said. “I knew what I had to go through every night, every day. A lot of people were upset with me, but they didn’t understand. . . .

“They were like: ‘Your parents sacrificed a lot for you. You let everyone down. Everyone was depending on you.’ I heard that a million times. . . . I was like in a corner by myself.”

But Cleare said his family looked at his decision differently when they learned other teenagers left the program.

Harvey, who did not learn the extent of Cleare’s living conditions until later, said: “His parents had to have courage as well, and he had to convince them to have it. If you go against [Rutherford] because he is a big figure, your name is kind of screwed up a little bit in the Bahamas. To take a chance to do it was a lot.”

Administrator at the Village School, whose enrollment includes students from more than 40 countries, called Cleare to say his scholarship remained available. Cleare decided to return only if he lived elsewhere and left Rutherford’s program.

Back in America, Cleare spent three weeks staying with a family friend, but the commute was long, the arrangement temporary. On their long drives to the friend’s home each night, Cleare began opening up more to Harvey, one of the few men he trusted, and dropped hints that he wanted to live with him.

Harvey, who had two adult sons out of the house, was against it; he hardly knew Cleare. His wife, Mia, vetoed it more vehemently, largely because Cleare would have to live upstairs with their teenage daughter, Bria.

With no place to move and just days before Cleare was to pack up his belongings and head back to the Bahamas for good, Cleare joined the family at church and dinner. Cleare charmed everyone. Provided he accepted chores and followed rules, he left with an invitation to move in and remain in America.

Cleare was overjoyed. He had an upstairs game room to watch movies with Harvey, a laptop to work on studies, his own room to eventually decorate with awards and a picture of his mother. His playful, well-mannered personality emerged. His grades rose, his writing developed a voice. He smiled again.

“I was a lot happier,” Cleare said. “I actually felt like a kid again when I went to live with Coach Harvey. A good family life.”

‘A really crooked business’

There are countless stories of heralded high school players who move in with their high school coach. But Cleare was lightly regarded when he moved in to Harvey’s five-bedroom brick home on a quiet cul-de-sac. Unwilling or unable to dunk, Cleare was not ranked among the top 500 prospects in the nation and was among the least ballyhooed of Rutherford’s Bahamians who arrived that year.

But as his happiness grew, his work ethic steeled and his game blossomed. And the cutthroat recruiting world that soon enveloped Cleare and Harvey served as an education to both.

One day, 11 college coaches watched practice in a gymnasium so small it includes just four full rows of bleachers.

Marquette’s Buzz Williams sat in Harvey’s windowless office, charming him with salty language. Jeff Capel, the former Oklahoma head coach who is now an assistant at Duke, wowed Harvey and Cleare with stories of improving Blake Griffin’s work ethic. Then-Maryland Coach Gary Williams made a trip even though he was preparing for his own wedding.

But the recruitment also attracted shadowy figures, some of whom showed up at Harvey’s doorstep, eager to tempt Harvey and Cleare with suggestions of inducements.

One individual urged Harvey to get Cleare to sign with a sports agent so he could play internationally. One prominent local coach demanded a face-to-face meeting to explain why it was imperative Cleare sign with Arizona. One man linked to a university floated the idea of a potential job for Harvey with Adidas.

Another said Cleare needed to join the Houston Hoops summer-league team and that only the man would determine which college Cleare attended because of an alleged relationship with Cleare’s father. On another occasion, two individuals introduced themselves as “friends of friends.”

“What does that mean?” Harvey said. “It wasn’t our friends. We never knew them. What they actually were doing were reporting back to Oregon, trying to get Oregon on the map.”

Sitting in his office recently, Harvey shook his head.

“This is a really crooked business,” he said.

Harvey knew he could have made a lot of money off the recruitment, but he said he never accepted inducements even though many of his friends “could not believe it because with a player of this magnitude usually that is what happens.”

On the court, Harvey kept Cleare’s motivation high by reminding him of a less glamorous path that could loom ahead in the Bahamas if he slacked off: “What do you want to be? Do you want to go be a fisherman?” Off the court, the two engaged in countless late-night discussions about dangers they faced.

Men offered Cleare “headphones and all this kind of stuff,” Harvey said. “ ‘Why do you think those people want to buy that for you, just for nothing? They turn around later on and say remember what I have done for you.’ It escalates. We schooled him very well on that.”

Cleare sought authenticity from his prospective college coach. He wanted to play for Gary Williams at Maryland. But one afternoon last May, Cleare sat in school with tears streaming down his cheeks. His favorite college coach had retired. It was the lowest Harvey had seen Cleare. And the sadness did not subside when Cleare watched the news conference in the days that followed.

But then came a surprise. Maryland hired Cleare’s second-favorite coach: Mark Turgeon, who had recruited Cleare while at Texas A&M.

Various schools tried to wow Cleare with creative, glitzy recruiting pitches. While at Maryland, he found intimacy. During his unofficial visit in June, Cleare, Harvey and Maryland’s coaches ate crabcakes and talked at long tables set up at center court of Comcast Center.

“He’s all about substance,” Village School assistant varsity coach Nick Petito said. “That’s what makes him different. He picked up on what type of person Mark Turgeon is relative to others. He relates more to that. He relates more to casual conversation than to a sales pitch, more substance of the person through conversation.”

What made Turgeon different?

“He’s real,” Cleare said.

‘Daddy Junior’

One recent evening at Sugar Land’s Lifetime Fitness Center, a cellphone-wielding man in a University of Houston sweat suit welcomed a handful of tall teenage Bahamians for their nighttime training session.

“I just had five Shaquilles arrive two weeks ago,” Frank Rutherford said. “I have a 6-foot-9 sixth-grader I sent to play in New Jersey. I am trying to get these kids a life.”

Through a two-hour conversation, Rutherford called himself the Jesse Owens of his country, a best friend of Hakeem Olajuwon and named a handful of prominent college coaches who visited him at the fitness center to discuss signing his players. Without his influence three years ago, Rutherford said, Cleare would be holding doors open at a hotel in the Bahamas.

Rutherford said he never demeaned Cleare, but he called Cleare unprepared for the athletic commitment needed to eventually match wills against kids from tougher upbringings.

“You are going to be going against a kid who comes from the ghettoes of New York and in his apartment a cockroach is like a brother or sister to him,” Rutherford said. “Eating government cheese is the order of the day. He’s not just in college to get a degree, he’s there to go to the league. They are used to sharing one room with six brothers. That’s what I teach. I try to create that atmosphere.”

Rutherford’s tone changed. He paused and said: “Criticize me, I don’t care. Shaquille is headed to a university to get a college degree, that’s what I care about. Let me tell you something: I am proud of him.”

Later that night across town, a visitor told Cleare that Rutherford had wished Cleare well. Cleare’s smile vanished. And after a few seconds, he whispered that he appreciated it.

“I don’t want to bring Frank down or anything,” Cleare said. “He did a lot for me.”

But while Rutherford is credited with initially getting Cleare to America, Cleare attributes his biggest development to those he has since come to regard as family.

One mid-January evening, Cleare was in the back seat of the Harveys’ Toyota Forerunner when his cellphone rang.

“I’ve got to call you back,” Cleare told his friend, “I just finished dropping my sister off at college.”

When asked later about Cleare’s reference, Harvey glowed: “That’s what he feels in his heart. He is never going to forget what we have done. Never.”

Cleare views America as a “land of opportunity.” And next fall he will arrive in College Park with an array of basketball talents and an everlasting bond with the “golden star in my life.”

“It went from like to love,” Cleare said of Harvey. “Daddy Junior, that’s what I call him.”