As 6-foot-10, 300-pound Renardo Sidney slumped on Mississippi State’s bench late Thursday night, face in hands during the Bulldogs’ 71-61 loss to Georgia in the SEC tournament first round, it was hard to believe this was the same player who was so celebrated as a high school freshman that he felt he never needed to play scholastic basketball to bolster his reputation or skills.
But after earning national acclaim before ever playing a high school game, he now says he naively and irresponsibly absorbed everything that came his way the past six years, from attention, to free gifts, to high-fat foods. As his weight ballooned, his game dipped and critics howled, calling Sidney the poster child for receiving too much hype too soon.
If any player needs the NCAA tournament as a proving ground, it is Sidney.The junior said it is “now-or-never” time to show he’s more than a cautionary tale. But for every Derrick Rose or Kevin Love — players who successfully used summer league basketball as a springboard — there is a Renardo Sidney, who said his mom had to talk him out of quitting basketball for good on his 22nd birthday.
Sidney this week emerged from a New Orleans Arena locker room to happily meet The Post reporter who first profiled him six years ago, when his family was in the process of moving to Los Angeles because his father felt his son had outgrown Jackson, Miss. At the time, Sidney was a sinewy guard confident that he would be in the NBA by 2010. Now he’s a self-admitted work-in-progress 22-year-old with a better sense of what went wrong.
“I never got to be a teenager,” Sidney said. “I am not trying to say it was bad hype, because I loved it. As a kid, that is what you want. I think it was just too much for a 13-, 14- year-old kid. When I went to LA, I thought I was already the king.”
Even before Sidney moved to Los Angeles or played one high school game, agents or shoe company officials regularly filled up the voicemail on his father’s two cellphones. Reebok had hired Renardo Sidney Sr. for a $20,000 consulting job so he would make sure his son attended the company’s basketball events. One power broker looking to impress Sidney put him on the phone with a man purported to be Kobe Bryant.
That was nothing compared with what Sidney encountered in Los Angeles, where he gave autographs while walking the halls in high school, “got free stuff,” attended Los Angeles Lakers games and felt like a “movie star.”
“It happened so fast, I was like, ‘Damn, I don’t know who to trust,’ ” Sidney said. “The only people I could trust was my mom and dad. Sometimes I trusted the wrong people. I tried to go over my dad’s head a couple times and handle stuff on my own.”
When asked what life lessons he took away from his Los Angeles experience, Sidney said: “If I would have stayed in Mississippi, I would not be here talking to you again now. I’d be in the [NBA]. I’d be real hungry. When I got to California, everything was laid out for me.”
When he enrolled at Mississippi State, Sidney said, he had to “come back down from the sky.” He did in a hurry. After following his dad’s strict rules for years — including no dating — he was on his own.
Sidney said he and his father are as close as “bread and peanut butter,” but growing up, he said, his father would not let him “do what normal kids do. Once I got that freedom, I took advantage. I took advantage real good. I had never had no life.”
There were frequent late-night trips to nightclubs, relationships with various women and countless visits to Burger King and Wendy’s for food that caused his weight to balloon to 320 pounds.
Sidney missed the 2009-10 season as the NCAA investigated possible amateurism violations. He then was suspended for the first nine games the following season — and ordered to repay $11,800 — after the NCAA ruled that he had received improper benefits and lied during the investigation. Then came two suspensions, including one that came after he traded punches in the stands with a teammate at an event in Hawaii in December 2010.
Instead of joining Mississippi State on its basketball tour of Europe this past summer, Sidney visited former Maryland great John Lucas in Houston, where Sidney worked on conditioning and anger issues. He learned to keep anger inside and count to 10.
But his temper is tested on the road because fans hold up candy bars and cookies to mock his weight. Sidney is closest to Mississippi State assistant Marcus Grant, who said: “It’s a daily process with him. He still has some flair-ups, but nothing like when he first came. When he first came — oh, God — just an immature guy who was used to having everything his way.”
On the court, Grant said, the skill set that wowed college coaches and agents when he was a teenager remains. But his conditioning remains sub-par; he asked out of the Thursday’s game — which the Bulldogs (21-11) badly needed to win to bolster their flagging NCAA tournament hopes — less than five minutes into action.
In an effort to control his weight, Sidney told an uncle to take the keys from him each night because “I can’t do it on my own, I’ve tried for three years. I have reached out to everybody, and everybody has reached back to help me.”
Sidney relies on his fiancee as a daily sounding board. Possessing deft passing skills, he still wants to play point guard. He also remains intent on playing in the NBA someday, at the same time knowing that that dream has veered off course.
Before disappearing into a bathroom stall, Sidney said: “My last name used to be Grant. I should have kept it. Once I changed it to Sidney, I turned Hollywood.”