From The Shadows Of A ‘King’

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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Chris Quinn
(D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images)

A new Spur and the league’s reigning MVP share an obscure but remarkable bit of history, history that begins in the dusty gyms of Ohio and reaches across the Atlantic to the hardwood floors in Milan, Italy.

Back in the day, when Sports Illustrated anointed a high school junior from Akron as "The Chosen One," pronouncing the kid good enough to be an NBA lottery pick "right now," a smaller, less ethereal talent was leading the pack in a little-noticed sidebar for hoop aficionados: Who would be runner-up to LeBron James as Mr. Ohio Basketball?

The point guard who would win the honor was the object of an intense recruiting war among the likes of Ohio State, Penn State and Notre Dame. The runner-up was so good, he received his first college offer as an eighth grader. But in the widening media lights that swept over Ohio, Chris Quinn disappeared in the lengthening shadows of a 17-year-old dubbed, "King James."

Eight years later, Quinn sits in the Spurs locker room, an hour before tipoff against the Chicago Bulls, and reflects on his high school moniker: Mr. Ohio Basketball runner-up. "I guess, if there was any year to be in second place, that was the one," says Quinn, who broke 14 school records at Dublin Coffman High, averaged 22.4 points as a senior and was named Columbus Dispatch Player of the Year. "It was cool to be a part of that. It will make a good trivia question."

So there you have the obscure connection to James. But what about the remarkable part? As far as he can recall, Quinn never played against James in high school, never competed against him in AAU ball, either. They came together, though, as teammates for Team 7-UP Ohio, a collection of high school all-stars who competed each summer in Italy.

"We played a couple of years together overseas," says Quinn who joined the Spurs on Nov. 5. "We won the tournament every year. I think all of us went on to play Division I."

LeBron James joined Team 7-UP as a sophomore, a year behind Quinn. Even then, James was an other-worldly talent, so extraordinarily skilled that Quinn phoned home to gush "Mom," he said, "there’s this kid you won’t believe. He’s the real deal."

As Quinn recalls, James played on one level, everyone else on another. And yet, the summer before Quinn’s senior year at Dublin Coffman, after "the real deal" had already graced the cover of SI, guess who was named tournament MVP in Milan? Quinn.

He doesn’t mention this in the Spurs locker room. All Quinn says is that he and James started and contributed to Team 7-UP’s tournament success. After the interview, I discovered the MVP award while researching that All Star team and mentioned it to Quinn’s mother, Susan.

"He would never call home and tell you that," she says by phone from Ohio. "If you wanted to hear stories, you would hear them from other guys on the team."

In that respect, he is a classic Spur. Polite. Soft spoken. Business like. Not particularly eager to rehash glory days. But before he put up those 20-point games for the Miami Heat, and before he starred at Notre Dame, Quinn was a high school wonder, who received too many recruiting letters. Susan kept them all. "I probably have six plastic bins," she says.

Susan played a little ball herself in high school. At 5-foot-5, she foreshadowed a position for her son. Guard. Her husband, Chris Quinn Sr., did not play. Mother put a ball in the hands of her little boy and watched. "I’ve been playing," he says, "for as long as I can remember."

She taught him a thing or two and took him to camps. Young Chris learned quickly, dribbled at home until it was dark, then went inside and dribbled some more. Between the legs. Behind the back. Over and over until the ball became an extension of his body.

When the family moved from Chicago to Columbus, young Chris had one request. "He wanted the basement to be unfinished so he could have a place to play," Susan says. "Most kids want a basement finished with a TV so they can play video games. Not Chris. You heard that dribbling constantly. Machine gun style. He was in fourth grade."

The boy went to Friday night high school games with his mother. Soon, he became a ballboy. Then he was invited him to free throw practice with the high school varsity. As a fifth grader, Chris out shot the team. "The high school kids just loved him," Susan says. "He would make a no-look pass that you would crack up laughing at. They’d say, ‘Who is this little kid? That darn phenom.’"

The phenom received his first recruiting letter from the University of Dayton before ninth grade. "I was just so proud," Susan says. "I wonder when (recruiters) started going after LeBron. Second grade?"

Susan laughs. She says if Chris stood on a stage, no one would ever guess his occupation. And Chris would agree. "I’m not the biggest, fastest or strongest guy," he says, and that’s one reason he went undrafted. On the floor, 6-2, 175 just doesn’t impress.

But here’s what does: He can score (once dropping 26 against the Pistons), knock down the three (once sinking six treys against the Wizards) and dish (once averaging seven assists per game in April 2008 for the Heat). From the free throw line, he’s a career 82 percent shooter.

Then there’s his disposition, as boyish as Opie Taylor, as likeable as milk and cookies. Ask him about Mr. Ohio Basketball and he smiles: "Arguably the best high school talent ever."

And Mr. Runner-up? He can’t believe his good fortune. One day a free agent, the next an NBA veteran. In Miami, he fulfilled a dream that began in Ohio. Today, he’s enjoying a ride with the league’s hottest team. "It’s great to be part of a franchise like this," he says. "First class."

Later that evening, ball in hand, Chris Quinn fired a no-look to Gary Neal on his left, beyond the arc. The ball fell through for three.

An assist from a brand new Spur.