Running the Fast Break Again : Two Years Out of High School, Sarpong Homes In on Show-Business Career

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cellular phone rang and Sam Sarpong wasted little time answering it.

"Hey, how are you?" Sarpong asked the caller. "I haven't talked to you for a long time."

Sarpong sat on the desk in his bedroom and chatted for a few minutes. He laughed repeatedly and seemed especially pleased several times during the conversation.

"[The caller] just saw me in a commercial for a movie I'm going to be in," Sarpong said afterward. "That's wild."

That is what people might say about the career path Sarpong has chosen.

Once a basketball standout at El Camino Real High, Sarpong has been trying to establish himself in the music and movie business for the past two years.

Sarpong, 20, is now a budding rapper known professionally as Def Sam--slang for Good Sam--and an actor who has landed bit parts in several music videos, television shows and films.

He recently finished shooting a movie with Rhea Perlman that is scheduled for release in the fall and is up for a supporting role in a TV sitcom starring Brandy, the new rhythm and blues megastar, that CBS might pick up as a midseason replacement early next year.

Those credits would satisfy, at least temporarily, other aspiring musicians and actors. In a difficult industry to crack, where the right contacts can be more important than the right credentials, getting any kind of work and exposure would be welcomed.

But Sarpong, although certainly not ungrateful for the opportunities he has had, wants more. Much more.

"By the time I'm 25, I want to be rich," he said.

That's probably why he's never too far from the phone. When Hollywood calls, when the big break comes, he'll be ready to answer.

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Not long ago, the only breaks Sarpong was looking for were on the basketball floor. And they were of the 3-on-2 or 4-on-1 variety.

As a three-year starter at point guard for El Camino Real, Sarpong ran the Conquistador offense and became known for his affinity for three-point shots, many from beyond NBA range.

"I was kind of a flashy player," Sarpong said. "I would literally start dancing after making a good pass and it would drive the coaches crazy."

That it did. Neils Ludlow, who took over the Conquistadores in Sarpong's senior season in 1992-93, remembers the unsuccessful attempts to tone down his point guard on the court.

"I talked to him about it but Sam was Sam," Ludlow said. "He was a little bit of a showman. . . . He would get really pumped up with all sorts of gyrations."

Although he was animated on the court, the 6-foot Sarpong had the ability to back up his theatrics.

In his senior season, Sarpong averaged 17.2 points and 9.7 assists and helped El Camino Real to a 13-9 record and a berth in the City Section 3-A Division playoffs. The season before, he averaged 15.6 points and 4.3 assists.

Not bad for a guy who had been playing basketball seriously for only a few years.

Sarpong, who was born in London, was 11 years old when he moved to the Valley with his father, Sam Sr., a Ghana native who had migrated to England. Sarpong's mother, Thelma, and 18-year-old sister, June, still live in England.

Soon after, Sarpong became interested in basketball and spent some summers refining his skills in New Mexico at basketball camps run by former Laker Michael Cooper, a cousin whose mother is the sister of Sam Sr.

"[Cooper] is the one who really influenced me into getting into hoops," Sarpong said.

By the ninth grade at El Camino Real, Sarpong was already well schooled in the sport. He averaged 35.0 points on the C team in 1989-90 and was promoted to the varsity the following season. But Sarpong came close to showcasing his talents elsewhere.

While Sarpong was at El Camino Real, his father decided to move to Pasadena and take his reluctant son with him when Dick and Sue Schaeffer provided an alternative. Their son, Brian, had been Sarpong's longtime friend and the couple invited Sarpong to stay with them in their West Hills home.

He's still there.

"He's such a good kid, I knew he wouldn't give us any trouble," Sue Schaeffer said.

"He has never given us one day of concern. And I don't think it's because he lives with us. It's just his nature."

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There's mutual admiration between Sarpong, who is black, and the Schaeffers, who are white. The couple have virtually adopted Sarpong, who says he still has an excellent relationship with his father.

"I couldn't say enough about what they have done for me," Sarpong said of the Schaeffers. "I've never met cooler parents. . . . When I make it, I'm going to take care of them big time."

If he strikes it rich and takes care of his benefactors the same way he looks after himself, the Schaeffers are in for some fine times. At an age when some youngsters still are immature and irresponsible, Sarpong is the opposite.

His bedroom, for instance, is every mother's dream. Everything is neatly placed, every inch of space impeccably arranged.

One wall is covered with photographs, all in identical frames, of Sarpong with celebrities including Will Smith, Deion Sanders, Martin Lawrence, Queen Latifah and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The wall above the headboard of his bed holds about 35 baseball caps on three perfectly aligned rows. And there are meticulously stacked magazines in the drawers of his desk and recruiting letters from numerous four-year schools in crates on the floor of his closet.

"I'm a neat freak," said Sarpong, who wears a gold necklace with a diamond-studded "32", his uniform number.

The recruiting letters are a reminder of what might have been. But Sarpong said he was not able to take advantage of the offers because he didn't take a required algebra class. He enrolled instead at Valley College but didn't play basketball for the Monarchs and left school after one year to try show business. The decision is beginning to pay off.

In January, Sarpong could get his biggest TV shot yet if CBS adds Brandy's show to its lineup. The show is titled "Moesha" and features the singer as a high school student whose main admirer is a kid named Darnell, played by Sarpong.

And the film with Perlman, "Sunset Park," could open more doors. In that one, he portrays a basketball hotshot on a powerful high school team that is challenged for the New York state championship by a team coached by Perlman.

It will be the big-screen debut for Sarpong, who is set to play a hip-hop dancer in a movie starring Lawrence that will start shooting this month.

"I have a lot of goals," Sarpong said. "I'm happy with the way things are going. People can't believe how much I've accomplished already in only two years."

Those who notice just pick up the phone and let him know.

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