Sidney keeps expectations in perspective

Only time will tell what will become of Renardo Sidney. With any luck, his future will be full of brightness: lined with more fame and fortune than most of us could handle or hope for.

But there are still years to go between then and now. Between the junior year for a teen who is arguably America’s best high school basketball player, and the NBA, where potential stardom awaits.

First he must finish high school. Then he must head to college for at least one year. Anything could happen. Injuries, maybe. Burnout, possibly. Ego gone haywire, well, I doubt we’ll see Sidney’s Southern, hard-nosed father let that happen.

What I do know is that right now, in this moment, we in Los Angeles have the good fortune to watch him: a liquid, 6-foot-10, 235-pound teenager whose game, in peak moments, can burn its way into the memory banks.


Saturday night, however, was not one of those moments. Sidney’s Fairfax High team lost to Taft, 65-55, in the City Section title game. Against a talented, mature opponent, he was double- and triple-teamed and though he finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds, the performance was far from stellar.

He had been trying to put his name in the history books. Last year, after moving to California from Mississippi on a quest for better competition and more exposure, he guided Lakewood Artesia to a Southern Section title. Over the summer, he transferred to Fairfax, in the heart of Los Angeles. Saturday’s loss meant he came one win from leading separate teams to consecutive section championships.

Still, one underwhelming game hardly spoils a great season. Just as one poor game is unlikely to change the minds of pundits who have been predicting Sidney will end up being a top pick in the 2010 NBA draft.

I’d been paying attention to Renardo Sidney since he came to these parts, but from the corner of my eye. Then, during the City semifinals last week, came one of those games when an extreme talent lets loose his skill at just the right moment. With his team down by seven and less than three minutes left against Westchester, Sidney scored his team’s last 11 points -- including a trio of three-pointers, the last with time sliding off the clock.

Over the years, L.A. has seen scores of great high school performances. This ranked among the best. After that game, I knew I needed to know more about this kid.

So, this week I stood on the sidelines in the stuffy gym over at Fairfax, watching Sidney and his team ready themselves for Taft. I wanted to see him away from the pressure of a game. The first thing you notice about him is the feel-good vibe he brings to the court.

In high school, the difference between the kid who has an NBA future and the others on his team is usually stark and can spell disaster. You can get a sulky, spoiled kid who lords all that talent over others. Then again, you can get Renardo Sidney: serious, then smiling, then goofing, seeming to enjoy every teammate and every moment -- even in practice -- because each moment brings another chance to express his unusual talent.

The second thing you notice about Sidney, 18, is his size. He is as tall and rangy as an NBA power forward, and still growing. And this is no knock-kneed teen. He already has a man’s body, all he needs is the chisel.

Then you notice that, for all his size, Renardo Sidney moves with an easy, sure, liquid grace -- something rare and unteachable.

Finally, you spot another remarkable trait: the kid’s range of skill. Your eyes widen as you watch him dribble behind the back and through the legs, moving easily into another gear, even in simple drills as he fires off no-look passes, glides for dunks or steps back and nails long jumpers.

Practice ended. Sidney sat next to me on a hard bench and extended a hand that smothered mine. “Nice to meet you, sir,” he said.

For the first several moments, he gave me the canned answers you would expect from someone older and jaded. He spoke, in his deep voice, of taking it one game at a time and how his team needed to prepare the right way and not worry about what it could not control. He was a kid, giving a reporter what he expected a reporter would want.

Soon, though, he took his shoes off and stretched his legs and relaxed. I wanted to know if he was aware of this moment. Had he ever thought about how special playing for a City championship is? Did he know that retired NBA players who have been in the City title game remember it as clearly as any game they’ve played, sometimes even more?

“I do realize it,” he said, wiping sweat from his forehead. “I love going through this -- me and my teammates, and it’s easy to just think about what is happening now. But I know when I get older I will have the memories and I will be telling stories about this stuff. . . . You know, I’m making history at a pretty young age, so there will be stories to tell. To be honest, I am proud of myself, so I am not going to forget.”

He continued, talking about how he knows he is blessed with special talent, about how the pressure is constantly rising. Before games he feels it in his chest and in the nervous way his legs bounce as he sits on the bench. “There’s a lot of expectations, sir,” he said. “A lot.”

We sat there for a while, him telling me about his video-game habit. Him praising his coach and his father -- who has been criticized for moving Renardo across the country and then to different schools, chasing a dream. Him talking about college and how in some ways he doesn’t look forward to graduating from high school.

We began walking off the court. He picked up a ball and held it like a melon in his left hand. He pivoted, glanced at the farthest basket, three-quarters court away, and fired the ball like a baseball player. The ball began tracing an arc and then descended: nothing but net.

Renardo Sidney kept walking, nonchalant, smiling the smile of a kid who knows that with any luck his future will be full of brightness.