The story of Michael Avery –- or is it the legend of Michael Avery or the curious case of Michael Avery? -– started at a basketball tournament in the summer of 2008 that he really had no reason to be in.
Avery was from California. The tournament, the King James Shooting Stars Classic, was in Akron, Ohio.
Avery was in the eighth grade. The players, on the various AAU teams, generally were in high school.
But there was Avery, wowing the crowds -– and one particular college coach -– as a combination guard for the Indiana Elite team.
Even though he was playing a year above his age group, Avery dominated. He so impressed observers that then-Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie got word to the Averys to give him a call so he could offer him a scholarship.
College coaches are not allowed to directly connect recruits that young, so Avery made the call and accepted the offer.
The offer was tentative, based on a projection. And like all verbal commitments, it was non-binding. Either side could back out.
But it was Kentucky, a school that only gives offers to the very best. And because of it, Avery appeared to have settled the hardest part of a high school basketball career before even entering high school.
Three years later, Avery is a 6-5, 210-pound junior without a scholarship offer or even a high school team to play for.
His future is uncertain.
Some would say his becoming “the kid who verbally committed to Kentucky in the eighth grade” was the biggest mistake he ever made.
Avery won’t. In fact, he’ll say the opposite. He’ll say given the chance to do it all over … he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I would’ve done the same thing,” he said. “It helped me grow so much as a person.”
It helped start one of the more interesting high school basketball journeys, one whose final act has yet to be played.
Michael Avery was born in Indiana but raised in California. By middle school, it became apparent that he was a top-level talent on the basketball court.
His parents began looking for a high school that would help him prepare for college both academically and athletically. It’s the reason he was in the Midwest in the summer of 2008.
Avery visited Culver (Ind.) Military Academy and bonded enough with the coach to join the local AAU team, Indiana Elite, at the King James event.
Avery didn’t enroll at Culver. Instead, he chose to stay close to home at Crespi High in nearby Encino, Calif.
News of his verbal commitment came with him, making his life at Crespi difficult.
He suddenly had to deal with the frequent phone calls and media attention that only elite upperclassmen receive. And while his neighbors and classmates back at Crespi supported him, opposing crowds did not. Hostile chants about him and Kentucky were common during his freshman year.
“They were relentless,” Crespi coach Russell White said.
Avery admits the hostility only added to the pressure of living up to his legend. He averaged 9.6 points per game. And while that is solid for a senior -- let alone a freshman on the varsity -- it wasn’t enough for a player already ticketed to one of the nation’s premier college programs.
Changes were coming. Difficulties, however, were not going away.
Shortly after Avery’s freshman season, Kentucky fired Gillispie.
Avery has not kept in touch with Gillispie nor has he had any contact with the coach who replaced him, John Calipari, other than a few non-personalized mailings from the school.
“I haven’t talked to them since the coaching change,” he said. “We’ve pretty much parted ways. I moved past that time in my life.”
He also moved across the country to attend Montverde (Fla.) Academy for his sophomore year. He liked the boarding school’s reputation for academics and coach Kevin Sutton’s reputation in basketball circles.
Avery averaged 4.3 points (and more than two rebounds and two assists) for a team of stars that went 25-5 and finished No. 6 in the final RivalsHigh Top 100 rankings.
He seemingly had found a home. It just turned out to be one his family couldn’t afford.
As the economy continued to decline, his father’s accounting business suffered as well. Montverde’s tuition, which is about $35,000 -- or three times the cost of Crespi -- became too expensive.
“Coach Sutton is terrific," said Avery's father, Howard. "The people over there are like family. My personal financial situation was such that I couldn’t afford to send him there anymore.”
Michael Avery transferred back to Crespi in the fall of 2010 for his junior year. He appeared to be back where he belonged.
The California Interscholastic Federation didn’t see it that way.
The CIF allows one transfer from one school to another without a valid change of residence. The rule prevents top athletes from shopping their skills from one private school to the next on an annual basis.
Avery was in violation of this rule, according to the CIF, because it considered his return to Crespi as well as his move to Monteverde to be transfers. The fact he transferred out of state, or transferred back to his home area, or transferred because of financial reasons didn’t matter. The CIF said he had to sit out one full season of varsity basketball.
The Averys said the family’s financial hardship forced the transfer. But to qualify for a hardship waiver, CIF by-laws state, “there must be evidence of an unforeseeable, unavoidable and uncorrectable circumstance that necessitated the transfer.”
CIF Southern Section director of communications Thom Simmons said Avery’s situation did not meet that criteria.
Simmons cited an example of an “unforeseeable or unavoidable circumstance” as a cancer-stricken family member whose hospital bills exceed their health care insurance, forcing a transfer to a less expensive school.
“Historically it has to be a very, very compelling, ‘There was no way for us to see this’ type of hardship,” Simmons said. “It is foreseeable that your business could possibly suffer from some type of financial downfall.”
The CIF wants to limit athletic transfers and ensure that education remains the priority over athletics. White, though, feels Avery’s return to Crespi seemed to follow suit.
“How’s a kid go from a top basketball factory in the country, transfer back home with his parents and go back to the school he went to as a freshman, and that’s athletically motivated?” White said. “That’s kind of (out of) whack.”
After his appeal to play at Crespi this season was denied, there were schools (out of state or independents not under CIF jurisdiction) where he could have transferred and played. Avery, however, said those days are done.
“I’m planning on staying at Crespi and graduating,” he said. “That’s the place I want to be.”
But his college destination has never been more up in the air. The offer from Kentucky was based on a projection of his talent, which to this point has not unfolded the way either side expected.
He currently is viewed as a mid-level, Division-I prospect. IUPUI, Hartford, Pepperdine, St. Mary’s and Stetson as well as big-conference schools Florida State and Stanford all phone him frequently.
Sitting out this season hasn’t helped. Avery, who works with a shooting coach in the morning and a strength coach in the afternoon, thinks the list will grow after he can get back in the spotlight.
“It’s not where it could be, my list,” he said. “Once I get a full summer of playing and once I get a high school year where people can get to see me more, then it will be a lot better.”
Seeking live action, he played four games with the junior varsity. But he found the level of play wasn’t going to help his skills. He has been a help, however, to the varsity during practices.
“He’s definitely helped make our team better,” White said. “He goes out there and plays hard. I’m very proud of him and how he’s handling these practices.”
And though a season of sitting can seem endless, there actually are plenty of opportunities ahead. Even before his senior year, there's the summer AAU season.
“Hopefully this July period he’ll get seen,” his father said.
Just as he did in the eighth grade.
Jeff Fedotin writes for RivalsHigh (www.rivalshigh.com), the national high school sports web site for Yahoo! Sports.
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