NORTH ANDOVER | For the record, the bribe was made but never paid.
Brooks School senior Jordan Mickens was that desperate to talk Bradford's Alex Skinner into playing basketball this winter.
"I offered him $10,000, I would have done anything," joked Mickens, the New Jersey native and only returning starter from last year's team. "He's such a good shooter. I knew we needed him."
In the end, the money didn't matter. Friendship won out, and Skinner committed to join his pal on the hardwood instead of polishing up his tennis game on the hard courts.
And the Brooks boys team has been the giant beneficiary.
"He's been on fire," said Mickens, co-captain with Skinner for 9-4 Brooks. "It's been over half a season and he's got to be averaging about 23 points a game (actually 21.5). Without that, I don't know where we'd be."
Skinner doesn't dislike hoop. In fact, he says, the way he's playing this year, he's even "surprised myself."
By trade, Skinner, the son of EMass schoolboy (Danvers High) and Merrimack College basketball legend Dana Skinner, fancies himself a tennis player first.
A two-time All-ISL player and returning Eagle-Tribune All-Star, he owns a USTA ranking in the top 30 for New Englanders under-18.
He was contemplating not playing just to fine-tune the tennis game for the spring season.
Normally, losing a reserve who averaged only 4.7 points a game last season as Skinner did, wouldn't appear to be that huge.
Brooks is fortunate Mickens knew better.
The two backcourt mates, now co-captains, forged a friendship last year, Mickens' first at Brooks.
When graduated emaciated coach John McVeigh's roster, the only two upperclassmen left standing were Skinner and Mickens, a part-time starter in the backcourt last year averaging 7.9 per contest.
Skinner hit the tennis courts last spring and Mickens went out on the lake for the crew season, but only the rower was doing it to fill a season.
As far as Skinner was concerned, his hoop career was over.
"Last year, I was concentrating on tennis and saw basketball as taking away from that," said Skinner, a high honors student. "During the summer, I maybe picked up basketball 10 times."
There's definitely more than basketball in Skinner's blood.
He learned the game with one net not two from his mom, Keiko, a former tennis player at Merrimack College.
"We belong to Cedardale in Haverhill, and that's really where it all started at age 10," said Skinner. "I got better fast and made a good group of friends in tennis. At Cedardale, we had a team that grew up together. That was a team that made it to the nationals four straight years."
Genetics can't be tamed, though, and Dana Skinner's silky-smooth jumper wouldn't be stifled.
Only, it basically deserted Alex when it counted last season, making for a long winter over on Great Pond Road. Making shots became a chore.
"I think a lot of it had to do with confidence," said Mickens, who admitted he really didn't understand what kind of player Skinner could be until this past fall.
"We started working out together and playing one-on-one basically every day," added Mickens, himself a high honor student with 2,070 on the SAT who was accepted early-decision to Williams College.
"He was lighting it up."
Skinner's workouts commonly ended with a similar refrain.
"Every day, he'd tell me he wasn't going to play," said Mickens. "I still remember the day he was going to make it official and tell coach McVeigh. I was shocked. I just did all I could to change his mind."
Mickens actually once wrote Skinner an inspirational quote that read, "I have faith, you're going to play."
But Skinner held steadfast. Tennis was No. 1.
That is right up until three days before practice began.
"On my birthday, he gave me a card with a note inside that said basically, keep the faith, I'm going to play this year," recalled Mickens.
Expecting growing pains, Brooks has instead taken on all comers.
Leading the way is Skinner.
"I'm still doing all the same things I did last year," he says. "My teammates are setting great screens for me to run off and I'm getting the basketball. Only now, I'm knocking down the shots."
It didn't take long for the 6-foot-1 jump shooter to know he made the right choice.
"The fact that I almost quit and decided to play for my friend, there's not much pressure at all," said Skinner, easily the area leader with 62 3-pointers in 13 games.
"After the first game, I scored 20 against Pingree, obviously a career high, I knew the choice was right."
That mark was only temporary. Skinner has eclipsed the 20-point mark in seven games with a new high of 34 against Middlesex.
Skinner has shown no signs of letting up either. Defenses keep hearing about his exploits, but the results remain the same.
Just because he's playing hoop doesn't mean the ISL tennis fraternity won't need to beware.
"I did the same thing last year and had a pretty good season after it," said Skinner, who was 10-2-3 last spring. "I'm definitely going to be ready."
And he almost didn't play!
Senior Alex Skinner went from averaging 4.7 points a game last year to eye-popping area-leading numbers this year: 21.5 points a game and 62 3-pointers.
At the last minute he decided to play this winter. It was no idle threat either. He didn't play as a sophomore.
Dad delivers where it counts
Being the son of Dana Skinner, who nearly made the Celtics (he was drafted 50th overall in 1978) after an All-American career at Merrimack College, can be daunting.
Alex Skinner of Bradford and Brooks School credits his father, the longtime athletic director at UMass Lowell, with molding his success, not only in basketball but in tennis too.
"My dad is definitely there for me, and it's nothing but positives," said Alex, a devastating serve-and-volleyer in tennis. "I've never felt pressured by him in my life."
Having one of the sweetest jump shooters in state history in the same house absolutely has its privileges.
"He gives me some tips and has helped my release become more natural," said Alex, who lists UConn, BC and Middlebury among his top college choices. "He certainly knows the shooter's mentality. When I'm shooting well, he doesn't want to mess with anything. Most of the time, he just let's me go."
Salem's Sledge the super sub
Silence the rumor now, Kevin Sledge's favorite comedian is not Richard Pryor. It's Dave Chappelle.
It's an easy misunderstanding. Everything about Sledge's game on the basketball court is old-school | the quirky no-look passes, the menacing defense and especially that tired, vintage 1987 fake-the-pass-over the-defender's-head-and-pull-it-back play that amazingly works every time.
Salem High's spark-plug sixth-man continues to yield major dividends for the Class L-leading Blue Devils, now 9-1 overall and a perfect 7-0 in New Hampshire action.
A huge, yet underrated cog in the Blue Devils' 2007 state title run, Sledge earned his battle stripes in the big games with a stirring Class L tournament.
The scrappy senior was back at it again on Tuesday night with Salem in deep, deep trouble | its 16-game Class L win streak in jeopardy at Dover High.
"They didn't miss and things weren't going well," said Sledge
Salem was trailing 61-56 with 28.8 seconds to go, top scorer Josh Jones had fouled out and No. 2 man Mike Kimball was struggling.
Enter Sledge, who nailed a three-pointer, his ninth of the year, to cut the margin to 61-59 with 17.7 seconds left.
Sledge couldn't save Salem all alone, though, and teammate Dan Kinney was the man on the spot, stealing a long Dover pass with 11 seconds left to set up the final wild sequence.
In a timeout, coach E.J. Perry set up a play for Kimball with Sledge the No. 2 option. Dover collapsed on Kimball, who calmly located Sledge, lurking behind the arc.
Sledge's second triple, coming with three seconds left, gave the Devils the stunning win.
"I've never hit two bigger threes," said Sledge, who had five trifecta all last year. "I made a point to work on my shooting this summer and it's really paid off."
Perry can't say enough about his sensational sixth man and all the intangibles he's delivered. The long-range bombs are simply icing.
"Sledge gives us just what we're looking for with his energy off the bench," said Perry. "He plays hard, does all the little things and keeps us going when we need it most."
An athletic halfback on the Salem football team, Sledge, who scored 17 TDs in the fall, is more of the cerebral assassin in hoop.
"I've been playing for a while, so its just stuff you pick up," said Sledge, who is currently looking at prep schools for next year. "Sometimes my athleticism comes into play, but on the court it's more trying to think ahead of time and what the opposition might do."
NORTH ANDOVER | For the record, the bribe was made but never paid.
My Opinion: Feb. 12
A column by state Rep. L. Mike KapplerContinued ...
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