It was a little past 6 p.m. on Thursday, when the good folks in Mizzou black and gold began trickling into the Lindbergh High School gymnasium to get what they can only hope would be the first of many glimpses at the young man who has breathlessly been proclaimed as the No.1 high school football player in the country.
Nearly two weeks earlier, Dorial Green-Beckham was on national television in an All-America football game making a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch before thousands of spectators inside the Alamodome in Texas. Now here he was in this nondescript high school gym in St. Louis County, appearing before a little more than 300 people in a prep hoop tournament against a junior varsity team from Jackson County.
Word had spread across internet chat rooms that the 6-foot-6 All-America and Parade Magazine national player of the year from Hillcrest High School in Springfield, Mo., would be playing in the Dave Sinclair Memorial Invitational Tournament. And with only 12 days left before National Signing Day when Green-Beckham is expected to announce whether he will sign with Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma or Texas, Mizzou faithful took this as one last opportunity to leave the kid they call "DGB" with a favorable impression.
I came here for a very good reason. My columnist instincts said this was a situation ripe for potential commentary about the process of the recruitment of gifted 18-year-old student-athletes. I had no idea what to expect, but I had my suspicions that it would be one of two scenarios:
1. I would walk into a gymnasium full of screaming, fanatical idiots who would embarrass themselves with some sort of outlandish over-the-top display of everything that is wrong with the recruiting process.
2. Or I would see a gymnasium full of curious, but well-behaved adults.
I have to admit that I wasn't sure which scene I was hoping for, because either one would provide me with ample ammunition. But allow young Mr. Green-Beckham to end the suspense with how the evening transpired.
"I'd say they all acted like adults," he said, smiling. "It was all pretty cool."
Thank you Mizzou fans for restoring my faith in the sanity of sports fans.
Of the 300 fans in the gym, at least 80 of them were Mizzou fans, all wearing MU black and gold. They just gathered in one section of the stands on the opposite side of the gym from the Hillcrest bench. Most of them were grown men in their 30s, 40s and 50s, many of them had young children in tow.
"I thought it was going to be a lot crazier than this to be honest," said 23-year-old Steve Ladd, MU class of 2011. "I thought there might be hundreds of people, but I guess a lot of people didn't know he was going to be here."
Those who did show up fortunately did not embarrass themselves. They gave Green-Beckham a polite standing ovation during pregame introductions. Nothing idiotic. Nothing fanatical. Nothing outlandishly embarrassing or over-the-top.
They then spent the rest of the evening cheering only when he actually did something such as blocking a shot, dunking the ball or sinking a 3-point jumper.
I was relieved by what I saw. No, I was actually uplifted and encouraged by what I saw. They didn't fawn over him like he was some athletic deity. They behaved more like curiosity seekers than fanatic stalkers.
But it was easy to see what all the attention was about for this well-put-together athletic specimen. He already has the muscular definition of an NFL wide receiver and the athleticism of a lanky NBA small forward. The most spectacular play of the night was a reverse alley-oop jam he missed as his head nearly grazed the rim, bringing everyone out of their seats with oohs and ahhhs.
It was one of those plays that allows you to imagine the possibilities of what it would be like to lose all sense of propriety as Green-Beckham hang glides into the air just like he did on that missed dunk to snatch hundreds of passes from MU quarterback James Franklin over the next two seasons.
But for now, the smartest thing these fans might have done was to show a little adult-like restraint.
"Well, word on the street is he's not into all that extra attention," Ladd said.
Turns out word on the street was right.
"I kind of like that they didn't get too fired up," Green-Beckham said. "They weren't trying to distract me from what I had to do in the game. Wherever they came from, whether it was Columbia or St. Louis or back home, I thought they did pretty good. That gives me comfort in knowing, ‘OK, they're cool. They're not going to bother me while I'm in a game, trying make me float out mentally from what I should be doing to pay attention to what they're doing.'"
There really wasn't much to get excited about other than the occasional spectacular dunks he made during his 23-point night. The superb All-America wide receiver could easily be a Division I basketball player too.
But playing in this first-round game against the Jackson JV, there wasn't much competition on the floor to force him to take his basketball skills into that rarefied level that coach John Schaefer saw recently when he scored 31 points in another basketball tournament with University of Kentucky five-star hoop recruit Archie Goodwin.
But the Missouri folks weren't really there to witness his basketball skills as much as they were here to just let him know that they were there.
Curious. Anxious. Hopeful.
Everyone I talked to asked me the same question over and over again.
What do you think he'll do?
I told them all the same thing. I have absolutely no idea what is on the young man's mind because I don't even know him. We'll find out soon enough when he steps in front of the microphones at his news conference on Feb. 1.
"He's handling this as good as anyone can," Schaefer said. "He's a pretty humble kid. But there's a fine line with this kind of recruiting. What kid doesn't like the attention? But at the same time, sometimes it is overwhelming with all the people pulling at him in different directions.
"But I told him to enjoy it because it's only going to happen to you one time in your life where everybody loves you."
After national signing day, things will change dramatically. The people who are fans of the school he signs with will expect him to walk on the moon, and if he doesn't they'll grumble bitterly about him being overrated. And the folks who are fans of the schools with which Green-Beckham doesn't sign?
Well, what's that they say about a thin line between love and hate?
"I just told him to prepare for everything to change after that," Schaefer said. "It's like some scene from a movie where the highly recruited kid comes to school for the first time his freshman year. The kid gets off the bus and no one's there to greet him but the coach.
"‘Hey coach, where's the parade? Where's all the cheerleaders? Where are all the girls?'"
Schaefer grins a little bit, but he knows it isn't all that funny.
"That's when the coach looks at the kid and says, ‘Nah, the parade's over kid. We got you now. It's time to go to work.'"