The last time guard Bryce Cotton performed on a national platform, he unleashed one of the most impressive two-week college basketball runs ever by a Tucson player.
Cotton led Providence to the Big East Conference Tournament championship and was named the event’s most valuable player, then scored 36 points against North Carolina in the Friars’ NCAA tournament game, a two-point loss.
Now, the Palo Verde High School graduate is hopscotching North America, working out for teams in anticipation of the NBA draft.
Along the way, he’ll try to join an exclusive club.
It’s been a quarter century since the last Tucson high school product was selected in the NBA draft. Cholla’s Sean Elliott was taken third overall by the Spurs in 1989, capping a seven-year period in which the Old Pueblo produced three NBA players, including two all-stars.
On the surface, it doesn’t make sense: Tucson’s metro area is much bigger than 30 years ago, and the city has since become college-basketball crazy. Demographics remain mostly the same now as they were when Lafayette “Fat” Lever, Dave Feitl and Elliott were drafted.
But a few factors kept Tucson from becoming a basketball hotbed — and, in a way, make Cotton’s journey even more impressive.
Bear Down place to be
Lever and others say Tucson’s NBA drought can be traced to cultural and demographic changes — and pickup games where players polished their skills during the high school offseason.
He should know: Lever, a 6-foot-3-inch guard drafted 11th overall by Portland in 1982 out of ASU, played 11 seasons in the NBA, and watched his son, Anthony Lever-Pedroza, star at Canyon del Oro High School before accepting a scholarship to play for Oregon.
Basketball success was a source of pride in many of Tucson’s mid-century neighborhoods, among them South Park Avenue, “A” Mountain and “Sugar Hill,” an area between First Avenue and Sixth Avenue south of Grant Road. These areas primarily fed into three high schools: Pueblo, Cholla and Tucson.
“Neighborhood bragging rights were always on the line,” said Lever, a Pueblo grad, “and guys just went at it on the court.”
By the late 1960s, some of these regions had developed into hotbeds of basketball talent. The game was everywhere: at the local parks, gymnasiums or any location with a hoop. And the local high schools were chief benefactors of this basketball-centric environment.
The 1969 Tucson High squad, led by precocious Sugar Hill-area star Wallace “Hoegie” Simmons, became one of the first legendary teams in city history.
But it wasn’t in high school practices where players like Simmons improved the most.
That took place down the street from Sugar Hill on the home court of the Arizona Wildcats, Bear Down Gym.
The old gymnasium housed college basketball games, but it was the out-of-season weekend recreational competition that garnered more talent.
Most weekends the compact, muggy gym was lined with an assortment of high school, college and pro basketball stars, and local streetball legends engaging in pickup basketball games.
Because a loss meant possibly being sidelined for hours until the team’s next turn came around, an incredibly charged, competitive buzz permeated Bear Down Gym.
These games were no small deal for players striving for any minuscule improvement that could mean the difference between dominating the Tucson recreational scene and earning an NBA paycheck.
Simmons never played in the NBA, but he did earn national acclaim as an NAIA All-American at Texas A&I. By the mid-1970s, he was back in Tucson full-time serving as the unofficial gatekeeper of Bear Down pickup basketball.
When Simmons wasn’t dominating professionals, the speedy yet diminutive guard was intently scouting the talent.
If a player couldn’t keep up, Simmons or another legend would usually embarrass that player on the court to the point where he wouldn’t come back.
These games inspired a new generation of basketball players, including a future NBA legend who would retire with the fifth-most triple-doubles in NBA history.
Lever attended school near the South Park neighborhood and enjoyed all sports from an early age.
But it was basketball that was always in his face.
“I grew up around guys with legitimate NBA dreams,” Lever said. “When I wasn’t playing against neighborhood kids, I was playing against UA guys on my middle school basketball courts. It wasn’t hard to find a game.”
But it was elsewhere where Lever was truly pushed to excel.
“Bear Down is where my game was molded,” Lever said. “There were so many legends, so many great players and when you got on the court you were playing to get better, but you were also representing your neighborhood and were super focused because nobody wanted to get embarrassed in front of the best players in the city. These were guys you idolized.”
After competing at Bear Down, the high school games were no big deal.
Along with best friend and Bear Down companion Jeff Moore, a player who some argued was the more talented of the two, Lever led Pueblo to back-to-back big school state championships.
Their senior season was particularly special as Pueblo rolled to an undefeated season and No. 4 national ranking, while fielding arguably the best team in state history.
After Santa Rita big man Feitl moved on to star at UTEP, the next headliner emerged.
Elliott grew up in the shadows of Lever and others, and while he was the ultimate late bloomer, it didn’t take long for UA players and streetballers to notice the gangly future superstar. He was pushed accordingly as word spread around the parks and neighborhoods about Elliott’s potential.
The world would soon know about Elliott, who followed Lever and Feitl — the 1986 draft’s 43rd overall pick by Houston — to the NBA. After leaving Arizona in 1989 as the Pac-10’s all time leading scorer, the 6-8 Elliott went on to become a two-time All-Star forward and NBA champion with San Antonio.
Cotton didn’t grow up in the same basketball environment as his predecessors. As the city spread out, so did the talent. Gone were the urban high school powerhouses comprised of players that grew up competing for neighborhood basketball bragging rights.
Bear Down Gym became obsolete as UA’s basketball team became a national power, moved to McKale Center and could field competitive practices. Current Wildcats mostly stayed away from local pick-up games, opting instead to work out at the UA’s campus recreation center or the Jewish Community Center and, later, play in the Tucson Summer Pro League.
Cotton spent most of his early childhood in the Sugar Hill neighborhood, but the area wasn’t the same. Still, local pickup games featured some talented players and Cotton said he soaked up what he could.
He moved with his mother and grandmother to the east side as an elementary-school student, but still spent most of his free time in his old Sugar Hill neighborhood.
Along with older brother Justin Tarpley and best friend Daniel Waddy, Cotton spent countless hours playing pickup ball against neighborhood talent.
“That community means the world to me, and those were the games that helped shape me before I moved,” Cotton said. “My brother had skills and Daniel became one of the best players in the state, and they never took it easy on me and always pushed me to become a better player. There were so many times when it was just the three of us going at it at the park. That’s where I found my love for the game.”
But with a lack of great talent always on hand, these games had limitations. Cotton initially elected to stay close to home and attend Tucson High School, and although he appeared to be a good player, he didn’t stand out as someone who might one day flirt with the NBA.
Midway through his sophomore year Cotton’s mother got a job in Las Vegas. He moved with her. He attended Palo Verde High School — same name, different city — and the change in environment dramatically accelerated his game.
Much like Tucson back in the 1970s, high-level basketball was everywhere in Vegas. And Cotton took to it.
“The first time I played a pickup game, I could just tell I had to get better quickly because I was facing way better, more committed players,” Cotton said. “It was a sink or swim kind of situation. I learned how to get my shot off faster, how to get space and I also learned I had to get stronger.”
For a player with Cotton’s passion, the 24-7 basketball ethos of Las Vegas served him perfectly.
“Gyms were always open and packed with guys who had big dreams and guys who could play at an incredibly high level,” he said.
On the high school court Cotton’s game showed immense improvement during his junior season, but his game was somewhat overshadowed by teammate and all-star small forward Moses Morgan.
Due to a family health concern that expedited a return to Tucson for his senior season, Cotton never got a chance to show Vegas his true potential.
But Tucson was about to see a different player. Coincidentally, Cotton enrolled at Tucson’s Palo Verde High School and went about lighting up the Southern Arizona basketball scene.
“I was just a whole different player,” said Cotton, nearly 6 feet. “Don’t get me wrong. There are some great players in Tucson, but it just seemed easy now. Guys couldn’t stay in front of me, I could get my shot off and it just didn’t seem like a lot of my opponents wanted it as bad as I did now.”
Cotton said he’s anxiously awaiting the draft and the chance of joining all-time Tucson basketball royalty — even though it’s his experience in Las Vegas that deserves much of the credit. If he’s on an NBA team next season, Tucson basketball fans should rejoice. It’s a feat that doesn’t figure to be replicated anytime soon.