Young players taking a Cotton to former basketball star

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Harper Woods — Brandon Cotton has experienced the highs and lows of basketball, but understands there’s a reason.

And when he sees all the young faces before him at this week’s basketball camp at Harper Woods, it becomes clear.

It’s for the kids — kids living in the same neighborhood, kids who can learn from the one-time basketball star.

“I don’t want them to make the same mistakes I made,” said Cotton, head trainer at Neighborhood United Maximum Effort Now, a local youth basketball organization. “I want them to avoid the same mistakes. They can learn from what I did and had to go through.”

Cotton has seen it all — and done it all.

He was an All-State point guard who averaged 26.7 points and 4.3 assists leading Detroit DePorres to the 2003 Class C state title.

He was a member of the 2003 McDonald’s All-American team alongside LeBron James, Chris Paul, Shannon Brown and Kendrick Perkins.

He played at Michigan State, left his freshman year and transferred to Detroit, and left before the start of his senior year.

But his dream of playing in the NBA never materialized.

Cotton played in Iceland (averaged more than 30 points) and the Dominican Republic, before getting a shot in the NBA Development League.

And that was as close as he got.

So now, he’s hoping kids who have big-time basketball dreams will listen to his story — and learn.

“I just want these kids to know if you have dreams and aspirations, if they want to to get to the next level, just know it takes a lot of commitment and be accountable,” Cotton said. “And be coachable. You can’t run away from problems when they occur.

“You have to stick to it, stick to things and work them out, on and off the court.”

More than a camp

Will Smith, a former 30-year Detroit police officer who has coached Detroit youth, founded Neighborhood United.

He wanted to do something to keep Detroit and Harper Woods kids busy during the summer — off the streets and learning about life.

And playing basketball.

So he teamed with Cotton and former player Daijon Smith — and the idea of a basketball camp was born.

Cotton, however, has boosted the idea beyond just a camp, with a summer league taking place the next four weeks, and individual training.

“He’s doing an amazing job; I’m overwhelmed with the way he’s taken charge,” said Smith, who added there are more than 200 kids at the two sessions at Harper Woods this week. “For him to orchestrate and organize these camps, keeping the kids busy at different stations and keep them engaged, it’s impressive.

“These kids, they relate extremely well to him. We were able to make a connection. I asked the kids who their favorite players were. They said LeBron, Chris Paul, and these are the same guys who Brandon played with in the McDonald’s game. This is a guy who was one of the nation’s top basketball players.”

Life lessons imparted

While Cotton has fond memories of playing with James, Paul, and the rest of the All-Stars, he watches them in admiration — but isn’t angry or jealous of where they are and where he is.

“I’m proud of those guys,” Cotton said. “Those guys are extremely hard workers, you have to be to make it to that level and stay there and have the success they’ve had.

“I’ve had a taste of it. ... But I made some immature mistakes along the way. I want to teach these kids how to avoid those mistakes.”

Cotton said he left Michigan State because he wasn’t happy with his role off the bench.

And going to Detroit turned out to be somewhat successful — Cotton earned a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts and was named freshman of the year.

Before his senior season, however, he had a personality conflict with then-coach Perry Watson, who removed Cotton from the team.

“It was a situation that got out of control and Perry suspended me for two games without me even knowing it,” said Cotton, who added he eventually worked out his issues with Watson. “I found out through the media. I lost trust with Perry.”

And it’s stories like those Smith knows will resonate with kids.

“What makes it important is not just from a basketball aspect, but Brandon tells them about all of his ups and down, all his journeys,” Smith said. “The kids can identify with it a bit, seeing their coach teaching them and telling them about this stuff. Overcoming his obstacles.

“These kids, they’re here for the basketball but they learn life skills, life lessons from all the basketball and they don’t even know it.”