It is not uncommon for coaches at Sickles to play small practical jokes on each other. More than once, Renaldo Garcia has been the victim. "The baseball coaches would sometimes say there was a 6-foot-10 kid in the guidance office," said Garcia, who has coached the Sickles varsity boys basketball team seven years. "When I was younger, I'd fall for it and walk down there hoping it was true." Because of this, Garcia did not bite when he received an e-mail this year, supposedly from the parent of a superstar basketball prospect who said he was thinking about moving to the area and enrolling his children at Sickles. "I thought it was another prank," Garcia said. It was anything but.
Within days, Garcia received a phone call from Matt Henson, whose son John is a 6-foot-10 senior forward and consensus top-10 national recruit, and he knew things were legit. In late August, Henson and sister Amber, a sophomore and heralded basketball talent, left Round Rock, Texas, a suburb of Austin, and started class at Sickles.
Almost immediately, John Henson, who signed a letter of intent with the Tar Heels on Nov. 12 and was expected to make his regular-season debut Monday night at Freedom, became the talk of the local basketball community — even though he had never played a game in the area.
"We've had some good players go on to some very good schools, but we're talking about being ranked (by some services) in the top five in the country," longtime Chamberlain coach and former USF standout Doug Aplin said. "He signed with North Carolina — and you're not bad if you're signing with North Carolina."
Recruiting Web site Rivals.com, which called Henson the "gem" of UNC's top-rated recruiting class, ranks him the No. 6 player in the country, making him first in the Sunshine State (Florida signee Kenny Boynton of Plantation American Heritage is rated No. 7). On national signing day, UNC coach Roy Williams said Henson had "unlimited potential" and "the chance, in my opinion, to be a great player."
That sentiment is shared by many.
"I've seen him play, and he's the real deal," Plant coach Mike Phillips said.
Added Garcia: "His skill level is off the charts. Some people are good because of their height. But this kid could be 6-4 and still be great. He's that good."
Just part of the team
Despite the accolades for him, his coach and teammates insist Henson, also a solid student, is a humble, team-oriented player.
"He's got a great personality," Sickles junior Jordan Davis said. "His teams in Texas were good, but they didn't have much success. We've won a lot of games here (21 last season), so he's excited. He wants what we all want."
In Texas, the mild-mannered Henson was, in his words, one of "five or six" high-caliber players. He averaged more than 20 points and 10-plus rebounds as a junior despite playing part of the season with a broken nose.
In Tampa Bay, he's clearly No. 1 as far as recruiting analysts are concerned. Henson might not just be the biggest recruit in the 2009 senior class; he might be the biggest this area, which has produced three McDonald's All-Americans (Tampa Prep center Casey Sanders, Brandon center Dwayne Schintzius and Boca Ciega forward David White), has ever had.
"I'd definitely agree with that," Phillips said.
For his part, Henson seems to be just about the only one not in awe of his ability. While he said the rankings don't mean much, they admittedly have brought "added pressure."
"I'm just trying to win," Henson said.
Henson's Sickles teammates have accepted him with open arms, without a trace of jealously.
"They took me in as one of their own," Henson said. "We play well together, and we bonded together."
No player was more excited about Henson's arrival than Davis, the Gryphons' starting point guard and perhaps the greatest beneficiary of Henson's presence.
"I had seen him play," Davis said. "I knew how good he was."
Members of the Sickles family aren't the only ones energized by Henson's appearance on the area scene. Aplin expects to check out Sickles when his schedule permits. So does Phillips. Both hope Henson will have a positive impact not just with the Gryphons but on local basketball.
Back at Sickles, Garcia has never been busier. And much of his time is spent reading — and responding to — e-mail.
"We get tons of schedule requests from UNC alums who live in the area," Garcia said. "It's crazy. The interest level (in the program) has gone up a whole lot."