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Sickles' John Henson an All-American in every way

TAMPA — He already has a paper certificate to prove it, but on Wednesday night John Henson will officially enter the realm of stardom.

The Sickles High center will be one of 24 players participating in this year's McDonald's All-American Game, the nation's top showcase for high school hoopsters.

The next big college star likely will emerge from this game, as could the future poster boy for the NBA. Henson, ranked the third-best prospect in the nation and heading to the University of North Carolina, could be that star-in-waiting.

"I'm putting myself in an elite group," Henson said, "which can lead to great things. Just being in that group of guys, someone is going to be great one day."

The trip to Miami begins a whirlwind tour for Henson, just the bay area's fourth McDonald's All-American. Next month, he will play in another all-star game at Madison Square Garden, the Jordan Brand Classic, but not before he represents his country in the World Hoops Summit in Portland, Ore.

Take a look at the 6-foot-10 Henson and there's something different. He spends his spare time cheering on his little sister, Amber, a sophomore at Sickles, at her basketball games — a few times losing his voice in the process. He bowls and he fishes. His arms are clean of tattoos.

What he does have is an unassuming personality — he grants every friend request on Facebook, which with his following means a friend list of more than 1,000 — and a genuine smile made for the next round of "Got Milk" advertisements a few years from now.

Oh, and he possesses a 7-foot-4 wing span, which makes ordering a jacket for prom a tall order, literally.

John Henson is not just a McDonald's All-American. He is the All-American teenager.

The Hensons moved to Tampa late last summer, when John's father, Matt, transferred from Round Rock, Texas, for work. Matt, a former basketball player at Norfolk State, kept his son away from idle temptations and has motivated each of his children to be the best.

"One thing I always emphasized to him is to learn from other people's mistakes instead of your own," Matt Henson said. "What made it easy is that there are so many examples of people with promise getting pulled in the wrong direction, especially athletes. Now he points those things out to me."

The rules of the Henson house were sometimes strict — John didn't get a cell phone until after his sophomore year and still adheres to a curfew.

"I'm the guinea pig because I'm the oldest," John said, joking. "They tried everything on me to see how it worked, but in the end you're thankful for it."

Another person in his ear is UNC coach Roy Williams, a basketball Hall of Famer who knows a thing or two about molding young talent. As a Tar Heels assistant, Williams played a significant role in recruiting Michael Jordan to UNC.

Last month, Williams sat in the top row of the stands watching Henson's final high school game in a packed, sweaty gym at Lakeland. Last year, three months after becoming UNC's first commitment, Henson watched the Tar Heels play in the Final Four in San Antonio, Texas.

"When I was younger, I would look at the schedule and say, 'I want to see them play,' " Henson said. "So it was a weird feeling playing in some of these local tournaments and the one game would be empty and when we played the place would fill up. It was a humbling thing."

When Henson registered at Sickles, he joked to Gryphons coach Renaldo Garcia that he hoped he had a good cell phone plan.

"Within two hours, I was getting calls from all over," Garcia said. "Invitations from tournaments, interview requests, people from North Carolina. But throughout it all, he always had a knack for being humble."

It wasn't until a wave of invitation-only camps last summer raised Henson's stock from a top-25 prospect to top five. Some experts weren't sold on Henson. But in the Reebok Challenge in Las Vegas, he held his own against Renardo Sidney, a USC recruit tabbed as a favorite to be the top overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft, scoring 21 and pulling down 14 rebounds.

"I told John in the ninth grade that guys are going to give you a gut check and see how you react," Matt Henson said. "They're gonna shove you, do dirty stuff to see how you respond. But he's always shown a lot of poise in tough situations."

Another challenge arrives Wednesday. And even Williams gave Henson some advice heading into this week. The All-American Game is about showtime, not set plays. They still talk about LeBron James' dunks, not the 2-3 zone.

"He told me I might not have a lot of chances, so I have to take advantage of all of them," Henson said. "They're all looking for alley-oops, so I'll look for that. And get some rebounds, too, hopefully.

"It's going to be an experience. Something I'll never forget."

Fast facts

Historical tidbits

• Only four bay area players have been named McDonald's All-Americans: Henson, Tampa Prep's Casey Sanders (1999), Boca Ciega's David White (1987) and Brandon's Dwayne Schintzius (1986).

• The first McDonald's All-American team played in 1977 in the Capital Classic in Washington, D.C., against a team of Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia all-stars. That first McDonald's squad was led by Magic Johnson.

• In 1981, Michael Jordan scored a record 30 in the All-American Game, which stood for 18 years until Jonathan Bender's 31 in 1999.

• In 2003, LeBron James scored 27 and added seven rebounds and seven assists in front of a hometown crowd in Cleveland in one of the game's top all-around performances.

• Last year, current Memphis star Tyreke Evans earned MVP honors with 21 points and 10 rebounds.

• Proceeds from the game go to the Ronald McDonald House Charities, and every year players and coaches visit the local Ronald McDonald House.

Sickles' John Henson an All-American in every way 03/30/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 30, 2009 10:44pm]
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