GREENSBORO, N.C. --- David Price has seen it happen to the best. The stage gets bigger, the lights get brighter and the hands, they start to shake.
Heading into a December 2007 match-up with Oak Hill in Arizona, the Greensboro Dudley High coach expected standout freshman P.J. Hairston to be no different. Hairston had led the Panthers in scoring but in front of a McKale Center crowd with Brandon Jennings staring him down, Hairston was supposed to blink.
"We were teasing him, telling him he was going to be tight," Price laughs two years later in his office, mimicking the freshman's shaking hands as he sat just a few feet away.
But Hairston didn't blink. Unfazed by the McKale Center and Jennings, Hairston led Dudley with 26 points in a 102-91 loss. Jennings caught the headlines with his 49 points and the win, but the icy Hairston caught the eyes of scouts and his coach. If he didn't know it before, Price knew then Hairston was for real.
"He didn't get 26 on Southern Alamance or Bartlett-Yancey -- he got 26 on Oak Hill," Price said. "That stands out as a freshman. The way he did it, it was something to see."
Looking back at the game, Hairston said he wasn't surprised by his performance.
"I told them I wasn't ever going to be scared," Hairston laughs. "At least I wasn't going to show it."
It's hard to imagine Hairston getting bothered by much of anything now. Sitting in Price's office, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound shooting guard has a calm disposition not common for a high school junior. Since lighting up Oak Hill as a freshman, Hairston has been Dudley's top scorer for over two years, led the Panthers deep into the playoffs each year and committed to play at North Carolina. This year Hairston is averaging 33 points on 59 percent shooting and eight rebounds for a young, 5-1 Dudley team.
"I think it's been going pretty good," Hairston said. "It's been going better than I thought it would be because we had so many freshmen. I thought we'd have a lack of experience. But they've come out playing hard and they make the whole team play hard."
When Hairston talks about basketball he's not serious so much as he is matter of fact. He doesn't mince words or sugarcoat things. He has goals and the difference between accomplishing them or not is hard work, not luck.
Take the summer before his ninth grade year. During middle school Hairston was the tallest kid on his team and as a result played center. His post game was developed but his step dad, William Turner, a former college football player at N.C. State, knew a 6-5 center wouldn't fly at state 3-A power Dudley. If he wanted to see the floor, he'd have to become a perimeter player. That summer Turner took him to guard camps and Hairston shot 400 jumpers a day in preparation for the high school season.
"I didn't really start hitting my jump shot until then," Hairston said. "Then when I got to high school I started shooting on the machine and I started getting my shot right. I came into the next season shooting well."
Now Hairston is considered one of the top shooters in the country and the reputation is well-deserved. Once a weakness, Hairston now says he feels comfortable shooting from 30 feet.
But Price says Hairston's range starts when he crosses half court.
"I'm serious," Price said. "We played Carolina's JV team and I don't want to exaggerate it but we were up one (right before) halftime and he hit a shot about a step over half court and he hit it with form. Maybe not perfect form but it looked good. (Watch that shot at the :56 mark of this game highlight reel)
"In practice last Friday after Thanksgiving, he hit one in the backcourt that was about (70 feet away) and he swished it."
After his shot in practice, Price joked with an assistant that he bet Hairston would try to find another opportunity to take the shot.
"Then the next day in practice, he shot it again and banked it," Price laughed.
(Check back tomorrow for Part II ...)