This article appears in the Jan/Feb 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
It's 10 minutes before game time.
Much of the crowd in the packed South gym at Cherry Creek High School has come to see the first-year Bruin who is said to be the most promising basketball player to duck through Creek's halls since current Washington Wizards power forward Michael Ruffin graduated in 1995.
As the Bruins warm up, the 6-foot-10, 230-pound center has his shorts hiked up like Steve Urkel and is missing routine layups and getting stuffed by the rim on dunk attempts. The opposition can't believe what it's seeing.
The Urkel look-alike has to be the heralded Sam Warren, right? Nobody else on the Bruins approaches 7 feet tall. But this can't be. How does a kid who can't hit a layup become the first Colorado schoolboy to earn a hoop scholarship to an ACC school since the 1980s?
Still, for some reason the Creek faithful remain calm. It's like they're in on some inside joke. Perhaps they are.
Ten minutes pass and the oafish giant lines up for the tipoff. All of a sudden, Urkel morphs into Ben Wallace. Missed layups are now monster dunks. He's controlling the glass and swatting everything that comes inside.
It turns out Warren's ineptitude was indeed a joke. Some kids prepare for games by zoning out to their iPods. Warren prepares by acting a fool.
"I like to make the other team think I'm sorry," says Warren, whose pre-game routine also calls for him to hug his mom and/or a female friend. "It's kind of humbling. I don't want to get cocky, no matter what."
It'd be easy for Warren to get cocky. Even though he's still somewhat new to the sport, he's already rated the nation's No. 20 center in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com. In a little more than three years, Warren has transformed from a basketball novice to a Virginia recruit with a shot at the NBA.
"I think he has the potential to be a dominant force in the post offensively and defensively," says third-year Cherry Creek head coach Mike Brookhart. "I think his upside is whatever he chooses to do with it."
A still-developing Warren averaged seven points, seven rebounds and six blocks per game for Montbello last year, but he's hoping to average a double-double — perhaps even a triple-double — for a stacked Cherry Creek squad this season.
Warren's journey began three years ago, when he was getting home schooled by his mother, Vanita Warren. At the time, he was 6-foot-2, give or take an inch, but had never touched a basketball. Literally.
Instead, Warren was an anime fanatic. He still is, in fact, and to this day he hates missing episodes of "Dragon Ball Z." Among his most prized possessions is a notebook filled with his own Japanese-influenced drawings and stories he's worked on since he was 7.
As he got older, Warren's love of anime transcended into a passion for role-playing video games, especially the Final Fantasy series. In fact, he plans on majoring in computer animation and graphic design in college, with hopes of one day moving to Japan to work on his own video games.
"Aside from going to the NBA, my other dream is to make my own PlayStation game," Warren says. "I would love more than anything to work for Final Fantasy. Once I learn how to take what I draw and put it in a computer, I'll be real good."
Warren's gaming obsession was put aside for basketball thanks to former Montbello coach Louis Ray, a Warren family friend who used to be a police officer with Vanita and Warren's stepfather, David Warren.
Three years ago, Ray was struggling to fill roster spots on his program's lower-level teams. Ray knew Warren's biological father, 7-footer Rudy Woods, was a former Dallas Mavericks center who was the first McDonald's All-American Game MVP back in 1978.
Warren might not have any game, the coach thought, but at least he has basketball in his blood.
At first, it looked like Ray might have been a tad overzealous in luring Warren to the program. In one of Warren's first games, he took a shot from behind the free-throw line of the opponents' hoop after lucking into a defensive rebound.
"I was so bad, it was embarrassing," Warren says. "Some kid in the audience yelled ‘shoot it,' so I shot it. I was so spooked out and scared to do anything else. I couldn't dribble. I was afraid I would mess up and dribble off my foot. I didn't pass because I thought I would pass it to the other team. So I just shot it."
The education of Sam Warren lasted most of the season before anything clicked. Then, toward the end of his doubt-filled freshman season, an aggravated Warren grabbed a flat ball and jammed it through the hoop for his first dunk. Since then, the learning curve has been steep.
"The only reason I'm still playing today is because everybody kept telling me I was sorry," Warren says. "I told my team, ‘I promise you I'll be better than all of you guys one day.' From my freshman to junior year, I worked day and night."
First came defense. Even when he couldn't dribble, pass or shoot, Warren could always move quick and jump high. He can now touch the top of the square on the backboard with his wrist and easily keeps up with point guards on fast breaks.
In time, his natural gifts clicked with his developing hoop instincts. As a sophomore, he averaged roughly six rebounds and six blocks per game. And by the end of his junior season, he was arguably the most dominant defender in the state.
"He's got great defensive instincts," Brookhart says. "I think that he just has a real innate ability. When we played [Montbello] last year, I knew we had to keep him off the boards."
Though still not dominant, Warren's offensive skills are continuously developing. A hard worker who scores in bunches, Warren has added a killer hook shot to his repertoire and is working on adding range to his jumper.
"I'm not bragging, but I think I've improved a lot," Warren says. "I went from being the worst freshman to ever play basketball to going to the ACC."
But before going to the ACC, he's had to adjust to simply going to school.
After getting home schooled his first three years of high school, Warren enrolled at Cherry Creek this past fall to help prepare for campus life. He chose Creek over a handful of schools because he says its size, curriculum and freedom most resemble college.
"I cannot wait to go to Virginia," he says. "If I was a little kid, I'd pee my pants."
Now that'd be a dubious introduction to the ACC. Even more than a missed layup.