This article appears in the April 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
It was supposed to be the culmination of a dream season. The Lincoln boys' basketball team was 39-0 heading into the Class 4A state title game against Beaumont Ozen in 2002, and the Tigers had arguably the top senior tandem in the country in forward Chris Bosh and point guard Bryan Hopkins.
It seemed like nothing could go wrong.
That is, until Hopkins went down with a broken toe to start the game. Sure, Lincoln still had Bosh, who was a McDonald's All-American that year and is now a star with the Toronto Raptors. But Hopkins was one of the nation's top recruits in his own right. He was Dwyane Wade to Bosh's Shaq.
Lincoln head coach Leonard Bishop, however, didn't panic. He simply plugged in a backup point guard named Byron Eaton.
Though he was only a freshman at the time, Eaton had been one of the first guys off the bench all season, and Bishop felt the Tigers wouldn't miss a beat. He was right. Eaton had just two points, three rebounds and an assist in 15 minutes of action, but it was the composure he showed that reaffirmed Bishop's confidence.
"He stepped right in and played with a lot of poise," says Bishop, who is now in his sixth year as Lincoln's head coach. "He played real good defense, too."
"Any time you've got a freshman who can play in the state tournament, you've got someone special," adds Ozen head coach Andre Boutte Sr., whose 2002 state final team featured current Boston Celtics center Kendrick Perkins. "He held the team together until Hopkins came back into the game. You couldn't look at him and tell he was a freshman. He was physical and before his time. He was mature beyond his years."
Hopkins, who is now a star at SMU, ended up returning in the second half and Lincoln went on to win, 71-51, to capture the state title and the No. 1 final ranking in the SchoolSports.com National Top 25.
Hopkins' return certainly lifted the Tigers' spirits, but Eaton's contributions played an equally integral role in Lincoln's victory and foreshadowed bigger things to come. Eaton's poise and leadership with the pressure of a state title and an undefeated season on the line were beyond impressive for a player so young.
But to Eaton, it was nothing he hadn't experienced before. As a seventh- and eighth-grader, he led his Dallas Mustangs AAU squad to back-to-back national titles.
"Sure, there was pressure because I was getting in the game so early," says Eaton, now a senior point guard who is rated the nation's No. 30 recruit in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com. "Chris Bosh just told me to have fun, and that's what I did. As a freshman, I was going up against Bosh and Bryan Hopkins in practice every day, and they were the best in the state. I played well against them, so why would I be afraid of anyone else?"
That confidence — combined with his tremendous toughness, talent and physical skills — has made Eaton one of the top point guards in the country and is a big reason why Lincoln has been one of the state's top hoop programs during the past four years.
In his four seasons on varsity, Lincoln went 122-20 and twice made it to the state finals, with last year's team falling in the state title game. Led by Eaton's 16.8 points and 5.3 assists per game, this year's squad finished 26-7 after a loss to eventual state champ South Oak Cliff in the Class 4A regional semifinals.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound Eaton has been compared to NBA star Baron Davis because of his strong build and physical playing style, but Bishop takes that comparison a step further.
"He's Baron Davis with more point guard skills, and that's saying a lot," says Bishop.
The coach also notes that Eaton's competitiveness helps separate him from most players.
"He'll do whatever it takes to win," says Bishop. "He doesn't fear anyone. He'll respect them, but he plays to win. That has to do with a lot of mental toughness."
Much of Eaton's toughness and leadership stem from the fact that he was also one of the state's top football players as a quarterback for the Tigers. This past fall, he led the Lincoln football team to the Class 4A Division II state title game while passing for 1,044 yards and 16 touchdowns and rushing for 789 yards and 12 scores.
Despite his football skills, Eaton signed to play hoops at Oklahoma State. And for at least his first season in college, football isn't even in the picture.
"I chose basketball because of the outstanding summer I had," says Eaton, who was named a McDonald's All-American this season. "It made me want to put football away because of my outstanding athletic ability in basketball. I would say the door is closed for football as far as my freshman year."
That's good news for the Cowboys and head coach Eddie Sutton, who has molded Oklahoma State into one of the top college hoop programs in the country. Sutton landed one of the nation's best recruiting classes this year with Eaton and three fellow elite Texas recruits: Gulf Shores Academy small forward Gerald Green, South Garland shooting guard Terrel Harris and DeSoto small forward Roderick Flemings.
Oklahoma State's success and strong program support led Eaton to pick the Cowboys. And his no-fear attitude and physical style of play should make him a perfect fit in Stillwater.
"When they went to the Final Four (last year), it put them right in my top three," says Eaton, who could start for Oklahoma State next season with the graduation of point guard John Lucas III. "There's a lot of love in the program for the players from the coaches, the fans and the academic counselors."
Which is important to Eaton. Because even with his selection to the McDonald's All-American Game, he believes he's slighted when people talk about the nation's top prep point guards.
"I'm underrated," he says. "I don't think people gave me as much love as they should have."
But thanks to his toughness and talent, Oklahoma State will be waiting with open arms.