Michigan State senior guard Scott Skiles was shooting around at Iowa's Carver-Hawkeye Arena an hour or so before a recent tipoff. Only a few of the 15,450 seats were filled, and the pregame buzz was at a low volume. Suddenly a piercing voice sounded: "Hey, Skiles, where are your handcuffs?" Skiles took a rebound, walked the ball to a spot three feet beyond the top of the key, turned and drilled it through the net.
This has been happening a lot lately. Skiles hears the boos and answers them with phenomenal scoring explosions. In his last four games he has scored 45 points at Minnesota, 40 in an upset over Michigan, 36 against Wisconsin and 29 in Saturday's 97-69 victory over Northwestern. Skiles is the second-leading scorer in Division I, averaging 27.0 points per game despite being short (6'1") and slow. Yet this success has gone largely unheralded because of the other side of his life. In the last 17 months Skiles has been arrested three times, once for marijuana and cocaine possession and twice for driving while intoxicated. As he continues to set Michigan State career records, the question of whether Skiles deserves to play in the Big Ten has shifted from his talent to his character.
"One dollar and fifty cents and you get a list of every offense by Scott Skiles," yelled a wise guy hawking game programs at Iowa. "Cocaine! Marijuana! Drunk driving! It took 12 pages, but we did it!"
During his four years Skiles has made bigger, faster players look foolish, not with Shake 'N Bake moves but with all-day-sucker head fakes and shot pumps that mask a jumper accurate to 25 feet. He hit 20 of 28 against Minnesota, 15 of 20 against then No. 3-ranked Michigan and 18 of 21 against Wisconsin. Many of his passes (he averages 6.6 assists per game) slice through traffic as though a police siren were attached. He also grabs 5.1 rebounds per game.
Skiles has had box-and-one defenses thrown at him, not to mention epithets and pennies from the crowds, all with little negative effect. It's not just his arrest record; opposing fans go after him because of his penchant for fist-waving, woofing and griping to referees. "At the Lobo Classic at New Mexico last December, nobody there knew about any of the trouble Scott has been in," says Spartan coach Jud Heathcote. "By the second night they were booing him."
Four years ago Skiles was the darling of Plymouth, Ind. after leading Plymouth High to the 1982 Indiana state championship. The Pilgrims represented the smallest school (894 students) to win the title since fabled Milan High in 1954. In the championship game against powerful Roosevelt High from Gary, Skiles hit a 22-foot jumper at the buzzer to force an overtime, then completed a 39-point performance in Plymouth's 75-74 win. The victory parade featured several fire trucks and ended at the school, where 5,500 people crammed into a 4,500-seat gym to cheer their heroes.
Now things have changed. No longer do six busloads of Plymouth residents ride three hours to East Lansing to watch Skiles play. "People who had kids who looked up to him and those who looked up to him themselves felt betrayed," says Jan Garrison, news editor of The Plymouth Pilot-News. "You put a lot of hopes and aspirations on one person in a small town."
On Aug. 29, 1984, shortly before his junior year at Michigan State, Skiles was driving his car near Plymouth when a policeman pulled him over. The policeman said that he found at least one small vial containing a small quantity of cocaine and a plastic bag containing marijuana in a gym bag in the front seat. Skiles's initial explanation was that his roommate had hidden the drugs in his bag. Then he said he didn't know how they got there. He was arrested and released pending trial. Three weeks later, near East Lansing, Skiles was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated.
In April 1985, Skiles pleaded guilty in Plymouth to a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession. The felony cocaine charge was dropped. He received one year's probation, one of the conditions of which was that he not drink or set foot in a bar. He also paid a fine of approximately $100 and worked 120 hours in a home for the aged. In Michigan he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of impaired driving. There he paid about $300 in fines and spent nearly three days in jail.
Then, in the early hours of Nov. 7, 1985, 2½ weeks before the start of this basketball season, Skiles was arrested again, this time in East Lansing, and charged with driving while intoxicated. There was a public outcry. Detroit News columnist Corky Meinecke wrote, "[Skiles] has worn out his welcome. He is an embarrassment to his university, his coach, his teammates and himself."
Heathcote immediately suspended Skiles from the team, then reinstated him four days later. His justification for keeping Skiles on the team: "Five-or 10-game suspensions punish everyone connected with the player. We were either going to reinstate him or suspend him for the year. I did not keep him to win more games. I did it based on the facts. How do I know it was right? I don't. But my decision was, it did not warrant a suspension.
"People assumed that we have an alcoholic or a drug addict in our midst.... Scott's a mature young man. He feels guilty for the negative publicity toward the school and the program. He feels a little bit defiant, but he's humble and penitent, too."
"If I had been coach," Skiles says, "I would have kicked the guy off the team. No questions asked." Skiles speaks softly, but his words are clipped, as if his brain is watching his tongue to make sure it runs the play correctly. Sometimes during a game he will put the ball on his hip and point his wayward teammates to the areas of the court where they are supposed to be. Only when they get it right will he resume play. "I put a lot of pressure on myself," Skiles says. "I tend to wonder about how good I am." He is talking about his basketball. His brown eyes shine fiercely. "If you don't think you're any good, you're not any good. I've always had deficiencies. Let's face it. Those guys dwarf me. I look at it like a game. How do I trick the guy guarding me?"
On the court, Skiles has excelled since his freshman year, when he averaged 12.5 points and 4.9 assists per game. He scored 14.5 points per game as a sophomore and then, as a junior, with the two arrests hanging over his head, he was good for 17.7 points and 5.8 assists per game and ranked among the top six players in the conference in four offensive categories. But in balloting for All-Big Ten, the nine opposing coaches, collectively, couldn't find a spot for him on either the first, second or third teams.
At least one coach has changed his mind this season. "Scott Skiles is one of the most amazing athletes I've ever been around," says Iowa coach George Raveling. "The real test of a person is how he handles adversity. I'm amazed that he can go out night after night and not be distracted. I would have no problem voting him All-Big Ten."
NBA scouting director Marty Blake thinks Skiles could be a role player in the NBA. "My people tell me what he did wasn't so bad," says Blake. "In this league, if Hitler was a center, they'd just say he had a couple of bad years."
Skiles is pragmatic. "The way I look at things, you get what you deserve," he says. That has been the debate all along. An Indiana judge will soon decide whether Skiles's November DWI arrest in Michigan was a violation of his Indiana probation.
"When I get done with my college career," Skiles says, "I'll have more regrets than anyone who ever played. I'd love to have all three of them back to do over. A lot of people make mistakes. Some more than others."
Skiles is as deadly from afar with his right hand as he is in close with his left.
His friends hope that Skiles keeps as close an eye on his life as he does on his game.