"Man, you can't dunk, Mook," Quinn Anderson told a 16-year-old Mookie Betts. "You can't dunk."
The assessment was not ludicrous. Betts was not yet the 5-foot-9 that he stands today and, like many teenage boys, had a rail-thin frame. But Betts wasn't like most teenagers. Betts had the "golden touch." Anything he wanted to do, he would not only accomplish, but conquer. When the baseball team got a ping pong table, Betts not only ran through all of his teammates, but every challenger in the school.
"He beat me in ping pong while talking on the phone with his girlfriend," Chris Hight, one of Betts' basketball coaches, recalled. "I told him I was never playing with him ever again. The boy is good at everything he does."
There was an innate competitiveness that ran through Betts' veins. A couple weeks after Anderson's declaration, Betts set out to prove him wrong. When John Overton High School was playing at Antioch, Betts, displaying the athleticism that lets him roam Fenway's outfield grass with ease, swiped the ball away from his man and ran towards the rim on the fastbreak.
Everyone expected a nice, smooth layup.
The Antioch crowd went silent.
"How can he do that?" asked Anderson, Betts' teammate in both baseball and basketball.
"We were all shocked," Hight said.
As he walked back to the bench, Betts looked towards Anderson.
"Yeah," Betts said.
Betts had a presence on the basketball court, something that was evident whenever he stepped onto the hardwood floor. In his senior season, Betts averaged 14.4 points, 5.8 assists, 2.4 steals and 2.9 rebounds per game and was named the Most Valuable Player in District 12-AAA. Hight said that Betts possessed the skill to be one of the best point guards in the country had he chosen to play college ball.
"His basketball IQ was so far above everyone else's," Hight said. "I was the offensive coach, so I could run a play or set up a play and he already knew what I was going to do in advance. He always helped me get the other kids in the right position and help them be successful also."
"He could do whatever he wanted to do on the floor every night," Anderson said. "His game in basketball is almost very comparable to how he plays baseball. He does some unbelievable things and he'll just rub it off. That's the way it is. He's just nonchalant."
During the basketball season, Betts also competed in matches for the bowling team. Basketball coach James McKee and bowling coach Michael Fox came to an understanding that Betts could bowl for the school's team, but not attend practices so he could still compete for the basketball team. In high school, Betts averaged between 230-240 when he bowled; the highest average of anyone on the PBA Tour is 226.71 (although that should be considered with the caveat that oil patterns are difficult on the PBA). He's bowled two 300 games and an 800 series. In 2010, Betts was named the Tennessee boys Bowler of the Year with a high score of 290.
"He had a bowling match and a basketball match the same day and he a bowled a 250 or 280. Afterward, he said that he sucked because he didn't get a 300," Hight said. "That same day [in the basketball game], he scored 18 points, had seven assists and four steals and we won. That's Mookie for you."
Photo courtesy of Mike Strasinger/Sportsnashville.net
On the diamond, Anderson remembered Betts' athleticism shining through. Betts hit .509 with 14 doubles, eight triples, three home runs, 39 RBIs and 31 stolen bases in his senior year en route to being named an honorable mention for the Louisville Slugger High School All-American list.
During Betts' senior year, Overton head coach Robert Morrison put him on the mound to help close out a crucial regular season game. Anderson said he remembers Betts hitting 96 mph on a fastball. Diane Benedict, Betts' mother, said her son probably topped out in the low-90's a couple of times. Morrison said Betts generally sat in the mid-80's and featured a nice curveball. Once, when Morrison took him out of the game after an emotional roller coaster of an outing, Anderson noticed something.
"On the hill, that's when I really saw his competitive spirit," Anderson said. "When they ended up pulling him out of the game, he ended up crying just because he couldn't do it anymore."
Even when the team was down, Betts always made sure that the game was a contest. During his sophomore year of high school against Mount Juliet, he came up to the plate in the sub-state tournament with Overton down four runs. With the bases loaded, Betts represented the tying run. Naturally, Betts turned on a pitch and drove it deep down the left field line. His teammates simply couldn't keep their excitement contained.
"You know how some dugouts have those little fences?" Anderson said. "We got so excited that we ripped the freaking fence out of the ground, but it actually ended up that the guy in left field ended up robbing Mookie."
Photo courtesy of Mike Strasinger/Sportsnashville.net
Hollywood could not come up with a more cliché protagonist. He was the star of the baseball, basketball, and bowling team. He started dating his fiancée in sixth grade. He sported a 3.5 GPA while taking all honors and Advanced Placement courses. He survived a life-threatening car crash where he had been thrown out in the direction of oncoming traffic. He didn't party on the weekends. When friends wanted to smoke a joint, he suggested a game of pick-up basketball instead. Everybody in the greater Nashville area, let alone Overton High School, loved him.
Despite being one of the best athletes in the state and a local celebrity, Betts helped out the football team as the water boy to spend time with his friends who were on the team. Though Betts didn't play football in high school (his mother did not want him to get hurt playing the sport), it was clear to his peers that if he wanted to throw the pigskin around, he would not have had any issues with it. "If he wanted to," Anderson said, "[Betts] probably could've been the best quarterback in our state."
Many professional athletes flourished in high school sports. Betts didn't just flourish. He dominated. His natural athletic gifts combined with his competitive spirit — Betts used to solve Rubik's Cubes for sport with his friends — paints a picture of a teenager who took over in everything he did.
"There's something crazy about that kid, man," Anderson said looking back on his time with Betts. "There's something special about him.
"Mookie can do it all."