The smile spread quickly across Xavier Henry's face. An area finals victory was sure, a state tournament berth secure. As that reality dawned on the Putnam City High School superstar last week in the game's final moments, he didn't hold back his emotions. Never does. Henry smiles like it's going out of style. Running onto the court for warm-ups, he smiled. Meeting with the refs before the game, he smiled. Huddling with teammates, talking to coaches, facing the most important game of the season — yep, smiles all around. Even when he got bumped by a Westmoore player on his way to the bench, he still responded with a smile. You'd smile, too, if you were ranked by basketball recruiting gurus as the second-best junior in the country. Then, there are the calls and the letters from Memphis and Kansas and North Carolina, not to mention the close ties with the head coaches at all three schools, bonds formed out of his father's days as a Jayhawk. Then again, the 6-foot-6 swingman put on a happy face long before the recruiting world elevated him to super stardom . "He's always done that,” Henry's father said. "I don't care how hard the game is.” His brother said, "Even when stuff is going bad, he'll still be out there smiling.” You know those cold, stoic looks you see from most players? Xavier Henry has a different game face. "I'm a smiley-type guy, I guess,” he said, smiling. "I'm always just loose. I'm never really ever serious.” His game is a different story. Henry has the most serious game in the state. The sweet-shooting, smooth-moving swingman is averaging 26.2 points for top-ranked Putnam City entering today's first-round showdown with Tulsa Memorial in the Class 6A state tournament. The buzz around him began in middle school, maybe even before. Then the summer before his freshman year at Putnam City, he was invited to the Nike All-American Camp. No other freshman scored an invite to the prestigious camp that summer. Now, the junior is ranked by most recruiting services and gurus as the second-best player in the Class of 2009. Odd as it may seem, Henry's sunny attitude is one of the main reasons for his serious game. This is a kid, after all, who sprouted from not one but two family trees with deep basketball roots. He came to love the sport played so well before him by his brother, mother, father, aunt and uncle. Talk about expectations. Heck, even his name draws attention. Its spelling is common. Its pronunciation is not — za-vee-A. "He has a great personality to keep that all in perspective,” Putnam City coach A.D. Burtschi said. "I'm telling you, the kid's goofy.” Loose player.Tight game.
North Carolina. Memphis. Kansas.
There were other lessons that Xavier learned from C.J. The brothers waged basketball battles in the driveway.
"I never wanted to play him,” Xavier said. "He'd always make me.”
C.J. never took it easy on his younger brother. Never took a play off either. Those lessons stuck with Xavier, cemented by his blood and his tears.
Not until last year did Xavier finally beat C.J., and even then, it was only a one-point victory.
Still, big brother saw the fruits of little brother's labor.
"I just think he's worked so hard on the stuff that me and my dad have put him through ... it's just easy to him,” said C.J., now a minor-league prospect with the Philadelphia Phillies. "He knows that if he's in a tough spot, there's no worries.
"The stuff he does on the court is just beyond his years.”
High expectationsXavier Henry was born in Ghent, Belgium. Even though both of his parents are from Oklahoma — Carl graduated from U.S. Grant, Barbara from John Marshall — basketball took them overseas. Carl played briefly in the NBA after a standout college career at Kansas, where Barbara also played basketball. He eventually signed with a professional team in Belgium. One of the team trainers was named Xavier. Carl and Barbara liked the unique punctuation so much that they chose it for their second son. It was distinctive. It was different. It was a sign of things to come. Henry never wanted to be like the rest of the kids. "He used to always want to be the tallest,” Barbara said. "He always wanted to have the biggest foot. He had a complex one year because a little girl was taller than him.” Those details remain fresh in Xavier's mind. "Second grade,” he said. "Danielle.” He's now a sculpted 6-6. "I outgrew her.” Such competitiveness was all but mandatory in the Henry household. Carl demanded much from both of his boys. Xavier had yet to start elementary school when his father taught him to use his off hand. Dribbling and shooting with the left was great, but Carl pushed him to do the same with his right. Then when the boys got a little older, Carl would wake them before sunrise, 5 or 6 o'clock. They'd jump rope and lift weights in the garage, run sprints on a hill near the house, then go to the gym to shoot. "Stuff that nobody else was doing,” said C.J., one of the most ballyhooed high school athletes in Oklahoma during the past decade. "We tried to get the edge any way we could.” Carl gave the boys a steady stream of coaching and correction. "You can do that better,” Carl would say. "I thought I did it real good,” Xavier would reply. "You can do that better.” That sort of pressure used to weigh on Xavier. Even now, Carl will give hand signals during the game to let Xavier know he needs to pick up his game, to do better. Xavier always listened and learned; Carl had played in the pros, after all. "I don't know how he handles it,” Carl said, "being C.J.'s younger brother, then all the pressure that I put on him. This basketball deal's like second nature.”
Beyond his yearsXavier Henry has basketball in his blood. And it's not just his mom, dad and brother. His aunt starred with his mom at Northeast and John Marshall high schools, then went on to Kansas. Vickie Adkins' name still dots the Jayhawk record books, ranking in the top five of just about every major offensive category. More recently, Henry's uncle played at Oklahoma State. Joe Adkins helped lead the Cowboys to the Elite Eight in 2000. Some might look at that lineage and see expectations. Henry saw opportunities. He could hear stories, ask questions and immerse himself in the game he loves. "He's just been used to it for so long,” his cousin and Putnam City teammate Brandon Jackson said. "He knows C.J. was a great player, his dad was a great player, but he knows he's a good player and he's going to try to be a better player.” And he's taken plenty of cues from those around him who've played before him. A few years ago, Xavier watched his brother being recruited. Everyone expected C.J. to be picked highly in the baseball draft — the New York Yankees ultimately selected him 17th overall in 2004 — but he was still being courted as a basketball player. He narrowed his list only at the very end. That meant a never-ending stream of calls and letters from recruiters. Xavier saw the headaches that caused, and now, even though he says he hasn't eliminated any school from contention, he definitely has favorites.
Still smilingDespite all that Xavier Henry has learned, there was one lesson from his brother than never took. "Man, look hard,” C.J. would say. "Quit smiling so much.” Xavier shrugged and, of course, smiled. "That's just how I am,” he said. Don't let the smile fool you. Henry is happy, but he is hardly content. He has serious goals, plans and dreams. There's the state championship this weekend, then the start of club basketball next weekend. One could cement his legend in the state, the other his status in the country. "I always want to be known as the best,” he said, "and I'm not the best. Or that's what they say.” Recruiting gurus rank him behind Los Angeles big man Renardo Sidney. "If they say I'm the No. 1 player in the nation, then I'll be all right,” Henry said. "If they don't say it ... ” His words trailed, as if that outcome were impossible. "Sometimes, I have to sit back and say, ‘Man, this guy's only 16 years old,'” his father said. "A lot of people expect it from him. He just keeps smiling.”