Lost in transition: Former Detroit prep star Alex Legion no longer a can’t-miss kid

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Eric Lacy, Detroit News staff writer

Alex Legion once was considered the can't-miss kid. Now, he's just a kid who missed on countless opportunities to improve his basketball resume.

After two de-commitments from Michigan, a six-game stint at Kentucky, and transfers to Illinois and Florida International, it's unclear what the 6-foot-5, 195-pound shooting guard without a college degree will do with the rest of his life.

The uncertainty is what scares Kurt Keener, his former high school coach for three years at Detroit County Day.

Alex Legion

"If he's lost his passion for the game, then I'm concerned," Keener said. "He's never had any other area of his life — that I knew of — other than basketball, basketball, basketball."

Considered one of the top players in the nation coming out of high school in 2007, according to Rivals, Scout and ESPN, Legion appeared to burn his bridges at every college stop.

His latest transgression was his dismissal last month by Florida International coach Isiah Thomas for an undisclosed violation of team rules.

Legion thought Thomas, the former Pistons star, could re-ignite his career.

"I am very excited, encouraged and humbled to have the opportunity to play for and learn the professional game of basketball from coach Isiah Thomas," Legion said in a statement after he transferred.

Attempts by The Detroit News to reach Legion, 22, were unsuccessful, but he responded on his Twitter page to an inquiry about his future plans with the following: "Idk (I don't know) I've been doing a lot of singing lately."

Running on empty

Legion's career spanned 49 games between Florida International (10, 2010-11), Illinois (33, 2008-10), and Kentucky (six, 2007-08).

But everywhere Legion went, he always found a reason to leave for what he thought would be a better situation.

When Michigan fired coach Tommy Amaker in 2007, Legion demanded a release from his letter-of-intent because he didn't want to play for John Beilein.

The move came after Legion committed to Michigan in 2005 as a high school junior, de-committed less than five months later, and re-committed more than three months after that.

Amaker, in an e-mail to The News, didn't want to rehash the past. He encourages Legion to move forward and live a productive and fulfilling life.

"The Alex I know could be or do anything he put his mind to," Amaker wrote.

Once Legion made it clear he didn't want to play for Beilein, he left for Kentucky as a true freshman — for six games.

News of the transfer apparently confused first-year coach Billy Gillispie because Legion's mother, Annette Williams, told the coach four days later her son still wanted to be part of the Wildcats program.

"He played in the game against North Carolina (two days before he wanted to transfer) and seemed happy when I spoke with him (a day before the transfer)," Gillispie told Sports Illustrated.

The issue at Kentucky appeared to be a lack of playing time, a factor that also led to Legion's exodus from Illinois.

Just when Legion appeared to feel comfortable in Champaign and earned a chance to start after 107 points in 33 games, he left, shocking coach Bruce Weber and his teammates.

"I didn't think he was unhappy," forward Mike Davis told the Chicago Tribune in 2009. "I mean, he was happy. On the court, in practice, he was in the gym, working still.

"I was surprised."

To this day, Legion's journey perplexes Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

Izzo saw Legion play often while evaluating fellow Class of 2007 Detroit-area recruits Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers.

"I feel bad for Alex because I like Alex Legion," Izzo said. "He's very talented. He might have been as good or as talented as all of them. But it's sad when you keep running from things."

Own worst enemy

Those close to Legion have varying opinions on why he gave up so fast at every school.

The frequent transfers started in grade school, said Rodney Legion, Alex's father, who estimates his son attended four schools before Country Day.

"He had a lot to prove growing up," said Rodney Legion, who says his ex-wife, Annette Williams, swayed his son into the numerous transfers.

Rodney Legion recalls his son's stints at Inkster from preschool to first grade, Detroit for third, Taylor from fourth to seventh, and a Detroit charter school for eighth.

Williams, who's been divorced from Rodney since 1997, denies these claims or that she did anything to put her son in a precarious position.

She recalls her son's enrollment at only two schools from kindergarten to middle school, and has no regrets.

"A lot of people have said I've made a lot of bad decisions for my son," she said. "The only reason I think people say that is because when you have a young man like Alex, people want to put their hands on the trophy."

Williams declined to explain why her son was dismissed from Florida International, but claims his plans involve a movie about his life, completion of a bachelor's degree in journalism, and pursuit of an NBA career.

The News couldn't find any indication such a movie will be produced. Williams refused to provide details.

Keener claims Legion's disputes within his family and poor advice from Tim Green, a former AAU coach, often created a chaotic situation at Country Day.

Legion simply could never overcome his toughest opponent — himself — Keener said.

"If you feel like you're letting people down you care about, that can take its toll on you mentally," Keener said.

Keener, who has won seven Class B state titles, claims Green was the most dominant male figure in the player's life and helped convince him to transfer from Country Day to Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., for his senior season.

That relationship severed Legion's ties with Country Day, but not with Keener, who hopes his former player can persevere.

"If I sat down, explained things, and was one on one with him, no problem," Keener recalled. "But when the game started and other people in Alex's life were sitting in the first row, telling him to 'shoot' or 'do this' or 'do that,' then there were breakdowns."

Attempts by The News to reach Green were unsuccessful.

But Green and Legion made it clear to The News in 2006 neither was happy with Legion's Country Day career.

"We don't want to leave (Country Day)," Green said at the time. "But it might be in Alex's best interest to leave."

Legion, then a junior, took it a step further.

He complained about his role in the offense, questioned his teammates' commitment to winning, and implied Keener needed to do a better job heading into postseason.

"No, it's not fun," Legion said.

Strangely enough, as a sophomore, Legion bettered Chris Webber's single-game scoring record (41 points) in a class B regional final victory.

"He had skills that could translate anywhere," recalled Dave Telep, an ESPN recruiting analyst who rated players for Scout at the time. "I thought he could shoot the ball with the best players in the country — when he had a clear mind."

Holding out hope

Whether or not Legion can resurrect his career and utilize his talent remains to be seen.

Williams claims the Harlem Globetrotters believed in her son enough in high school to offer him a one-year contract.

Globetrotters general manager Nick Cardinale, however, denies an offer was made. The organization never had plans to add Legion to its roster and isn't interested in him now.

"We don't just hand out contracts on the fly," Cardinale said. "Also, we wouldn't speak to a high school player. There's eligibility issues at hand."

At this point, Legion appears to be biding his time until the June 23 NBA draft.

He remains enrolled at Florida International and, according to Williams, is expected to earn his degree this spring.

Keener hopes Legion has a backup plan if he never makes it in pro basketball. He refuses, however, to rule out the possibility Legion could defy the odds.

"From purely a physical standpoint, there's no doubt he can make it," Keener said. "But how competitive is he? Can he be coached? Can he work in the structure of a team? Those were always the challenges."

After Legion transferred to Illinois in 2008, Weber expressed similar hope in his potential, and even compared him to a raw, unseasoned version of Kobe Bryant.

But despite the upside, Weber expressed jokingly at a booster event some concern about Legion's mental approach.

"The players have nicknamed him 'Kobe,'" Weber said in the Peoria Journal Star. "He has a ways to go, but I understand the comparison.

"He can score, but he doesn't guard anybody and we just had to teach him a new word: pass. When he gets his first assist, everybody should give him a standing ovation because that will be his first one."

At this point, no credible mock NBA drafts consider Legion a surefire selection.

Ironically, Oakland University center Keith Benson, a former unheralded Country Day teammate, is considered a potential first-round pick.

If Legion doesn't learn from his past, Telep believes he'll be just another sad story of talent gone to waste.

"It wasn't a book that was going to have a happy ending," Telep said. "He was never able to focus on basketball."

Photo caption: Nov. 15, 2005: Alex Legion verbally commits as a high school junior to Michigan for Tommy Amaker's 2007 class, but doesn't sign a letter of intent. (Jerry S. Mendoza/Associated Press)