When Tavon Sledge parachuted into the Half Hollow Hills West basketball program as a transfer from St. Benedict's of Newark in the summer of 2009, he didn't exactly make a soft, billowy landing. It was more like the 5-8 point guard burst onto the scene with wings on his feet and springs in his legs. There was definitely something special in the air.
"The first time he came to the school, he told us he was a little out of shape," forward Chris Cox recalled with a laugh. "Then he threw one off the backboard and windmilled it. That's the first time I'd ever seen a kid do that in my life. I was a little bit amazed."
Forward Emile Blackman had a similar, indelible memory of Sledge's introduction to his new teammates.
"We start practice off with a few layups," said Blackman, the nephew of former St. John's and Knicks star Mark Jackson. "The first two times he laid it up. The next time he jumped off two feet, tucked it behind his head and dunked it. My jaw just dropped and I was in awe. It was ridiculous."
Now it's the norm. "Over the past year, I've seen him dunk every day in practice," Cox said. "I expect it. But it's still unbelievable to see him do those things in games. He's able to take it from one level in practice to a higher level in games."
Sledge wants to take the Colts to a level higher this season. They fell one victory short of winning the school's first state championship last year at Glens Falls, and that's a powerful motivator for the Iowa State-bound dynamo and team captain. "Going back upstate is a must," Sledge said.
Even with leading scorer Tobias Harris gone on to college at Tennessee and his brother Tyler, the Colts' third-leading scorer, having transferred to St. Benedict's, Sledge has - what else? - high hopes for Hills West.
"We can have better luck this year because of the whole team concept that we're following," Sledge said. "Last year, we were a lot about what people said about us on paper and on the Internet. This year, we're all about each other. We're one; we're a family. We won't have any problems, ego wise."
It all radiates from Sledge, who averaged a double-double last season (17.8 points, 10.4 assists) in earning first-team Newsday All-Long Island honors. His dazzling dunks, scintillating steals and precise passes helped the Colts cruise to a 24-2 record (including a forfeit loss). They also helped him attract interest from major Division I colleges. Before he chose Iowa State, he was offered scholarships to St. John's and West Virginia, with other offers pending.
Everyone was enamored of Sledge's spectacular stunts. "He's like Evel Knievel without the motorcycle," said Tom Konchalski, a renown recruiting guru and publisher of the respected High School Basketball Illustrated. "He's an extraterrestrial athlete."
Sledge knows he'll have an even greater role this season. With the Harris brothers gone, Hills West will feature more of a spread-the-wealth offense, as Blackman is the only other double-digit scorer returning.
"My approach is a lot different because I'm going to be more of a leader," Sledge said. "I didn't have to play that part last year because we had Tobias. He was a senior and the players looked to him for that extra push. This year, it's going to be my role."
It's a role he was born to play. Sledge leads by example. He worked diligently all summer on the perceived weakness in his game - his outside shot. "I shot hundreds of jumpers a day," he said. "My jump shot is a lot better, you'll see. And if the three is there, I'll take it. I definitely had to add that to my game because in college, there will be a lot of bigger, stronger guys."
But for his last season of high school, most opposing guards won't be able to keep Sledge from penetrating to the basket or jump-starting the Colts' fast break with his relentless pressure defense. "Everyone knows he's our go-to guy," West coach Bill Mitaritonna said.
Catch him if you can.