Elmore Spencer III very quickly learned the value of words. Thirteen times his parents, Elmore Jr. and Marsha, moved him and his sister, Donna, around Atlanta's impoverished West Side. He soon discovered that a disarming comment could win him friends on an unfamiliar block. With this gift of gab and premature growth—he was 6'2" as an eighth-grader, 6'8" by the 10th grade and 6'11" and 315 pounds as a senior at Booker T. Washington High—he fit in naturally with an older crowd. People, in fact, forgot to remind themselves how young he was.
To his teachers, and especially to his mother, Elmore was maddeningly bright. He did reasonably well in math but failed home economics. (The cake that ended up on the classroom ceiling may have had something to do with it.) He passed college prep science yet flunked ROTC. (Spencer was commandant of the self-proclaimed Goon Platoon, which turned right on orders to face left and vice versa.) He pulled fire alarms. He goosed girls in the corridors. He catapulted peas off his fork in the cafeteria, then ducked under the table to avoid food-fight Armageddon. "Elmore even dressed the part of the clown," says Robert Bell, his coach at Washington. "He'd wear his pants off his rump and leave his tennis shoes untied."
Yet even as his precocious ability to catch, pass and shoot a basketball kept pace with his lurching growth, Elmore wasn't so sure he wanted to give up being the goofball. When teammates took the business end of his outlet passes and sailed in for layups, Spencer would throw his hands up in the air like an NFL referee signaling a touchdown, then point toward a fan in the stands who had been heckling him. (There were always plenty to choose from.) Once, during a game in his 10th-grade season, he was so put off that Bell hadn't played him that he left the bench in the second quarter, ripped off his jersey and sat pouting, shirtless, outside the gym in the winter chill. "Challenge," says Bell, "is not the word for what he was."
Soon enough the recruiters discovered Spencer, and as recruiters are wont to do, they overlooked his emotional immaturity for the compensating physical gifts. Mark Bradley, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, discovered him, too, and pronounced his "lively young mind" to be "an explorer's delight." To Bradley, Spencer described the clashes with his coach as "the clarification process." And he spoke of his girlfriends. There was a main squeeze and "this other girl...sort of the Barbara Walters of the situation. I go to her when I need advice. We as men sometimes need someone we can talk to when women confuse us. It keeps us from jumping off buildings."
All the attention altered how others viewed him. But Spencer was determined not to let it change how he viewed himself. "People started to put me in categories," he says. "It went from 'Elmore, you play ball?' to 'Elmore, you getting a scholarship?' to 'Elmore, you going pro?' Basketball had always been just something for me to do, and all of a sudden it turned serious. I didn't need social acceptance from basketball." No. He had been Elmore, Clown Prince of Washington High, long before he was making the papers.
Against this background Spencer's world would be changed forever. A few days before he began his senior year, his mother died of a stroke suffered while talking on the phone to a Minnesota assistant coach.
There is no way of telling for certain what suddenly put the starch in Spencer's loose-fitting clothes. He remembers that senior year only as a blur. He became swallowed up in responsibilities: helping his father look after his sister; negotiating a school where, Spencer claims, the principals packed .22-caliber pistols; keeping a wavering teammate away from crack; and delivering Bell his first state title. Within this latticework of obligation, Spencer found rungs and held fast to them. "I passed my core courses," he says. "I did well on the SAT. We won the state title. I didn't even catch a cold all winter. It was the first time everything had gone right for me, and the person who was the force behind me athletically, who believed in me, wasn't there to see the fruits of her labor."
How much of that 1986-87 season had been a mighty suck-it-up for Spencer, how much he had put off confronting his mother's death, would only later become clear. That spring he began to resist sleep out of fear that he would dream of his mother, only to wake up and find her dead again. His insomnia worsened as he traveled the summertime circuit of AAU tournaments and all-star games. When August came around, and with it the first anniversary of his mother's death, Spencer found himself with several weeks of idle time before the fall semester was to begin at Georgia, where he had chosen to enroll.
Shortly before four o'clock on the morning of Aug. 6, 1987, police picked up Spencer in downtown Atlanta and charged him with reckless driving. He had weaved outside his lane, run a red light and driven up on a curb. (He says he noticed the patrol car and wanted to find out what it would take for the police to stop him. "An inquisitive mind," he has said, "can be a dangerous thing.") At one point that morning he had also shouted something outside the offices of the Journal-Constitution about the newspaper's coverage of him. The police took him to Grady Memorial Hospital, where a blood test showed him to be sober. When Spencer's father arrived at the hospital, he suggested to the police and hospital officials that his son, who had a history of erratic behavior, be admitted for observation. The youngster was ultimately committed to the hospital's psychiatric ward.
"You wouldn't be normal if your mood wasn't affected when someone close to you died," he says. "Doctors can come up with the scientific terms, but if it isn't O.K. to be depressed over loss, then that's bad." Spencer emphasizes that he was treated only for symptoms of manic-depression, not for the affliction itself. "It's like the difference between calling someone a serial killer," he says, "and saying someone has the symptoms of a serial killer."