Michael Horton was too busy for basketball. Too busy killing time. Too busy being cool.
He would go to the games at T.C. Williams High School, but he wasn't much interested in practice. The coach would implore him to try out for the team, but he had better things to do in those days. Or so he thought.
''I fell in with the wrong crowd,'' he remembered, ruefully. ''The crowd that stood around and wanted to do nothing. It wasn't drugs or alcohol. I was just hanging out, like a little, young knucklehead.''
Nearly 30 years later, Michael Horton still laments the road not taken. He was a point guard of real promise, a dribbling dervish known as Snake on the playgrounds of Alexandria, Va. He might have made something of himself in basketball, but he blew his shot through teen-age apathy.
He resolved that the same fate would not befall his son.
Michael Horton Jr., who set a University of Cincinnati record Thursday night with seven steals against Louisville, is a player shaped by his father's regret. He was about two years old when his dad placed a basketball in his hands and began directing him toward his destiny.
''I figured I could have been a basketball player if I hadn't gotten with the wrong crowd,'' the father said. ''And I wanted to show him the right way. I said to myself, 'What I can do is install the game of basketball into my son and let him take it to another level. If he doesn't succeed, maybe his son will.' ''
Live and teach
One of the guiding principles of parenthood is that children should be spared the mistakes of their elders. On this point, Michael Horton Sr. was adamant. He had grown up without a paternal presence, and he knew what he had missed.
''I used to go to the basketball court with him and he'd get mad at me if I couldn't make a layup,'' Michael Jr. said. ''He was always on my case. I just wanted to make him happy. I feed off my father.'' By the age of eight, Michael Jr. could dribble with both hands and drive to the basket with impunity. His dad coached him in organized leagues, and promptly put him at point guard. He has been there ever since.
''He developed so fast,'' the father said. ''When he was 10 years old, a referee fouled him out and he wanted to know why he was making all the calls on him. The referee told him, 'If we foul you out, the other team will have a better chance to make it a close game.' ''
Michael Horton Jr. played for his father for four years, and later followed his footsteps to T.C. Williams High School. The coaches would not have to coax him to come out and play. He made all-state his senior year, averaging 30 points and nine assists per game, and led his team to the Virginia semifinals.
Lessons came early
When he sensed he was too frail to bang with better competition, Horton went to the weight room and built bulk. He emerged with a stockier physique, but retained his quick feet and extraordinary ball skills.
''I've got a lot of tricks that I haven't tried in a game yet,'' he said. ''I can take the ball and throw it behind-the-back to myself.''
Horton can be careless with the ball - he had nine turnovers against Massachusetts - but he has a remarkable ability to get it back. His landmark larceny against Louisville gave him 34 steals in 18 games.
Michael Horton Sr. remembers feeling chills during Thursday's player introductions on ESPN, and both he and his wife, Valerie, jumped out of their seats when their son's record was revealed. Friday, at the middle school Horton serves as custodian, the achievement was announced on the public address system.
''He's coming along,'' Michael Horton Sr. said of his son. ''But I don't want Mike to get big-headed. I tell him that when you've got an opportunity knocking at your door, you've got to open the door. I had the opportunity and I went the other way.''