The name, like his role as leader of the North County basketball team, isn't always a comfortable fit for Clifton Jarrette Prince III.
"I never did like Clifton. I guess it sounded too square," he said while dressing in front of his locker after a rare Knights victory last Monday night.
"I like people calling me C. J. They'll ask what C. J. stands for, but I never tell them, because when they find out they're always teasing me and bugging me about it."
No one is laughing at the 17-year old senior's play on the basketball court this winter.
Prince ranks among the county's most prolific scorers, averaging nearly 18 points a game.
In his two years on the Andover varsity, before the school's merger with Brooklyn Park, his combined average was 15 points.
"My role has switched," he said. "We used to have (Brian) Sabo, who was a pretty good shooter, and Purnell Carter. My role was to play good defense, and if I had the open shot, take it. I wasn't looked at as the premiere shooter. But this year I am."
He also is viewed-- though not through his own eyes -- as the leader of a Knights team dominated by underclassman.
"He makes us work harder to keep up with him," said sophomore Rob Miller. "That's gotten us better. We'repushing ourselves trying to get as good as C. J."
"We're all learning. I'm learning with them," said Prince, one of only two seniors on the team. "I don't call myself a leader, per se, but I'd like to bein the forefront of the basketball program, as far as instructing them and trying to give them little hints here and there."
Prince understands the value of proper instruction, having spent countless hours refining his shooting technique.
"He once had a bad habit of letting the ball come down on the palm of his hand, stopping his shot right there," said North County assistant Dan Krimmelbein, a former member of Andover's coaching staff.
"He just spent a lot of time last year and this year getting the ball up on his finger tips and following through on his stroke."
When Prince isn't swishing jump shots, he's playing tenor saxophone in North County's concert band. Or he's busy doing his homework and maintaining a 3.0 grade-point average. His father, an assistant principal at MacArthur Middle School, has always stressed academics first, then athletics.
"He's a class guy in every way -- the way he carries himself and the way he presents himself to others," said North County coach Brad Wilson. "He's been a leader on and off the floor this season. When you have seven or eight sophomores and two freshmen on the varsity, you need someone like
thatfor these young guys to look up to. He's been an excellent role model. He's a class kid all the way.
Wilson then corrected himself.
"A young man. He's not a kid."
It seems Prince's maturity has been challenged at every turn this season.
First came the wave of defeats -- 15 going into Friday's game against Annapolis -- then the recent death of his one-time coach and friend, Dick Hart.
"It's been a test of my character," he said of the losing record. "It's a littlehard when you work hard every day in practice and you don't see the results in the win column. It's been a test for the whole team to stick together and keep plugging away."
Prince's voice softens as he speaks of Hart, who died Feb. 2 of complications from a brain tumor. It was Hart who placed Prince on the Andover varsity two years ago and accelerated his development as a player.
"Mr. Hart really polished my game," he said. "He gave me a chance by putting me on the varsity in the 10th grade. I really miss him. He was someone I looked up to and respected."
The school conducted a brief memorial service for Hart before the Feb. 5 game against Arundel.
Emotionally drained, Prince still managed 19 points and 15 rebounds in the Knights' 61-53 win, their first in the Friendship Division after seven losses.
"That tells you his true character," Wilson said. "He cried after thememorial service, but he played the ballgame. It took him a couple minutes to get going, but he knew he was supposed to play."
Perhapsthe 6-foot-1 shooting guard drew strength that night from some advice Hart had once given him.
"Mr. Hart used to tell me I was too passive when I played; I had to get tougher," Prince recalled. "I was kind of scared back then, and he'd tell me to eat 10 pounds of meat a week to make me into a lion. He instilled in me to play hard and get the job done, no matter what."
Prince did just that as the catalystbehind North County's victory over North Carroll the following week.
After scoring only six points during a first half that Wilson called the Knights' worstthis season, Prince opened the third quarter with three straight fast-break layups to give North County a 32-25 lead.
He finished with 10 points in the quarter and 18 for the game ina 64-49 win.
"He's one of the kids we need on the floor the majority of the time, even if he's going bad, because he'll work his way out of it," Wilson said.
Prince's playing days may be coming to a end. No longer dreaming of a career in the National Basketball Association, he wants to attend prestigious Morehouse College -- an all-black, all-male Division II school in Atlanta -- in hopes of becoming a pediatrician.
"I figured it would be good to go down there and beardown, hit the books and get my future together," he said. "I haven'tdecided yet whether I want to play ball in college. I want to see how the academics are and if I can handle it.
"I like basketball andI want to keep playing, but if I can't because of academics, I'll make that sacrifice."