On the road to wherever
Near the end, just four kids remain. In a game of five-on-five basketball at the AAU national championships in Memphis, Tenn., there are just four players on one side, marinating in the full-throated pleas of grown-ups who fill a middle school gym with so much desperation the boys struggle to think -- and breathe.
"Can I have a sub?" Ethan, a blond 7-year-old, asks during a timeout. One minute is left on the clock. He's been on the court most of the second half and shines with sweat.
"Nobody left," says his coach, Rod Greene, waving at his bench of fouled-out players.
Twenty seconds later, Ethan picks up his fifth, too, and takes his seat, panting.
So now there are just three on the court for the Basketball Town Pharaohs of Sacramento, Calif., who hold a rapidly vanishing lead. Their opponents smell the blood of a wounded animal and move in for the kill. No one here has ever seen anything like this.
When the Pharaohs began their national title hunt last September, there were 15 players on the team. They were an elite 15, having made the cut at a tryout open to all boys age 8 years old and under. But travel ball, with its ambitions beyond city limits, requires a real commitment of time and money from families. There are professional-grade uniforms, weekend tournaments in distant cities, and expectations of return on investment.
Some parents became upset when their kids weren't playing as much as others. Greene and his assistant coach, Mickey Hope, tried to diplomatically tell them that their kid just wasn't as good as the others. It's a Darwinian exercise, travel ball. So soon the team was cut in half, with Greene and Hope taking the best players, including their respective sons, Devin and Jay.
Second-graders last year, Devin and Jay's immersion in basketball is near total. They play no other sport, and they play nearly year-round, with three practices a week and up to four games on weekends between their travel and recreation teams. Their fathers hire a personal trainer, a former pro in Greece, to work with the kids on footwork and muscle memory. The boys can now yo-yo the ball, shoot on the run and score from 20 feet (on 10-foot hoops). They are so skilled that they become frustrated when playing with most classmates. At recess, a dime pass gets dropped or leads to a double dribble.
"It's been hard on my son," Hope says. "He'll play at school with his friends, but some of them don't even play competitive ball yet. So [in games] he can't play with his friends. It sucks. He has to play with the fifth graders. I really considered putting him back in the first- and second-grade division because of that. But I couldn't do it. Wouldn't be good for the [rec] league."
Greene nods, adding with a little smile, "He'd score 40 a game, easy."
"That's why this tournament is fun," Hope says.
The kids have been hearing about the "Road to Memphis" -- wherever that is -- since Greene and Hope formed the team and shared their dream of a national championship -- whatever that is. Truth be told, Greene says, the Pharaohs probably wouldn't exist if the AAU last year hadn't created an 8-and-under tournament, if the carrot had never been dangled.
"I've just always been competitive," Greene says. As a hurdler in high school, he survived on grit more than talent, placing third in one big race -- after falling down. As sales manager for a vacuum cleaner company, he moved more product than anyone else in the country by outdriving rivals for sales. He still holds that job part-time, making $50,000 a year while helping Hope run a local youth basketball league.
Greene doesn't believe in burnout, the notion that too much of one thing induces boredom. He's sure that won't happen with Jay and basketball. "See, burnout happens when you think you have all your goals accomplished," he says. "But it's like sales; every month you can always sell more." National championships, which ensure that only one team in the country can fancy itself as the best, actually prevent burnout, he insists.
Still, the Pharaohs nearly didn't make it to Memphis. Any team can enter the tourney, for a fee of $625. But they almost had to cancel the trip when one player went to a baseball tournament instead. Another quit because of playing time. A family emergency kept another kid at home. That left Greene and Hope with six players.
So they hit the recruiting trail. A month before the tournament, friends directed them to two other Sacramento-area kids, Jake and Ethan. Neither should qualify as ringers; Jake is the smallest kid on the team, Ethan the youngest. When Ethan smiles, one can see all the new teeth coming in, jagged at the ends like a picket fence. They are the least skilled kids on the team and know few of the many plays. But their parents agreed to get the boys to Memphis, giving the Pharaohs a total of eight players, just enough for a bench.
Greene will need them all against the Maryland Heat, who brought 15 players, plus about 100 boisterous fans to the Hickory Middle School gym. Actually, half of those fans are in Memphis for another D.C.-area team; they've agreed to show up and agitate for the Heat as long as the Heat throng reciprocates at their games. They roar at the refs for every perceived foul and get their way. The refs call a tight game, inevitable kid traveling, fouls and all. One by one, the Pharoahs take a seat.
"Stay awake!" Greene says to Devin, who is slumped in his chair. "You're coming [in] for the fourth."
Like the Heat, the Pharaohs are 2-0 in pool play. The winner gets a bye straight to the quarterfinals. But the Pharaohs' 16-point halftime lead has shrunk to 31-22, and they are losing players fast. When Devin pushes a Heat player who is shooting, he fouls out and reacquaints himself with the chair. One ref looks at the other quizzically, as if to say, Can they play with only four? The other ref holds up four fingers and nods.
When Ethan fouls out with 41 seconds left, the lead is just five points. The Heat players swarm, smothering the three remaining Pharaohs, and pick off inbounds passes with their little hands. But amid the cacophony, the $22-a-game refs fail to notice the timekeeper mistakenly let the clock run for seven seconds near the end, an error that Greene says he caught but kept to himself. The Pharaohs hold on, 32-29.
At the buzzer, as parents rush the floor, Jay collapses at center court and cries. Tears roll down the curves of his round, Zen-like face. They are tears of stress, of trying to dribble out of trouble for the past hour, of trying to keep the wolves at bay.
"WHOAAAH!" Greene roars, sprinting into the locker room ahead of his little crew. The boys plop down on the bench, exhausted, if proud. "You guys get tomorrow off," the coach announces.
Pushed as far as little kids can be or perhaps should be pushed, the Pharaohs earn themselves a day at Graceland with the ghost of Elvis. Whoever he is.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A postscript: The Pharaohs would lose in the quarterfinals, then again in the losers' bracket, placing ninth out of 30 teams. The top-10 finish earns a bye next year into the AAU 9-and-under national championships at Disney World, for which other teams must qualify. Greene and Hope plan to be there.