When you're 13 and play better than everyone, life is all sneaker reps and rankings
This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's July 31, 2006, issue. Subscribe today!
HE SITS in the first row, to the right of the encyclopedias that are lined up against the cinder-block wall in room 718 at Sam Rayburn Middle School. His hairless chin is just a few feet from the purple blouse of his teacher, close enough that she can hear his whispered answers. He sits up front because he was raised right, and kids who are raised right don't hide, not here in Texas prairie country, not when you're the son of a son of a career soldier. These days, hiding would be impossible for J'Mychal Reese, anyway. So even as he slouches sideway in his desk chair, tedium bending his elastic body until his thin neck is parallel to the floor, he still mumbles, "Yes, ma'am," and follows instructions and keeps chitchat to a minimum. Reese is the most earnest-faced boy in Melody Kapchinski's sixth-grade class.
The story behind the story
This profile of J'Mychal Reese, the nation's top sixth-grade basketball player in 2006, led to a book a couple of years later, "Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children." It included many child athletes on the fast track, each a window into the industrialization of youth sports. Readers told me I would need to check back with these kids to see what came of them. This was the update I was most afraid of.
I always worried about J'Mike, knowing there's only one direction a kid can go after being pegged as the No. 1 college prospect half a dozen years before college, in a sport obsessed with identifying The Man. What an unnecessary burden. But J'Mike seems to have handled it. He just finished his freshman year at Texas A&M, where he started, averaging 6.2 points and two assists. "Having that target on your back all those years, people always wanted to go at you," he told me from his family home on Easter. "I had to develop a killer's mentality."
That home is still just a couple of miles away from College Station, in Bryan. That he stayed local is ironic; last time I saw him, he was in France, where his fellow sixth-grade AAU teammates were ostensibly representing the USA in a "world championship" that turned out to be more like a weekend hoops fest with European club teams. Vegas, Orlando, you name it. He and his father, John, chased opportunity wherever it might be, embracing the sense of destiny that had been placed on this thin, quiet kid. John is now an assistant coach with the Aggies. They traveled a long way to stay home.
J'Mike topped out at 6'1", so the odds are stacked against him playing at the next level. Even so, my hope is that he will look back at his journey as an unlikely success. The landscape of youth sports is littered with prodigies who collapsed under external pressures. J'Mike turned expectation into energy. He kept working on his game and didn't team-hop like so many others in AAU. He played with the same core (including Duke's Rasheed Sulaimon and Baylor's L.J. Rose) since second grade.
Yes, J'Mike had dropped to No. 28 by the time he signed with the Aggies, but that's still 28 out of millions. He did aikido with The Dream and won. -- Tom Farrey
This morning's reading in Language Arts 6 is a story about a Mexican immigrant who wants to return home a millionaire. His plan is to buy a rundown house, fix it up and sell it at a sizable profit. But he is old and tired and needs a grandson's help to realize his dream.
At the mention of the word -- dream -- Kapchinski pauses. In her experience, sixth-graders don't always comprehend its intended meaning. Most of her students are still creatures of the moment, barely capable of visualizing a life two hours hence, much less two decades. "Is it a daydream?" she asks. No one speaks.
"Is it an actual dream?" More silence. J'Mychal finally breaks it with a simple, declarative "No." He knows all about dreams.
And he knows his no longer belongs to the realm of kid fantasy. His is stoked, shaped and monetized in a way his peers can't even imagine. Rated the top sixth-grade basketball player in the U.S., he has been studying this very lesson for three years.
Although still a boy, J'Mychal Reese has long been certified as The Man.
IN THIS family-oriented municipality of 66,000 an hour and a half northwest of Houston -- the kind of rapidly growing burg that is still home to folks who remember when it wasn't on the map -- the mayor is a believer, one who believed sufficiently to draw up a formal document. A framed copy of it -- each paragraph beginning with an impressive "Whereas" and listing another on-court accomplishment -- adorns a shelf in J'Mychal's bedroom, standing out amid the trophies, posters and AAU jerseys above his twin bed. The proclamation concludes with:
NOW, THEREFORE, I, Ernie Wentrcek, as Mayor of the City of Bryan, Texas, and acting on behalf of the Bryan City Council, do hereby proclaim the date of March 8, 2005, as: J-MYCHAL REESE DAY
LeBron James never had a day named in his honor. (Still hasn't.) Before he entered high school, he neither attended a sneaker-company camp nor was asked to play on an NBA selection team. His name didn't make the newspapers in a big way until his freshman year. It wasn't that he was an ordinary ballplayer before -- his budding skills were apparent to anyone who got a peek at his game. It was just that elementary and middle school kids weren't ranked by scouting services back then.
Rankings change everything. They certainly changed J'Mychal's childhood. One day in 2003, he's at the 9-and-under AAU nationals in Memphis, slapping at an undersized ball in the shadow of Graceland. The next, his dad, John, is getting a call from a pal who says J'Mychal has been listed by the online service hoopscooponline.com as the secondbest fourth-grader in America. John had no idea such a list even existed.
People love rankings. They bestow status, of course, but they also render success relative, and and there's always another contender, working harder, to knock you off your throne. The next summer at nationals, Prince J'Mychal pointed at the reigning king, all 4'10'' of him, and told one of his coaches softly, "He's not No. 1 after this tournament." Then he led the Houston Jaguars to the championship and secured the top rank for himself.
The rank went on a résumé, which was sent to the NBA, which flew him to Denver for a youth exhibition game during the 2005 All-Star Weekend. To promote the Jr. NBA (a partnership between the league and local organizations nationwide), the little lefty starred in a TV commercial with Steve Nash, who glibly told the camera, "J'Mychal Reese? I named my dog after him."
Next came ink in newspapers, fanfare on the web, air on local TV. One anchor remarked, "J'Mychal could become an NBA superstar. Instead of MJ, I guess we can call him JM."
HIS FATHER drew that unusual name from Mychal Thompson, the former first-overall pick of the Trail Blazers. But it's often just J-Mike now, predicted greatness deserving a more elegant reference than a rebounding power forward from the 1980s. The shorter version could surely come in handy at autograph sessions. After one tournament game this spring, it took an excruciating 45 minutes to satisfy all the kids and adults who had lined up. But three years of requests hasn't gotten the kid to pen his name in any way other than how it appears on his schoolwork, care over style.
"You got LeBron, O.J. and J-Mike," says Roger Brown, who introduces himself as the GM of Reese's AAU team. On a muggy weekend in April, the Jaguars are competing in the Houston Kingwood Classic, a 650-team, all-age-group tournament that has taken over the courts of north Houston. As Brown and the other Jaguars parents watch from the plastic pullout bleachers inside the high school gym, J-Mike snares a miss between two players, slices through two more with a nifty spin at half-court and concludes the one-man break with a running 10-footer that softly crawls over the left hand of a Ben Wallace look-alike. The final victim isn't pleased. He knocks J-Mike to the ground. But the 5'9'', 135-pound guard hops back up, acting as if he didn't notice the blow. It's nothing he hasn't absorbed before as the Targeted One. "Every time I touch the ball, they're in my face," he says.
J-Mike has developed a thick hide, in part by scrimmaging with the Bryan High team; Dad is the coach. "I'm looking for him to get pushed, shoved, manhandled," John Reese says. J-Mike also works out with a $90-an-hour personal trainer, looking to build strength in his reed-thin legs.
Greatness doesn't come cheaply. Between all the private instruction and travel costs, John figures he has so far invested $90,000 in his son's game before college. In another world, that's almost double four years of in-state tuition. In this world, college isn't the ultimate goal. For J-Mike -- who's been dribbling since he was in diapers -- it's the NBA all the way. "People ask if we're putting too much pressure on him," John says. "If a kid says he wants to be a doctor, do you tell him he's not smart enough? Or do you try to help him attain it?" Once, as father and son analyzed game video, John was so critical, it caused J-Mike to ask, "Do I do anything right?"
Most of the time, though, it's the kid who pushes Dad for guidance, gym time, travel. The old man always complies.
John's own father was an Army sergeant who taught him how to make a bed so crisp, a quarter would dance on the sheets. But Reese Sr. had neither the time nor the means to put bounce in the basketball career of his youngest son, so John topped out as a workmanlike 6'3" guard at D2 Angelo State in Texas. He's out to make sure that won't be the lot of his younger son, who already is better than his brother, Jerron, a junior.
THE QUESTION is whether the play of a sixth-grader can even give an indication of future prospects. Given the dominant role of puberty in body type, sports scientists say basketball is up there with weight lifting and rowing as a sport for which we should be most patient to identify elite talent.
Clark Francis gets it. "I really don't want to go out and watch younger players," moans the guru, who does it anyway as Hoop Scoop's editor-publisher. "But that's where the game is going. Three or four years ago, AAU coaches wouldn't be caught dead going to seventh- or eighth-grade games. Now," -- since LeBron, because of LeBron -- "they have to if they want to keep up. It's big business."
So Francis and the rest of the basketballindustrial complex found themselves last August at the Adidas Jr. Phenom Camp at Alliant International University in the arid hills of north San Diego. It's not a teaching camp so much as a place for kids to put on a show. The mission is exposure -- to the sneaker reps who fund select AAU programs with six-figure stipends, to the 14 college coaches the camp owner claims are in attendance and to the reputation guru, who leans against a railing, pen in mouth, player guide held like an open Bible in a preacher's hand. Francis' eyes dart from the guide to the red-and-white jerseys of the sixth-graders, who, like chattel, are numbered 1 to 104 and dealt onto college "teams." J-Mike runs the wing for "Virginia Tech." Advantage Hokies.
J-Mike is a grade exception, a term used by the AAU for a player who is a year older than the average student in his class. Having a child repeat a grade has become a common strategy for parents who think their kid might have a future in basketball. It's a way to gain physical and mental advantage and a leg up in the recruiting game. O.J. Mayo repeated sixth grade; by seventh grade, he was No. 1 in his class. J-Mike, who just turned 13 in March, was held back before first grade.
It has made him stronger for now, but unless J-Mike grows taller than 6'2'', all bets are off. Size matters, even for the best. Dwyane Wade rode the bench of his suburban-Chicago high school until he added four inches. Carmelo Anthony couldn't make varsity until a growth spurt arrived. Most famously, Michael Jordan was once a 5'9'' sophomore who couldn't make the varsity.
Then again, size can deceive. On the court, J-Mike's teammate Jon Allen posts up a boy who stands maybe 4'8'' in his camp-issued kicks. At 6'2'' and 200 pounds, Allen finds the task unchallenging. He's more man exception than grade exception. Allen has been dunking since fifth grade. That's the year he joined J-Mike's AAU team -- he lives one town over in College Station -- and helped it to a national title. His height has raised him to No. 2 in the class of 2012, in Francis' estimation. But what Francis hasn't considered is that Allen may not grow another inch. A quirk in his genes put Jon into puberty when he was 5. But Allen males usually do all their growing before high school. His 5'11'' dad, Jud, once a preteen star himself in Bryan, harbors no expectation that his son will even play in college. That hasn't stopped Jon from dreaming about the NBA.
Francis acknowledges the futility of trying to rank 225 sixth-graders in order each year. He has never seen most of them play, relying instead on reports from an assistant and several AAU coaches, who inevitably list their own guys highly. Some parents and coaches eager to get their kids slotted will ask 20 friends to call and recommend the player, or they'll simply disguise their own voice and lobby several times. Sometimes, the process reveals its flaws. When Francis ranked fourth-graders for the first time, the year J-Mike debuted at No. 2, the wrong Indianapolis Ferrell brother was put atop the list -- second-grader Kaleb instead of Kevin.
Francis has since stopped ranking fourth-graders and has thought about raising the bar higher, closer to the high school level on which he first built his rep a quarter of a century ago. But the money is just too good. "It's like anything else," he says. "Are people going to buy your stuff? It's capitalism at its best." Information about middle school boys and girls drives many of his 1,000 subscriptions (at $499 a year). No other recruiting service trolls that low.
The perception is that once you're on the list, it's hard to fall off, that Francis just shuffles the deck each year. Not true. He adds names, especially if they show up at the Jr. Phenom Camp. It's the rare event at which he actually gets to eyeball his subjects. He promotes the camp on his website, and in return, the camp's organizer, Joe Keller, picks up his travel costs and lists him as an "important guest," figuring the advertised presence of Hoop Scoop will stoke sign-ups. The nice two-man game draws more than 330 rising sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders for the weekend, at $400 a head. Parents who have flown in from as far away as New York rail about having to shell out daily fees for parking and admission and $20 for the bare-bones camp guide, but they're not about to pass up the opportunity for their kid to wear the word "Phenom" on his chest. It's a can't-miss come-on that will soon allow Keller to spin off a series of regional camps, not to mention one in Japan. "It's easy with all these egotistical parents," he says. Francis himself is childless (he does have a dog). "I'm not hurting anybody," he says, "or maybe I am, because some people can't handle the rankings. But that's not my responsibility. They choose to play in these things."
Jon Allen's tanned, mustached father watches the camp's events without complaint. But he puzzles at the wisdom of the process. Why would parents spend so much money to expose, rather than protect, their children? Of course, he knows how the game is played. Much as Jon wants to be here, Jud knows a camp like this needs his son more than the other way around. The kid's presence can be a marketing tool; names can be made with a successful challenge to the No. 2. So he takes a series of calls from people affiliated with the camp and ends up getting what he says is a free trip for him and his son to San Diego, paid for by "someone" -- he doesn't know who. Jud did pay for the camp, but says he and Jon just showed up at the airport, then at the camp hotel, and they were taken care of. (Keller says he wasn't the benefactor and doesn't know who was, and that he wouldn't do that for a player.)
But it happens. According to the NCAA, athletes aren't directly recruitable -- face-toface or by phone -- until after their sophomore year of high school. That's what the rules say, anyway. "These kids are recruited," Francis says. "They are recruited for AAU. They are recruited for middle school. They will get recruited for high school. They'll get recruited again by AAU. They're recruited four or five times before a college coach ever calls."
But there are ways around the rules. J-Mike received a how-do-you-do letter from Lute Olson on Arizona stationery the summer after fourth grade. That's two years sooner than Demetrius Walker got a handwritten note from Coach K. Before J-Mike, Walker held the No. 1 rank through middle school and entertained comparisons to LeBron. A bad summer in 2005 dropped him to No. 29. Now entering 10th grade in Fontana, Calif., he has to convince people he's not a has-been.
"WHAT IS the definition of 'accomplishment'?" Back in room 718, Ms. Kapchinski wraps up the reading about the immigrant who hopes to be a millionaire. It's a tricky question; she wants not the dictionary answer but what the word means to each of her students. She wants drawings, too. A Latino boy in glasses scratches his noggin. A blond girl fiddles with one of her large hoop earrings. J-Mike puts his head down and starts to write.
In his current situation, predictions of success easily can be confused with success itself. And John Reese knows the road ahead is anything but smooth. He will expose his son to the basketballindustrial complex because, for better or worse, this is how elite young ballers get their opportunity. The system isn't like many in Europe, where governments subsidize local clubs and top prospects get trained at national centers. The ground here might be polluted with hype, but restricting J-Mike to the Bryan Boys & Girls Club is not an option. So the Reeses will accept invites to teaching camps at Texas colleges, if there's a chance to learn. They'll practice on their own, when the AAU team -- basically a regional team of ranked players -- can't get together. They will let a Nike adviser take them to France, as he did this summer, if there's a chance to compete against the top Euros. They'll tour the U.S. with Adidas' subcontractor during the upcoming school year as part of a proposed Team Phenom, as long as J-Mike keeps his grades up. They'll exploit the system as it exploits them.
The trouble with being No. 1 is that there's only one direction to go from there. And the top sixthgrader has to maintain his position for seven years. Seven years until David Stern can call his name. Seven years of scouts, entrepreneurs, agents, sycophants, politicians, reporters, girls and jealous rivals. Seven years of expectations no kid should have to endure. When MJ was this age, he still played football and baseball and no one cared.
JM hands his work sheet to Kapchinski. On it, he has scrawled, "To play in the NBA."
His drawing is of a finish line.
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