Prep standout Tyler to star on big screen


Jeremy Tyler is barely old enough to drive. He's still too young to vote or join the US Coast Guard without parental consent. If all goes as planned, he'll be dunking over Kobe and starring in commercials for VitaminWater long before he's ever legally eligible to party with LeBron at the 40/40 Club.

But he already has his own documentary.

Earlier this year, Los Angeles-based independent filmmakers Andrew Gallery and David Bolno began chronicling Tyler's expected rise from San Diego prep basketball star to NBA draft pick. The tentatively titled "My Life: with Jeremy Tyler" is a work-in-progress but, then again, so is Tyler.

"First and foremost this is about a teenager coming of age," Gallery said of the film. "The fact that he's so incredibly talented makes Jeremy special but, on top of that, he's just a great kid with a great story."

He's also a kid who was throwing down backboard-rattling dunks when most of his classmates were just hitting puberty. And while Tyler still may not be old enough to buy lottery tickets, he doesn't really need to be: He is a lottery ticket.

"Basketball is a lot of fun for me," Tyler said, adding matter-of-factly, "but it's also a business."

Such is the life of a sinewy 6-foot-11 (or 6-foot-9, depending on who's holding the tape measure) center/forward who happens to be one of the most sought-after high school recruits in the country. It's no coincidence that he wears the number 1 on his jersey -- Tyler has been widely considered to be the top prospect in the Class of 2010 since his freshman year (he currently ranks as the No. 7 prospect on the ESPNU Super 60) -- but he also pays the price of being the standard-bearer by grinding through as many as four workouts a day.

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"He wants to be the most dominant player in basketball," said Kenny Roy, head coach at San Diego High School. "He has a different mind-set than any other kid I've ever coached and that's what sets him apart. If we're on the court, he wants to be the best. If we're running suicides, he wants to be first. If we're in the weight room, he wants to be the strongest. I don't care if he's shooting marbles; he wants to be the best at that too."

When Roy first encountered Tyler -- back when the teenage wunderkind was a sky-scraping, "semi-overweight" seventh grader -- his expectations were more measured.

"You knew right away that the kid was going to be a basketball player," Roy said. "But I don't think anybody in their wildest dreams imagined him being this good."

Last season, Tyler nearly averaged a triple-double (18 points, 14.5 rebounds and 7.7 blocks per game) as a sophomore, while leading the Cavers to their first sectional title in 33 years. Now he has his sights set on a state title. Gallery's camera lens, in turn, will be focused squarely on Tyler: On the court, in the classroom, at home, everywhere.

"I just want to capture everything that makes him," Gallery said. "At the same time, we're trying not to interfere as much as possible. I'm trying to stay away from having a huge presence that disrupts what it is we're trying to capture."

Gallery used a large crew to film important games at the end of last season, then whittled it down to three when the videographers were recently invited to attend the wedding of Tyler's father and stepmother. But when Tyler goes, say, shopping at the mall, it's just Gallery holding the camera. Needless to say, it took some convincing before Tyler and his family agreed to have their lives put on film.

"My first thought was that this is big, that this could change my life," Tyler said. "I thought about it for a while and decided that I was ready to do it. It took about a week to get used to the cameras and everything but now it's cool."

Tyler says this with a shrug. No biggie. Gone is the 13-year-old who was so awestruck when he first met Amare Stoudemire that he was rendered speechless. Now he's a confident young man who appears to be on a first-name basis with his hero.

"When I'm around players like Amare or Jordan or Kobe I just see them as people," Tyler said. "They're way better basketball players than I am right now, but they're also just regular people."

The only athlete that Tyler appears to get even a little weak-kneed over is Olympic hero Michael Phelps.

"I watched all of his races," Tyler said. "Man, he is an amazing athlete."

To a casual observer of the mild-mannered Tyler, this is what constitutes a feverish outburst. Away from the basketball court, he is easygoing and thoughtful, as mature and smooth as the R&B he listens to before games. But once he steps across that baseline -- look out.

"On the court, I'm JT," Tyler said, adopting an intense scowl for dramatic effect before cracking a slight smile, his face reverting to its regularly scheduled placidity. "Off the court, I'm just Jeremy Tyler."

When he's in Clark Kent mode, Tyler seems virtually unflappable. But, along with his ballhandling and relative lack of bulk, the most obvious glimmer of kryptonite is his inability to keep his emotions in check on the court.

"His maturity level is increasing on a daily basis," Roy said. "As a player, his skills have improved dramatically since he was a freshman but I think the biggest thing for him is that his maturity and focus has increased so much."

It helps that Roy and Tyler's father help provide crowd control to filter all the recruiting calls, interview requests and other demands placed on the burgeoning star.

"He's still young and when you're the No.1 player in the country, you have people pulling on you from all angles," Roy said. "Things can get out of proportion if you don't have the right people surrounding you to keep things in the proper perspective."

No small task when even Roy describes Tyler as a type of player that "comes around every 100 years." Hyperbole aside, given that it's been some 116 years since Dr. Naismith initiated the first peach basket pickup game, it could theoretically be another 84 years before another Jeremy Tyler emerges. Then again, this Jeremy Tyler still has geometry homework to finish.

"Even when I'm travelling to all these tournaments and playing in the all-star games or whatever, I'm still studying all the time," Tyler said. "In the classroom, I'm just another student like anybody else."

But in a sport in which scouts begin assessing talent practically in utero, Tyler's basketball skills have been under the recruiting microscope since junior high. He's just weeks into his junior year and already every major NCAA Division I basketball program in the country has expressed interest. Well, almost.

"I've heard from every school in the country except for Duke," Roy said, offering a go-figure shrug. "They're the only school that has not contacted me. Everyone else … well, you should see all the mail that comes in, all the phone calls I get. There is so much attention on him right now, it's unbelievable."

Right now, there's an unopened letter from the University of Oklahoma sitting atop a stack of mail in Roy's office inside the squat windowless bunker that is the San Diego High gymnasium. Nearby, there are stacks of glossy programs from schools such as UCLA, USC, Kentucky, Indiana and California. Tyler has good things to say about each of them -- and schools such as Louisville, UCLA, USC, Arizona and San Diego State in particular -- but he also said he's nowhere near inking a letter of intent. (In the film business, they call that building tension.)

"It's great to see a kid of his caliber coming from San Diego," Roy said. "We've had a lot of outstanding high school players come out of here -- guys like Bill Walton and Chase Budinger -- but a lot of people feel that nobody is going to reach the magnitude of Jeremy Tyler after he's done four years."

Of course, people said similar things about Arthur Agee and William Gates. Tyler needs no introduction to the protagonists -- both of whom fell short of their aspirations -- of the 1994 basketball documentary "Hoop Dreams." He said he's watched the film several times. Now he's living it.

"You can watch that movie and learn from their actions and learn from their mistakes," Tyler said. "What we're doing with this [documentary] is basically the same thing. If I make it, people can learn from it, like, 'this is what you need to do.' If I don't make it, they can learn from the things I did wrong along the way."

Gallery is slightly less eager to compare his project with the most famous film in the genre. Technology alone has expanded far beyond the confines that "Hoop Dreams" was shot under and already Gallery has used YouTube to post short snippets of the early footage captured for "My Life." In addition to an eventual cinematic release, Gallery says the project could even be transformed into a television reality series.

"We're not just looking at doing your standard documentary," Gallery said. "Aesthetically, it's going to have a completely different feel than 'Hoop Dreams.' We have ideas about what we want to do, but you never know exactly how things are going to work out. But that's part of the fun of doing a documentary; you never know what's going to happen next."

Tyler knows what's next. Or at least what's expected of him and what he expects of himself. He doesn't talk about if his team will win a state title: He talks about when. He grits his teeth and pushes through his third and fourth workouts of the day by thinking of the upcoming season and of Jan. 23, when San Diego High's game against Los Angeles' Fairfax High is scheduled to be aired nationally on ESPN.

He's not completely blinded by his dreams, his talent or the prospect of fortune and fame in the NBA. He is well aware that in a couple of years all the triumphs and tragedies of his story will be captured on film, for better or worse. And amid all the hype and the hoopla, something that William Gates said at the end of Hoop Dreams still sticks with him, a solemn sentiment that Jeremy Tyler has now adapted and adopted as his own.

"People are always telling me not to forget about them when I make it," Tyler said. "And I always tell them not to forget about me if I don't."

Nathan Dinsdale is a freelance writer in San Diego.