By Ryan McNeill
Can you imagine being a sixth grader and the mayor of your town dedicating a day to you? How about being 10-years old and being in a commercial with Carmelo Anthony? Such is the life of young basketball stars J-Mychal Reese and Justin Jennifer.
J-Mychal Reese rose to fame back in 2005 when the mayor of Bryan, Texas named March 8th, 2005 as J-Mychal Reese Day. According to an article by Tom Farrey in ESPN The Magazine called “The Man,” all of this hoopla occurred after Hoop Scoop Online (HoopScoopOnline.com) gave Reese the #1 ranking back in 2003 as the top 9-and under basketball player in the country. Reese then put this ranking on his “basketball resume” which caught the attention of the Jr. NBA (a partnership between the League and local organizations across the US). The NBA then flew J-Mychal out to Denver for the 2005 All-Star weekend festivities.
Another child prodigy that garnered national attention this summer was Justin Jennifer. The Washington Post ran a feature story on Justin on July 4th called “Is There Such a Thing as a Perfect 10?” The article by Eli Saslow reports that, “during the last two seasons, youth basketball coaches had anointed Justin as one of the most talented 10-and-under players in the country – a distinction that would have won him nothing but cheap trophies a decade ago. But now, Justin had become the sought-after prize, pursued by Amateur Athletic Union summer league teams that troll nationally for players, high school coaches who recruit aggressively and shoe companies whose scramble for potential future endorsers continues for a second decade.”
When I first heard about Justin and J-Mychal I was tempted to skip over these articles and chalk them up to fluff reporting. After I sat down and read these articles I became amazed at the amount of greed and corruption involved with kids playing youth basketball. I understands the business aspect of the pro and college game, but there’s no way money should be a part of kids playing basketball.
Clark Francis, the editor-publisher of Hoop Scoop Online, told ESPN that “I really don’t want to go out and watch younger players, but that’s the way the game is going. Three or four years ago, AAU coaches wouldn’t be caught dead going to seventh or eight-grade games. Now, they have to if they want to keep up. It’s big business.”
Does the concept of kids being considered big business scare anyone else? There’s no reason why parents should put their kids in the position where they have to appease scouts like Clark Francis from Hoop Scoop Online or shoe company execs like adidas rep Scottie Bowden. But, with the direction that AAU ball is heading, parents are showing a willingness to feed this monster.
According to the ESPN report by Farrey, Reese has worked “out with an $90-an hour personal trainer, looking to build his 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.”
If you think that’s scary, check out this snippet from the Washington Post article. Saslow writes that, “Scottie Bowden pulled down a flat-brimmed Washington Nationals hat until it almost shielded his eyes. A representative of Adidas, Bowden had invested many weekends and about $20,000 of company money in Justin and his teams. Bowden had provided the boy and his teammates with sneakers and travel money to tournaments in an effort to build brand loyalty in a 10-year-old with distant NBA prospects.”
There’s no reason why parents should allow companies and coaches to prey on their kids like this. Farrey summed this up best in his article when he asked, “why would parents spend so much to expose, rather than protect their children?”
It’s not just the financial investment that worries me, it’s the fact that kids are being forced to train like adults. According to the Post article, Justin has been told to take juice out of his diet, he wears a weighted vest during practices to build upper body strength and he runs up and down bleachers to build endurance. Are you kidding me? There’s no way that I would have given up Kool-Aid when I was 10-years old!
Another troubling aspect of the “training regime” of Justin is the way his father Howard pushes him. The Post article documented one case where “before they returned home for dinner, Howard told Justin to do 25 pushups . . . after jumping rope 100 times in a minute . . . after making 14 consecutive free throws . . . after shooting 300 jumpers . . . after running up and down 720 more rows of stairs in the bleachers.”
I consider myself a fit and healthy adult and this training program puts mine to shame! Flat out – making your kid do this kind of personal training is insane. I’m an elementary school teacher and I believe that once my students head home from school they shouldn’t be worrying about their diet or training, they should be playing in the park, watching cartoons or playing video games with their friends.
Another aspect of this sketchy scene is that adults are trying to encourage kids to play in the NBA, yet their bodies are nowhere close to being fully developed. Farrey touched upon this when he wrote that, “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.”
In the Washington Post article this topic was touched upon when Saslow wrote that, “Howard and Kisha Jennifer often remind themselves that phenomenal talent, at 10, remains tenuous and fleeting. The uncontrollable terrifies them. Justin must grow taller than his 5-foot-10 father, Howard said, and the family’s genes hold little promise. Recently, Kisha told Howard she is 5-2.”
“I always tell Justin: ‘Get to 6-2 and we’re good. We’re good,’” Howard Justin told the Washington Post. “But if he stops growing way early and everybody else keeps shooting up? Then that’s it, man. That’s a wrap. We might as well go try badminton or something.”
What good will it do Justin or J-Mychal to garner all of this media attention at a young age only to see it slip from his grasp because of genetics? Players like Sebastian Telfair were legends growing up but because they never had big growth spurts – Telfair is reported to be 5’10” but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s shorter than that – their careers failed to take off. You can always argue that Telfair is a success because he made it to the League and signed a fat shoe contract despite having mediocre success at best on the hardcourt, but what if Justin tops out at 5’7″? He’ll be lucky to get a scholarship to a D1 school and he’ll feel like a failure before he even gets the chance to step foot on a college campus. What kind of message does this send to kids?
Another interesting twist to this story is the way that Justin and J-Mychal reached their fame – through high rankings on Hoop Scoop Online. This is a site that Clark Franics has admitted to ESPN is far from perfect. In fact, according to the ESPN article, “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 voice and lobby several times. Sometimes, the process reveals it’s 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.”
So, in essence players like J-Mike and Justin have shot to the top of the charts despite any solid, tangible proof that they deserve their high rankings. Even if these rankings were tangible, is it just me or is the thought of ranking “kids” a little far fetched? I coach the junior and intermediate boys basketball teams at my elementary school and I can’t wrap my head around the idea of some of them being scouted while they are so young. I had one student who was 6’2″ while in grade six and he towered over his competition. Despite him controlling games I never once thought about him playing in tournaments like ones that Justin and J-Mychal participate in nor would I even allow shoe companies or “scouts” into my gym to watch my kids play.
I find the whole AAU scene to be corrupt and is not something I would want my kids exposed to as a coach or when I eventually become a father. I think that talented kids like J-Mychal and Justin should be able to enjoy their childhood instead of slaving away to make the NBA. The chance of actually making the NBA are minuscule so kids should be shooting hoops in their backyards playing video games with buddies and be completely oblivious to shoe companies and AAU scouts.
The problem with this situation is corrupt shoe companies and AAU teams that feed off of greedy parents who rob their kids of their childhood because they are dreaming of a big pay day down the road.