UPDATE: Another typically passionate and articulate comment from friend and frequent poster Jack Crane:
Ok, let me look out my window this morning to help a year end comment from the South Side: there are lots of young African-American boys running around the streets, dodging bullets from gang bangers while they are looking for….their Dads? And how was Middle School this last semester Jamal? Oh, you’re dropping out of school, like 50% of your classmates. And are you laughing at your cousin who is staying in school because when she graduates from High School she will be so far behind the White, affluent suburban peers in “basic” education that getting into a decent college will be nearly impossible? As I walk down the street a bit, I see a Dad playing basketball with his 10 year old kid, for hours, laughing and joking and challenging… he even put together a few video clips so potential college recruits might see his kid amongst thousands of other hoopsters dreaming to play in the Final Four. Did I hear the Dad say “Son, it’s now time to go home and finish reading that essay on Martin Luther King, Jr.” Did I hear that, did I?
A son, a Dad, a book and a basketball…. sounds like “happy” new year to me.
After seeing Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot earlier this month, I wrote about how professionalized high school basketball had become.
A 2006 series of articles by Boston Globe reporter Bob Hohler leads me to conclude that I was wrong about the age at which the professionalization starts.
It’s much earlier than high school.
Hohler’s series, which was part of The Best American Sports Writing 2007, yet another gift from dear friend Evan Kaplan, focuses on Thomas “TJ” Gassnolla. The convicted felon is an Adidas sneakers rep and the general manager of the Northeast Playaz, a team of basketball players that runs on the AAU circuit previously dominated in my native region by Leo Papile.
Some of the people interviewed in the story, particularly the mothers of some players, praise Gassnolla’s unstinting efforts on their son’s behalf. Hohler does show the success he has had getting raw and undisciplined youth into better life options, and, in some cases, a college scholarship. He also has many detractors, who claim his methods are unethical, pointing in just one example to his driving young people in a number of states while his license was suspended.
Hohler also uses Gassnolla to bring out the ever deepening ties between sneaker companies and younger and younger players, many, many of whom are hell bent on chasing dreams of becoming the next LeBron James, Allen Iverson or Tracy McGrady.
We are talking fifth grade, people.
Check out this picture and excerpt from the Middle School Elite:
1. Marquise Walker5’0″ (Chicago, IL) – He’s a tough physically built point guard in the mold of Isiah Thomas. He’s very mature for his age having always played with older kids. He has the total package: size, speed, court vision, scoring, and the ability to make others better. A dazzling ball-handler who’s nearly impossible to keep out of the lane where he usually finishes, draws fouls, or makes pinpoint feeds to his big men. Walker is a play-maker in the open floor with an array of moves. Example- spin dribbles, hesitation moves, no-look passes, euro steps, and reverse pivots. He has a smooth stroke to land 3 pointers and the ability to finish easily with both hands. What separates Walker from the pack is his poise and ability to elevate his play on command. Its not uncommon for him to take over games during the 4th quarter and lead his team to victory. As a game changing prospect, he plays his best when the stakes are the highest.
Hohler writes about the many costs this industry has wrought. He cites young players who become giddy with praise and wounded when they are booed after the quality of their play declines. More broadly, he explores the consequences for kids who are separated from their peers at such a young because of their perceived talent.
Sonny Vaccaro, the legendary sneaker guru who helped in many of these developments during his days as a Nike marketing executive-he signed Michael Jordan to his first Nike contract-makes a guest appearance in typically unrepentant fashion.
Hohler is not the first to plumb these depths, nor is basketball the only sport in which this kind of behavior is rampant.
Still, the portrait he paints is an unsavory one.
Some may dismiss calls to turn back the proverbial clock to a time when basketball was played for love and was not the multi-billion dollar enterprise that relentlessly feeds children and their families’ near impossible dreams of glory as naive and misguided.
I’m not saying they’re wrong, but I do hope some people agree with me that middle school rating systems are indicative of a system that is out-of-hand.
How long will before there are national ranking for first grade players, and what will we say then? Do we support the system by following, watching and talking about the NBA and college games?
As always, questions, comments and disagreements are welcome.