We went to Reynolds Saturday morning to catch some of the 15-and-under games. These games don't have the buzz that the older kids generate, but you can see different things - that was our reasoning for going. We were not disappointed.
As soon as we sat down in the front row, courtside, two African-American men offered us a seat at the table which was courtside, and offered to run get another chair, a kind offer which we gratefully accepted.
Conversation ensued, and it happened that the two men - one of whom we'll call Truman, and the other Ernie - were traveling with a kid who was playing for the first time with one of the teams on the court.
The kid, who we'll call Marty, was on the bench as the game began. He was new to the team, and it showed, as almost no one talked to him, and he got almost no touches.
"He's the top player in his class in our state," Ernie said. "He averaged 32 ppg last year." Ernie said that on his regular team, which ran a high-octane offense, Marty would get out and run and play a high-level fullcourt game.
He said that the kid had already been offered - as an eighth grader - by a Big East school, and had significant interest from Florida as well. They had brought him to the TOC to get exposure and more experience.
"Where does he want to go?" we asked.
"He wants to go to the NBA," said Ernie. "College is already assured. We're focusing now on getting him ready for the next step."
Ernie asked if State had anyone else like Koren Robinson. We said we didn't think so.
When Marty came into the game, we told Ernie and Truman that one of the first things he needed to learn was not to stand still. They said that he was playing post, out of position, and his coaches had ordered a Triangle against a zone defense. "That doesn't make any sense," grumbled Ernie.
However, you could see his athleticism on a couple of occasions - he faked like the Flash and shook a defender, and then declined the shot on one such occasion. It was a dramatic but subtle thing to watch.
Truman and Ernie were yelling instructions constantly. When asked how he had met Marty, Ernie said that he had been coaching him "since sixth grade."
Both men were clearly frustrated that Marty wasn't getting more time, and that he wasn't playing more aggressively, and they rode the refs pretty consistently, though in good humor. Behind us, upstairs, a mother of one of the player's on the other team yelled at the ref to not let Ernie influence his calls. Ernie just laughed.
A few minutes later, she reminded her son: "play hard all the time! You never know who's watching!"
During the first half, Ernie asked for directions from Reynolds to Cameron, and since it was a very familiar route, we wrote them out for him.
During Marty's limited time on the court, he would periodically glance at Ernie and Truman when they yelled at him, but for the most part, we got the impression that he tuned them out pretty completely.
When Marty made his final exit from the game, he went to the bench and sat beside another reserve. No one came to sit on the other side. He watched impassively.
Ernie and Truman disparaged Marty's teammates as the game wound down, saying they'd probably blow the game, they'd done it before, and saying that the trip was a waste of time, that Marty was getting nothing out of it at all.
With the clock running down, a kid from the opposing team chucked up a three.
"What's that nigger doing shooting a three!" said Ernie, then, as soon as he realized he said it, said "excuse us for going cultural."
"That's alright," Truman cackled, slapping us on a bone-white shoulder," you were thinking the same thing too!"
Ernie and Truman rolled with laughter.
When the game was over, Ernie and Truman asked us if we would be at an upcoming Nike event or any of the other games during the TOC. We said we hoped to make more TOC games at least. Ernie said, "well, let me get you my card," which he did. And as you may have guessed, dear reader, this is the punch line to the story:
Ernie was with a sports management firm. In other words, his company represents athletes.
We didn't catch Ernie's job title, but what's clear is this: Ernie and Truman have an affiliation with Marty's regular AAU club, and are touring with him and trying to get him as much exposure as possible.
Now, it's entirely possible that they could work for a sports management agency and have no interest in a talented 14-year-old. But it's equally possible, is it not, that this company is actively identifying, cultivating, and developing a player (or players) as early as the sixth grade? It really underscores what the NCAA is up against, and in a different way the NBA as well. The NCAA as currently constituted cannot possibly compete against this sort of thing. It really underscores a couple of points that Coach K has made in recent years:
- the basketball world needs to be integrated. The NBA, the NCAA, AAU and high school basketball need to have a common framework to resolve problems and ensure the future of the game.
- it's vitally important that college coaches spend more time with young players. Clearly, a Nolan Richardson or a Jerry Tarkanian has a primary interest in winning games, and academics be damned. However, in a broader view, you have people like Mike Krzyzewski, John Chaney, Rick Majerus, Bob Knight, Herb Sendek (it came to our attention recently that Sendek was offered a chance to do something which was patently against NCAA regulations. He turned it down, and State fans should be grateful), Roy Williams, Steve Robinson, Mike Brey, Tommy Amaker, Quin Snyder, Kelvin Sampson, Lute Olson, Bob McKillop, Dan Monson, and many, many other good men who could provide a counterbalance to these young players.
We realize that contact between coaches and players is restricted at a young age for good reason - too many coaches get desperate for talent and do things they shouldn't do - but what's wrong with having the NCAA set up summer programs which allows the coaches and players to gather in central, monitored locations, where they can get to know these kids before they're picked off?
A central problem with the idea of agents working with kids at 12-14 years old is that if they don't pan out, that's it. They're not getting academic help or scholarship offers from sports agents. The NCAA has the potential to really make a difference, but keeping a pronounced distance is only going to allow different forms of corruption to prosper, and diminish what could and should be a powerful message: athletics is a brilliant part of life, but your mind needs to be trained as well, and ultimately, your mind is more powerful than your body.