It is human nature to gravitate to those considered special. We love to glorify those with superior talents, and we gladly offer them special favors as rewards for shining their lights in our direction. Unfortunately, granting someone exceptional status gives him a sense of entitlement than can be a major deterrent to his maturation.
When a youngster leaps high and dunks a basketball for the first time, people stop to watch. We all know how gravity limits us, so to see someone leap skyward and defy gravity stirs our souls and excites our imaginations. Fans flock to the kid's games, college recruiters begin to make contact, and opportunists see a chance to gain influence with the kid in return for future financial benefits.
Many parents realize their son may be their gravy train and start treating him differently. They begin to pamper and spoil him, as if he no longer needs parenting or occasional failure in his life. Those we call "street agents" begin offering free cell phone service, free food and other extra benefits, ostensibly to create a dependency within the child so he will feel obligated to return the favor at a later date.
Unfortunately, those future benefits might ultimately make the youngster little more than an endentured servant, having to play for his handler's AAU team or attend the college he arranges for him. But in the meantime, all the attention and prestige make him feel like he is a special gift from God and can do no wrong.
A spoiled child makes poor decisions. When a basketball player is spoiled, he loses his incentive to work hard and accept responsibilities to his family, his teams and his own life. He becomes untrustworthy, inconsistent, and resistant to parenting and coaching. He thinks he is too good to be bossed around, even though his desperately needs guidance.
The Mac Irvin Fire AAU team is absolutely loaded with top talent, but it cannot count on its players being present for its games. Some show up and are reliable, while others play some of the time and then skip out with no apparent reason. It limits the team's ability to win games, and it creates dissension among the players.
Joe Henricksen, author of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, has some important thoughts about pampered players. He praises those who want to work hard and love the game of basketball, but he has major doubts about the rest.
"The big question right now is, how much does he love basketball? This goes for a lot of the top prospects in the state of Illinois. Are they taking their gifts for granted? Getting exposure, getting talked about a lot, getting wooed by all these big colleges at an early age, taking the game they have for granted.
"Are they maximizing everything? A lot of these kids are not. So you are worried about going out there and trying to live on talent alone. To me, I want the kid who's hard-working and gets after it. Do they have that maturity to evolve into that elite player? Do they have a toughness about them? It's really refreshing when you see those kids that bring the whole package. Skills, talent, work ethic, all those things.
"That's why Nnana Egwu from St. Ignatius intrigues me so much. He just loves basketball. He's learning every day, and he's trying his hardest every single time out. He gets better doing that. Some of these guys are just going through the motions."
Jereme Richmond has been committed to Illinois ever since his freshman year of high school. The 6'-7" Waukegan standout is considered one of the top ten players in the class of 2010 and has pro potential. His case is discussed simply because his situation is well known. But it is typical of many athletes.
Richmond was suspended for awhile his sophomore year, and it helped him grow up. But even now, his behavior on and off the court is inconsistent. If he is playing against top competion, he brings his best game. But he can become completely disinterested at other times. He is an intelligent young man, but his grades need work.
He played with his high school team in the Illinois team camp in June, but he kept a separate profile throughout the day. He excelled in April AAU events and performed well at the LeBron James Camp, and then he skipped out on the Fire's entire Chicago Hoops Classic venture. Henricksen isn't trying to blame anyone for these inconsistencies. He is using it as an example of what happens frequently with superstars.
"I'm not gonna criticize how Waukegan's handled it. But I think everyone's afraid to tell him what to do because of the ramifications. You're selling your soul here, saying we have the best player in the state and a chance to go to the state championship.
"Will we have separate rules for him? Is he gonna be forced to wear his name tag in the hallways when he says he doesn't need to because he says he's the only 6'-7" kid in the school? How far are you gonna go?
"He's already been kicked off one time his sophomore year. The University of Illinois is probably trying to boost him, get him to do everything right. But even college coaches can't go too far getting on these kids because they're not signed yet.
"These kids are so catered to, so wooed that it's hard for anyone to tell them what they think and feel. And I think it's too bad to do that. But when you have a talent like this, sometimes it happens that way."
Richmond's situation may straighten itself out over time as he continues to grow up.
"There's still a lot of maturity issues with these kids," Henricksen continues. "Jereme Richmond matured greatly between his sophomore and junior years. But there's still some things both on the floor and off the floor that raise your eyebrows and bring some concerns. Skipping class this past semester, certain things like that.
"Here's a kid that has the world in his hands, basically. He's gonna be a one or two year guy. Doing the little things you need to do, he still has some growing up to do. But I give him credit for making tremendous strides.
"He's a smart, articulate, jovial kid. He's gonna be fine once he matures. The difference is Jereme truly loves basketball. That's what drives and motivates him. He's just got to learn to bring it every day."
For every top basketball player who's fortunate enough to have a pro career, there are literally hundreds who fall by the wayside. When they are no longer able to provide a return on their handlers' investments, they are discarded to fend for themselves. After years of being spoiled, they may not be able to cope.
Maybe it's time more people cared for the needs of these youngsters, including their need to have limits set for them by caring leaders and mentors. Left to their own devices, or forced to submit to the self-serving demands of greedy outsiders, they are vulnerable to all sorts of problems.
They may have special athletic talents, but they are still children who need guidance and direction. And they need to be treated like everyone else and not put on a pedestal where life's realities are hidden from view. A fortunate few will receive that help.