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With a quick first step and impressive handle, 5-11 point guard Eric Price is already an expert at driving to the basket. In two years, he'll be old enough to drive to the gym as well.
One of the three youngest basketball players at the elite Adidas ABCD Camp last month in New Jerseythe trio will be high school freshmen this fallthe fifteen-year-old Washington, D.C., kid was invited after his performance in AAU basketball and various summer tournaments. His uniform hangs from his frail frame, but he holds his own against the older preps.
"The draft keeps on getting younger, so you have to start looking at players earlier," says a scout for the Washington Wizards.
For players who can't wait until their eighth-grade graduation to begin planning their NBA careers, Adidas offers regional ABCD Jr. camps that, according to the company's application flyer, provides sixth graders to eighth graders with "media exposure" and "an arena for showcasing your talents."
BOYS TO MENJoey Cameron, 14 years old with NBA size and a child's face, has yet to play a single game of high school basketball, but the 6-8 player from Jamison, Alabama, has already started at forward for the Jazz.
Teams at the ABCD camp, in the Fairleigh Dickinson University gym in Hackensack, are named after NBA teams, but the connection between professional basketball and the high school showcase runs far deeper than this nominal tie. This year, representatives from 14 NBA teams, most with clipboards in hand and team logos on their polo shirts, attend the camp, setting an ABCD record. Over the past five years, 15 players have jumped from high school to the NBA. Ten of them are ABCD graduates. "By the time a good player enters his freshman or sophomore year of high school, NBA teams start noticing and evaluating," says the Wizards' scout.
On the first day, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, a former ABCD camp MVP, speaks to this year's kids about the importance of going to college. Bryant's two championship rings, earned without one minute of college basketball, send a louder message.
One of the first people Bryant hugged after he was picked in the NBA draft a few years ago was Sonny Vaccaro, whose 1984 signing of Michael Jordan for Nike launched it and other shoe companies into worldwide influence. Vaccaro later left Nike to go to Adidas, for which he signed Bryant. Adidas, now part of the German conglomerate Adidas-Salomon, pins its hopes on its "promotional partner" Bryant, calling the young Laker the "key to our efforts" in selling shoes to "urban basketball players and basketball-inspired youth."
BIG SHOES TO FILLWhile you rarely hear the teen stars discuss it, the pressure of playing at a top national basketball camp shows in their faces and body language. Most players try to downplay the feelings, explaining that it is an honor to be invited and that they have nothing to prove. Their actions on the court often tell a different story.
Late in a game on the second day of camp, Paul Davis, a 6-11 center from Rochester Hills, Michigan, misses what should have been an easy baseline dunk. He returns to the bench with his head in his hands, inconsolable and oblivious to anything his coach or teammates say. He knows that he has just made a costly mistake, and he knows that he did it right in front of new Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
"You try not to think about the pressure too much," says forward Brandon Rohe, a 6-3 guard from San Juan Capistrano, California. "Every once in a while it gets to you, and you get tied up. Everyone here has to deal with it."
Media outlets range from local TV stations to Sports Illustrated and even beyond, to Web-based recruiting services such as Hoopscoop Online. Players like Cooke have to navigate large crowds just to make it back to the locker room, and they have to face the same questions hundreds of times: "What school are you going to? Which ones are you thinking about?" The very best prospects, though, are thinking of going directly to the NBA.
"It's going to happen more and more," Arizona coach Lute Olson told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. "It's just the mindset of the kids. You see it at Nike and Adidas camps in summer. If they have to go to college, it's like 'God, I didn't make my first goal.' It's crazy."
The month before this year's ABCD camp, an unprecedented three of the first four players selected in the NBA draft were high school kids. They were picked ahead of the collegiate player of the year, Duke's Shane Battier.
JUMPING THROUGH HOOPSThere's no I in team, but there is one in recruit.
This camp is street ball at its worst, a decidedly individual showcase within a pseudo-team setting. Every player here is out to make an impression on St. John's Mike Jarvis, University of Memphis's John Calipari, and the hundreds of other college coaches and pro scouts in attendance.