The Raw Intensity of New York's Elite Youth Basketball

Some kid's father is coming across the court. Toward me. In the middle of the game, with kids running past him, and he doesn't seem to care.

It's the Showstoppers basketball tournament at 152nd and Adam Clayton Powell. Late one August. The championship game in the 11-and-under bracket. Two months earlier, I had sort of stumbled into coaching for the Riverside Hawks, a storied program that operates out of Riverside Church, and this is my first championship game. I am, admittedly, inexperienced. Green. Nervous.

And now a dad is coming at me across the court.

The Riverside Hawks do their thing in a March game.
Sam Horine

The Riverside Hawks do their thing in a March game.

Sam Horine

This is no standard Little League game, or your typical rec league or YMCA game, where kids play for "fun." Here, winning matters.

This is elite-level youth basketball, an ever-more sophisticated world, where extremely talented grade-school players face high intensity and high pressure from ambitious parents and coaches, where curious customs and rules exist, where there is no "mercy" rule, where parents think nothing of jumping their kids from team to team, where personal trainers earn $100 an hour to train kids in the step-back and the cross-over, where bloggers track them as if they were already high-school phenoms.

At its best, it's a world where talented kids get to meet others from around the city, where they learn how to play the game, and where they learn how to win and lose. In the more moneyed programs, players get to travel, and some teams go around the country competing in tournaments.

It is a different kind of March Madness—a sprawling, complex subculture on a national scale. And to see the importance attached to it, all you had to do was be at the court that day, where about 100 people clustered along a towering chain-link fence ringing the court to watch a bunch of fifth-graders play a game.

Only, you wouldn't have been there, because you weren't invited. Unadvertised, the tournaments invite only parents and coaches. This is serious business, and the public isn't informed.

I was there only because I have a son who has played for Riverside for three years, and because I became a volunteer coach and donated money to the program. And so, hopelessly conflicted as I am, I will try to offer a rare peek inside.

Come to your own conclusions about whether the kids benefit or not. Either way, it's a reality, played out every weekend across the country in hundreds of tournaments each year, culminating every summer in the Amateur Athletic Union national championships for kids from second grade through high school.

At that August game, we're playing on a court tucked between a row of brick walk-ups and an auto-parts shop. The city had built a 20-foot chain-link fence around it, and the space is tight, claustrophobic—more so for the crowd that packs in along one side of the court and leans in to peer through the fence. It's hot and bright. The emcee booms rap tunes through a loud, scratchy boombox and shouts to the crowd. The boys warm up in layup lines. The referee is late.

It's common in this world of all-star teams for children to come from different places around the city: On that team, I had kids from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, and the Lower East Side. I had rich kids and poor kids, white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids, and Asian kids. I had kids who never would have met people of other ethnic and economic backgrounds if not for basketball.

Only seven or eight kids have shown up at practices over the summer, but for this championship game, every kid on the roster is here. I have 14 kids for a 24-minute game. I know there is no way I'm going to get meaningful playing time for all of them—I don't even have jerseys for all of them.

And then there's our opponent. We're playing the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club, a Bronx program that has produced a long list of fine basketball players and is a second home for city kids who live along White Plains Road.

Kips Bay is good. They have two fine guards and a good big man. It's going to be tough for us to beat them, even if I only play our best kids. I want to play everyone, but I already know that's going to be unlikely.

The referee finally arrives, and the game tips off. If you are envisioning a bunch of kids randomly chasing the ball, like little kids on a soccer field, you're wrong. In fact, even at this age, the game is surprisingly sophisticated and the level of play surprisingly good.

Each team has multiple offensive and defensive sets. I start in a full-court man-to-man press. The Kips Bay coach deploys a 3-2 full-court zone press. I counter with a press break. He falls back in a half-court zone. I call the high-low zone offense.

The game is very close, very fast, and very intense. Sneakers shuffle across the asphalt. The referee's whistle screeches. Coaches holler instructions. Parents scream out their own instructions to their kids. The boombox blasts. The emcee assigns each kid a nickname over his microphone.

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