By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
Jerome also has opinions on some of the rules in youth basketball, which he believes distort its purpose—especially those rules that allow older kids to play in younger divisions. One such rule is the "grade exception," which allows 13-year-olds, for example, to play in a tournament for 12-year-olds, as long as they're in the sixth grade. This—combined with "late birthdays," an exception for kids born between September 1 and December 31—allows a child to be as much as two years older than his teammates.
"What you get is a six-foot-four, 200-pound kid playing against a five-foot-two kid," he says. "The rules actually encourage parents to hold their kids back. The size difference actually creates a dangerous situation. And how is it fair?"
About halfway through the practice, Jerome talks to the team about the departure of a player to another program. His father, he says, wanted more playing time for the boy and decided, after three years, to switch. This is Jerome's way—rather than leave something unsaid, he addresses it head-on.
"His dad felt he needed a change, and I don't begrudge him that," he tells the kids. "People change teams. It's a part of life. You may not be playing with all the kids here in a couple of years. Life changes, and we have to be prepared for it."
Team-jumping is just another part of the AAU landscape. Parents move their kids for reasons both good and bad. They might dislike a coach. They might want more playing time. They might want more exposure.
But team-jumping "makes kids feel a little more like commodities," Stevens says.
While no one is going to admit that kids can be commodities in this world, sometimes it can seem like that.
Which brings us to another trend in this culture: the boutique team formed by a rich man in part to benefit his own son, but also to win by seeking out other good players.
A local example is Bob Novogratz, a wealthy man who lives downtown with his wife and six kids in a stunning mansion that the couple refurbished, landing them lavish write-ups in interior design and society publications. The home features a basketball court on the roof. Kin to the billionaire owners of a large hedge fund, Novogratz makes his living buying and renovating homes.
One of Novogratz's sons is a talented 12-year-old, who has had the benefit of personal trainers and assistants hired by his dad to help him improve.
The son played at Riverside for two years, starting in early 2006. During that period, Novogratz contributed money to the program, helped with fundraising, and helped pay for team travel. The team was very successful, winning an AAU national championship in 2006.
But in the spring of 2008, Novogratz pulled his son out of the program, and then, a few months later, used his wealth to form his own team, which he dubbed, "The City."
Novogratz also lured several players away from Riverside to his team. That move caused a great deal of consternation among some folks at Riverside.
In the few months since the team's formation, it has won at least one high-level tournament.
Of course, this kind of thing is no longer unusual. The most famous example is the Texas Titans, a Dallas-based team of fifth- and sixth-graders, which was founded by another rich guy named Kenny Troutt.
Troutt's team was featured in a series of newspaper articles, most notably in a piece that described how he flies his grade-schoolers to tournaments in his private jet. While most AAU coaches are volunteers, Troutt pays his coaches handsomely. His head coach is a former college-level coach.
There are layers of ambition in this world. There are teams that only play in their community center. There are teams that compete only in local tournaments. And there are teams that compete regionally and nationally. But most teams are constrained in their ambition by one thing: money.
Troutt's group is one of a handful of teams across the country for whom money is no object in the pursuit of youth-basketball glory.
When I reached out to Novogratz for this story, his coach said Novogratz didn't think the team was ready for media exposure. But Novogratz himself later e-mailed me, responding to questions about the reaction to his team: "I offered no incentives to parents to come over to our team no matter what you think or were told," he wrote. "Coaching [is] all on a volunteer service as for now until May, when our coach will be paid a small salary to run the team and when the kids are only traveling in the New York/New Jersey area and going to Maryland and Virginia by car in the summer. . . . We are having our own tournament and fundraiser in the spring, and all parents are involved, as this is their team."
Novogratz doesn't seem to want to be seen in the same light as Troutt. But the barnstorming model of a wealthy's man team—created so his son can get playing time and exposure—is one of the things that sets the elite youth scene apart.