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There's no doubt that high-level youth basketball is a real obsession in New York. So, naturally, it has its own websites.
You can find high-strung parents shouting at each other about their kids in various places on the Internet (the youth basketball forum at the New Jersey Journal, nj.com, is particularly Jerry Springer–like), but if there's one site that matches the court action for intensity, it's Mike Melton's Basketball Spotlight (bballspotlight.com).
Melton is a New Jersey teacher who has become both a tournament organizer and a tracker of youth basketball through his site, which he bills as "the home for future phenoms."
He's positioned himself as a kind of soothsayer, featuring kids who he thinks are major talents and posting photos and blurbs about them on his website. Often, those kids are participants in a tournament he has organized.
Some typical Melton rundowns on talented players:
"This point guard has the game and charm that has big-time potential written all over him."
"He can flat-out shoot the pill from the perimeter. He has a smooth stroke and the confidence to let it go from anywhere in the gym. I also like his size and length for a 2 guard."
"He is just a flat-out scorer. He torched every time they faced today with eye-popping treys and twisting finishes at the basket."
Imagine that kind of attention when you're a 10-year-old. In another post, Melton writes about an 11-and-under team he thinks is the best in the New York/New Jersey metro area: "They won the MLK Classic, New Heights Tourney, and the Clash for the Cup. They have the pieces needed to make a serious run at the Nationals and seem to be a team on a mission. Right now, they have a target on their backs and must be ready for all comers."
In an interview, Melton stressed that he does not want to be portrayed as exploiting children, and he says he does not rank players. At the same time, he is walking a very fine line: He's running a business—promoting tournaments sponsored by a company called Hoop Group—and even though he isn't ranking players, he does feature them in a way that feels like the same thing.
Melton sees himself as a reporter covering a beat, only he's doing it with the kind of sophistication once reserved for high school, college, and professional athletes. "About a year ago, I started covering strictly grammar school, and it's just taken off," he says.
Melton says he got started covering high-school basketball with a site called Metro Hoops, but soon realized that there already were many other people doing the same thing. "I would go cover the games, and I would see stories I was about to write already online," he says.
So, one day, he went to a New Jersey tournament for younger kids, and stumbled upon a niche that wasn't receiving the same attention as the high-schoolers. In January and February, he says, his site received 66,000 hits.
"That's when I knew I needed to go back and cover younger kids' tournaments," he says. "When I took their pictures, I saw how excited they were."
Melton now uses the site to promote not only players, but the tournaments and camps that he helps to organize. And he's not alone. A quick check of YouTube shows many highlight reels of nine- to 11-year-old kids from California to New York.
The Internet provides a forum for all kinds of activities that previously labored in relative obscurity. When I was in college, the only people who could follow my Division III team were the locals, the students, and the small-town newspaper.
Now, there are top 20 rankings for D3 schools, and websites devoted to tracking the wins and losses of schools like Pomona and Wooster and Wisconsin-Platteville.
In search of a little perspective, I called an old friend at Newsday who put me in touch with two of the mavens of New York City basketball—Ron Naclerio and Tom Konchalski.
Naclerio is the legendary coach of Cardozo High School in Queens, and Konchalski publishes a highly regarded high-school-basketball scouting report, which is read voraciously by top college coaches.
Naclerio once fielded a Rucker League team that had a backcourt of Stephon Marbury and Rafer Alston, has won city championships at Madison Square Garden, and has coached a range of top college and pro players. Konchalski has been credited with identifying many top players and was once lauded by New York magazine as one of the most important people in city sports.
I asked them both whether it was important for young players to play so many games before high school.
"Being ranked at 11 years old doesn't matter," Naclerio answered. "In my experience, the best players in high school weren't always the best coming up. Some kids just aren't ready at that age, and there's plenty of late development."
He added that parents who push their kids in the sport are making a mistake: "It destroys the kid," he said. "A lot of parents are too involved. It makes me wonder, What do they want to be? Coach? Agent? Or parent?"