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"Parents all think they know a lot," he said. "I tell them, 'Listen, we all want to go to the Garden. But I've never had a parent come out of the stands and say, 'Hey, my kid's not playing well. Please take him out.' So, I tell them, if you don't like it here, I can help arrange for a transfer. . . . When I was growing up, it was a winter sport. Now, it's 12 months out of the year. They are playing so much, they don't get enough time to really learn if they are doing something right or wrong. If you are playing that many games, when are you really working on your strengths and weaknesses? The kid finds success going right, and so he just goes right, and never learns to go left—and the cycle propels itself. The key at that age is practice. Practice is where you get better."
Konchalski, meanwhile, finds the mere fact that people are publicly discussing the relative merits of 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old players to be silly. "Anyone who pays any attention to that obviously hasn't been around the game very long," he says. "To think that someone is the best 11-year-old in the state or in the country is a joke. Even to engage in that type of conversation shows ignorance."
Moreover, he adds, "the endless number of games" prevent kids from working purposefully on their skills or just playing on the playground, siphoning away the creativity that that inspires. "It's become too structured, in terms of too many games and the parents [being] too involved," he says. "When you're at that age, the only reason to play is because you enjoy it. Any other benefit that comes along, that's just gravy."
Also, the hype and recognition that good players receive at a young age, Konchalski says, often actually hinders their development as they grow older. "One of the worst things that can happen to a player is the cancer of early success," he says. "They think they've made it already. They lose their hunger to improve. They become complacent, and they don't get better."
Konchalski also says that some kids are better than others at a young age simply because they are physically more developed—taller, faster, and stronger. "Often, kids who mature early cease to grow, and the only way they will maintain their dominance is to work on their skill set," he says.
The road to the NBA is crowded with people who barely rated notice even in high school: Michael Jordan, the NBA legend, was cut from his high-school team as a sophomore; Bill Russell, the all-time great Celtics center, was cut from his high-school team as a junior.
Konchalski says the NCAA recruiting rules actually encourage the tracking of very young players. For a long time, until the NCAA blocked the practice this year, assistant coaches were working high-level youth camps for middle-school kids in order to get close to future high-school stars. "It's a sad commentary on the recruiting process that the NCAA had to do that," he says.
The bottom line, he says, is, "A parent should let a kid play what he wants to play. It's got to be the child's dream. But kids are being robbed of their childhood. We're such a youth-obsessed culture that it's almost as if the younger they are, the more they're fawned over.
"Being a kid means being able to muddle your way through life," he says. "You should be able to make mistakes. When everything is programmed for kids, that's not healthy because they are not maturing."
On a recent Sunday morning, I'm standing courtside at a Queens tournament chatting with Antoine Lewis Sr., while our sixth-grade sons trap and chase the ball on the floor.
The kids are undefeated and are in the playoffs in the "biddy" division against the Gauchos, a Bronx team, which has been Riverside's chief rival over the decades.
The game is close at first, but the Gauchos' speedy guards repeatedly break the Riverside press and forge an eight-point lead on a series of layups. I'm grateful that it's Mark Jerome—and not me—coaching.
The tournament is known as IS8, simply because it takes place at IS8, a public junior-high school. It's one of the most competitive tournaments in the city and has Nike sponsorship. Most of the city's top youth teams are here: Riverside, the Gauchos, Long Island Lightning, Team Underrated, the Metro Hawks, Positive Direction, the Next Level.
The organizers of IS8 do a good thing, which is that they don't allow grade exceptions or late birthdays. That means that the kids, generally, are all the same age.
Off the court, the talk turns to Lewis's extraordinary career in basketball—what emerges, in a way, is a cautionary tale about expectations and dreams of NBA stardom.
At age 40, Lewis, of New Rochelle, still carries a good portion of the knotted muscle that helped him become a star player as a youth growing up in Brooklyn. He watches the game with the appraising expression of someone who sees far more than the average fan.
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