From the Cradle to the Court


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 Jersey—the trio will be high school freshmen this fall—the 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 MEN Joey 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 FILL While 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.”

Wherever 6-6 Brooklyn native Lenny Cooke goes on the court, he has to deal with a double-team. Off the court, he’s shadowed by 10 or more.

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 HOOPS There’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.

A typical sight: Rodrick Stewart, a 6-3 guard from Seattle, catches a pass just a few feet from the basket with no defenders in sight. Instead of an easy layup or dunk, he leaps and attempts to force the ball between his legs, à la J.R. Rider in the NBA dunk contest a few years ago. The kid clangs it off the rim.

Countless other times players would take the ball coast-to-coast, ignore open teammates, or launch heavily contested threes.

“These camps eliminate a certain kind of kid that is used to setting screens and playing in a structured offense,” Stanford coach Mike Montgomery explains during a lull in one of the games. “There is a lack of fundamentals, and there is definitely a lack of players who are willing to give up the ball.”

Unlike in the NBA, there’s no shot clock, but there’s little need for one: Most possessions end within 10 seconds anyway, either with a three-point attempt or a demonic drive to the hoop.

The frenetic selfishness contrasts with Adidas’ self-described “vision and core values,” which the company lays out in its annual report as “things like performance, teamwork, honesty, courage, pride, personal accountability, and discipline. They are the cornerstone of sports.”

FAVORITE SONS On one court, ex-New Jersey Net Stephon Marbury’s cousin, a sensational Brooklyn high school sophomore-to-be with the storybook name of Sebastian Telfair, buries a three.

Across the gym, Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl’s son Coby dishes to ex-Knick general manager (now Milwaukee general manager) Ernie Grunfeld’s son Dan in transition. Adidas invites the top players from around the globe to attend the ABCD camp, but having strong basketball connections certainly doesn’t hurt a player’s chances.

Coby Karl, a skinny 6-2 point guard, often looks out of place at the showcase, his hustle unable to compensate for his opponents’ superior skills. Dad George, however, is definitely not out of place. His connection with Adidas is typical of the ways that the apparel and sports industries have joined hands to manage young athletes.

Every morning before the ABCD camp, George Karl runs a camp for current college stars, including Chris Duhon from Duke, Drew Nicholas from Maryland, and Andre Barrett from Seton Hall, putting them through drills to polish their skills for the NBA. Immediately after, the college players work as “counselors” for the ABCD campers, talking with them and keeping score.

Adidas and other powerful sportswear companies are now woven into the fabric of basketball. Among the celebrity coaches on hand at this year’s ABCD are Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who has a 16-year, $6.6 million contract with Nike, and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, whose annual pay from Reebok ($235,000) exceeds his base pay from MSU ($195,000). Adidas sponsors amateur teams all over the country, some of them in conjunction with its stable of pro players: At this year’s camp, for instance, are kids from the Tim Thomas Playaz, sponsored by Adidas thoroughbred Tim Thomas, who left Villanova early and now plays for the Milwaukee Bucks.

85 LOGOS, 255 STRIPES People come to these camps to watch the basketball, but the first things they notice are the logos. It’s impossible not to.

The walls of FDU’s gym are saturated with Adidas’ trademark diagonal stripes. Mountains of them stretch 20 feet high and surround Krzyzewski, ex-pro B.J. Armstrong (now an assistant GM for the Chicago Bulls), and the sea of other basketball celebrities crowding the floor. At one end of the gym, Adidas sets up a table with samples of sneakers that are scheduled to be released in the upcoming year.

The ubiquitous trefoil logo, Adidas claims, “embodies genuine, trustworthy, honest and real values.” And the company, a subsidiary of Adidas-Salomon, the world’s second largest manufacturer of athletic equipment, footwear, and apparel, is getting real value by transforming the campers themselves into dribbling billboards. Each player sports more stripes than a baby tiger: one logo on their headbands, two on their jerseys, one on each wristband, one on their shorts, one on each sock, and a pair on each shoe, which were specially made for the camp.

All the equipment is given to the players at the start of the camp, and at the end of the four days, they have the option of either returning it or buying it at wholesale prices, which Adidas says is about half of retail. The company says most players buy the stuff. Maybe one of them will be the next Kobe and will remember the company’s generosity when he decides which shoe to endorse.

FIGURING ALL THE ANGLES The average player at the ABCD camp spends seven hours a day in FDU’s gym and two hours in a classroom, attending a mandatory Princeton Review SAT-prep class. After all, the “ABCD” officially stands for “academic betterment and career development.” Many of the athletes can throw down a 180-degree dunk with ease but have difficulty bisecting a 180-degree angle.

“A normal Princeton Review class lasts six weeks, so you can’t expect a 100-point increase [of an SAT score] in a three-day camp,” ABCD tutor Adi Opochinski says.

While most Princeton Review courses teach students to maximize their performance, the ABCD class focuses on teaching its participants the bare minimum needed to receive the 820 SAT score required to gain collegiate athletic eligibility. Even ABCD players have criticized this lowering of standards for athletes, but the Princeton Review claims that the two-hour classes are too long for some athletes.

“Some of these students aren’t used to sitting that long, and by the second hour they were ready to walk around and play basketball,” Opochinski says. “Some students just put nothing into it.”

THE WRITING ON THE WALL If the fancy Hilton hotel in Hasbrouck Heights, the first-class treatment, the speeches by NBA luminaries Bryant and George Karl, and the media circus don’t tell ABCD participants that they are destined for stardom, the names in the gym certainly will.

Lists of former camp MVPs, a roll call of stars who have used the showcase as their stepping stone to the NBA, appear on long scrolls in each corner of the gym. Every time a player steps onto the court, he stares up at the names of Stephon Marbury, Tim Thomas, Kobe Bryant, and Tracy McGrady, each one a reminder of where the camp can take you.

But on the list is one name the kids may want to pay attention to: Leon Smith, the 1998 ABCD All-Star Game MVP, the anti-Kobe.

Smith bought into the hype and attempted to leap from a Chicago high school to the NBA, riding his strong ABCD performance into the first round of the 1999 NBA draft, where he wound up with the Dallas Mavericks. But after repeated clashes with coaches and management, Smith was waived. His next three years were filled with run-ins with the law, one suicide attempt, and several stays in psychiatric wards. He still hasn’t played a minute in the NBA.

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