POTHOLES in the HARDWOOD

There is one thing no coach — not even Zen guru Phil Jackson himself — can develop in a young athlete: height. Though vertical potency cannot be taught, those who have it by the eighth grade are destined to be the center of attention in any gym.

Which is why Craig Jones carries a picture of his son’s birth certificate on his phone. It’s not to prove paternity, but to prove that Jared — who stands 6-foot-9-inches with a seven-foot wingspan — is actually just 14 years old. Jared can play just about any position on the basketball court, making him one of the most sought-after recruits from Jacksonville in decades. On several occasions, prior to tipoff, Craig has had to flash his phone.

Jacksonville is not known for incubating homegrown basketball talent. The last major star to come out of the area was shooting guard Dee Brown, Bolles School and Jacksonville University grad, who played for the Boston Celtics for most of the ’90s. Before Brown, there was power forward Leonard “Truck” Robinson, out of Raines High School and Tennessee State University, who played for a number of NBA teams but had his greatest success with the Washington Bullets in the late ’70s. Since then, there’s been a bit of a dry spell, which is why a kid of Jared’s stature has the vultures circling.

All contact with Jared is funneled through Craig — a former college football player and current administrator with the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Being a former athlete gives Craig some insight into how to best approach his son’s advancement as a player, while being the size of a brick wall helps him address those with ill intent. According to Craig, there are plenty of folks of that ilk around, all vying for a chance to own a piece of Jared, in case the kid makes good.

For the upcoming 2015-’16 basketball season, Jared will be starting as a freshman, playing the forward position on the Potter’s House Christian Academy varsity team. The Lions’ basketball schedule is a grueling five-month-long frenzy, with away games in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Massachusetts. All of that time on the boards translates to visibility — that visibility is what has schools like the University of Florida, Florida State University and Wake Forest University already making offers to Jared.

Jared is playing his position well, both on and off the court. He’s an honors student who conveys a keen awareness of basketball as a business as much an activity. Questions about daily regimens and fun are answered quickly and succinctly. “I wake up early, work out, do chores,” Jared states. Answers carry a slight air of being practiced or canned, but perhaps only because Jared is still just a teen and, like any teen, answers every question with timid brevity. That or he’s sharp enough to know that in the digital age, words have an incredible shelf life — therefore, the less said the better.

This is why Craig is the gatekeeper of all things Jared (he even manages all of his son’s social media). Craig is aware that in this sport, children as young as 9 and 10 years old are shopped around to travel teams, agents and handlers, with hopes of getting their kids noticed by eyes, more often than not, emblazoned with a Swoosh or that weird, three-striped leaf logo that Adidas uses. The action is easy to demonize and condemn, but with futures, egos, and millions of dollars at stake, the value of the right decision becomes clear (or muddled, depending on who is asked).

“If a kid is good, folks are going to come sniffing around early,” states Coach Eric Wesley, a local city league basketball coach, “especially at showcase tournaments, specifically designed for no other reason than to get college coaches to notice kids aligned with the right logo.” Coach Wesley has had a few players poached mid-season by travel team coaches needing to fill a roster spot.

Travel teams cover costs in a variety of ways. Some players pay fees and some do not (read: players with talent). Teams stacked with talented players are subsidized by the shoe companies; the more a team wins, the greater the funds.

“Coaches are tying success to the number of basketball tournaments won and are seeing victories translate into financial gain for their individual pockets. Of course a coach is going to want to stack his team,” adds Coach Wesley. It is not unheard of for coaches to barter a point guard for, say, a forward if that’s what’s missing from a winning roster.

“You’d be surprised at how small the amounts of money are that these kids are being sold for,” says Craig, shaking his head. A few weeks ago, Craig tweeted a reference to a Lake Wales high school coach fired for surreptitiously recruiting a young, foreign player, purposely including the words “Human Trafficking” in his post.

“My son is no commodity,” Craig is quick to add, “but my job is to work in the best interest of my children.” His job, he states, is to keep Jared focused on basketball, keep leeches at bay and mitigate the hype.

Yet, according to most, the attention and exposure is the main goal.

“It’s all about the hype,” states Coach Deon Johnson of the Jacksonville Tigers, a local youth basketball travel team that enjoyed a good season this summer. In the past, he’s coached teams whose seasons have been disrupted by players (and parents) seeking greener pastures. 

“Parents come in with a belief that their child is a top-tier player and look for opportunities to get their kids showcased,” explains Coach Johnson. “Whether the talent truly exists or not is inconsequential. If Dad believes little 12-year-old, seven-foot Johnny is star material, Dad is going to want fees waived, guaranteed playing time, secured backroom shoe deals. He knows that the right people will notice because word gets around.”

Craig agrees. Exposure can be quick and fleeting if not taken advantage of. Exposure is what facilitates the end game, which according to Craig, is national recruitment to a Division I school. For that, parents have to deal with the mysterious agent phone calls at all hours of the day and night, the handlers who want Jared to go live in another city, away from his parents, in exchange for a promised full ride to a Division I contender. Finding a missing return address for the envelope full of cash that arrives at the house is also something parents might have to deal with — Craig’s done that twice.

Once a kid starts gaining a bit of national recognition and enters ninth grade, the cast of players gets seedier. The handlers, agents, and travel team coaches, most in the pocket of one shoe company or another, want to align themselves with the future star, claim the discovery and therefore own a piece of their future.

“Parents in tough situations up here in the Northside have plainly told me ‘my son is my ticket out of my situation’ and that’s a ton of pressure for an 11- or 12-year-old,” Coach Wesley begrudgingly admits. “Basketball is hugely popular on Jacksonville’s Northside and parents are caught up in the dream of riches.”

Real estate data on some Jacksonville’s poorest neighborhoods, such as 45th Street and Moncrief, and Ribault, show that the median household income hovers around $26,000 a year, just slightly above the U.S. poverty rate of $23,834. The motivation to push a child to succeed at basketball is evidently present when parents project desires.

“Parents are lost in the perception versus reality,” Coach Wesley continues.

A report by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz featured in The New York Times in late 2013 asserted that growing up in a wealthier neighborhood is a major, positive predictor of reaching the N.B.A. and results pushed back against stereotypical stories of escapes from poverty through basketball. The dream, it seems, is outdated, yet there are still plenty of people with stars lodged in their eyes.

It’s not just all of that static. Showcasing a child prodigy can be expensive. According to Coach Johnson, a good-to-excellent basketball player takes a fund infusion in the $25-$30K range per year. Nice for those who have it, but for parents in Northwest Jacksonville, whose child simply wants to play basketball, these numbers are not only impossible, they’re not even real.

What is real is the need for uniforms, socks, food, lodging, airfare, training, college and, of course, sneakers. The two major shoe brands competing for young talent know what they’re going to get if the kid they bet on is a hit. Sure, the Swoosh had to fork over $90 million to sign LeBron in 2003, but in that same year, they netted $4.65 billion.

That dream scenario means that parents will do just about anything to help their child gain an edge on the competition. Which is why basketball, once a winter sport, has turned into a year-round endeavor for aspiring athletes. Matthew Brit, also a local city league basketball coach and parent of a young player, says, “Folks aren’t paying attention to the wear and tear on these kids’ bodies. They are still growing and developing physically and getting hurt young can end it all.”

Craig Jones says that year-round basketball is not the main concern for him. It’s putting Jared up against kids who have reclassified. “That skews the scales of dominance,” he emphatically states.

Reclassification — commonly referred to as “dropping back” — is the practice of parents holding their children back a year academically in order to give them the competitive size advantage. The practice is so commonly accepted that “unofficial” official guidelines exist on how and when to effectively reclassify the child so that he or she won’t sacrifice college eligibility. The charade is so finely tuned that every action has a precedent.

curveball question to Jared Jones about girlfriends may make him stumble for a second, but a quick recovery is no surprise.  “Basketball is my main focus right now. I have a lot to work on,” Jared deadpans. Craig nods and adds, “He needs to work on his ball handling.” For now, Craig is handling the rest.

 

Correction: A previous version of this article relayed an example of a young player who left a local team to play for a Nike-sponsored team in Tallahassee. After further review, it is clear the team in question has no direct ties to the multi-billion dollar sports brand. We regret the error.

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october, 2021

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