A few miles outside of Washington D.C., Tyisha Bogues sat in the stands watching her 10-year-old son, Sarmartine, compete in a youth basketball tournament. She wore a black long-sleeve shirt with "FATMAN MOM" and his uniform number (1) stitched across the back in red lettering.
Sarmartine Bogues was given his "Fatman" nickname when he was an overweight toddler. It stuck even as he lost much of his baby fat. Yet, in some basketball circles, Sarmartine Bogues is already a household name.
During most games, he is the smallest kid on the court. But that hasn't stopped him from adopting a style reminiscent of his grandfather, Muggsy Bogues, the shortest player (5'3") in NBA history. Sarmartine, a 4'6", 79-pound lefty point guard, handles the ball with confidence, plays aggressive defense, makes smart decisions and serves as the catalyst for his Baltimore-based AAU team. He's learned valuable lessons from watching Muggsy's old games and working out with his grandfather in Baltimore and at Muggsy's home in Charlotte, North Carolina.
And yet, Sarmartine is immersed in a much different basketball environment than the one his grandfather experienced when he was a boy. Sarmartine's schedule, like that of all elite youth players, is inundated with games and practices. He competes in an average of three tournaments per month from September through July, and he plans on playing in Louisiana, Indiana, Nevada, Georgia and Ohio over the next few months.
In October, one website, Middle School Elite, declared Bogues the second-best fourth-grader in the country. The only player ranked above him? "Bronny" James, LeBron James' son.
We're talking about pre-teens, here.
Despite the questions surrounding the validity of rankings at such a young age, Sarmartine symbolizes the trend toward identifying players as prospects even before they enter junior high school. It is a competitive cottage industry for coaches and recruiting analysts vying for relationships with the next potential Division I and NBA stars.
Tyisha is accustomed to the hype. She said she gets business cards from youth coaches all the time trying to, in effect, recruit her son. Some say he could just play on the few weekends when BMore's Finest (his AAU team) isn't in a tournament, but she declines.
Muggsy has a hard time relating to his grandson's reality. Although Muggsy was part of one of the best programs in the country in the 1980s at Dunbar High School in Baltimore—on a team that included future NBA players Reggie Lewis, Reggie Williams and David Wingate—he only played in one AAU tournament and wasn't subjected to much pressure before high school. He's proud of Sarmartine, but he tells him not to pay attention to rankings.
"I don't know where they get that from," Muggsy said. "I don't like that. It's too early to be saying he's the best."
Few people understand the evolution of youth basketball more than Bob Gibbons. For more than 30 years, the University of North Carolina graduate has run his own recruiting service, evaluating high school players and selling his rankings and scouting reports to more than 100 college programs each year. Name an NBA player from the past five decades, and it's a safe bet Gibbons saw him play in person as a teenager. He'll rattle them off: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jerry Stackhouse, Kenny Anderson, etc.
Gibbons was one of the first people to rank high school players, a practice that was once a small niche catering to college coaches and diehard fans. By the early 2000s—with the introduction of Rivals.com, Scout.com and other recruiting websites—it became more mainstream.
In the 1970s, Gibbons said Indiana coach Bob Knight paid him $200 for a report on all of the high schoolers who were 6'9" or taller. Now, that information is much easier to find, and the barriers of entry to the business are low. Anyone with rudimentary Internet skills can create a website at little cost and start ranking players. They can then promote them for free on Facebook, Twitter and other social-media platforms.
Until a few years ago, players weren't typically ranked until they entered their junior and senior years of high school. Analysts were more cautious about projecting kids and presumed the public demand wasn't there. That's no longer the case, as even some elementary school children are now in the spotlight.
The shift concerns Gibbons. Each spring, he runs a tournament for players in grades six through 11. He watches middle schoolers compete, but he declines to rate them.
"Some [rankings] specialize in third-graders, fourth-graders, fifth-graders, sixth-graders," Gibbons said. "It's sort of absurd. Not sort of. It's totally absurd. You cannot make a projection on what level of college a kid's going to play at that young age. There's just too many factors."
Still, that has not stopped others from ranking kids before they enter high school. Clark Francis, who began his recruiting service, The Hoop Scoop, in 1983 after graduating from Indiana University, has ranked players as young as fourth grade for more than a decade. And he's not about to apologize.
In the book Play Their Hearts Out, author and Sports Illustrated senior writer George Dohrmann described the close relationship between Francis and youth coach Joe Keller. Keller promoted his players to Francis and ended up launching a series of national and regional events, including the Jr. Phenom camp that features fourth- through eighth-graders.
Francis vets the people he talks with to make sure they don't have an agenda. He said gathering information on kids at an early age gives him an advantage over his competitors when it comes to ranking players later in high school.
"People can say, 'When is it too early to rank players? What is the time when you should be starting to watch players?'" Francis said. "I'm like, 'I don't really know.' But it's not my job to be the adult, the counselor, the teacher, the coach, whoever it is, the street agent, whoever's guiding that kid and has influence over that kid making the decisions in that kid's life. …Once you put him out there, he's fair game for me to rank him."
Way Too Subjective
As a parent of a young player, Jerry Love had followed Francis' work and craved the attention. When his son, Jerron, began showing promise against other kids in New York, Jerry devoted his energy to promoting him.
"That day I saw him put the ball through his legs the way he put it through, and I was always keen on business. I saw a lot of money potential," Love said. "I saw that he could make money."
In January 2008, Jerry uploaded a video of 11-year-old Jerron on YouTube that referred to the boy as the "11th Wonder." With Kanye West's "Champion" as background music, the video shows Jerron shooting, dribbling and passing. Father and son traveled throughout the country for tournaments and camps, and Jerry passed out DVDs of his son's exploits to anyone interested.
Jerry also had a website, JLoveStudentAthlete.com, made for his son, although it is no longer active because he failed to pay the maintenance and hosting fees. In early 2010, Love started another website called Middle School Elite that covered youth basketball and ranked players. After Jerron played in a tournament that May in Columbus, Ohio, as a seventh-grader, the website wrote that Love "played like the world was on his shoulders and with heart the size of the continent of Africa."
Love ranked his son as the best middle school player in the country, even though he was only 5'7". Still, Love did not reveal he was behind the website until The Wall Street Journal outed him in an article published in August 2011 ahead of Love's freshman year of high school. The backlash was immediate and lasting. People questioned Love's motives. To this day, he swears he launched Middle School Elite to promote all players, not just his son.
The early attention has become a burden for Jerron. He is now a senior and at his fourth high school in three states in four years. He played as a freshman at Clovis West in Fresno, California, and spent his sophomore year and half of his junior year at Wheeler in Marietta, Georgia. He left Wheeler and moved back to California last winter, but he did not play basketball. This fall, he enrolled at Abraham Lincoln in Brooklyn, New York, before departing for Quality Education Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Jerron, who has only grown to 5'10", is the 48th-ranked point guard in his class, according to ESPN, and unranked among Rivals.com's top 150 prospects. He hopes to sign with a college in the spring, although he will likely not be playing for a major program. Jerry Love said his tactics have hurt his son.
"If we had stayed in good terms with everybody, he would've been like top-ranked," he said. "I just was going against the grain, coming up with this middle school exposure stuff. …I probably stepped on people's feet. I don't know."
If Love knew what would happen, would he have started Middle School Elite?
"I probably would have done it, but I probably would have been a little bit more discreet with it," Love said. "I probably wouldn't have done it. Well, I can't say that, but one part says that I would regret it. The other part says I did it out of just the kindness of my heart, if that makes sense."
The New Cottage Industry
Despite Love's regrets, he continues to run Middle School Elite, and the hype surrounding players in grade school and middle school has only increased. They have no shortage of opportunities to test themselves against each other, either. During most weekends, children can compete in tournaments across the country. They travel more than some seasoned business executives and salespeople.
On the Saturday and Sunday before Thanksgiving, 84 of the top AAU teams from the East Coast gathered for the AGame Super Shootout in District Heights, Maryland, less than 10 miles outside of Washington D.C. Third- to eighth-graders faced off in a huge indoor complex in a suburban strip mall that houses 10 basketball courts. The champions in each group played five to six games over the two-day period.
Per NCAA rules, college coaches weren't allowed to attend. In January 2009, the NCAA passed legislation that classified seventh-grade boys' basketball players as prospects. At the time, players weren't legally considered prospects until ninth grade, so college coaches worked middle school camps to develop relationships with them. Now, they can only watch seventh- and eighth-graders play during NCAA-mandated periods in the spring and July.
Still, high school coaches scouted players at the AGame Super Shootout and started building relationships they hope will lead to kids playing for them. They were mostly concerned with the seventh- and eighth-grade matchups.
In the seventh-grade final, Slam City Elite, based in Maryland, defeated Team Takeover from D.C. to continue its undefeated season. That team was the brainchild of Maryland youth coach Bill Francis.
At the AAU national tournament last summer, Francis spoke with players and parents from various clubs in Maryland, D.C. and Northern Virginia. He wanted to build an all-star team of sorts featuring the best players in the region.
Within a couple of months, he had formed Slam City Elite, which he has nicknamed "The Terror Squad." Francis, who once worked with Love at Middle School Elite, wasn't shy about his intentions and wasn't popular in some circles. Some of the Slam City Elite players repeated the seventh grade so they could play for the team, a common practice among elite youth programs.
With so many clubs having older players, the AAU recently changed its eligibility rules. Starting in 2015, AAU-sanctioned tournaments will be based on age, not grade. For instance, the new legislation states kids competing in the 13-and-under tournaments can be no older than 13 on Aug. 31, 2015. Based on those rules, Slam City Elite won't be eligible to compete in the AAU nationals because they have too many kids who are older than 13. Still, Francis is proud of his team despite others' objections.
"There are a lot of people who, because they didn't think it could happen, are very envious of the fact that it did happen," Francis said. "They've let that be known. A lot of times we go into a gym and it's really an us-against-the-world mentality."
In the eighth-grade final, D.C. Premier from Washington, D.C. defeated Team Rio National from New Jersey, a squad that's sponsored by Miami Heat guard Mario Chalmers. Team Rio played without Scottie Lewis, one of the most high-profile pre-high school players. Lewis, a skinny 6'4" guard, preferred singing, writing and art until he started playing basketball three years ago, although he's already the muse of highlight mixtapes. A week before the tournament, he suffered an injury and had a cast on his left forearm.
At halftime, with Team Rio leading by three points, Lewis grew restless. Standing near the three-point line on the left wing, he picked up a ball and held it between his right elbow and palm. He then ran toward the hoop, protected his left arm and converted a one-handed windmill dunk. That was the extent of his activity, although he was expected to return to the lineup soon.
Lewis receives about as much attention as anyone his age. The first image on his Instagram page, from April 27, is a screen shot of a website, Middle School Hoops, that ranked him No. 1 in the country among seventh-graders.
"I think my rankings are well deserved, but I think they won't matter until I'm at least a sophomore in high school," Lewis said. "I look at the rankings, but then I don't pay attention to them. It's fun to be at that spot that I'm at, but then I say, 'Who cares?'"
Let the Kids Be Kids
After playing 14 seasons in the NBA and coaching three NBA teams, John Lucas now works with kids ranging from fourth grade to the pro level and runs camps throughout the United States. To him, ranking kids makes no sense.
"If you're the best fourth-grader in the world, you know what that means?" Lucas said. "You get to go to the fifth grade. And guess what happens in the fifth or sixth grade. You may not grow."
Each May, Lucas runs an international middle school event in Houston that includes 100 to 150 of the best seventh- and eighth-graders in the world. Last year, 46 players were 6'6" or taller.
Instead of running an all-star-game type of atmosphere without any structure, Lucas emphasizes skill development in a competitive environment. He and his staff teach how to play according to game situations and work on skills such as beating teams when the shot clock is winding down, running and defending against the pick-and-roll and deciding whether to continue driving to the basket or pass the ball.
"They're very talented skill-wise," Lucas said. "They run and jump better than each generation that comes up, but their lack of knowledge and understanding of the evolution of the game is still lacking. Although a kid is 13, he still doesn't know how to play yet."
Muggsy Bogues agrees with Lucas' assessment and has a similar philosophy. During the summer, Sarmartine Bogues attends his grandfather's camps for kids from six to 15 and stays at Muggsy's home in Charlotte. Together, they watch old clips of Muggsy's NBA games and compete in one-on-one situations and drills. Muggsy emphasizes the importance of playing pressure defense, passing the ball to teammates and having the right attitude.
"We don't put that much pressure on him," Muggsy said. "We let him just have fun with it."
Shavasha Smith, Scottie Lewis' mom, puts even more perspective on things: "If [Lewis] said to me tomorrow, 'Mommy, I don't want to play basketball anymore,' I'm perfectly fine with that. Some parents, they're just so hard on their kids. The kid has to love what they're doing. As long as he enjoys doing it, I'm happy with it."