On a swampy September morning, the most famous amateur basketball player in America walks into an Orlando YMCA. He's wearing a black backpack, gray sweat shorts and a pink T-shirt with the word PRODIGY printed on it. He gives his ID badge to a smiling employee in a red polo at the front desk. And then he walks to the far corner of the facility, fishes a basketball from his backpack and bounces it onto the wooden floor.
Overhead lights buzz like cicadas on a summer night. A massive metallic air duct clings to the ceiling. The cream paint is peeling off the walls, and so too are the protective plastic mats behind the baskets. The rims are fading from orange to brown. The backboards are splotchy. Every splinter of the court seems scarred from a sneaker, a ball or a body. On the far wall, a sign politely reminds its readers:
THESE ARE JUST KIDS
THIS IS ONLY A GAME
COACHES ARE VOLUNTEERS
REFEREES ARE HUMAN
PLEASE BE RESPECTFUL
LET'S HAVE FUN
Julian Newman walks to the corner of the three-point line without looking up. He could probably track that same path with his eyes closed. To him, this court is like most kids' first cars—it's got enough good memories to make up for any cosmetic concerns. Because before his mixtapes amassed hundreds of millions of views or his social media accounts attracted hundreds of thousands of followers, Newman came to this court just to enjoy playing a game. Now, there's so much more at stake. As he begins his senior year of high school, Newman is still trying to convince major colleges and NBA teams that he's more than a social media sensation. But what he learned here all those years ago holds true. He squares his feet and launches the ball, holding his follow hand high as he watches his shot soar.
If you grew up watching sports on your phone, you can skip right past this paragraph. But if you grew up watching sports the (somewhat) old-fashioned way, on a TV, then you might need to be introduced to Julian Newman. To give you a taste of just how popular a player he is, consider: there are 74 videos of him on YouTube that have more than a million views each. Luka Doncic, the 2018-19 NBA Rookie of the Year, can claim only 20 such videos. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, 33. For Generation Z, Newman might as well be LeBron James. A 5'7", 140-pound LeBron James.
Then again, maybe there's a better comparison available. After all, the Newman family doesn't just revolve around 18-year-old Julian. Sure, he has almost 800,000 Instagram followers and has scored more varsity basketball points than anyone in Florida history. But Jaden, his 15-year-old sister, has almost 700,000 followers and the kind of Division I scholarship offers that Julian can only dream of. And there's Jamie, their father, who's a magnet for microphones and cameras because he regularly says things like: "Nobody in the world has the skills that Julian has. Not in the NBA. Not in college. Not anywhere. Not anybody."
As a family, along with their mother, Vivian, they own a clothing line: Brand Prodigy.
And they star in a hugely popular Internet reality TV series called Hello Newmans. (A Seinfeld reference that most of the show's viewers are probably too young to understand.) Every episode has been played more than two million times on YouTube alone, and it enjoys a similarly sized audience on Instagram and Snapchat. But if you're thinking the Newmans are simply a store-brand substitute for the Ball family, Jamie would like to make a counterpoint.
"You kind of heard about Lonzo in high school, but they weren't really famous until LaVar started talking," Jamie says. "The Balls got famous because of LaVar. Julian and Jaden got famous because of themselves—because of their basketball abilities. Julian has been around since the fifth grade, and Jaden's been around since the third grade. And they've been rising, rising, rising since then."
The fifth grade and the third grade are references to when Julian and Jaden, respectively, began playing varsity high school basketball. Julian came first, starting for Downey Christian (Florida) School after Jamie became the head coach. At the time, Julian was 4'5", 70 pounds and wore size four sneakers. When Jamie sent Julian's highlights to an editor at MaxPreps, the video went viral. Soon, Julian was appearing on Steve Harvey and Conan and on the front page of the New York Times Sunday sports section. By the eighth grade, people started stealing his game shoes if he left them under the bench. These days, he says things like, "Mark's a really nice guy" about the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, with whom he DMs; or, "That was really cool of him" when describing how Drake gifted him two pairs of signed OVO 8s.
Jaden has been on TV plenty, too, from Fox Sports' Crowd Goes Wild to The Queen Latifah Show. When she was 10 years old, she beat the Warriors' Stephen Curry in a commercial three-point contest. Last year, as a freshman, she made 17 threes in a single game and averaged an astonishing 45.1 points per game. "All of that stuff makes us misunderstood," Julian says. "People don't get that winning is our ultimate priority. Sometimes it takes me scoring 60 points in a game to win it."
Last year, Julian's team went 19-26, and Jaden's went winless. And that's why the whole family is back here at this east Orlando YMCA where the kids' basketball journeys first began. Over the summer, Jamie founded Prodigy Prep, a basketball-centric school that he says is modeled after the famed IMG Academy in south Florida. But at this point, it's more of a basketball team than a college preparatory academy. The three dozen students who signed up—Jamie claims to have received more than 10,000 applications—are not paying tuition. They're all enrolled in Florida Virtual School, an NCAA-accredited, state-run online curriculum. Jamie, who used to be a history teacher, helps the students with their schoolwork, but he is not their instructor. And Prodigy has not been evaluated by the NCAA. (Other basketball prep schools, like Hillcrest in Arizona, have tried a similar model. They haven't always succeeded.)
Without the funds for its own facility, Prodigy practices at this Y. One day during my visit, they had to leave early because Boeing employees had rented out the court to play pickup games during their lunch break.
For prospective students, the choice comes down to weighing the risks of enrolling in a startup prep school—Could it shut down midseason? Could it cost me my college eligibility?—against the exposure that comes from playing with the Newmans. (Only one other player on the roster—Emmanuel Maldonado—has a Division I scholarship offer.) Some players who were at Downey last year told me the team devolved into infighting because of Jamie's coaching and Julian's shot selection, but a handful still followed the family here.
In the nebulous world of basketball recruiting, these are the risky decisions that players sometimes feel they must make to get a shot at a college scholarship. "People come to watch Julian," one said, "and hopefully along the way they see you, too. Hopefully that helps get you to the next level."
That's all Julian wants, too. Although he may have the mixtapes and the followers and the brand and the school, he's still struggling to make a case for himself at the next level. "I don't do things for social media or the cameras," he says. "If I didn't have all the followers, I'm not even sure I'd be on Instagram. It's a platform that helps show how hard I'm working and helps support our family brand, but there's no other use for it to me. I'd rather be working on my game than anything else. All I want to be is a basketball player."
When Julian Newman is on a basketball court, gravity sometimes seems to shift. As soon as he crosses half court, all five defenders turn to face him. His own teammates do the same as they shuffle around the perimeter. Even the spectators seem to follow a subconscious pull to form a semicircle around him. They stand single file along the baseline and the sidelines of his basket. Many watch him through their cellphone screens, their thumbs itchy to hit record and go viral with his next highlight.
Tonight, Julian is playing at UCF. But this isn't a college basketball game so much as a basketball game at a college. He's playing in a run at the student rec center. There's an intramural sorority game on the next court over. Still, Julian is taking it seriously and showing off the kinds of handles that have made him famous. One minute, he's rocking the ball back and forth between his legs, lightning-fast, and the next he's lowering his shoulder and tunneling into the lane for a floater. He's had the green light to pull up from the logo since middle school, and he shoots on at least half of his team's possessions.
However, the same moves that have garnered Julian millions of fans have also worried would-be recruiters. He does have Division I scholarship offers, but none from high-major programs. Those coaches see his highlight-reel handles and half-court heaves and think of him less as a one-and-done and more like an AND1-and-done. He has said he's heard from Florida and Kansas, but coaches from both schools told B/R they aren't recruiting Julian. Jaden, on the other hand, got her first D-I offer at age nine and now has dozens, including from the likes of Louisville and Kentucky. She shares Julian's main liability—she's barely taller than 5 feet—but she projects seamlessly as a college shooting guard.
As the second game gets underway at UCF, Jamie shows me Julian's Instagram direct message requests. Jamie has both of his kids' passwords, and he stays logged into their accounts on his phone. If he sees something particularly poisonous, he'll block the user. And if he sees something particularly poignant, he'll reply. So far today, Julian has gotten more than 20 message requests, and the first one is from a child who wrote that all he wanted for his 10th birthday was a hello from Julian. Jamie types "Happy birthday!!" and hits send. Most of the messages are positive, but some can be brutal. In today's messages alone, two reference Julian's genitals and one says that he'll never go to college, much less the NBA.
Julian barely checks his requests. "If you don't have a blue checkmark next to your name, I'm not reading your message," Julian says. But he does worry about Jaden. Even though she has fewer followers, she gets about double the daily requests that Julian does. When she shows me her messages, I see five from the past 24 hours that are either graphic sexual propositions or requests for nude photographs. "It's a tradeoff," she says. "I like having a lot of followers, but the downside is guys who say weird or gross stuff. I mostly try to ignore it."
Julian and Jaden are used to being recognized in public, but since Hello Newmans premiered, Jamie has gotten noticed a lot more. At UCF, while Julian plays in a third run, a student named Andy asks Jamie for a Snapchat selfie. The extra attention on him has made him appreciate what his kids have dealt with for years—and even more grateful they had each other growing up. "They're best friends," he says. "No one understands what they're going through better than they do. They're on the same path. They don't want to be normal kids. They want to be extraordinary."
Toward the end of Julian's third game at UCF, he scores a layup after crossing over a "big" man who has eight inches and more than 100 pounds on him. Julian scores on the kid again the next possession and lets him hear about it. On his next trip up the court, Julian goes for the hat trick with a nifty behind-the-back crossover, but the big man wraps him in a bear hug and brings him to the ground. When Julian shakes himself free, he lunges at his defender, but a few teammates hook his arms and hold him back. Jamie jumps into the fray shouting and has to be held back by strangers as well.
When the scrums settle, the player apologizes, and Julian even gives him a fist bump. At the end of the game, Julian shakes his hand as if nothing ever happened. "If you only knew me from what you see from me on the court," he says afterward, "you would probably think I'm a bad person. I've never been to an open gym without fighting. I don't go out there to make friends. I'm trying to prove that I'm the best."
Last season, the Balls and the Newmans finally met at a tournament in Kentucky. Before a game between LaMelo's Spire Academy and the Newmans' Downey Christian School, each family set up their merchandise tents for Big Baller Brand and Brand Prodigy, respectively. The sales ended up being more competitive than the game, which Spire won 117-80. After the game, LaMelo drove through the falling snow to see Julian at his hotel. In a rare moment for both boys, there were no camera crews.
For a few minutes, they talked about living with famous families. But then they decided just to have some fun instead. They went around the Residence Inn, knocking on random doors and sprinting away before the guests could respond. At one point, LaMelo noted that it would almost be funnier if they stayed instead of ran. Would the guests recognize the world-famous strangers in front of them? But it was better, for a couple of hours that night, to be anonymous, mischievous teenagers.
This year, LaMelo left the United States to sign a pro contract with the Illawarra Hawks of Australia's National Basketball League, and Julian could soon follow. He isn't considered an NBA prospect at this point, but he hopes playing against other pros could change the mind of at least one NBA general manager. There's a scholarship offer from Conference USA's University of Texas-San Antonio, but thus far, a trip overseas appears more enticing. He's considering offers in Australia, but the family is traveling to China in December with hopes to sign a deal. It wouldn't be the NBA, but it would be an opportunity to be a professional basketball player.
"I definitely wanna play overseas," Julian says. "The idea of going pro is really appealing to me. I won't have to go to school. I'll be making money right away. But I don't want to just go somewhere just to go there. I want to be the Michael Jordan of whatever country I go to."
Right now, the Newmans rely primarily on Vivian's salary at the U.S. Postal Service, where she serves as a supervisor, and on the sales from Brand Prodigy. Jamie stays up until midnight most nights packaging T-shirts and hoodies, and he goes to the post office at least once a day to ship orders. He says they do between $8,000 to $10,000 in sales per month without advertising. To preserve their NCAA eligibility, Julian and Jaden don't profit directly from the company for now.
To Jamie, the brand is a roundabout way to make up for the income he feels others, especially media companies, have been making off the family for years. "If we had 10 cents for every dollar people have made off Julian and Jaden," Jamie says, "we'd be rich." And the kids are behind it, too, wearing Prodigy clothes pretty much every day.
One night at dinner, I ask Julian if he would have been better off without all the mixtape hype. Would college recruiters and NBA scouts take him more seriously if there weren't hundreds of videos highlighting his circus-like handles and incredible deep shooting? Would he want to be just a regular up-and-coming basketball prospect?
"I wouldn't change much from my life if I could go back and do it again," he says. "If anything, I would go back and enjoy it more. Being on all the shows, like Conan and Good Morning America, that went by quick. It might happen again, but that's no guarantee. I don't regret anything."
The next morning, at Prodigy practice, Jamie considers the same question. "If Julian never did the mixtapes," he says, "he'd still be a 5'6" guard. The knocks on him aren't the mixtapes. The mixtapes set him up for success. Julian didn't grow up with James on the back of his jersey. He doesn't have Wade on his back. He had to make his own name."
As we talk, assistant coach David Higgins' six-year-old son DJ dribbles on the court next to Julian. DJ is decked out in AND1 gear, and he's trying a crossover. But that's a bit of a challenge because the ball is about as big as the space between his legs. A moment later, when Jamie divides the team into shooters and non-shooters for a drill, DJ proudly declares, "I'm a shooter!" and heaves a shot from four feet as evidence.
He tries to join Julian's group, but David calls him back and asks him to keep working on his ball-handling. DJ dreams of playing in the NBA. And maybe, if he grows up to be 6'5" and athletic, and if he catches some lucky breaks along the way, he'll get there. But as I watch him, I wonder: If he doesn't grow up to be that tall, and if he doesn't catch those lucky breaks, could he still find a way to make a living playing the game he loves? If he can't be the next NBA great, would it be so bad to be the next Julian Newman?