Archive for March 2010
Blogs.com, a site run by the people who brought you MovableType and TypePad, at some point in time named this here blog one of its Top 10 Youth Sports Blogs for Parents.
I’m not sure who decided that specifically, or what that means. But it’s some sort of recognition, and I’ll take it! I’m not too proud.
I only got the award because Marlon Brando wouldn’t accept it.
It seems like yesterday — well, it was only seven days ago — that I wrote about breathless coverage of an Atlanta child basketball prodigy named Dakota Simms, and warned that while he was impressive, it’s way too early to anoint anyone a future star because child basketball prodigies are fairly common. One concurrent example I gave was fifth-grader Jaylin Fleming.
Either the Chicago Tribune doesn’t read this blog, or it wrote this story to spite me, because in today’s newspaper — on the cover of the newsstand edition, no less — is breathless coverage of Jaylin Fleming himself.
Actually, the story itself turns out to be a fairly balanced look. However, the Tribune takes advantage of the hyperventilating over Jaylin by people of some basketball authority to give breathless front-page treatment to a 10-year-old, 5-foot-1 basketball player — a decision validated, I guess, by, as of this writing, it being the second-most read story on the Tribune Web site.
But my bigger criticism is of those people of some basketball authority who are hyperventilating over a 10-year-old. Jaylin attends the Chicago magnet elementary school where current Bull Derrick Rose once attended. Here’s Rose hyperventilating on Jaylin:
“He’s better than me — that’s what’s crazy about it,” said Rose, who coached Jaylin at his camp last summer. “His talent is one of a kind. Kids his age rarely do the stuff he does….He does moves that a grown-up does.”
Easy, Derrick. As someone who knows of pressure on young ballers (and who famously had his big brothers running interference to make sure that pressure wasn’t too great), you might ease up a bit on saying Jaylin Fleming is better at the same age than an eventual No. 1 overall NBA draft pick.
The good news for Jaylin is that, unlike many NBA players, his father is married to his mother and a strong influence in the home. That influence might not be all a good thing. While current Bull Lindsey Hunter says he’s called off all the dogs who want his 9-year-old son on their travel teams, John Fleming isn’t so circumspect. He coaches his son two or three times a week with local high school coaches, and his son has worked out with the Knicks and Bulls.
John Fleming disagrees with those who say Jaylin is on the wrong path. “One of our family quotes is, “Why not me?” Fleming said. “Why can’t you do it? Who puts the limitations on you? He’s encouraged and taught and allowed to dream like that, as long as his aspirations are to serve the greater good. I teach him that basketball is about inspiring other people.”
To be fair, the Tribune gives plenty of space to people like Hunter who criticize a child’s too-quick ascent into the basketball system, and it also quotes former NBA player Marcus Liberty, a childhood chum of John Fleming’s, saying the dad is doing a good job keeping things from getting too extreme after learning how the wolves went after Liberty at an early age. Jaylin, an A and B student, also seems very happy.
The Fleming family is in a difficult position with a prodigy — you want to encourage and nurture him, but on the other hand, given how difficult it is to make the NBA, you can’t let that overtake everything else in life. From the Tribune article, it sounds like they’re walking that balance now, but it’s going to become harder as Jaylin gets older — especially if he keeps getting better.
The best thing about the Tribune article — and, really, where in the end I can’t crank too hard on it — is the examination of what is wrong with a system in which a 10-year-old is getting chased by college and pro scouts, compelled to scout young so they don’t fall behind in the talent wars (and in which that relationship with the high school coach might be his way of ensuring Jaylin plays for him someday), in which perhaps John Fleming is right to keep a strong hand on his son’s training and career, and in which those same college and pro scouts will toss Jaylin Fleming in the garbage if he doesn’t grow tall enough or if his peers start catching up.
“He represents much of what is wrong with our athletic system,” said one NBA assistant who asked not to be identified. “He already has so many hands in the batter it is almost sickening. … If he gets big and strong, stays healthy and is actually coachable … he may succeed. (But) the track record for child prodigies is not an uplifting one.
You might ask — hey, above-it-all blogger, aren’t you exploiting Jaylin Fleming for web views, just like the Tribune? I’d like to think not. I think there is a careful way to cover stories like Jaylin’s. I think the writer of the story, Anne Stein, effectively presents the hyperventilation and the caution about child basketball prodigies to make a meaty story about the basketball development system as it exists. I’d like to think this blog does the same.
Believe it or not, despite the name of this blog, I wish Jaylin Fleming and his ilk luck in their dreams. However, I think it’s worth writing about and pointing out the ridiculousness of heaping you’re-a-future-NBA-star pressure on a kid that age, of college and pro scouts feeling compelled to talk him up and woo him.
It’s not an insult to the Jaylin Flemings of the world to write about them not solely as inspirations, but also as warnings — particularly about the slime oozing through the player development and recruiting system.
(Hat tip to the folks at Jackie Robinson West Little League baseball in Chicago, located near Jaylin’s home turf, for passing this story along.)
In Tom Farrey’s excellent book on the state of youth sports, “Game On,” he devotes a chapter to the development of future NBA star Carmelo Anthony, and why drug dealers were so essential to it.
While Baltimore lavished all sorts of resources on Camden Yards, the Orioles’ stadium (and later, the Baltimore Ravens’ football stadium), it was gutting its parks and recreation department, closing many facilities and turning others over to the Police Athletic League, which ran them like little athletic gulags. Anthony found another parks department court, but he still needed financial help to advance his career, and that’s where the drug dealers came in. And why to this day Anthony is loathe to speak out against them.
Carmelo Anthony, in red, in his world-famous “Stop Snitchin” cameo.
It appears that things haven’t gotten worse for the parks department in Baltimore since Anthony was growing up there in the 1990s. Hopefully the drug dealers are in good shape, because future Carmelo Anthonys are going to need them. From WBAL:
Fewer city pools and no more bulk trash pickup are just two items on Baltimore City’s budget chopping block.
On Monday [March 29], both the department of Parks and Recreation and Public Works gave their take on the doomsday proposals. The city’s $121 million budget deficit is leading to cuts in nearly all departments in the proposed 2011 budget.
“The reality is this is a devastating hit to recreation and parks,” Parks and Recreation Director Dwayne Thomas said. … They’re losing more than $8 million of city money in the proposed budget. The agency is looking at closing city-run pools and 29 recreation centers.
Judy Atkinson, with the Roosevelt Park Rec Center, said that could be devastating. “It’s gonna mean a lot more children out on the street that you’re gonna have people with idle time on their hands,” Atkinson said.
The cuts announced Monday in the Parks Division include cutting back on the maintenance at the parks including taking care of ball fields used for youth and adult sports leagues. “If we’re not able to maintain the fields at the level that we might want, maybe there aren’t as many activities going on,” Thomas said.
There’s something pathetic about the idea of “Sandlot Day 2010,” pushed by the SUNY Youth Sports Institute as a chance “to give young ballplayers in organized leagues the gift of pickup baseball that their coaches and parents experienced.”
There was a “Sandlot 3?” I didn’t even know there was a “Sandlot 2.”
What’s pathetic is not that it takes an organized effort to create unorganized play, although that’s pretty bad. What’s pathetic is the false nostalgia being pushed by this idea — that the glory days of youth sports were when kids did everything themselves while adults stayed inside, smoked, played bridge and fucked the neighbor’s spouse. Well, the SUNY Youth Sports Institute (and by extension, the New York Times, which wrote a kind piece about Sandlot Day) didn’t exactly push that last clause as part of its gauzy look at days gone by.
As a member of a generation in which, while we had organized sport, I played a lot of pickup games around the neighborhood, too, presumably I should be totally on board with the idea of “Sandlot Day.” After all, who can be against:
From this one day they’ll get personal memories that last a lifetime, a sense of ownership of the game, an ability to organize themselves, and so much more.
Most of our children’s playtime is organized. When a sport can offer its players a gift like Sandlot Day, it tells the players you trust them in control of the game, and it ultimately increases their passion for the game.
As coaches, you know this day is about something bigger than baseball. At first, the value of Sandlot Day may not be clear to parents. After all, they have come to expect organized games with uniforms, umpires, coaches instructing and parents cheering. But you know that to keep kids playing baseball longer they need a passion for the game.
A large part of the passion for baseball can be found in the historic roots of what occurs when playing in small games in the sandlot, playground, or backyard. Through Sandlot Day, baseball has a great opportunity give just one day back to the origins of the game.
Yes, who can be against this? [Points thumbs toward self] This guy!
The first problem is that adults are organizing this. Sandlot Day is not kids truly organizing sports on their own, picking the date, time, place and rosters. It’s organized leagues providing specific places and times, with players pre-supplied. The idea is coming from adults, not children.
This presupposes that the problem is children are incapable of organizing their own play, their abilities atrophied by years of organized sport. Actually, that’s not the case. I bet these same kids can find ways to organize video-game playing with friends, how they all interact at a school dance, or, at some point in their life, a game of tag at recess. The idea also presupposes that kids pine for the ability to organize games on their own, when in most cases, at least in my experience, they’re perfectly happy with an organized league, especially if they get a uniform out of it.
The other major problem is the whole idea that intrinsically kid-organized play is always better than adult-organized play. No doubt, adult-organized play has, shall we say, its flaws. But here are things you get in kid-organized play that aren’t so pleasant, and a few speak to how dickish children can get:
– Not having enough kids to play.
– “You’re too young! Get out of here!”
– Endless fights over the rules.
– Endless fights over calls.
– “I’m taking my ball and going home!”
– “If you score from second, I’m gonna knife you.” (This happened to me in eighth grade. I scored, and avoided the knife.)
– Bigger kids who steal your stuff.
– Game called on account of dinner time.
– “I’m the quarterback, because I’m always the quarterback.”
– Game called on account of the ball going into the crochety neighbor’s yard.
– Game called on account of smashed window.
– Game called on account of teammate getting hit by a car while chasing a ball.
– Getting picked last.
– Not getting picked at all.
I would recommend that to make a real Sandlot Day, the adult organizers throw in some of those traits into the official unorganized day. That way, when the kids come back to organized sports, the screaming parents and asshole coaches don’t seem so bad anymore.
As inevitable as headlines saying “the Butler did it,” Butler University’s presence in the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four has dredged up the comparisons with the movie “Hoosiers.” It’s a facile exercise, considering Butler’s status as a relatively small fish in the NCAA pond, and its home court, Hinkle Fieldhouse, where as the 1986 movie taught us, the dimensions of the court are the same as our gym back in Hickory.
However, Butler has as little in common with the 1951-52 Hickory Huskers as the very urban IUPUI, which used “Hoosiers” as its inspiration when it made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2003, and Notre Dame center Ruth Riley, who thought of little Ollie shooting his underhanded free throws when she hit the game-winning freebies to give the Irish the 2001 NCAA women’s title. Butler is a team full of talent, beyond Gordon Hayward as Jimmy Chitwood (though Hayward looks more like he could star in “The Rade Butcher Story”), and it’s had a sustained period of success, with three appearances in the round of 16 since 2003.
Instead, the plucky high school team Butler resembles the most is not fictional, but very real — the 1954 Milan Indians, whose “improbable” Indiana high school basketball title run inspired “Hoosiers.”
Despite the Cinderella story, Milan was no out-of-nowhere team in 1954. In 1952-53, Milan went 24-5 and reached the final four of the Indiana state boys high school basketball tournament under a baby-faced coach in his mid 20s named Marvin Wood. (Milan lost to South Bend Central, Hickory’s opponent in “Hoosiers.”) The nucleus of that team was back for 1953-54, including Bobby Plump.
The 1953-54 Milan team went 28-2 — 28 being the number of Butler’s regular-season victories this year. Just like Butler, Milan mostly dominated its similarly sized competition. Despite the movie’s depiction of a series of tight games, Milan cruised through the tournament, not facing a close game until its legendary 32-30 nailbiter final in Butler Fieldhouse (Tony Hinkle was still alive and coaching Butler at that point) against Muncie Central, a game won by Plump’s last shot. (Plump’s Last Shot 40 years later, became the name of a Indianapolis restaurant co-owned by Plump.)
Meanwhile, baby-faced Butler coach Brad Stevens, age 33, is bringing his Bobby Plump, Hayward, into the NCAA Final Four, after previous success led to expected excellence (Butler at one point was a top 10-rated team during the regular season) as the Bulldogs dominated their similarly sized competition (the Horizon League). By the way, just to close this circle, Plump played his college basketball at… Butler, and, until Matt Howard broke it during the regional final, he had still held the school’s record for most free throws made.
This is not to say Butler shouldn’t milk the “Hoosiers” connection. With the Final Four five miles south on Capitol Avenue at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, I look forward to Stevens breaking out the tape measure, and having Hayward stand on a ladder to hold one end to the rim, and Shelvin Mack on the floor holding one end on the free throw line. Stevens could call the picket fence, with Hayward as a decoy, and Hayward telling Stevens, after the team shakes its head thinking back to that game against Oolitic: “I can hit that shot.”
Anyway, I presume that while Bulldogs fans want their story to end just like Milan (or “Hoosiers,” for that matter), they don’t want Stevens to do what Marvin Wood did after Milan’s title — leave for a bigger school.
Two stories are depressingly common: the youth coach who is accused of molesting members of his team, and molestation occurring within the Catholic Church. The story of former New York Catholic high school coaching legend Bob Oliva, indicted March 25 on two counts of child rape, sadly hits on both counts.
Oliva coached such future NBAers as Lamar Odom, Speedy Claxton, Derrick Phelps and Jayson Williams (talk about your troubled souls) at Christ the King Regional High School in Queens, winning nearly 550 games in 27 seasons before leaving in the 2008-09 season, supposedly for health reasons. He was having heart troubles, but in April 2008 he had already told the school he had been falsely accused of sexual crimes against a former family friend. The boy was Jimmy Carlino, who the New York Daily News said Oliva had called his “godson.”
You know how this story goes. At first no one believes the accuser, and the school and just about everyone else backs up Oliva. Of course, that is not in and of itself some form of evil: you’re innocent until proven guilty, and presumably many of Oliva’s supporters noticed nothing untoward.
But it was a bad sign for Oliva when the Daily News on Feb. 28 published a story about some of his defenders starting to believe the stories of his accuser, especially as they heard former teammates or friends come forward with their own stories about Oliva.
Less a month later, Oliva was indicted in Boston for two counts of raping a child (a 14-year-old boy) in 1976, while in town for a Yankees-Red Sox doubleheader, and one count of disseminating pornography to a minor. Carlino wasn’t named in the indictment as a victim, but he says at that age and that time Oliva took him to Boston and molested him.
I’ll say one more time that officially Oliva is guilty of nothing. But if the pattern holds, more boys-grown-up, emboldened by the walls starting to come crashing down, will come forward. They did when former students sued a Brooklyn prep school over a failure to protect them from a long-time, child-molesting, now-deceased football coach. They did when Andrew King, a 40-year swim coach in the San Jose, Calif., area, got busted for molesting a 14-year-old girl, and authorities found at least 12 other girls reporting similar offenses dating back to 1978. Former 1972 U.S. Olympic swimmer Deena Deardurff Schmidt recently stated she was molested by her swim coach as a child, holding a news conference to support an anonymous swimmer who has sued King and to lambaste USA Swimming for how it handled molestation allegations over the years.
The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for on how it handled its child-molesting priests, but it’s not the only organization that had such issues. Youth coaches have been given god-like powers over the years, and unfortunately many of them took advantage of that stature to take advantage of children. Unfortunately, it’s still happening, even with background checks in place that weren’t around when Oliva started coaching.
Whatever happens with the Oliva case, the lessons for parents remain. If something seems a little weird, then it probably is. Don’t leave your child alone with a coach. Don’t tell your child to do EVERYTHING the coach says. And, for God’s sake, don’t let your child go out of town or anywhere solo with a coach. It’s sad to say this, but it’s the only way to ensure your child’s safety.
I’d be more excited about this Atlanta Journal-Constitution story profiling 10-year-old basketball wunderkind Dakota Simms if it wasn’t all so depressingly familiar. Headline: 10-year-old trains for NBA while parents really get a workout.
He’s a sports brand in the making: Pint-sized, but powerful. Confident, but not cocky.
Fourth-grader Dakota Simms is training for an NBA payday though he has never actually played organized basketball. At 9, he showed off his skills as a mystery shooter during a break at an Atlanta Hawks game that earned him network sports appearances and national headlines. Takvim.com, a Turkish publication, dubbed Dakota “Mini [Michael] Jordan.”
What’s all the fuss about? Dakota’s coaches, who volunteer their time because they believe he has natural talent, say he’s made 289,000 three-point shots in three years and averages 50 every five minutes during practice.
Terence “Coach T” and Yoshi Simms of Norcross say their son, who turned 10 in February, has received offers from talent scouts looking to make him a star, but they don’t want him to move too fast, too soon. They say a California casting agent asked them to relocate to be on call for acting and modeling auditions. An Atlanta sports agent has called, as have coaches with the Amateur Athletic Union basketball league.
“We were not just totally ready to pick up and move to California,” said Dakota’s mother. But she is considering signing with a local talent agent for showbiz gigs.
The video below, taken from a CNN profile that aired in November 2009, shows that indeed Dakota Simms is a very impressive ball player for his age.
However, so is Jaylin Fleming.
And so is Jashaun Agosto.
In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article about Dakota Simms, his father notes that Ellen DeGeneres asked about him, but she does that with all the hot young basketball prospects. Apparently she did the same with Anthony Iglesia, already linked to above as a 7-year-old hotshot, shooting with Michael Jordan.
This is not to denigrate Dakota Simms. He works hard, loves basketball, and can legitimately talk about the NBA more than the million other 9-year-olds who’ll dream they’ll play there. Instead, this is about the community that grows around a hotshot when he’s barely out of diapers, with people who may or may not have the best interests of the child in mind. In that line from the story about Simms — “Dakota’s coaches, who volunteer their time because they believe he has natural talent” — in so many cases it’s more likely “Player X’s coaches, who volunteer their time because they believe they’ll get a huge payoff someday as part of his posse.” (As an aside, one of his coaches, 6-foot-11 Cheyenne Throckmorton, has started social networks for tall people, and people with mohawk haircuts.)
From the AJC story, it appears Dakota Simms’ parents are handling things about as well as possible. They’re not forcing the kid at gunpoint into the gym — he loves to play. They are holding him back a little bit for public consumption, perhaps some wisdom on marketing gleaned from his mother’s experience as a public relations professional. (She also is starting a magazine aimed at 10- to 17-year-old girls that promotes itself thusly: “Take the self empowerment from O, The Oprah Magazine, combine it with the eclectic fashion of Vogue and you have one of the greatest publications ever put into circulation.” So Dakota isn’t the only reach-for-the-stars type in his family.)
But the danger is twofold. One is outlined in the excellent biography of Pete Maravich written by Mark Kriegel, Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, in which your young prodigy grows up to be an alternately dull and weird human being because of obsession with one thing and one thing only. (Kriegel’s book, which really is about Pete’s father Press, a college basketball coach, is one of the greatest books written about sports parenting.) That’s best worst-case scenario.
The worst worst-case is that the prodigy grows up believing he (or she) is absolutely the greatest, gets fawned over at a tender age, and flames out because it turns out the rest of the sporting world caught up in size and talent — or that no one around that prodigy ever thought about the possibility there might be 100 more like him right at that moment.
I won’t judge where Dakota Simms and his parents stand, because I don’t know. But this message is as much for the coaches, would-be agents and fanboys and fangirls trying to promote a young talent, and the local media all too willing to do gee-whiz pieces on any 8-year-old who can dribble between his or her legs.
And, this message is for anyone who puts up YouTube videos of any young athlete, in any sport, with titles like BEST 7-YEAR-OLD QB EVA!!!!!!! This was a trend that took off in 2007 after video of a 12-year-old (initially hyped as an 8-year-0ld) Los Alamitos, Calif., football prodigy named Cody Paul got tens of millions of views, combining every remixed version.
Things happen when your child shows up as a sports prodigy on YouTube, and people notice him or her. One is that you get some oohs and aahs, and maybe you do get a college coach or Ellen DeGeneres calling. Another is that you get tasteless responses in comments and video responses like, simply put, “Better Than Cody Paul.”
And the other thing — well, it’s an unknown. But how does that hype play on the child athlete, especially if he or she doesn’t turn out to be the star that everyone saw on YouTube? If this commenter is to be believed, Cody Paul, now a sophomore, is 5-foot-3, 145 pounds. Maybe he will be the greatest, very small running back the world has ever seen. But even if Cody Paul were 6-foot-3, it’s got to be tough to live up to that preteen hype, and you know there are kids gunning for him just for that reason.
You know what will really make a great athlete, the next LeBron, one of Dakota’s favorite NBA players? What’s most incredible about LeBron James is not his amazing 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame, or his basketball IQ. It’s that LeBron at an early age was hyped as the next Michael Jordan, and at every step he actually exceeded expectations. There’s no book on how to handle that hype, or to know what a child can handle it. But one way everyone surrounding a youth prodigy can handle that hype is not to feed it.
ESPN today [March 23] posted an interview with shoulda-been-a-first-ballot-Hall-of-Famer wide receiver Tim Brown, and the second question was:
What cause is most important to you?
Right now, I’m working diligently on childhood obesity and trying to help prevent that. We’ve teamed up with youth sports organizations all around the country, trying to change their fundraising habits. A lot of these organizations fundraise by selling cookies and candies and all that kind of stuff. So we’ve brought in some alternative ideas for them to be able to use that would actually produce more money for them and also be a lot lighter on the belt. … Childhood obesity turns into adult obesity, and then diabetes is a risk.
Yes, that’s right, folks: Tim Brown, one of the most dynamic receivers of all time, has been reduced to taking candy from your children.
Tim Brown was here. (Photo from Flickr)
Actually, for the last few years Brown, through his Locker81 Fundraising Solutions, has tried to sell youth sports organizations on branding their own gift cards or prepaid Visa cards that would kick some cabbage to the local league every time someone made a purchase with those cards. Or, for even more rewards, the cards could be used to purchase other noncandy items Brown’s organization could get you.
I’m completely for this. Not because I have a deep, overriding concern for childhood obesity. Hey, it takes a lot more than kids buying and selling candy bars to create an obese population. I don’t even hate being approached by kids in downtown Chicago selling me M&M’s for “the team,” the name of such team never revealed.
No, I support it because every year through my local baseball and softball league, I’m forced to sell at least one box of candy for each kid, or pay $40 a box NOT to sell it.
With two kids, I’m up to $80 to not go through the hassle of trying to figure out on whom I can pawn off candy, a task made more important because it seems like everyone else in the world is selling candy at about the same time. My 4-year-old daughter likely will play T-ball next year as a 5-year-old, and then I’ll be stuck with $120 on top of what I’ll already have to pay to have three kids in softball and baseball.
So, Tim Brown, please sell my league on your gift cards. It seems like an easier and more painless way that telling a parent volunteer that, no, I’m not selling candy, and I’ll have your check soon. Maybe I’ll use the gift card to buy myself, oh, I don’t know, a candy bar.