Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Another next LeBron added to the basketball prodigy pile

with 2 comments

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.

[youtubevid id=”O0j2OAkc77k”]

However, so is Jaylin Fleming.

[youtubevid id=”wx1YNft8MP8″]

And so is Jashaun Agosto.

[youtubevid id=”BIqVvRh_cEY”]

And so are scads of other 4-, 5-, 6-, 7-, 8- and 9-year-old basketball prodigies. And they’re not all boys.

[youtubevid id=”l25bkqWPAQI”]

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.

[youtubevid id=”fqSV1wnN5oQ”]

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.

Written by rkcookjr

March 24, 2010 at 11:45 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Thank you for writing such a well thought out and nicely researched article. Your commentary is fair, balanced and right down the middle.

    I am Cheyenne Throckmorton, one of Dakota’s “coaches” and I follow all kinds of stories around the web about him.

    Indeed there does need to be a careful balance struck between reality, fantasy and keeping one’s dreams intact (personal legend would be the term used in Paulo Coehlo’s book “The Alchemist”).

    Right now, Dakota has talent, a dream, intellect and the demeanor of a well-spoken young man. I believe he has that “it” factor you hear NFL Draft pundits speak about when talking about quarterbacks ad nauseam.

    I tell people often that with same desire and effort he could probably excel in anything from painting to playing the piano. His talent and desire happens to be basketball. Should that change down the road, I’m confident he will excel at his new endeavor and become a fine young man.

    I’m glad you pointed out the line in the article that said something about our volunteering our time because we believe he has talent. That line definitely read wrong, and could be misread as us thinking about the potential payout.

    I will speak only for myself, but the reasons that I “volunteer” are many, but mainly because I love the game of basketball, and I learn so much from Dakota and the other kids in the gym, not just about basketball but about life too.

    I really consider an extension of the Dale Carnegie course I took a few months before joining the Ravinia Club, meeting Dakota and the rest of the “family” at our gym. It is a special place, and I benefit in ways I never knew possible.

    Finally, admittedly, it sure as heck beats the crud out of sweating away on a treadmill, to try and svelte down my 6’11, 340lb frame, which Dakota does regularly shoot over with the skill of a marksmen and a the coolness of an autumn breeze.

    In the end, we write and comment a lot about the impossibilities of a dream and a goal. Wanting to prepare children, in their own best interest, for the inevitable harsh realities that lay ahead in their journey of life. As adults this is a responsible and admirable cause.

    As we lay down these barriers, these deflaters of dreams, make sure they are constructively loose in letting the child blossom to their potential, only keeping hands below them to catch them should their balloon break.

    More importantly though, let’s watch them bristle and smile, excel and succeed. Let’s learn from them as much or more as we try to teach them. We can learn a lot from these kids and their dreams, about rekindling our very own passions. We can learn to re-form and pursue our own dreams of happiness with unbrideled enthuiasm beyond the comforts of the safety of the plan B we find ourselves playing out.

    Sure, not everyone, can be a basketball star or an astronaut. However, someone will do it, someone will be Lebron James and Neil Armstrong. There are definitely many child “prodigies” out there in a variety of realms. I wish them all the best in seeking out their personal legend; for it is they who teach me and they who make the world a brighter place.

    cheyennejack

    March 25, 2010 at 5:16 pm

  2. […] 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 […]


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