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.