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Another next LeBron added to the basketball prodigy pile

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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.

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However, so is Jaylin Fleming.

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And so is Jashaun Agosto.

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

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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.

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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

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