Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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Chicago Tribune profiles fifth-grade basketball prodigy, doesn't read this blog

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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.

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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.)

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