Tuesday, July 25, 2006
ARE YOU KIDDING?
SHOE COMPANIES SET THEIR SIGHTS ON PLAYERS AS YOUNG AS 12
You’ve never heard of Joe Sharkey, a 14-year-old who just finished eighth grade at Brimmer and May, a small private day school in Chestnut Hill. But Adidas has.
Sharkey was 12 and ranked by a national scouting service among the top 20 sixth-grade players in the country when Adidas gave him his first free pair of basketball shoes and apparel. He was 13 and rated the best player from New England at the company’s invitation-only Jr. Phenom Camp when he received his second free pair of Adidas shoes and gear. And when he accepted his invitation this month to the Adidas Phenom 150 Camp for players entering ninth and 10th grade, he collected more free merchandise.
It has come to this in the sneaker wars. A generation after Nike revolutionized the marketing of athletic footwear by signing a 21-year-old NBA rookie, Michael Jordan, to an endorsement deal, the sneaker giants Nike, Adidas, and Reebok have turned their multimillion-dollar hunt for the next Jordan into a struggle for the souls of middle schoolers.
The competition has become so fierce Nike signed LeBron James to a $90 million contract before he received his high school diploma that Hoop Scoop, a national scouting service, rates fifth-grade players and the sneaker companies are scrambling after prepubescent prospects.
“The whole thing has gotten out of control, and the shoe companies are driving the bus,” said Hoop Scoop’s Clark Francis.
As the young Sharkey sits before a bowl of chips and dip in the kitchen of his Norwood home, the notion of him one day becoming the face of a blockbuster marketing campaign for a multinational corporation may seem unfathomable.
Not to Adidas.
“He’s one of our golden-child kids,” said Joe Keller, who two years ago opened a new front in the sneaker wars by launching the invitation-only Adidas Jr. Phenom Camp for middle schoolers. “He should definitely be a Division 1 basketball player, and he has his head screwed on correctly.”
All of this for a boy of 14. All of it in the hope that Sharkey or some other eighth-grade phenom Ron Giplaye of Lowell, Rodney Beldo of Dorchester, and Nadir Tharpe of Worcester also rank among the state’s best beats astronomical odds and becomes a bankable marketing commodity as a professional basketball star.
All of it, too, to the possible detriment of the children’s development, according to specialists in youth sports.
“In a word, it’s obscene,” said Bruce Svare, a child psychologist and executive director of the National Institute for Sports Reform. “I understand that they’re trying to move billions of dollars worth of sports apparel, but they’re doing it by coddling these young kids into a sense of entitlement that could hurt the kids and work against the companies.”
The sneaker giants forge ahead nonetheless. Sonny Vaccaro, Reebok’s senior director of grassroots basketball, set the trend as an Adidas executive in 2003 when he invited four eighth-graders to his ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., for the nation’s elite high school players. The same year, Vaccaro dipped lower into the talent pool by creating Camp Next for children who had completed eighth or ninth grade (Reebok now sponsors the program).
“We’re going to find them, expose them, and get them used to the grind at an earlier age,” Vaccaro said. “I believe in that theory.”
As a result, Vaccaro wasted no time last year establishing ties to Renardo Sidney, then a 6-foot-9-inch eighth-grader in Mississippi widely considered the nation’s top prospect in the Class of 2009. Vaccaro provided Sidney an all-expenses-paid trip to the ABCD camp and arranged for the sneaker company to sponsor Sidney’s summer team.
Vaccaro also spoke last year with Cully Payne, then a 14-year-old eighth-grader in Chicago, about committing to a college team before he reached high school. Three weeks after Payne completed the eighth grade and not long after his conversation with Vaccaro the boy verbally accepted a non-binding basketball scholarship offer from DePaul, a rarity for a child so young.
Vaccaro, who pays freelance scouts to help him target the nation’s best young players, also took Juwan Moody, an 11-year-old phenom from Detroit, to lunch two years ago at a Johnny Rocket’s restaurant near Vaccaro’s home in Calabasas, Calif.
“When I met him, he was 5-2, and it was hard explaining to him that at some point he will have to grow a little bit,” Vaccaro said. “But I’ve maintained a friendship with him and his dad. I haven’t seen him play, but he’s supposed to really be a phenom.”
In the next breath, however, Vaccaro shared a secret of the sneaker wars.
“The word `phenom’ is nothing more than a selling tool,” he said. “It’s a trick.”
In New England, the most prominent company-sponsored youth teams the Nike-backed Boston Amateur Basketball Club and Adidas-sponsored New England Playaz have all but cornered the market of the region’s middle-school phenoms. BABC coach Leo Papile has stocked his program with so much young talent that he recently entered two 15-and-under teams in the state AAU tournament, with both teams advancing to the championship game (they shared the trophy rather than play each other).
“They are probably the best basketball team I’ve ever seen at that age category,” said John Kottori, the AAU’s chairman of youth basketball in southern New England.
Papile already has enlisted Sharkey to join a 15-and-under team next fall that is expected to include Giplaye and Beldo, both of whom are 15-year-olds entering ninth grade. Papile also picked up several of the region’s best 15-year-olds entering 10th grade, including 6-7 Erik Murphy of St. Mark’s and 6-6 Dartaye Ruffin of St. Andrew’s, though Ruffin recently jumped from the BABC to Thomas J. “TJ” Gassnola’s New England Playaz. Murphy is the son of former Boston College star and NBA player Jay Murphy.
Papile also has a 6-8 phenom, Alex Oriakhi, who completed ninth grade at the Brooks School and who turned 16 June 21.
Tharpe, who ranks with Sharkey among the region’s best 14-year-olds, is considered such a dominant player that the New England Playaz built a new 15-and-under team around him. A speedy, 5-10 guard with exceptional passing and shooting skills, Tharpe played as an eighth-grader last season for the varsity team at St. Peter-Marian of Worcester and wasted little time turning heads as he scored 24 points against Worcester’s Doherty High School and 23 against St. Bernard’s of Fitchburg.
“He’s one of those kids who comes along once in a lifetime,” said Gassnola, who recruited Tharpe.
Just as Papile has helped many of his young players land scholarships to private schools, Gassnola has tried to do the same for Tharpe, recently taking him for a visit to St. Andrew’s School, a small basketball power in Barrington, R.I.
“He’s the best I’ve seen come through Worcester in the last eight or nine years in his age bracket,” St. Peter-Marian coach Tim Tibaud said. “We’re hoping to keep him, but once the prep schools see him, it’s going to be hard.”
As for Sharkey, a 6-2 sharpshooter, his basketball life took a dramatic turn in the summer after sixth grade. By making the all-star team at the elite Five-Star Basketball Camp while he competed against players who were two years older, Sharkey earned an invitation to the inaugural Adidas Jr. Phenom Camp and gained the top 20 rating from Hoop Scoop, all at age 12.
“It was really exciting,” he said, “because I never thought I could play that well against older kids.”
Sharkey has done so ever since. In addition to playing in higher age brackets on the summer circuit, he created a stir at Brimmer and May two seasons ago when he became one of the only seventh-graders in state history to play varsity basketball. Blending his skills as a floor leader with his deft shooting touch, Sharkey played so well as a seventh-grader that in one game he led his senior-dominated team in scoring.
“He was the most advanced player in both basketball talent and knowledge of the game I’ve seen at that age level,” said Daryn Freedman, the former Brimmer and May coach who suggested Sharkey apply to the school after spotting him at a Five-Star camp in Pennsylvania when Sharkey was 11. Alumni of the Five-Star camp include dozens of NBA players, including Jordan, James, Vince Carter, and Carmelo Anthony.
Freedman, now an assistant coach at Duquesne University, said Sharkey was so skilled at age 12 that he once created an uproar among an opposing team’s fans when he made a rare appearance with an injury-depleted 13-and-under summer team after playing in a 17-and-under division.
“I’m excited to see what happens in his career,” Freedman said.
So are the sneaker companies, even as they hunt for more Joe Sharkeys.
“My job is to discover them before anybody knows who these kids are,” said Keller, founder of the Adidas Jr. Phenom Camp. “Everybody wants to find out who the top players are at an earlier age.”
Francis, the scouting analyst, has seen the competition between sneaker companies intensify as he travels the country to rate players at youth camps and tournaments. Nike last month signaled its commitment to competing with Adidas and Reebok for middle schoolers by launching a national tournament for sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders as part of its Memorial Day Classic in Nashville.
“The interest has skyrocketed because the shoe companies and colleges now realize that if they don’t start going after kids in middle school, they’re not going to get them,” Francis said.
So it is that hundreds of college coaches subscribe to scouting services like Hoop Scoop. But even Vaccaro, who tracks middle schoolers as aggressively as any sneaker company operative, said adolescents can undergo so many physical, attitudinal, and social changes that trying to rate children as potential basketball stars as young as 11 may be foolhardy.
“You can’t define players that young,” Vaccaro said. “It’s humanly impossible because there are so many intangibles. That’s why somebody has to stand up and say, `It’s [b.s.].’ “
Francis defended his rankings, to a degree.
“Quite honestly, I think our lists of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders are really good,” he said. “But I think our list of fifth-graders is a joke.”
No New Englanders appear on Hoop Scoop’s list of the nation’s top fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders, but the list of the top 300 eighth-graders includes Beldo (42), Sharkey (117), and two 6-5 players from Waterbury, Conn.: Josh Turner (55) and Cory Andrews (160).
Francis said he has yet to hear parents complain about their children appearing on such lists. He said he hears instead from parents who believe their children should be ranked higher.
“I tell them, `Don’t worry, we’ve got six more years to get it right,’ “ he said.
The best of the young phenoms are celebrated in teen-oriented magazines like Slam, which is thick with ads and features touting sneaker company apparel, camps, and tournaments.
Child prodigies also are tracked by websites such as New York-based metrohoops.com, whose stated mission is to provide “cutting-edge stories about the hottest grammar school players” as young as second-graders.
The trend troubles specialists like Peter Roby, who has captained Dartmouth’s basketball team, coached Harvard’s basketball team, served as Reebok’s vice president of US marketing, and now heads Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
“It sends a bad message to many of these kids that their basketball skills separate them from their peers in a way they don’t deserve,” Roby said. “It bothers me a lot because we already know we have issues with adult athletes who feel they have a special sense of entitlement because people are falling over them. If adult athletes have trouble keeping their perspective, imagine how difficult it can be for a sixth- or seventh-grader.”
Fixing the problem may require the sneaker companies, perhaps with support from the NBA, to cooperatively fund a network of regional youth development programs that addresses the needs of both recreational players and elite college prospects, said Brian McCormick, author of “Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development.”
McCormick said his plan is aimed in part at curbing the profit-driven competition between the sneaker companies and its harmful effect on young players.
“It may not be the perfect solution,” he said, “but at least it will get people talking about the problem.”
Vaccaro acknowledged the exploitative nature of the system, but he also defended it.
“We put these kids on pedestals and when they bottom out, the entities that supported them and the people who rated them don’t bottom out,” he said. “We’re wrong in this evaluation thing more than we’re right, and no one sees our failures. But when we’re right, it allows us to perpetuate the dream. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Many youth coaches cringe, however, as they watch sneaker companies and college recruiters pursue ever-younger players.
“You see people drooling over 10-year-old kids and you wonder, at what point is he no longer just a kid playing the game because it’s fun and at what point does it tarnish him,” said Carl Parker, who coaches a regional travel team from Maine and recently became the head coach at Lee Academy in Maine. “All that hype and exposure at such a young age, I’m not sure how good that is for the kids.”
It hurt Demetrius Walker, who was 12 when he was featured on the front page of the Los Angeles Times and 14 when he was trumpeted last year on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Walker, who will be a 6-4 sophomore at Fontana (Calif.) High School, got swept up in his hype and slipped, at least temporarily, from can’t-miss to overrated.
Vaccaro blamed the media and Walker’s handlers.
“That was the greatest miscarriage of justice I’ve ever seen, proclaiming the kid to be the greatest when he was in sixth grade,” he said. “Demetrius is pretty good, but he’s never going to be LeBron.”
Keller, who coached Walker in his Adidas-sponsored summer program, acknowledged the boy “was hurt to some degree” by the booing he received when his game deteriorated after the hype.
“Anytime someone tells us we’re the greatest in the world, we tend not to work as hard, and that happened to Demetrius,” Keller said. “But this has brought him back to reality and he’s back in the gym five or six hours a day.”
Unlike some sneaker-sponsored coaches who avidly publicize their players, others prefer to shield the youngsters from media exposure.
Only after some prodding, for example, did Craig Stockmal, coach of the Boston-based Junior Celtics 16-and-under team, share the names of three of his players who were invited to this summer’s Adidas 150 Phenom Camp: his twin sons, Cory and Kyle Stockmal, of Watertown High School, and Tucker Halpern, of Noble and Greenough. All three will be entering 10th grade.
“I don’t want them to think they are that good at such a young age,” Stockmal said. “If you keep telling them they are the best, they may not work hard enough to compete at the next level.”
Sharkey said he considers himself an Adidas kid, though he expressed no reluctance about joining the Nike-sponsored BABC in the fall. He and his parents, Patrick and Denise, said they are keenly aware of the pitfalls of his youthful stardom and plan to avoid them.
As part of his development, Sharkey is leaning toward eventually transferring from Brimmer and May to Worcester Academy, which plays a more rigorous schedule but also has a strong academic program.
“It all depends on whether you keep everything in perspective,” said Patrick Sharkey, a Boston trial lawyer. “You have to think,