• U.S.

Second Grade Hoops Go Pro

12 minute read
Sean Gregory / Memphis

The freak-out surprised me.

I thought I was doing O.K. on the not-freaking-out-as-a-parent front.

You see, this spring my son Will, who is 7, started developing a real love for basketball. He’d beg me to take him to the park near our home so we could sneak in a few shots before dark. I got that paternal twinkle as he started making layups with a real basketball–no need for those pint-size youth rocks–on a real rim. Don’t lower it for Will, baby. I hadn’t pushed him, I swear, but there he was, taking up a sport that runs deep in the Gregory bloodlines. My brother and dad and an aunt and an uncle and I are all Bronxites who played college basketball. Forgive me for starting to dream.

So I searched for a hoops day camp he might attend or some league he could join. I typed in “second grade,” since Will had just finished first grade. Maybe there was something for kids that young.

Oh, there is. And thus my NBA-level freak-out. I stumbled on a website advertising the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national basketball championship for second-grade boys. There I was, feeling all good that my kid could make a freaking two-foot shot, before discovering that kids his age are already competing nationally.

Youth sports have been getting more specialized, and professionalized, for years. Americans aren’t signing 12-year-olds to pro soccer contracts the way people do in Europe. But kids–or, more than likely, their parents–are pressured to pick a sport early and join the year-round churn of practices and travel-team tournaments, hearing supposed grownups scream at refs. But really, a second-grade hoops championship?

“When you think about it, it is ludicrous,” says Dante Jackson, operations director for Washington Evolution, a Tacoma-based AAU program that sent a team to the second-grade tourney. “But a lot of parents are into it. It is our mission to compete on the national level every year.”

The AAU has sponsored a second-grade boys’ hoops tournament since 2004. (An 8-and-under girls’ championship started in 2007.) Technology has helped organize elite youth sports at younger and younger ages. Parents post their kids’ highlights on YouTube. The boys need exposure so they can get on the national middle-school Web rankings–yes, they exist. Tournaments may help a kid get noticed. And one day, a college coach may come calling. For the AAU programs, some of which sponsor teams in every age group from 8 to 18, it pays to scout prospects early. Very early. “If we pick them up in the fourth, fifth or sixth grade, they already have bad habits. It’s too little, too late,” says Gary Pinkney, director of the Maryland’s Finest AAU program, which took the second-grade title last season.

So if a kid isn’t playing in a big-time tourney by fourth grade, he’s really missing out? “Yeah, yeah, he’s definitely behind,” says William Francis, head second-grade coach for the Gauchos, a New York City AAU team. “But he definitely can catch up.”

Born Ready

Well, that’s comforting. to find out how much catching up Will has to do, I head to Memphis in late June for the second-grade tournament, a weeklong competition featuring 21 teams. The answer: a ton. This hits me as I watch the Parker brothers–Tre, 7, and Logan, 6–who play for Washington Evolution. On one possession, Logan, with his Superman socks pulled up to his knees, dribbles the ball behind his back and throws a crosscourt pass to Tre, also known as Born Ready in his YouTube highlight clips. Tre hurls a three-pointer, which he shoots with one arm, straight through the net. Tre then struts downcourt; all he needs now is a Nike endorsement contract. (Washington Evolution will go on to win the championship.)

Some second-graders give autographs. Others, thankfully, still play like they’re 8. Air balls on layups are common. If the refs called every travel, we’d never leave Memphis. Let LeBron and D-Wade go clubbing in South Beach. Here, postgame hot spots include Incredible Pizza (Laser tag! Bumper cars! Go-karts!) and Putt-Putt Golf & Games, where the Gauchos, after winning both their games that day, huddle in the parking lot and start a spontaneous kick line. “Da da da da da, da! Da da da da da, da!” they chant.

Each coach wrestles with how to handle the hotel pool. The kids want to jump in–“Cannonball!”–but all that splashing around can leave them sluggish on the court. On the other hand, tiring the players out a bit helps them fall asleep earlier, which can keep them fresh for game time. (For the record, Washington Evolution and the other championship finalist, Maryland’s Finest, keep their kids chlorine-free.)

The second-graders do need their rest, because the games are fierce. Everyone–particularly the coaches and parents–wants to win. If you dragged your kid to Memphis from Washington State, you want more than to have him merely participate. A ref ejects one coach, Tyrone Crawley of the New Jersey squad Team Domination, because he left his chair to scream directions at a player. Crawley’s assistant had already been whistled for a technical, so by rule Crawley can no longer stand. “We’re still going to win anyway,” Crawley snarls as he passes the ref on his way out; his team is up 12-7. (Because of the kids’ erratic play, AAU scores tend to resemble pro football more than pro basketball.) Outside Hickory Ridge Middle School, Crawley paces around a pillar. From a cell phone, he issues instructions to his wife. “Go over and tell them I said to put Jaylin and Londen in the game,” Crawley says. “Come on, man.” (Moments later, Jaylin and Londen are on the court.) Team Domination’s opponent, Oz Elite, from Wichita, Kans., mounts a comeback, taking a 14-13 lead. Crawley watches the final moments of the game with his head pressed against a window next to the school’s double doors. He can see only the Oz Elite bench, and he studies the team’s body language. “I see them happy,” Crawley says. “I don’t want to see them happy.” Seconds later the buzzer sounds, and the Kansas kids start jumping. Bang! Crawley slams his hand against the doors and shakes his head.

No coach is more intense than William Francis of the New York Gauchos. “I’m a loud coach,” says Francis. “I tell my kids, ‘I’m going to treat you like a full-grown 14-year-old. This isn’t baby ball.'” After the Gauchos lose in the quarters, Francis addresses his team in the locker room. “Nobody should be crying. Don’t cry, ” he says as a handful of 8-year-olds sob. “Right there, man,” he continues, banging a locker. Slam, slam, slam! “Right there! Right there, man, we was right there. I told you, I need everybody to give me something! Everybody! Not turnovers! Not throwing the ball out of bounds!” At one point, a Gaucho gives a teammate who is a frequent target of Francis’ ire a comforting rub on the head.

The parents don’t knock his in-your-face style. “It can be tough,” says Reggie Dorsey, an advertising executive whose son Jeremiah is a Gaucho. “But I’m not going to say, ‘We have to get away from this guy.’ No, because I know he means well.” Susan Fortes says her son Jayden is now more respectful at home and credits Francis’ discipline. “I’ve seen how much he’s grown,” says Fortes. I ask Gaucho player Elijah Moore, 8, how he responds to being yelled at by Francis. “I don’t listen to his screaming,” says Moore, a budding philosopher. “I listen to his message.”

Give these kids credit for blocking out noise. Parents shout at the kids, at the coaches, at the refs. The gym is a dizzying cacophony of instruction: Do this, go here, call the foul! The kids barely peep. They just play.

The refs are great. You’d think parents would take it easy on the zebras, because the kids are, you know, 8. Think again. “When I see that a game involves little kids, I say to myself, ‘Oh, Lord,'” says Monroe Ballard, who officiates the second-grade games. “The parents are going to be crazy.” During the second half of the Cincinnati Royals–Gauchos game, a mohawked mite from Cincinnati wearing goggles shuffles his feet after catching the ball in front of a group of Gauchos parents. The Gauchos have a comfortable lead, and the Cincinnati kid can’t help but stumble, given the ball’s momentum. “Travel!” a few Gauchos parents scream in his direction.

The tournament finishes with no major incidents. Before the event, each coach received a memo from the AAU president. “Please advise the fans that if a fight breaks out, the gym supervisor or referees will clear the gym of all spectators if deemed necessary and no refunds will be given.” (Ticket prices: $13 for adults, $10 for kids.) During one game, a ref kicks a dad out of the gym for berating him. Later, the guy pops his head back in, this time yelling at a group of parents from his son’s team, “Shut the f— up!” The gym, for once, goes silent.

“A Little Weird”

Paul Whyte, 70, has spent $1,000 to travel to Memphis from Annapolis to watch his grandson play for the Maryland team. “It’s a little weird,” Whyte says. “I’m just of the impression that it’s too early to put this much pressure on 8-year-olds.” I ask Whyte whether he’s shared this thought with his daughter and son-in-law. “I don’t tell them how to raise their kids,” he says.

Youth psychologists agree that too much competition too early can burn kids out. “At that age, the emphasis should be on learning skills,” says Nicole Zarrett Kivita, a University of South Carolina psychology professor who has studied youth sports. “Emphasis on performance can undermine that and cause kids to stop engaging with sports.”

For the most part, the kids in Memphis don’t seem to mind whatever pressure they’re under. They are staying active (The U.S. has a child-obesity crisis, right?) and learning how to compete (America needs to be more competitive as a nation, right?). Some learn educational lessons: parents from Maryland’s Finest, for example, organize a trip to the National Civil Rights Museum during one free morning. There, the team sits at attention watching a film about Nelson Mandela and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The kids also bond with their buds. “His whole entire social life is surrounded by the players on this team,” says Denise Herndon, whose son Cash is the team ham. “He’s already mourning the separation that will come with the end of this tournament.”

Such closeness, however, can cause parental anxiety. “What if these other kids exceed Cash as they all get older?” Herndon wonders as other Maryland parents lounge in a Homewood Suites lobby, celebrating the team’s quarterfinal win. “What if he gets cut? That would be horrible. I don’t know how he’d get through that.”

Herndon isn’t the only anxious parent. Kurt Hocker can hardly watch his son’s semifinal game, his nerves are so frayed. “It would be so cool for them to say they got to the championship game,” says Hocker. He leaves the gym at halftime and paces around for a good 15 minutes. He views the end of the game from one of the gym’s corners, clutching his head, looking away, slapping the door with his hat. Watching Hocker watch the game is more entertaining than the game. He calms down for the finals, though. “I’ve got my Zen today,” he quips. “Me and Phil Jackson have been texting. I’m good.”

After Maryland won an earlier playoff game, Hocker watched the kids run around the hotel. “You know, if we had lost today, the parents would be the only ones moping,” he says. “The kids forget about it in 20 minutes.”

Of all the parents I meet in Memphis, Hocker seems the most conflicted about AAU hoops. “Unfortunately, the way this has evolved, you have to concentrate on a single sport at 8, 9 years old,” the bank executive says. “I don’t like it. But it really is a requirement. If your kid wants to play basketball, what can you do? It’s sort of the devil you walk with.”

My soon-to-be-second-grader Will joins me for the last two days of the tourney. The games are love at first sight. “They actually have an opening tip?” he asks. I thought all the shouting would scare him off. He doesn’t seem bothered. “She has a lot of energy,” he says to me about one screeching mom. “The Gauchos do have a serious coach,” he observes while we watch our hometown team. He can’t keep his eyes off the action.

When the kids from Maryland invite Will for postgame tag after the semifinals, he might as well be hanging out with LeBron James, his favorite NBA player. He immediately looks up to the second-grade players. He’s usually painfully shy. Here he’s comfortable and happy. “When I play AAU next year, I’m going to play my hardest,” Will informs me in Memphis. “Why didn’t we do it this year?”

Excuse me for a moment while I fetch a basketball. The devil is calling.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com