Putting the teen prodigy back together again required a piece of tape. Inside the gym at Integrated Athletic Development, a complex for elite athletes outside Dallas, longtime NBA coach Bob Hill grabbed the left hand of Jeremy Tyler and began wrapping it mummy-style. Call it Correction Tape, meant to erase the flaw in Tyler's shot: The 6'11" former San Diego High legend would flick the ball with his off hand and send it on a wobbling arc. O.K., Hill told Tyler, now take a jumper. "I air-balled it 99 times, " says Tyler, recalling the workout in mid-July when he met Hill. "He took the tape off and I couldn't miss."
Once again Tyler was the can't-miss kid. At a preseason camp last week, flying around a court in a grape-purple Tokyo Apache jersey, he had found in Hill a coach willing to grab him by the hand. "I'm going to treat him exactly like I treated my sons: firm, fair and consistent," says Hill, 61, in his first season in bj-league, Japan's top level. "To be honest, he hasn't taken a lot of extra energy."
This is the same kid who was a seemingly endless labor pain in Israel. In one year Tyler went from best-in-class to cautionary tale: The first U.S.-born phenom to leave high school after his junior year for European pro ball (a blow to childhood that could be celebrated only by playground fly Sonny Vaccaro) imploded 10 games into his first season with Maccabi Haifa. On March 14, during halftime, he walked out on his team and his $140,000 deal. The Tyler Express plan—go Euro for two years until he was eligible for the NBA's 2011 draft—had gone off the rails. Tyler booked a flight to Los Angeles the next day.
Did Tyler abandon Haifa or did the organization desert him? Critiques of the kid that circulated through the European and American press seldom spared the rod. There were reports of his missing a workout and cursing at Haifa coach Avi Ashkenazi. The coach (who was replaced this spring) found him to be arrogant and questioned his dedication and toughness. Tyler was also cast as a cultural clod when neighbors complained about his playing loud music on the solemn holiday of Yom Kippur. "I wanted to publicly apologize," Tyler says, "but Coach said, 'If you do, no one will care.'" By last February, as Tyler's playing time shrank to five minutes a game, teammates grumbled about his outsized ego. After spending extra hours in the gym, which he believed would earn him a start in practice (it did not), Tyler says he encountered the last straw: He was relieved of his jersey and told to sit on the bench in street clothes. "It came to a point where I went to Coach and asked, 'Are you here to hate me or help me?' He didn't want me," Tyler recalls. "He told me that." (Haifa has since made no comment about Tyler beyond an official statement citing "personal reasons" for his departure.) "I was 18 and made mistakes," says Tyler, who admits to being humbled by the experience. "That's on me. But they knew how old I was going in."
Was Tyler not mature enough for Haifa, or was Haifa not mature enough for him? The team's management promoted him as the star of a reality show that Haifa's American owner, Jeffrey Rosen, pitched to U.S. cable outlets. Tyler was a branding tool, a lure for the next hoop-dreaming teen who wanted a foreign paycheck before an NBA deal. "The reality show wasn't reality," says Tyler. "I had to do things for the cameras, like go to the beach and play volleyball, go ride a Go Kart, walk the city. I was like, Why am I your focus when I'm not even playing?" He felt used and isolated. The support system he expected—craved—never materialized. "I was by myself most of the time," he says. All the sycophants who circled him when he signed vanished as his scoring average plunged to 2.1 points. "I didn't tell anyone I was coming back [to the U.S.]," says Tyler. "At that point I was kind of mad with everyone." He didn't land with regret, though. He had been bored by high school ball. "No second thoughts about the past," he says.
It's hard to be comfortable with Tyler's choice to ditch high school for the pros, but the NBA system, with its one-and-done structure, doesn't incentivize players to attend college, either. Young stars will seek alternative routes to the NBA, and Tyler may still be right about his path. "If he learns his lessons, he's a lottery pick," says Hill. Tyler still doesn't run the floor well or fight through fatigue, Hill adds, but he jumps higher than any player he has ever coached.
The welcome mat is out in Tokyo. Apache general manager Conor Neu, a former Princeton player, has created a family atmosphere. All players live in the same building downtown, within walking distance of the Yoyogi National Stadium. "Jeremy is part of everything we're doing," Neu says. "If you believe what you've read about Jeremy, you'd ask, What are we getting ourselves into? But in talking with him, you realize how thoughtful he is."
He's not the Baby Huey caricature drawn up overseas. He's not a finished product, either. In yet another drill to eliminate the lefthand push on Tyler's shot, assistant coach Casey Hill, Bob's son, put a quarter between Tyler's thumb and index finger. "Now shoot without dropping it," he told him. Last week, in a 90-second drill at the end of practice, Tyler made 34 of 40 jumpers in the paint, the ball rotating perfectly. How much does it cost to pick up a fallen prodigy? Twenty-five cents.
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Jeremy Tyler, the first phenom to leave high school after his junior year to play pro hoops overseas, has gone from best-in-class to cause for caution.