During eight years of reporting on grassroots basketball, the author saw coaches, recruiting analysts and sneaker companies put the marketing of talented young athletes ahead of their development as players
In the spring of 2003 stories about the prodigious ability of 12-year-old Demetrius Walker spread through the Southern California basketball community and beyond. His name appeared on message boards at SoCalHoops, a prominent website among hoopniks, and he got his first piece of college recruiting mail, a form letter from Miami (Florida). His performance at a spring tournament in Maryland had created some buzz, but it was mostly the result of tireless promotion by his AAU coach, Joe Keller. For three years Keller, age 32, had told anyone who would listen—parents, journalists, high school coaches, college recruiters—that Demetrius was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and some were persuaded enough to pass the word along.
One man spreading the Gospel of Joe was Clark Francis, a dowdy former journalism student who had turned himself into one of the most quoted figures in basketball. Since 1983 Francis had operated a recruiting newsletter, The Hoop Scoop, out of his Louisville apartment, building a following among basketball diehards. His bulletins, which had begun as black-and-white mailers, consisted of pages and pages of notes on players Francis scouted at tournaments and camps; overwrought flattery of college and grassroots coaches; and "scoops" that weren't really scoops at all.
Francis did not play college basketball, which is apparent the minute you meet him. He is built like a Weeble, one of those egg-shaped toys that always rights itself because of the weight in its base. He is pale from all the time he spends in gyms across the U.S.—more than 200 days a year by his estimate—and talks so fast that he can be difficult to understand. Francis's lack of playing experience did not make him unique in his field. He had opinions and the means to distribute them, which was all anyone needed to become a recruiting analyst.
The bread and butter of most recruiting services, The Hoop Scoop included, are their rankings of high school players. But while other analysts, such as Bob Gibbons of All Star Report, would stop at the top 100 or 150 players, Francis's rankings seemed to go on until he ran out of names. "He'd have a list of the top underclassmen and it would go to 966," says Tom Konchalski, who publishes High School Basketball Illustrated. "It was like he was taking every name a coach gave him and putting it out there in hopes it would stick."
Konchalski and other veteran recruiting analysts liked Francis, but they drew a distinction between what they did and what he did. "Clark was more of a popularizer," Konchalski says. The other analysts felt their reputations were on the line when they ranked players—the college coaches who were their customers would know if they rated a kid highly and he couldn't play a lick—and they resisted doing national rankings. "We wanted to be able to see a kid over a period of a few years," Konchalski says. "One person can't do that nationally." But for Francis, who marketed largely to fans, there were no consequences to ranking 966 kids or putting a guard from Arizona he'd never seen play in his top 50.
Eventually Francis assembled a team of "editors" around the country to help him with rankings and his newsletters. Some were qualified independent scouts, but others were grassroots coaches, which created an obvious conflict of interest. For a spell, Francis's California editor was Dinos Trigonis, the longtime coach of the Belmont Shore Basketball Club. Not surprisingly, kids from his team appeared in Francis's rankings.
Francis would likely have remained among the minor recruiting analysts had he not moved to differentiate The Hoop Scoop from other scouting services. He was the first to rank the top eighth-graders in the country. Konchalski and Gibbons never did that, in part because the NCAA doesn't deem a player to be of age for recruiting until the 10th grade. They also considered the evaluation of kids before they reached high school too inexact a science. But Francis saw gold in going younger. He continued to push the limits, ranking sixth-graders and even fourth-graders. This innovation boosted the online Hoop Scoop's popularity and Francis's profile. He would eventually charge $499 for a year's subscription and claim that during the busy AAU tournament months of June and July, his site got nearly one million hits.
Among the largest subset of people who followed Francis's rankings were AAU coaches, and not only because some of them were on his payroll. Rankings from any scouting service, regardless of its credibility, were instruments with which to measure one's importance. If a coach had the No. 1 player in the country or several kids in the top 50, his value to the shoe companies, his popularity with college coaches and his ability to recruit new kids were enhanced.
To Joe Keller, Francis was the most important opinionmaker in America, the key to creating a national groundswell about Demetrius and Keller's team, the Inland Stars. Beginning in 2000 Keller made courting Francis a priority. He called Francis regularly with "tips" about the great players on his team, and eventually Francis took the bait.
In April 2001, in a report before the Kingwood Classic, a well-attended tournament in Houston, Francis wrote on his website, The Inland Stars in the 10-Under Division might be worth a look as well, because this top-rated team includes tremendous size with ... 5'8" Joseph Burton ... 5'8" Demetrius Walker ... and 5'5" Rome Draper. In a newsletter dated three days later, Francis wrote, The last time the Inland Stars were this good at so young an age, they had 7'0" Tyson Chandler from Compton (Dominguez) CA, 6'6" Josh Childress from Lakewood (Mayfair) CA, 6'5" Cedric Bozeman from Santa Ana (Mater Dei) CA, and 6'11" Jamal Sampson from Santa Ana (Mater Dei) CA. But this team promises to be better.... Their best player is 5'8" Demetrius Walker.... Sure some Tyson Chandler comparisons are in order, but ... Walker plays a lot harder. Also, Walker's father is 6'8" and his mother is 6'1". So his potential for growth is scary.... Unfortunately, we only got to see this team for about a quarter, because we had to go to the 15-Under Championship game.
The errors in Francis's report are numerous. Chandler, Childress, Bozeman and Sampson never played together on the Inland Stars, and Demetrius's father was not 6'8"—not even close. But the most astounding (and telling) aspect of his report was that after watching Demetrius play for only one quarter (about eight minutes), Francis likened him to Chandler, a high school senior who at the time was months away from being selected in the first round of the NBA draft.
Francis might be forgiven for taking erroneous information from Keller and plopping it into his report. How could he know Keller would lie to him about the height of Demetrius's parents? But comparing Demetrius to Chandler revealed an iniquitous truth about his mission. Francis would say he ranked and evaluated kids, but he was really in the business of hype. College coaches did not consider his rankings when they chose the kids they recruited. Francis was writing to titillate the rabid fans who dominated his readership. He was a salesman, and he wrote what he thought his readers wanted, which was whispers of greatness in a kid still shy of middle school.
As Konchalski points out, this puts immense pressure on players very early in their lives. From the moment Francis compared Demetrius to Chandler, the bar was set. If Demetrius didn't become the next Tyson Chandler, he would fail to live up to his potential. It didn't matter that his potential had been determined after only eight minutes by a man with no real experience playing or coaching basketball. Fans knew only what they read: Demetrius was as talented as and worked harder than a player who would ultimately be the second pick in the 2001 NBA draft.
Francis continued to listen as Keller gushed about Demetrius's ability. After the Inland Stars defeated Team Maryland in Baltimore in March 2003, Keller urged Francis to watch the team play in April at the Las Vegas Easter Classic. "Demetrius is the best player in the country," Keller told him. After the classic, which Keller's team won easily, this appeared on The Hoop Scoop's website: Walker, who had 18 points in the game we attended ... had incredible moves, athleticism, and skills for somebody his age and, as a result, is the best 6th grader in the nation.
Now Keller could print Francis's words and mail them to coaches, parents and reporters. He could e-mail a link to The Hoop Scoop all over the country and use it to sway other recruiting analysts. ("Clark Francis has Demetrius number 1; why don't you?") What Francis had written substantiated the course Keller had set for himself and his family. He always talked as if Demetrius's stardom were a foregone conclusion, but strands of uncertainty existed. Following Francis's stamp of approval, all qualifiers were removed. Demetrius was the next Tyson Chandler, and Keller was going to make millions when Demetrius turned pro. Case closed.
Rare were the moments when a subject other than basketball penetrated Keller's world. If you weren't discussing the Inland Stars or Demetrius's bright future, he tuned you out. But in early June 2003, a few weeks before the Inland Stars departed for Newport News, Va., for the 12-and-under AAU Nationals, Keller's singular focus was challenged when the obstetrician attending to his wife, Violet, scheduled a C-section for the birth of their second child, a girl, during the same week as the tournament. It presented the ultimate test of Keller's priorities: Would his obsession with Demetrius, the Inland Stars and roundball riches trump even the birth of his child?
Days before the team's departure, Keller told John Finn, the father of Inland Stars guard Jordan Finn, that Violet's doctor had advised her to have a C-section. "So what day is it?" Finn said.
"It's for the Tuesday night we're at nationals."
"So who's going to coach the team?"
"I'm going to coach them. I'm still going."
Finn assumed Keller was kidding. "What does Violet think about that?" he said, expecting Keller to laugh at him for taking the bait.
"She's O.K. with it. She knows that even though I won't be there, she's still my Number 1 priority."
Tom Stengel, an assistant coach and the father of another Inland Stars guard, lectured Keller sternly: "Joe, this is something you can't get back. You are going to miss your daughter's birth—your daughter's birth!—to coach in a tournament."
It wasn't just any tournament, Keller insisted. "No one else can coach the team," he said. "If I'm not there, we don't have a chance."
Stengel knew better. The Inland Stars would breeze through their three games in pool play. They wouldn't face a real challenge until the second round of bracket play, which wasn't until Wednesday. With minimal planning Keller could witness his daughter's birth on Tuesday night, catch a red-eye to Washington, D.C., and be in Newport News for the late-morning tip-off on Wednesday. "The team will be fine without you until then," Stengel said. "There isn't a parent who thinks you shouldn't be home with Violet. And if the kids don't understand now, they will someday."
Demetrius was the only player Keller had told about the C-section, and Demetrius informed none of his teammates. But he did tell his mother, Kisha, and she rushed to Violet for an explanation.
As Violet described it to Kisha, a victory at nationals would move the Kellers one step closer to getting out of their dinky apartment and into Violet's dream home; it would enable them to buy a nicer car and to live more comfortably. "Of course I am mad," Violet admitted, "but Joe told me how important it is."
On Thursday, July 10, Keller boarded a plane with the rest of the team at LAX. On the flight he barely mentioned Violet or the coming baby. All his talk was focused on basketball. By Monday, the eve of Violet's C-section, the Inland Stars had won all three of their games in pool play at the Nationals by an average of 20 points, and the following day they would open elimination play against the Potomac Valley Capital Players, one of the weakest teams left in the field. Demetrius looked unstoppable, and several coaches had approached Keller between games to congratulate him on Demetrius's being ranked No. 1 in his age by The Hoop Scoop.
Up to that point Keller's commitment to his wife could not have been questioned. He doted on her publicly and privately. He didn't say that he loved her only when they were alone; he declared it when the most people could hear. "Am I the luckiest guy or what?" he would say. "Violet puts up with all my s---. All she does is love me. She is the best thing that ever happened to me." She put up with this rocky life of his choosing, believing unequivocally in his master plan. Her tolerance of his mood swings, his outbursts, his incessant talk of basketball, was remarkable. Without Violet, Demetrius said, "Coach Joe would probably forget where he lived."
Keller's intensity, his drive, came mostly from a belief that everyone questioned his ability to succeed. But Violet was not one of those people; she always had faith in him. That Joe regretted his decision to miss the C-section was undeniable. On Monday afternoon he called Stengel and said, "Please help me. I've got to get home. I don't care how much it costs, and I don't care if I have to fly with the luggage." Stengel worked into Monday evening, calling airlines and travel agents, coming up with a single option that was neither cheap (more than $1,500) nor convenient. Keller would have to rent a car, drive to Washington Dulles and catch a 6 a.m. flight that made one stop before landing at LAX around 4 p.m. Factoring in potential flight delays and rush-hour traffic on the 59-mile drive from LAX to Riverside Community Hospital, Keller's chances of making the scheduled 7 p.m. C-section were 50-50 at best.
"Is there anything else?" Keller asked.
Stengel sensed that the cost of the ticket was a problem. "Look, Joe, I'll pay for the ticket," he said. "You don't have to pay me back. Call it a baby present. That is how important I think it is for you to be there."
"Hold on," Keller said. "I've got to talk to Demetrius first."
It was around 9 p.m. when Keller sat down with Demetrius in the hotel room they shared. "D, I need to know something," he said. "I need to know what you'd think if I went home to be with Violet."
"What?" Demetrius said. "You can't. You can't."
Keller stared at Demetrius, who was still three months shy of his 13th birthday. "Violet's gonna have the baby tomorrow," Keller said. "I can get there in time if I leave now. I will be back before the quarterfinals."
"But you can't. Who would coach the team?"
"Big Rome [Draper] and Tom."
"They don't know our team. They're not our coach. If you go, we don't have a chance."
Keller stood up and moved closer to Demetrius. The coach said softly, "We play the Capital Players tomorrow. They're terrible."
"We can't win without you here."
"Yes, you can."
On this point Keller was contradicting himself. For years he had professed how superior he was to other coaches, how vital a role he played in the team's success. Demetrius believed him. Now he was supposed to understand that it was all a lie?
Keller retrieved his cellphone from the pocket of his shorts and flipped it open to check the time. If he wanted to catch the flight, he needed to leave soon. He said, "D?"
"If you leave, I won't play," Demetrius said.
Keller put his cellphone back in his pocket and walked toward the door. Down the hall Stengel waited in his room, ready with his credit card. Keller entered and said, "I'm not going. D needs me." Then he turned around and walked out.
Less than 24 hours later, at 7:56 p.m., Violet gave birth to Alissa Nicole Keller at Riverside Community Hospital. She didn't get to see the baby initially, because a nurse rushed Alissa to the neonatal intensive-care unit and placed her in an incubator. She weighed eight pounds, 14 ounces, but looked heavier. She was retaining fluid and would have to be monitored for a few days. It was not serious, but it scared Violet. For three days after the delivery, Violet's only glimpses of Alissa came from Polaroids that her sister brought her.
On the night his daughter was born, Keller was across the country, celebrating a 19-point blowout of the Capital Players. Keller did arrange for flowers to be delivered to Violet's hospital room. "I think they were lilies, stargazers," Violet would say later. "I don't remember."
Darren Matsubara entered the gym at Asbury Park (N.J.) Middle School in January 2005 wearing a black velour sweat suit and spotless white Adidas running shoes and carrying a black-leather man purse. He looked out of place among the working-class parents finding their seats in the wooden stands. His black hair was slicked back like Pat Riley's, and he wore an oversized gold watch.
Mats, as he was widely known, was one of Adidas's most powerful coaches. His AAU outfit, the Elite Basketball Organization (EBO), was based in Fresno, although he was moving it to a city he liked better, Las Vegas. NBA players Carlos Boozer, Robert Swift and DeShawn Stevenson were EBO alumni, and in 2005 Mats's prized prospects included Robin and Brook Lopez, 7-foot twins headed to Stanford.
Mats was one of the few prominent AAU coaches who excelled at the role of hustler; even when he lied, he came across as trustworthy. Once, after giving a long-winded and implausible response to a question about AAU coaches and agents, he said, "Come on, you thought I was going to tell you the truth?"
He had played college basketball at Cal State--Northridge and, at age 38, still regularly scrimmaged against his players. His teams were among the best-coached, and he was known for turning away kids he considered undisciplined. When recruiting a player, Mats often sprang a test on him: He pretended to get lost while driving. "I want to see which kids just sit there and do nothing and which kids jump in and try to figure out where we are and how we can get where we need to go," Mats said. "What they do under those circumstances tells me what kind of player they are going to be."
Mats's reason for traveling to New Jersey was twofold. He wanted to see Team Cal, as Keller had rebranded his team after landing an Adidas sponsorship, and Demetrius face Team Next from New York City, which featured 6'3" guard Lance Stephenson of Brooklyn. Stephenson was the best eighth-grader in the city, and he had recently been elevated to the spot just below Demetrius in The Hoop Scoop's rankings. In basketball, as in rap music, there was a running debate about which coast turned out the best talent. East Coast coaches swore their players were tougher and more prepared for college or the NBA because they played against older competition on playgrounds and in AAU events. West Coasters complained that their kids were slighted only because they didn't grow up playing in Rucker Park in Harlem or the West 4th Street Courts in Greenwich Village.
The drumbeat for Demetrius and Stephenson to duel—and prove which coast had the next superstar—had sounded loudly for more than a year. Keller had invited Team Next to a tournament in California the previous season, and Stephenson's coach had confirmed its participation with Keller the week of the event. But Team Next never arrived in Los Angeles. So Keller took the fight to Stephenson's turf, entering his team in the Martin Luther King Classic in Asbury Park.
Mats also traveled to New Jersey because of a concern that had been discussed at length during a recent meeting at Adidas's offices in Portland, Ore., that included Darren Kalish, the head of the company's grassroots division, and several of Adidas's AAU coaches. "Is Joe the guy to take these kids into high school? That is the question everyone was asking," Mats said. "It's a difficult transition for some kids. They go from dominating in middle school to struggling against older kids, stronger kids, kids just as talented as them. [Adidas] is worried about whether Joe can help the kids go through that. I told them I'm going to look after Joe, put a safety net under him."
The safety net included a radical suggestion that Mats presented to Keller just before the team left for New Jersey: Disband Team Cal after the summer and let Demetrius and a few of Keller's other top talents play for EBO. That would put some of Adidas's best young prospects with a coach more qualified to develop them as players and more experienced at keeping away poachers from other shoe companies. It would also free Keller to focus on his Jr. Phenom Camp, an all-star camp for the country's best sixth- to eighth-graders, which Adidas's coaches across the country now saw as a potential feeder system for their teams. Mats wasn't willing to go down and court grade school and middle school prospects, but he saw how it could help Adidas's teams if Keller continued to do so.
"Joe, I am going to create something else for you," Mats told Keller. "It's called Project Seed. There is the grassroots, but below grassroots is the Seed. That's where you are. You are going to be a man of the Seed. You be where it starts."
Keller would need to give up coaching, but as the ruler of the Jr. Phenom Camp he would wield substantial power in the industry. He would be the guru parents consulted and AAU and college coaches came to for information on the youngest kids. "Kids are going to ask, 'Joe, where should I go, this camp or this camp?' You'll be someone everyone courts. You can be the Sonny Vaccaro of grade school kids," Mats said, flattering Keller by comparing him to the renowned head of Reebok's grassroots division.
At Asbury Park, meanwhile, Team Cal won its first two games easily, setting up a showdown with New Jersey's Lloyd Daniels Rebels. Lloyd (Swee'Pea) Daniels, a New York playground legend, had retired from basketball and remade himself as an AAU coach. A former drug addict who once was shot three times in the chest and who sparked an NCAA investigation at UNLV (despite never playing a game there) because of his ties to a man twice convicted for sports bribery, Daniels was now guiding the basketball youth of the Garden State.
Daniels was 6'7", his New York accent heavy, his voice hoarse, and he was even more demonstrative on the sideline than Keller. When his team went into a full-court press, Daniels pulled his sweatpants up above his knees and got into a defensive stance like his players. He wore a bright red-and-blue sweat suit from the 2004 NBA All-Star Game, and he was such a massive man that his sliding up and down the sideline distracted from the game. He carried a white towel to soak up the sweat running down from his bald head and to wave when he got excited.
Daniels was well aware that he was onstage, and he used it to his advantage. If the referee made a dubious call against one of his players, Daniels didn't yell at him; he turned, raised his hands to the crowd and shouted, "Did you see that?" When his cheering section expressed the proper level of outrage, he turned back to the game and, after getting the referee's attention, pointed to the crowd, as if to say, See? Even they think you made a mistake. This was another difference between West Coast and East Coast basketball: Keller worked the refs; Daniels worked the crowd.
As a basketball tactician, Daniels was superior to Keller in every way. "Look at all the coaches I've had—Tark [Jerry Tarkanian], Larry Brown, John Calipari. Some of what they know had to rub off," he said. Daniels made that remark while at dinner with Keller the night before the game, after Keller predicted that Team Cal would win by 50 and Demetrius and center Aaron Moore would combine for at least 10 dunks. Daniels said his boys would lose by less than 20. He had scouted Team Cal the day before. He told Keller, "I know how to play you."
"It doesn't matter," Keller scoffed, and although they didn't wager any money, their reputations were on the line.
Daniels put four good three-point shooters on the floor to start the game. This prevented Keller from sitting back in a zone, and it also made the bigger lineup he favored a defensive liability. In the opening minutes the Rebels made open three-pointers because the Team Cal players were too slow to get out and contest the shots. By the time Keller recognized the problem, the Rebels led 16--12.
Team Cal didn't have trouble scoring—the Rebels had no player over 6'1"—but Daniels kept finding mismatches, and he slowed the game down. Team Cal led 35--26 at halftime, but given the talent Daniels had to work with, he had gotten the best of Keller. He bounded off toward the locker room waving his towel in the air.
Demetrius made three consecutive pull-up jumpers, all from around 16 feet, to open the second half. On each shot he was well guarded, but his ability to elevate and get a clear look at the basket made the difference. Team Cal's lead moved comfortably into double digits, but Daniels didn't stop coaching and kept switching defenses, preventing Keller from blowing the game open. Instead of the 50-point victory and 10 dunks Keller had predicted, Team Cal won 75--60, and the closest Demetrius or Aaron came to a dunk was in the final minute when a tired Demetrius tried one and missed.
"Joe, Joe, Joe, come on, you got to admit it. You got to admit it," Daniels said as he trailed Keller out the gym doors. Keller would admit nothing—not that he'd been outcoached, not even that Daniels knew the game. "Joe, Joe, Joe. Come on, man. Joe, Joe, Joe...."
Daniels joined Keller, Mats and others for dinner that night, and he again tried to get Keller to acknowledge that at the least Daniels coached his team well. Daniels's nervous energy made it seem as if he pounded seven espressos an hour. As he pushed Keller for a concession, he stood with a foot propped on a chair. "You got to admit, Joe, you got to admit it," Daniels said, "my team, they gave you a run."
"Those refs were terrible," Keller said. He looked up at Daniels. "You don't have a single kid I would want on my team."
Lloyd drew back, incredulous. "Come on, dawg."
The ring of Keller's phone interrupted the conversation.
"Saved by the phone, Joe," Daniels said, "saved by the phone."
Unbeknownst to Keller, meanwhile, Vaccaro had traveled to the East Coast a few days before Team Cal landed in New Jersey. The purpose of his trip was to discuss an issue many of the parents and players on Team Cal had begun to ponder: the wisdom of hyping an eighth-grader. The parents of Lance Stephenson were concerned about the rising interest in their son. More and more people compared him to Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair and other former New York phenoms. They didn't know how to manage the attention or the expectations.
Early in their conversation at Vaccaro's hotel room in Manhattan, the proposed matchup against Demetrius in Asbury Park was brought up. "Nothing good can come out of this," Vaccaro told Lance. "You are a great player. The spotlight is going to come. Playing this game is like manufacturing attention, and there is no point in that. At some point in time the world will see you. Don't rush it."
Stephenson wanted to play Demetrius and, one can imagine, would have liked to be ranked No. 1 by The Hoop Scoop. "But right now none of that matters," Vaccaro insisted. He then told a story: In July 2001, at his ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., the No. 1--ranked senior in the country was 6'6" Lenny Cooke, who was also from Brooklyn. He had been the camp's MVP as a junior in 2000 and was one of the most hyped athletes to emerge from the city's boroughs. His spot atop the 2002 NBA draft seemed preordained. Also at camp that summer was a rising junior named LeBron James, a kid from Akron few people knew about. When their two teams met, Cooke was expected to dominate, but James scored 23 points, held Cooke to nine and made a three-pointer at the buzzer to give his team the victory. That one game began James's rise to the top of basketball, and as Vaccaro saw it, it was the beginning of the end for Lenny Cooke. In a New York minute he was declared a bust. After he went undrafted in 2002, he faded into obscurity.
"People can judge you on one game," Vaccaro said. "You don't want that game to come when you are in eighth grade."
Team Next pulled out of the tournament not long afterward, but Keller did not get the news until Sunday, after Team Cal advanced to the finals. He learned that Team Cal's opponent would be the lightly regarded Reebok Raiders. Keller's analysis: "Lance is scared."
On one level, the news put Keller at ease; Lance backing out of the game was equal to a victory for Demetrius in his eyes. But Keller had promised the boys a challenge and had promised Mats and others they would see a show. Dominating the Reebok Raiders was not what he had in mind. He called the organizer of the Martin Luther King Classic and informed him that Team Cal would forfeit the final. There was no point in beating up on the hapless Raiders, he said. With help from Taron Pickett, a member of Adidas's grassroots division, he organized a game with a 15-and-under team, the Boston Saintz, for the following afternoon. The Saintz had won the AAU title the year before as 14-year-olds, and forwards Nasir Robinson and Gabriel Fumudoh were considered future college players. "This will probably be the best team we have played in our lives," Keller said.
He had no idea.
A few hours after Keller announced that he didn't consider the Reebok Raiders a suitable opponent, news of the slight reached the ears of Tyreke Evans. A 6'6" guard from Philadelphia, Evans was the top-rated high school freshman in the U.S. He was also a member of the Reebok Raiders' under-17 team, and he was upset that Team Cal had refused to play his program's younger team. "That's not how we do things on the East Coast," he said. When Evans found out that Team Cal would be playing the Boston Saintz, he contacted their coach and asked if he could join them for that one game. He wanted to teach Team Cal, Keller and Demetrius a lesson.
Demetrius was buoyed by Stephenson's decision to pull out of their duel. In the car on the way to the game against the Saintz in Allenwood, N.J., he said, "If I was Lance, I wouldn't want to play me either. I'm killing people right now."
Keller had been told Evans might make a cameo for the Saintz, but Evans wasn't in the gym as Team Cal went through warmups or when Keller tabbed Roberto Nelson, Aaron Moore, G.J. Vilarino, Terran Carter and Rome Draper Jr. to start the game. Demetrius would not start, Keller explained, because his back was bothering him. Demetrius had shown no signs of an injury before the game and said nothing about it on the car ride to the gym. Most likely, Keller withheld him from the starting lineup to maximize the drama. Most of the 150 or so fans had come to see Demetrius. When he entered the game—a grand arrival all his own—they would sit up in their seats.
Evans arrived at the gym two minutes after the start. As he strolled down the baseline carrying a box of Reeboks under his arm, all eyes turned to him. People stopped following the action on the floor to watch Evans lace his shoes, and they eyed Keller for a sign that he was ready to unleash Demetrius. The Saintz had jumped out to a 9--0 lead, but that was preamble. The show wouldn't begin until the team's respective stars took the stage.
When Mats saw Evans enter the gym, he said incredulously, "Who is advising this kid? What does he have to gain playing down against Demetrius? If he dominates, well, he was supposed to, because he is older. But if Demetrius outplays him, he looks bad." It was similar to the advice Vaccaro had given the Stephensons. "Whoever is handling that kid is leaving money on the court."
Demetrius entered the game at the 16:28 mark. (The teams played two 20-minute halves, high school rules.) Evans waited another two minutes more before approaching the scorer's table. Everyone in the crowd expected them to square off immediately, but the first time Evans got the ball, he found Team Cal in a 2--3 zone. The Saintz had already made four consecutive three-pointers, and Keller should have gotten out of the zone long ago, but he stayed in it, with Demetrius down low.
Evans didn't stretch or touch a basketball before checking in, yet he casually netted a three-pointer from the right side to up the Saintz' lead to 19--7. He looked to Keller as if to say, I'll do that all day if you don't switch defenses. Keller ignored the challenge. He kept Team Cal in the zone, and the Saintz continued to bomb away from outside. Nasir Robinson made five three-pointers in the first half, and Evans connected on his three attempts, yet Keller refused to switch to man-to-man. It made sense to start the game in a zone, to negate the Saintz' size advantage and experience, but as the Boston lead passed 30, Keller's refusal to get out of it came across as an attempt to shield Demetrius from Evans.
On offense, when Demetrius got the ball on the wing with Evans guarding him, he instantly sent the ball back to G.J. at the point. Demetrius played so passively that it threw off his teammates. The offense had revolved around him for so long that when he refused to engage Evans, it stalled.
Robinson's final trey of the first half put the score at 53--17 with 3:14 left, and Keller—having endured shouts from the crowd, repeated looks from Evans and pleas from his players on the bench—finally pulled Team Cal out of the zone. Evans immediately demanded the ball and, after more than 10 minutes of courting a matchup with California's best, got the ball on the right wing with Demetrius between him and the basket.
Evans dribbled in place as Demetrius crouched low, his left hand raised toward Evans's face. Demetrius overplayed Evans slightly, urging him to go to his right. Evans had to decide between going where Demetrius anticipated, trusting that his speed would get him by, or tricking Demetrius by faking in that direction and then cutting back to the left. Pulling up for a three-pointer could be perceived as a concession that he couldn't get past Demetrius.
Evans elected to test Demetrius's quickness, and he broke to the right, exploding forward in a blur. Demetrius got in front of him, forcing Evans to change directions. He cut left, but as he dribbled the ball across his body, Demetrius knocked it loose with his left hand. It fell between them, and Demetrius dived to the ground and wrapped his arms around it at the same time that Evans grabbed it. The referee whistled a jump ball, and the possession arrow favored Team Cal. "That's right!" Demetrius shouted as Terran helped him up.
G.J. was fouled shooting a three-pointer eight seconds later, and he made two of three free throws. It started a 10--0 Team Cal run that cut the deficit to 53--27. With 30 seconds left in the half, Demetrius shouted at his teammates, "This ain't over! Get ready! The second half is going to be a war!"
On the final possession before the intermission, Evans and Demetrius dueled once again. Evans got the ball atop the key with Demetrius on him. He dribbled casually, letting the clock tick down, while Demetrius stayed low in his stance and crept closer and closer, a sign of the confidence he'd gained from their first showdown. With 0:05 showing on the scoreboard clock, Evans leaned forward and crossed the ball from his right hand to his left and then back again. He showed Demetrius enough of the ball that Demetrius reached for it, at which point Evans spun to his right, around Demetrius, and then powered into the lane and rose up and over Aaron for a spectacular layup.
As Mats settled in a seat above Team Cal's bench for the second half, he said, "We're going to learn a lot about Demetrius this half." Mats didn't care how many points Demetrius scored: He wanted to see him compete against Evans, to court the type of one-on-one situations that ended the first half. "The game is over," Mats said. "The score doesn't matter. So this is when Demetrius needs to go out there and demand the ball and say, 'I'm going to show what I can do against one of the best players in the country.'"
The Saintz had the ball to start, and as Evans brought it into Team Cal's half, he didn't see Demetrius across from him. Instead, he spotted G.J. and Justin Hawkins atop the 2--3 zone. Across the gym, Lloyd Daniels shouted, "Why, Joe, why? Let them play, dawg!" Mats sighed. Making matters worse: On Team Cal's first offensive series Demetrius retreated to the low block, a friendly place in part because Evans passed him off to one of the Saintz' interior defenders.
"Look at that," Mats said. "Demetrius is struggling, so where does he go? Down to the block. See, when he was younger, that is where he would get all his points. He was taller than everybody else, could jump higher; he could score at will down there. But he's not taller than everybody anymore, and let's face it, he's not going to be 6'8" or 6'10". He's a guard, and Joe needs to start preparing him to play on the perimeter."
Mats shook his head as Demetrius had a shot blocked by a Saintz forward. "These boys need to start getting prepared for what they are going to face a year or two from now. Demetrius, Aaron, all of them—they need someone to put them in a position where they are learning what is best for their future."
Team Cal finally came out of the zone with 12 minutes left, but it was Justin, not Demetrius, who stepped up to Evans. On the Saintz' possession, Evans dribbled over to where Demetrius stood guarding another player. He had that player screen Justin in a way that would usually force a switch on defense. But when Justin called for the switch, Demetrius stayed with his man. Evans looked at Demetrius and shook his head. Realizing Demetrius wasn't going to engage him, Evans left the game and gathered his gear and walked up into the stands.
Even with Evans out of the game, Demetrius tried to score only down low, and he managed just a single basket in the second half as Team Cal lost 87--47. Evans scored 32 points to Demetrius's nine, and although there were only two instances, both in the first half, when they went head to head, those in attendance quickly reached a consensus, which would spread on message boards and in articles on recruiting websites: The East Coast kid had come to play, while the West Coast phenom shied away.
Demetrius Walker is a sophomore at the University of New Mexico, where he will sit out the 2010--11 season under NCAA transfer rules. He played last season at Arizona State.
Excerpted from PLAY THEIR HEARTS OUT: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine, by George Dohrmann. Copyright ¬© 2010 by George Dohrmann. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.
Would Keller's obsession with Demetrius, the Inland Stars and roundball riches trump even the BIRTH OF HIS CHILD?
Even when he lied, Mats came across as trustworthy. "Come on," he once said, "you thought I was going to TELL YOU THE TRUTH?"
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
DISCOMFORT ZONE Tall for an eighth-grader, Demetrius preferred banging in the post to playing on the perimeter.
CODEPENDENTS Demetrius came to believe that he could succeed only under Keller, who had guided him since he was nine.
ANDREW WEBER/US PRESSWIRE
WORK IN PROGRESS At 6'2", Demetrius was still a raw player adapting to the backcourt during his first year in college.