Pipeline to the Pros

One of the straightest paths to the NBA begins on the summer hoops circuit. All the kids have to do in return is wear the right shoes.

Each summer, there is one top pick in the National Basketball Association draft. That is the dream. Each winter, there are more than 350,000 boys playing high school basketball. They are the dreamers.

It's a remote dream. It's better to fantasize about being a surgeon or a CEO -- at least the odds are better. But there's no glory in those professions, no commercials, no free sneakers. So how to make the dream a reality? How does a talented high school kid capitalize on his microscopic chance of competing with the world's best basketball players?

Like any high-stakes business, the pro basketball system is rigged. A well-engineered pipeline funnels players from high school to college to the NBA. This system is manned by all manner of gatekeepers and toll-takers. Lately, the flow of players has been diverted, with a sluice sending the best high school players past college and straight into the pros, first in a trickle and now in a steady stream. But there is one section of the pipeline, a hidden but crucial valve, that remains untouched: the summer hoops circuit.

Even without a shoe sponsorship, Jim Hicks's HAAY team can run with the best of them. From left, Elijah Miller, Daniel Smith, Tack Minor and Hicks.
Deron Neblett
Even without a shoe sponsorship, Jim Hicks's HAAY team can run with the best of them. From left, Elijah Miller, Daniel Smith, Tack Minor and Hicks.

These days, being a good high school player, even an outstanding one, won't get a kid to the top. He may average 30 points a game, haul in bucketloads of rebounds, dish out dozens of assists, but who's his competition -- a bunch of future surgeons and CEOs. Can this kid do it against other players just as talented? Can the big fish leave the minnows behind and swim with the sharks?

Thus summer basketball, a.k.a. "the circuit." The circuit is synonymous with tournaments organized by the Amateur Athletic Union, or AAU. It's for serious ballplayers, the ones who want a career, or at least a college scholarship, not a good time. At its highest level, the circuit serves as an enormous showcase for college and professional scouts -- one-stop shopping, if you will. The circuit also provides a free college education to thousands of kids who will never make the NBA. These kids are usually coached by generous, caring men who sacrifice huge amounts of their time and money. At its lowest level, however, the circuit is where kids get their first taste of the exploitation and manipulation at the heart of big-time basketball. Pipelines and pipe dreams. The road to riches starts here.

"College scholarships! Free money! Free money dot com!"

On a weekday night at the Texas Southern University basketball arena, the Houston Athletic Amateur Youth (HAAY) team is practicing in front of a few thousand empty seats and about a half-dozen parents, one of whom has just been asked why her son plays summer ball.

"It's exciting," the mom continues, apparently unaware of the NASDAQ's woes. She doesn't want her name used because she called in sick last weekend to travel with HAAY to a tournament in Las Vegas. "You never know what college will call next; you never know what letter will come next. It's fearful and exciting. My son is just a kid, and so many people are after him."

Her son isn't even among the most eye-catching players on the team. That distinction belongs to the four lanky giants who swoop pterodactyl-like around each basket. The kids are so baby-faced that from far away it seems the baskets must be lowered. Only when one moves closer to the court does it become apparent that these boys are pushing seven feet tall.

The tallest is Elijah Miller, six feet, 11 inches, who dunks as easily as he walks. Elijah has just completed his sophomore year in high school, so he practices with the 16-and-under team. The other big sophomore is Skyler Ford, who is a painfully skinny six feet, ten inches. He's 15 years old, and this is only his second year playing basketball. He could end up great, or he could end up nothing -- it all depends on how hard he works. Sam Byrd is six feet, nine inches, with a nice low-post game, but the best of the big men is Stephen Briggs, who at six foot nine and 220 pounds makes Elijah and Skyler seem downright breakable. Seventeen-year-old Stephen has just finished his junior year at Westside High School, after transferring from Elsik. He plays in the top AAU category, 17-and-under.

Stephen is ranked the No. 1 center in his age group in Houston. Although it seems there are more rankings -- and more categories to be ranked in -- than there are players, those involved in summer ball invest these numbers with the importance of stock prices. Everyone knows exactly who is ranked where and by whom. The numbers are repeated to the point where they become as important in identifying players as their last names.

The digit mentioned most often around HAAY is No. 3. It is attached to Taurean "Tack" Minor, who is the third-ranked sophomore in the nation at his position, which is shooting guard. Tack is a solid little dude, about five feet, ten inches, with the physique of a running back. And run he does. When Tack decides to go somewhere with the ball, it takes him maybe two steps to reach top speed. Given that his top speed is two steps faster than everyone else's, Tack makes a lot of layups.

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