Pipeline to the Pros

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.

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.

HAAY has plenty of other talented kids, too. Daniel Smith, Marcus Ebow, Rashard Adams, Ken Henderson, Kardon Bradley, Michael Brown, Lonnie Wyche, Parker Pinkalla -- all among the best players at their respective high schools. All with numbers next to their names. HAAY won a bunch of games at the Las Vegas tournament, enough to proclaim itself the tenth-ranked team in the nation. Although HAAY has not yet reached that elite level, where sneaker companies will donate gear and corporate sponsors will pay for trips, they managed to scrape together enough money to reach Vegas. A bunch of parents came along, as usual. Parents help raise money for the trips with bake sales, car washes, whatever does the trick.

That's what it's all about, really: the trips. There are more than a dozen AAU programs in Houston. But there are more than 10,000 AAU basketball teams in the country. If you can't test yourself against the best, you might as well not even play.

HAAY can run with the best. "When we came back from Vegas, my son Mike said, 'Those kids play the same as we do here,' " Pearline Brown says while watching practice. "They played the games at the UNLV [University of Nevada-Las Vegas] arena. That was an experience for him. Mike goes to St. Thomas High School, which is not a big basketball school. It's a private school. He's not even playing the best kids in the city. On this team, he plays the best kids from all across the country. Private schools don't get any credit. If you don't bring a kid to the inner city, you won't get any credit."

"My son goes to Kingwood," chimes in Bill Walvoord about his boy Morgan. "They don't pull any scouts out in Kingwood. Maybe for baseball, but not basketball. HAAY's coaches know college scouts. The scouts depend on the coaches to clue them in. Scouts need people to see. The only bad part is, this is a team full of stars."

Keeping HAAY's stars in alignment falls to Wayne Johnson and his cousin Jim Hicks. Wayne and another cousin, Ronald Lewis, started the team 11 years ago. Like many people who start AAU squads, they had sons and nephews, and they wanted their boys to play ball during the summer.

"Jimmy, Wayne and me, our moms are all sisters," says Lewis. "Me and Wayne…had my son, Jayce. T.J. Ford and Carlos Hurt also were on that team. After a while we wanted to see what it would be like to travel with the kids. We took Jimmy's mama's van and put together $1,000 between us. Drove down to Florida for the Youth Boys of America championship. This was '92, '93. We got beat by 50 every game. We had no idea what real ball was like. We saw the talent wasn't there, and we had to look for better kids."

They actually had two great players right under their noses. T.J. Ford is one of the best high school point guards to ever come out of Texas. He steered Willowridge High School to 62 consecutive victories and two straight state 5A championships. He was ranked the No. 1 high school point guard in the country and in the top ten overall when he committed to attend the University of Texas this fall. During last year's McDonald's All-America game, the high school equivalent of the NBA All-Star game, T.J. executed a break-dance-dribbling assist so spectacular it made ESPN's Plays of the Week. "I know he's already helped this program without ever officially stepping on this campus," says Texas basketball coach Rick Barnes.

Carlos Hurt, another point guard, averaged 17 points, nine assists and four steals per game as a junior at Elsik High School before moving to Louisville with his family for his senior year. After being courted by many of the nation's top programs, including last year's national champion runner-up Arizona, Carlos chose to attend Louisville. He was ranked as high as the No. 3 player in the nation overall.

Carlos and T.J. had left HAAY by the time they made national headlines. Nothing personal -- they were just following the pipeline, which directs the best players to teams sponsored by the sneaker companies' "grass roots" programs. In Houston, those teams include the Houston Hoops, who wear Nike, and the Superstars, who wear Adidas. HAAY's players buy their own shoes. T.J. went to the Superstars. Carlos ended up with the Hoops.

HAAY coaches are not exactly surprised, or even mad, about the defections. Free sneakers, pro-style uniforms, sweats and gym bags can be a powerful lure for a poor teenager, or even a middle-class one. Sometimes the kids don't get along with the coaches. Or they think they'll get more someplace else -- more playing time, more scouts, more trips, more girls. Some of them even get money from coaches. So HAAY ain't mad at T.J. or Carlos. But the same can't be said for everyone else.

"Big fish hurt little fish," says Hicks, who coaches HAAY's 16-and-under team. Practice at TSU is over, and Tack and Elijah are waiting for Hicks to drive them home. "Nike and Adidas wait for us to get these kids out of the inner city, and then they steal 'em from you. These are the kids who need rides everywhere. They don't have no parent support. Nike and Adidas don't want that. I seek that out.

"Most of our kids come from underprivileged urban backgrounds, so to speak. These companies say they serve the grass roots. Roots means the part you don't see. That means the bottom. Most teams sponsored by the sneaker companies, they don't go to the urban areas and wards and get kids. I know I'm making a difference. If I don't do it, who is? Who's gonna be at boys clubs, at parks. We practice at a university. That says something to these kids that no one else is telling them. This is the joy in what I do. One of these kids [getting a scholarship] to a Division I school is the greatest joy. Having saved a parent ten, twenty thousand dollars a year is a blessing in itself."

What really bugs Hicks is that his teams are competitive with the Hoops and the Superstars. They've beaten the sneaker teams, and they've beaten teams that have beaten them. HAAY plays them every summer in local events and, more important, in the AAU Gulf Region tournament, which determines who goes to the AAU national championships. The nationals are held during the college "open period," a tightly prescribed time when university coaches are allowed to have contact with high school players. Hundreds of the top college coaches attend the national tournament. So do a lot of NBA scouts.

"If I can compete with you and/or beat you without big backing and 1,000 tennis shoes in my garage," Hicks says, "what could I do with that? I go to Vegas! I go on just as many trips. We have dedicated parents who give three and four and five hundred dollars. We have a few attorneys who give a thousand here and there. We go on the same trips, just as many as them, even though we got to scuffle to get there. And we gon' win."

Maybe the memory of T.J. and Carlos still hurts, just a bit. "Once you lose T.J. and Carlos," Lewis says, "anyone else you lose is just…" His words trail off. "But the program didn't fall apart when T.J. and Carlos left. It grew even more. There's a lot of talent in Houston. It's the fourth-largest city in the nation. It's just been overlooked in favor of football and baseball."

HAAY has it easy compared to Bryan Spearman's Houston Raptors. The team's lone sponsor is a restaurant owner, who bought nice uniforms. No sneakers, though, and definitely no trips. Their best player is Andrew Francis, a six-foot, seven-inch point guard. The rest of the Raptors would be hard-pressed to make a good high school varsity team, let alone star on one.

About a month after the TSU practice, HAAY's 16-and-unders are playing the Raptors in a local tournament sponsored by the Houston Hardballers AAU club. HAAY comes out shabby, which keeps the game close at first. Elijah is mysteriously absent from the lineup, so Skyler is holding down the middle. He picks up three quick fouls in the first seven minutes, plus a technical for cussing at the ref over the last call. "Open your mouth one more time," the ref warns, "and you're out of the gym."

At halftime, everyone in the HAAY huddle is angry, even though they're winning 34-29. "All we're doing is swapping baskets," Hicks says. "We're not playing no defense!" Tack throws a water bottle. Skyler scowls to himself at the end of the bench. HAAY's talent takes over in the second half, with Tack penetrating into the lane at will and Parker Pinkalla hitting a few long-range threes. The Raptors hit two late treys in garbage time to make the final score, 67-62, appear closer than it actually was. After the buzzer, the kids shake hands and then crowd around the scorers' table to check their stats.

"So whaddaya think about my point guard?" Spearman exclaims. Andrew, who will be a junior at Elsik this fall, has grown six inches in the last six months. A point guard all his life, he was moved by his high school coach to power forward after the growth spurt, but he was too skinny to do much work. Looking for a coach who would let him run the point, Andrew found his way to Spearman. "He's the total package. He's played all five spots for me," Spearman says. "I get a lot of people asking about him. He says he wants to go to Duke. He's got a few Division I letters so far. In high school he plays the four. I want to help him get a scholarship, so he's a point guard with me."

After the game, Hicks reveals that he was playing short-handed. Elijah's coach at Heritage Christian High School has convinced the young giant to jump to the Houston Select team.

"My cousin brought Elijah to Houston. I gave him to that coach," Hicks says, more resigned than angry. "The coach said, 'You have my word, no matter what, he's gonna play with you. Then he went to Houston Select. I ain't talked to Elijah since."

Houston Select wears Adidas. They "may got prettier tennis shoes, but they ain't even qualified for nationals," Hicks says. "There ain't no doubt something else is going on. They have that Adidas connection. If I had a sponsorship, I know, I know it would be no problem to get the very top talent in this area. Just imagine if we had tennis shoes…"

A month later Spearman is singing the same tune. Andrew has bolted for a sneaker team. "I ain't mad at him," Spearman says. "But I got this six-foot-eight swingman…"

Basketball sneakers are the foundation of a billion-dollar business, even though most people don't play basketball in them. It all started back when Chuck Taylor crisscrossed the country hawking the canvas Converses worn by pro basketball players. Then the New York Knicks' Walt Frazier made low-cut suede Pumas so cool everyone started calling them by Frazier's nickname, Clyde. Then came Air Jordan.

When it comes to basketball shoes, there are two dominant companies: Nike and Adidas. (Reebok has only one serious shoe, the Allen Iverson model, and the upstart And 1 is still too young to go head-to-head with the giants.) Three-fourths of the NBA wears Nike, including Vince Carter and Kevin Garnett. Adidas has Kobe Bryant, the best player in the NBA, and Tracy McGrady, the only guy who can go head-to-head with Bryant. It is not insignificant that Bryant, Garnett and McGrady all went pro straight out of high school.

"High school-age kids are the biggest influence of kids in the marketplace," says Eric Oberman, Nike's public relations manager for basketball. "Of course, we want them to like our product, to play well in our product, to become loyal to our product."

Nike and Adidas also run the top two basketball camps in the nation. These invitation-only affairs, conducted before hundreds of college and NBA scouts, can turn an unknown into an NBA lottery pick overnight. Bryant and McGrady both attended the Adidas camp. Garnett went to Nike's.

The exact process or criteria for getting a player into these camps is kept secret, as are the details of the individual arrangements with AAU teams. Basically it comes down to relationships: who you play for, who you know, who your coach knows. If you play on a Nike-sponsored team, you definitely have an edge in getting into the Nike camp.

"We never disclose each individual agreement," Oberman says. "We have 40-odd boys travel teams that we provide product to play in. We don't get specific. It's usually footwear and travel bags. In return, we ask our teams to play in certain events. Like the Peach Jam in Georgia. We ask -- or more or less tell -- our travel teams that 'This is where we want you to be at.' "

Not that Nike has to twist anybody's arm -- hundreds, if not thousands, of AAU teams are lined up to get in good with the company. "We've sent stuff in to try to be part of the grassroots programs, but they're cutting back. They used to be plentiful," says Al Jones, who runs the Westside All-Star AAU team. "We haven't really asked for a whole lot for the simple reason that if you start to take things from certain people, you get locked in. We go where we want to go, play who we want to play. We're not Adidas or Nike or And 1 or Converse. We buy what's on sale."

Jones started the Westside All-Stars five years ago, with a group of kids that included his son, Al Jr. He now has teams in the 15-, 13- and 11-and-under divisions, although you would swear they were older by the number of dunks they hammer down in practice. Jones stresses Christian principles and schoolwork over basketball, and his formula seems to be working. Westside qualified for the national AAU tournament by winning the regionals, and is ranked among the top ten teams in the nation. They have some studs, like Michael Morris, son of the former NBA player Chris Morris; Dion Dowell, a six-foot, six-inch leaper; and Nick Wise, the top-rated seventh-grader in the nation.

Jones, an engineer, says he devotes 60 hours per week in the summer to his team, and spends about $10,000 each year out of his own pocket to send his kids on trips. "I hear it all the time: 'You mean you don't get paid?' " he says. "Naw, I do it 'cause I love it. It's just love of the game. We try to get sponsorships. Parents do a lot of hard work: garage sales, car washes, bake sales. It would be nice to have corporate sponsorship, but we haven't been blessed to have that yet. Each year we squeak by. Kids bunk up with each other, ride with other parents. We go on a national trip, just the hotel is a grand. I do it with two teams. The money part isn't discouraging, but it makes it hard to compete.

"I tell the kids, 'You're a hot commodity right now. Try to stay away from the negatives.' The Nike team sees them, asks them to come out to one of their practices. I'm sure it's a business. It's difficult to stay away from that."

"This is a strong team," says Jack Dowell, Dion's father. What are his goals for his son? "Academics, grades and school. You can play this and be the best that you can, but there has to be a foundation. At any given moment, you can have an injury, and it'll be over. My son cuts grass, does the dishes, irons clothes. I work 3 a.m. to 12 p.m., sleep two or three hours, then drive him here." The Dowells live in Texas City. The drive to Katy takes almost two hours, one way. Dowell works for a grocery store, his wife for the post office.

"I want to work hard, keep my grades up, stay focused," says Dion, who first dunked in the eighth grade. What's his goal? "The NBA." Favorite player? "Kevin Garnett. And Tracy McGrady."

Josh Pastner's goal also was to get to the NBA. "Josh was slow, short, couldn't jump," says his father, Hal Pastner, who runs the Houston Hoops program. "When he said he was going to be in the NBA, who am I to tell him he can't do it? I told him, 'Then on Friday night you'd better be in the gym, not out at some party.' " Pastner started a team to help along his son's dream. It didn't hurt that the team also allowed Pastner to continue his own love affair with basketball. Growing up in Philadelphia, Pastner had been a ballboy for the 76ers for eight years, back when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game. It was hard to say who got more out of the team -- father or son.

It didn't take Josh long to realize the NBA was a pipe dream. So he chose the next best thing. "I remember the exact day it happened," says Josh, now 23. "I was in the fourth grade, watching the Celtics against the Lakers on TV. I turned to my father and said, 'Dad, I wanna be a coach.' "

Josh still loved to play, though, and he knew that the vast majority of coaches were ex-players. So he worked his butt off. "He barely made the team in ninth grade," his father remembers. "But he outworked everybody. He was all-district and team MVP [at Kingwood] his senior year."

As Josh grew up, so did the Houston Hoops. Like most AAU clubs, Pastner set up the Hoops as a nonprofit foundation to solicit tax-deductible donations. But the donations were few and far between, and the expenses of running his program were draining him. So Pastner established recreational leagues in Kingwood that now draw hundreds of kids each year. He set up local AAU tournaments that also made money.

Josh was the lifeblood of the program. He played, and he coached the younger teams as a teenager. He immersed himself in basketball, networking like crazy, wedging himself between any college coaches he could find at all the top tournaments and camps. He compiled detailed scouting reports on the nation's top players and sent them to every Division I college coach. He sent a letter introducing himself to nearly every college basketball coach in the country -- more than 1,000 of them. At five feet, 11 inches and 160 pounds, Josh made himself into a different kind of prospect. The University of Arizona offered him a scholarship while warning that he might never play a single minute. Josh, of course, saw only opportunity. He played from 1996 to 2000, won a national championship ring in 1997 and was named co-captain his senior year -- even though he was the last man off the bench. Now he's an assistant coach for Arizona and, of course, is still coaching the Hoops.

Networking is everything on the circuit, so it's no surprise that the Hoops came to the attention of Nike, and to the best players in the Houston area. Today, 16 years after the team was started, it has won several national titles and has at least nine alumni playing professional sports. Rashard Lewis went to the NBA straight out of Elsik. Steve Jackson, Desmond Mason and Jake Voskuil were drafted out of college, while Dave Boston and Robert Ferguson are playing in the NFL. The Hoops also have some 90 players in Division I college ball, and three of their girls have been first-round picks in the WNBA. Josh's little sister, Courtney, was Player of the Year in Texas and is now enrolled at the University of Houston. And the current Hoops team is stacked with two of the best juniors in the nation: six-foot, ten-inch Kendrick Perkins from Beaumont Ozen High School, and six-foot, nine-inch Ndubi Ebi of Westbury Christian. There are a lot of whispers about Perkins being the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft.

While all that success makes Hoops an easy target for criticism, they fall back on their spotless reputation and refuse to say anything negative about any of their rivals. They also adamantly deny poaching players. "Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, the kid comes to us," Josh says. "We've helped out many kids who never even played for us." For the record, it was Hal Pastner who advised Wayne Johnson and Ronald Lewis on how to set up their HAAY team. "We have a successful program, and people want to play for us. You can't hold a kid back from an opportunity."

In the cutthroat atmosphere of the circuit, Pastner and his son come across as people who genuinely care. "I'm in it for the kids," Pastner says, and you believe him. "Every decision I make, at all times, is based on what's best for the kids. This team has given me a chance to be with my kids, but the funny thing is I ended up loving all the kids!"

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every Hal Pastner, there is an Elaine Jones, the AAU coach whose machinations on behalf of her players ruined a whole season for the Willowridge High School basketball team.

As long as there have been young, needy basketball players, there have been people seeking to profit from them. People seeking money, power, influence or just proximity to star athletes. Since summer basketball is practically unregulated -- the national AAU makes it a point to say that it organizes tournaments, not teams -- these predators are found, in disproportionate numbers, on the circuit.

Much of the shady dealings come in the form of one hand washing the other. An AAU coach enrolls players in a high school, and then the high school's players end up on that AAU team. Or an AAU coach convinces his player to attend a certain college, and boosters from that college make donations to the AAU coach's foundation.

At the start of the 1998-99 school year, Jones enrolled Ivan McFarlin and David Anderson in Willowridge. She claimed that she was McFarlin's legal guardian, and said the two tall young men would be living at her home in Missouri City. McFarlin and Anderson had played the previous summer on Jones's Nike-sponsored AAU team, the Houston Jaguars.

It turned out that Jones was not the legal guardian for either player, and therefore could not enroll them in any high school, let alone Willowridge. It also appeared that neither Jones nor the two boys really lived in Missouri City. It didn't help that shortly after Jones delivered the boys to Willowridge, the school basketball team received a large shipment from Nike of free shoes and athletic apparel. When all was said and done -- after Willowridge's basketball season was over -- McFarlin was declared ineligible (Anderson left the school before playing any varsity games), and Willowridge had to forfeit 28 victories. Nike also cut all ties to Jones's AAU team.

Jones has since disappeared from local basketball circles. Not so for another local coach, John Eurey, with a less than spotless record. Eurey runs the Texas Superstars Foundation, which is sponsored by Adidas. Next to the Hoops, the Superstars are Houston's highest-profile program. Rashard Lewis played some games for the Superstars, as have many other blue-chip players, and "Big John" Eurey is an imposing figure on the national circuit. "If you say 'John Eurey' in Chicago," says Ronald Lewis, HAAY co-founder, "they know he represents Adidas in Houston."

A lot of people in Houston have stories to tell about Eurey, who did not return calls for this story. They claim he's had fights at tournaments -- with opponents, parents, and even his own players. They claim he's sold sneakers to players on his own team. There even are whispers that he pays his players. Not one of these allegations has been substantiated, although a typical statement from one coach, when asked why there are so many stories, is "Because they happened."

In 1993 several Division I coaches said that Eurey asked for donations to his foundation in return for access to a player. "He called and said, 'Hey, what do you think of [a prospect],' " one coach told the Houston Chronicle. "I said, 'I think he's a great player. We're going to recruit him and try to get him.' [Eurey] said, 'It's going to cost you money to get him.' " Eurey denied ever asking for payment in exchange for his help in recruiting a player.

Even if true, these allegations don't make Eurey unique. He's just another toll-taker on the pipeline. "Everyone talks bad about Eurey, but he's a good guy," Lewis says. "He's ruthless about winning. It's about winning. Colleges are ruthless about winning. They just pretend they're wholesome, but it's a ruthless business.

"For kids who don't have the luxury of having two parents, they can be sold. This is a meat factory, man. My kid, he's a point guard. They're a dime a dozen. Shoot 'em and get a whole nother crop tomorrow. Big kids, you don't find them every day. And a big kid who can dribble is a rare gift."

Ndubi Ebi is a big kid who can dribble. It's the semifinals of the Gulf Region AAU tournament, and the gangly Houston Hoops star is dribbling through the entire HAAY lineup on his way to a two-handed slam. Less than eight minutes remain in the game, and Ndubi has just sliced HAAY's lead to 55-53. The winner is guaranteed a spot in the national 17-and-under tournament in Orlando.

The Hoops' uniforms are crisp. The shorts match the jerseys, which have sewn-on letters and numbers and embroidered Nike swooshes. They all wear the same red-on-white Nike sneakers. HAAY's generic jerseys have iron-on letters, and their shorts are by Converse. Each kid is wearing a different pair of shoes.

Even though this is the 17-and-under division, the best of the younger players are in the game. Tack Minor has been getting plenty of court time. He had a great first half, driving coast to coast for layups and draining threes while propelling HAAY to a 33-29 halftime lead. But the Hoops are coming back behind Ndubi and the ridiculously ferocious dunks of guard Cedric Hensley.

At center, the Hoops' Kendrick Perkins is matched up against HAAY's Stephen Briggs. Kendrick is bigger, wider and has more finesse. He hits a fadeaway to tie the game at 55. With about four minutes left, HAAY pulls ahead 59-57, but the squad has seven team fouls to the Hoops' one. Ndubi is fouled and hits both ends of the one-and-one to tie the game. HAAY's Daniel Smith then drives from the wing but steps on the baseline, and the Hoops come back with a score, finally taking the lead.

When the Hoops go up 63-59, HAAY starts to crumble. Tack, who's been invisible this half, pulls up for a jumper that rims out. On the other end of the court, Cedric hammers home an alley-oop for his umpteenth dunk of the game. Daniel throws up an air ball from three-point range. Ndubi throws down a breakaway dunk with two hands, and the score is 67-62 with 1:20 on the clock. There's plenty of time left, but HAAY is broken. The final score is 73-63. After the buzzer, Tack tries to dunk in frustration. The ball gets caught on the front of the rim, sending Tack sprawling on his back.

Afterward, Hoops coach Darrell Sheppard has only compliments for his opponents. "They're on pace to succeed," he says. "They deal with more inner-city kids than any program in Houston. In a couple years they'll be a very strong program."

HAAY's 17-and-under team failed to qualify for the national tournament, losing the third-place game to Houston Select. Stephen Briggs went to the nationals anyway, with Houston Select. The Hoops' 16-and-under team was upset at nationals, losing back-to-back games to teams from Massachusetts and Memphis.

Tack Minor was invited to the Nike camp, where he led his team to the championship game with 27 points in the semifinals. The Houston Hoops' Kendrick Perkins chose to attend the Adidas camp; Ndubi Ebi went to Nike's. All three kids are considered favorites for the 2003 McDonald's All-America game.

Al Jones's Westside All-Stars finished No. 4 out of 124 teams at the AAU 13-and-under national tournament. His 11-and-under team finished No. 2.

Jim Hicks's home was ruined by flooding, but he stayed on the road with his HAAY kids, and was named to coach a team of Texas all-stars in the East West Be the Best Classic in Las Vegas. Hicks guided this team to the championship game.

By the end of the summer, Elijah Miller had come back home, to the grass roots -- he was playing with HAAY again.

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