Words. Eric Bressman
Back in December of 2009, I was home in Chicago for vacation. My younger brother, a junior in high school at the time, was playing in a small holiday basketball tournament with his high school team, the Ida Crown Jewish Academy. I didn’t get to see him play very often, so I was happy to head down into the city with him on a weekday morning to watch his team square off against that day’s opponent, Perspectives Charter School. Headlining the opposition was a little-touted, gangly, but nonetheless intimidating 6-foot-several-inches junior by the name of Anthony Davis.
The story floating around the mostly empty gym that day – populated with a smattering of parents off from work and the two other teams in the tournament – was that he had only recently morphed into his present form.
It certainly showed that day, although his team’s failings were despite his better efforts. His statline was gaudy to be sure. I don’t remember exactly, but he had somewhere in the range of 30-40 points, every rebound within arm’s reach, and at one point he blocked my brother’s three-point attempt with his elbow. He might as well have bicycle kicked it. But he was still raw, unsure of how to make use of his oversized frame. He was kept out of the lane surprisingly well given that he had at least half a foot on the next tallest guy. And, mind you, the brand of basketball played in those small, parochial school conferences bears some comparison to the WNBA: highly structured, minimal facial hair and played well below the rim.
Imagine a national championship game in which Tyshawn Taylor had been assigned to Davis, then reduce Taylor’s leaping ability by about 50 percent and his workout regimen by a solid 75 precent. Suffice it to say that the Anthony Davis NBA scouts find themselves drooling over today has come a long way in a couple short years.
Most surprising of all, however, was that the Ida Crown Jewish Academy actually won. That’s right, no typo there. It took a buzzer-beater to get into overtime and another one to win it, but the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft lost to a group of guys that very likely spent some portion of their practice time proving who could grab net or slap the backboard with the right running start. Brand it as a modern day David vs. Goliath, or a triumph of team vs. talent if you will, but, as has been noted by many a basketball commentator, Davis’ high school team was awful. Will my brother and his friends nonetheless boast about that victory for years? Most certainly, as would you and I.
But the beauty of that moment, that memory, was in its rare innocence. There was a future star on the eve of fame, and yet, as far as I could tell, no scouts, boosters or agents in the crowd. Just 20 or 30 kids playing the game they loved. What a rarity in today’s big-brother-like world, where talent-seeking missiles scour every blacktop and pee-wee squad looking for anything of marketable value.
And forget the next MJ or Kobe, they’ll settle for the next Ronny Turiaf or Smush Parker, too. Colleges make contact with kids in sixth grade, handing out scholarship offers before they’ve set foot in high school. Once they’re in the system, everything’s different: they have people, and those people have people. An entourage, equal parts protection and parasitism, begins to take shape. Their YMCA or AAU team travels to play the other next big thing, with the occasional appearance on ESPN2. Plenty has been said, and understandably so, about the effect this has on these kids, but what about the spectators of the basketball world? The rest of us?
As anxiety-riddled as watching a playoff game of our favorite team can be, it pales in comparison to watching even the sloppiest performances by the people we know and care about. Our emotional investment in our daughter’s or brother’s pee wee game can absolutely wreck us.
It’s true to a lesser extent in college basketball, as well. For all the debate comparing the college to the pro game, it isn’t the college style of play that draws most of us in. It’s the passion and the sense of connectedness the fans feel toward their team. That added energy that pulsates through the arena and grabs at our heart strings with each shining moment and narrow defeat flows from a heightened sense of intimacy. For the students, those players may have sat in the same class as them. For alumni, they walked the same halls. They aren’t untouchables, and, in that way, they occupy the same world and the game feels a little more real.
Anyone who has ever picked up a basketball has dreamed of greatness, of a buzzer-beating jumper, a moment frozen in time on the sport’s grandest stages. Very few of us attain it, some of us fall short, and most of us give up before we even start. But when we cross paths with those who are destined for something more – in a meaningful way, before they are a brand being marketed to or protected from us – we can’t help but chart their progress and take pride in their success. Certainly it provides a talking point for fellow basketball fans, but it also humanizes the game. It’s no longer an otherworldly, aerial athletic display, but the end of a more complete basketball spectrum, somewhere along which lies our rec league win streak and our memories of middle school greatness.
And so, when Anthony Davis hears David Stern call his name this June, he’ll have at least a few fans quietly cheering him on wherever he goes. Not just because they respect his game, but because, in some small way, they are a part of it.
How good will Davis be in the NBA next year?
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