By now, most college hoops fans should be familiar with Sports Illustrated writer George Dohrmann's 2010 book "Play Their Hearts Out." (And if you're not, get on it. No excuses.) It's a deep dive into the underbelly of grassroots basketball that will, by the time you finish it, make you feel like someone kicked you square in the stomach.
A story in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal has a similar effect. WSJ writer Scott Cacciola profiles Jerron Love, a 15-year-old hoopster from the Bronx who is either the best point guard in the country in his class or a solid, if unspectacular, prospect. The story offers yet another window into the way the AAU sausage is made. (Clark Francis, the founder of a popular website that charges $499 for access to middle-school recruiting profiles, and Joe Keller, the seedy antagonist of Dohrmann's book, both make appearances.) But more than anything, it just makes you sort of sad.
Jerry Love was willing to go to such lengths for his son's basketball career that he started creating YouTube clips of his son at age 10, distributed DVDs titled "Just 10" at AAU tournaments, and started his own website devoted to ranking middle-school hoops talents. Guess who got the top ranking among eighth graders?
Initially he tried to avoid the appearance of favoritism by opting not to rank Jerron's age group, but he said he soon changed his mind. Clark Francis, the editor and publisher of The Hoop Scoop, a scouting service that offers annual subscriptions for $499, dropped Jerron in his national rankings, from 10th to 50th. This infuriated Love. In response, he posted his own set of rankings, with Jerron perched atop the list. Love also fired away at Francis on Middle School Elite, describing him as "notorious" and as someone who makes a "mockery of the game."
"His dad's out of his mind," Francis said. "I'm probably higher on Jerron than most people in New York. Honestly, I couldn't care less whether the parent is a jerk or not."
It's not for me to say whether Love is out of his mind. I'd argue that anyone who makes his living by ranking middle-school basketball prospects is out of his mind, but that's just me. (Maybe I'm crazy.) What seems certain is that Jerry Love has taken the process of developing your child's interest in sports -- a few camps here, some summer league hoops there -- to its furthest logical conclusion. For example:
Jerry Love said he had planned to enroll Jerron at Long Island Lutheran High School this fall, but when coach John Buck asked Jerry Love if he was prepared to give him the space to coach Jerron through inevitable "ups and downs," he had to think about the question. "And I just said, 'You know what? I don't think I can,'" Love said. Buck declined to comment.
Thanks to that, Jerry Love has moved Jerron from New York to Fresno, Calif. When Jerron arrived this summer, all three local affiliates broadcast stories claiming he was the top middle-school player in the nation. One affiliate even cited Middle School Elite as its source.
Though you may be loathe to do so, you have to give Jerry Love some credit: He upended the system to his family's own benefit. It's not as if there is some storied journalistic validity in seventh grade basketball rankings. (I mean, just look at the kids on this site. Are we serious?) So why not take matters into your hands?
Indeed, the Loves are merely products of their environment. AAU basketball has many fine people and many fine qualities, sure, but it is pervaded by the cult of the next big thing. The idea that little kids in baggy jerseys ought to be ranked at such a young age is, frankly, egregious. Young adolescents -- 12-, 13- and 14-years old -- don't know who they are, or what they want to be, or what basketball really means to them. More often than not, they don't know what it means to fail. They don't understand that hard work is part and parcel of basketball success. They win AAU games, they earn top rankings, and they're told the world is theirs to seize. If everything works out, then great. But if not? Just ask Demetrius Walker.
Far be it from me to tell Jerry Love how to raise his son. That's not my business. Love is only the most extreme example of the ugly nonsense that has engulfed America's youth basketball culture. That culture should be about development and education. Instead, it's about arbitrary rankings and YouTube hits. We should be so much better than this.