It’s a late-summer afternoon, and Dylan Admire is in another hotel lobby. Just a few weeks ago, he played Vegas, showing off his basketball moves at a Nike-sponsored camp. Before that, he packed his bags for Houston. Now he’s on the road again, here in San Diego, for an invitation-only “Jr. Phenom” camp hosted by Adidas.
Dylan is 12 years old.
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The 6-foot-2 7th grader may not be able to drive a car, but he logs plenty of miles traveling the nation with a club-basketball team from Kansas called Kansas City Blue. A national scouting service has already ranked the Pleasant Ridge Middle School student as the 23rd best player for his high school class of 2011.
“I’m here to get exposure to the scouts and the people who know basketball,” said Dylan, who has a shaggy head of dirty-blond hair and smiles through braces. “If you get seen earlier, that helps you get your name out there.”
While the sports apparel companies Adidas, Nike, and Reebok have run high-profile tournaments and selective camps for the nation’s best high school players for several years, the heady world of elite-level youth basketball is now starting even earlier. Critics argue that the trend offers false hope to young players who have yet to mature emotionally or physically, while supporters say it’s all part of the competitive nature of athletics today.
Joe Keller, who coaches one of the premier basketball clubs in California, started the “Jr. Phenom Camp” last year, after he convinced executives of the Portland, Ore.-based Adidas that an even younger market was ripe for tapping.
“No one knew it would be like this,” said Mr. Keller, who played baseball at Arizona State University and now runs camps for Adidas around the country. “The exposure for young players has just gotten younger and younger.”
A national publication called The Hoop Scoop—the bible of youth-basketball insiders—now ranks players starting in the 4th grade. One of Mr. Keller’s players, 14-year-old Demetrius Walker, was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in January. He received his first note from the head basketball coach at Duke University when he was in 6th grade.
Adidas is getting its share of attention this week as well.
Like the other 300 6th, 7th, and 8th graders invited here Aug. 11-14 to showcase their talents, Dylan Admire is wearing brand-new Adidas shoes and an Adidas basketball uniform he received at registration. Campers and their parents shop in a store set up in a Holiday Inn hotel that has been stocked with Adidas-brand T-shirts, mugs, backpacks, pins, basketballs, shoes, and shorts. Several large black Adidas banners are hanging on the walls in the hotel, where many of the players and family members are staying.
Mr. Keller has cultivated a network of coaches who keep an eye on the best young talent around the country. Many of them are here this week with players they selected for the camp, which according to its Web site will draw “college coaches, major media outlets, and scouting services.”
That was enough to attract Daiki Kobayashi, 13, who traveled from the city of Yokohama, in Japan, to see how he fared against the best players his age in the United States.
“I wanted to see for myself the level of basketball here,” Daiki says through a translator, still sleepy-eyed after his 14-hour flight. He has followed U.S. professional basketball closely, and former Los Angeles Lakers guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson is his favorite player. “I want to play in the NBA,” he said. “I think I can.”
Indeed, the dream of professional fame is on the mind of talented young players more than ever. In 2001, Kwame Brown became the first high school player in history selected as the first pick in the National Basketball Association draft. LeBron James, while still a senior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, signed a $90 million contract with Nike in 2003 before he ever played a pro game. He was selected that year as the top choice in the NBA draft.
More than 40 high school players from the United States have been drafted professionally in the past decade. This year, the NBA adopted a rule that says players must be at least 19 and one year out of high school in order to be drafted.
Almost all of the players at the Jr. Phenom Camp want to play professionally, despite the statistical reality that less than 1 percent of high school players will do so.
Beth Portello, a filmmaker visiting the camp for a documentary that will chronicle the search for the next young basketball star, said the unlikely prospects the players face making it to the professional ranks have not muted enthusiasm for the potential big pay day.
“Since LeBron, the money game has changed,” said Ms. Portello, a former sports marketing executive for Adidas. “It’s about the big-time business of basketball.”
The chance for a big payoff means more demanding parents, overzealous coaches, and unethical agents with their hands in youth athletics for the wrong reasons, according to Don McPherson, who played quarterback at Syracuse University and in the National Football League for several years.
“As soon as you designate youth sports as a business, the motivation for how it operates is to make money, not to educate and nurture kids in a positive way,” said Mr. McPherson, the executive director of the Sports Leadership Institute at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. The institute runs programs in schools and communities that stress education and sportsmanship.
Some parents approach their children’s athletic pursuits with what he calls a “lottery mentality,” hoping to score a college scholarship. “If you want your child to have a well-rounded experience in school and socially, this is a disaster,” he said of that view.
But Paul Gripper, a coach and parent who brought 40 players from Philadelphia, Delaware, and New Jersey to the camp in San Diego, said corporate sponsorships, national rankings, and selective camps are all part of a competitive atmosphere talented players want.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” Mr. Gripper said. “Colleges are demanding to know about players three or four years before high school. It used to be 8th grade. Now it’s 5th grade.”
Steve Kerr, a former NBA player who won four championships with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, visited the camp to tell players to keep working hard and not to get big heads.
Mr. Kerr, who was not a highly touted high school player, told the campers that as a late bloomer, he would never have been invited to a camp like this one at their ages. “Nobody ever gave me free shoes or anything,” he joked.
‘A Little Scary’
The culture of youth basketball is “a little scary,” he said in an interview after his address. Ranking junior high school players, he added, is “outrageous and counterproductive,” and he worries about players in the United States losing ground to foreign players because of the diminishing focus here on fundamentals.
Many of the parents lined up with video cameras, following the moves of their sons on the six courts at Alliant International University here, said they want their children competing at the highest levels and being seen by people who can help them advance—just like the parents of musical prodigies or budding mathematicians.
“The camp is really a barometer to see where they stand at this point in their career,” said Rick Lewis, who founded Carolina Flight Basketball Inc., a nonprofit company in Statesville, N.C., that oversees eight club teams that have won 14 state championships in North Carolina and one national championship.
His son Tyler, a point guard who is ranked by a scouting service as the No. 5 player in the class of 2012, attended the camp last year and is back for a second time this week.
“Word travels pretty quickly—everybody knows who the best players are in the 5th, 6th, and 7th grade,” said Mr. Lewis. “Everyone is trying to get an edge as far as getting exposure. Unless you are seen by someone, you can’t get ranked.”