SAN DIEGO — Calen Lightford smirks as he scans the competition at San Diego’s Junior Phenom Camp, a national youth basketball showcase that has made a millionaire of its founder.
Then the 12-year-old sixth-grader announces his mission.
“I want,” he says, “to destroy everybody in front of me.”
Three days per week, while his friends play video games, Lightford focuses on strength and conditioning sessions with his personal trainer. He attends offseason instructional camps led by former pro John Lucas in Las Vegas. And he practices with his club team when he’s not lifting weights.
He’s not like most middle-school basketball standouts. Neither are his peers here. These kids — some fresh out of third grade — scattered about Junior Phenom Camp at Alliant University crave knowledge and national recognition.
They do not need additional flare.
Sixth-grader Jalon Munoz, from Texas, goes by “Pretty Boy.” Washington sixth-grader Jamil Miller’s relatives and friends call him “Million.” New Mexico eighth-grader Patrick Rivera? “Hollywood.” These kids know they’re special.
Of the 395,000 who enroll in Junior Phenom’s regional camps each year, only 300 or so earn invites to the summer event once attended by Karl-Anthony Towns, the NBA’s rookie of the year in 2015-16.
Now, the mission to reach that dream begins soon after the top youth competitors learn to dribble and shoot. They will leave this camp with a fluid ranking from Hoop Scoop founder Clark Francis, a middle-school basketball wizard.
It all seems premature and inexact. But the kids here believe they’re worthy of No. 1, which leads to a pair of questions the coaches and parents of players who haven’t reached high school must consider in 2016:
Is your kid ranked yet?
And does that matter?
“If I were to be the best sixth-grader in the world,” Calen Lightford says, “that would mean a lot to me.”
Exposure comes with a price
Joe Keller, the Junior Phenom Camp’s founder, wants to know why you’re here, what you want from him, what you think about his invention … and if you’ve read the book.
In 2010, Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrmann published “Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and The Youth Basketball Machine.” The book detailed Keller’s experiences as the coach of the Inland Stars grassroots squad and a tenure that, according to Dohrmann, included payments to parents, favorable relationships with players who helped him build his program, hollow relationships with those who did not and a flurry of deception along the way.
Aaron Moore, a former player featured in the book, told Dohrmann, “Not everything that comes out of [Keller’s] mouth is the truth.”
Keller claims he’s unmoved by the controversy, though he’s concerned about the perception of both him and his brand.
“Is this going to be a negative story?” he asks.
Men with a clear a conscience never wonder. But the AAU scene feels like an underworld that exploits the best young talent and leaves the rest in a scrap heap. So trust, on both sides, is fleeting.
Of his time as an AAU coach, Keller admits, “I was part of the mess.”
But Keller calls Dohrmann “a liar” and refutes how he’s characterized in the book. He still maintains good relationships with the former players mentioned in the book, he says. And he only promotes his camps because he wants to give campers a chance to excel as players and grow as young men, he says.
“He wasn’t bothered,” says Violet Keller, his wife, “but the book hurt me.”
When he created the Junior Phenom Camp five years ago, Keller says Sonny Vaccaro, his mentor, told him the idea would never work because “you’re not gonna get kids to fly all over the country for camps.”
Vaccaro, the longtime shoe maven, missed badly on that projection. Keller’s camp now employs more than 90 staffers. And a multimillion-dollar, 210,000-square-foot complex that will include a dozen regulation courts and 16 baseball diamonds — Keller says he’s backed by an anonymous billionaire — will open in 2018.
“Most guys are trying to make a quick buck,” Keller says. “We’re trying to change lives. We’re not money-driven.”
Yet midway through the conversation, the mother of a camper comes to Keller and complains about a staffer who blocked her son from completing the vertical test, even though she paid the extra $50 fee so her son can see how high he can jump.
Keller sends the woman to his wife and asks her to remedy the situation.
“Tell him we have to get that done,” Keller says.
A customized (optional) highlight reel from the camp costs another $100. And each participant pays a $500 registration fee, excluding travel and lodging. The trip to San Diego costs most families a few thousand dollars.
In June, the Junior Phenom brand collected $2.8 million off merchandise, per Keller. His invention made nearly $30 million in 2015. A pop-up store at the San Diego camp displayed $80 backpacks, $30 basketballs and $45 sweatshirts. Keller says only 10 percent of the proceeds from the gear, provided by Nike and embroidered by Keller’s team, goes to Phenom America, his company. The rest is Nike’s.
It’s easy to blame Keller and other grassroots purveyors for the proliferation of the full-bellied and lucrative youth basketball market. But Keller didn’t build this. He just turned the mass interest into a profitable business.
LeBron James’s transition from high school phenom to NBA legend boosted our collective desire to spot adolescent talent at its earliest arch. Last year, the NBA superstar asked college coaches who courted his son to leave then fourth-grader alone. But even James can’t stop the movement he ignited. The Junior Phenom Camp is proof of that.
The staffers insert the camp’s attendees, third-graders through eighth-graders, into agility drills, layup lines with alternating hands, timed sprints, pickup runs, motivational speeches and team meetings. For a fee, the campers gain access to advanced instruction and an organized production that rivals any grassroots operation in the country.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” says Cardell Lightford, the father of Calen Lightford. Cardell estimates the camp experience cost him more than $1,000. “It’s all an investment.”
All in for elementary- and middle-school talent
Before the kids begin their afternoon matchups, they all sit for a motivational speech from Dave Taylor, a former Air Force assistant coach who runs Keller’s camps around the world. Taylor, sporting a replica of Len Bias’ No. 34 Maryland jersey, tells the kids about the cautionary figure who died of a drug overdose the morning after the Boston Celtics selected him with the No. 2 pick in the 1986 NBA draft.
Some of the younger boys act like the kids they are, not the athletic drones they may soon become, during Taylor’s speech, which warns of poor choices and their consequences.
“One line of coke,” Taylor says, “changed his life.”
Some of the junior phenoms seem to understand. Others stare at the ceiling while they process all of this. One boy doodles with his finger on his friend’s back. Another will soon fall asleep.
The Bias story is no joke. Neither is this camp. Keller’s staffers demand discipline. If a kid is five minutes late for a session, he misses that day’s games.
During drills, one camper’s stance upsets an instructor. “I’m not asking you to be great! I’m asking you to talk!” he yells.
On the sideline lurks a balding, middle-aged man with a belly that hangs over his belt. Clark Francis, the owner of the Hoop Scoop newsletter that includes his rankings of players grades six through eight, takes notes as he watches the action across the entire camp. Nothing about Francis’ presentation says basketball scholar. But he compiles the nation’s definitive rankings of middle-school prospects.
His subscriptions cost $100 per year. He charges Division I coaches, most of whom say they’re not concerned about prospects until they reach high school, $499 for his assessments each year. Per Francis, more than 100 high-major coaches subscribe to his publication.
Ranking high-school athletes is a difficult task. Sure, we can all spot a Kevin Durant or LeBron James at 15 or 16 years old. But the next Steph Curry, a three-star recruit in high school, is more difficult to identify.
So how can anyone call a sixth-grader “the best” at this point in his career?
“It’s impossible to project,” Keller says.
But Francis tries. Each year, he attends the Junior Phenom Camp in San Diego and leaves the event with thoughts on each prospect he sees. He penalizes players if they’re not in shape or they lack athleticism. He ranks them by grade and position — all while missing entire swaths of young talent that will never attend one of Keller’s camps.
“It’s not my job to be the parent,” Francis says. “If you put yourself out there and you want to be ranked and you go to these things and you think you have a future, then suddenly you’re fair game for the good things people are going to write about you and the bad things.”
It’s not all rainbows anymore.
In a matchup between rising seventh-graders, Calen Lightford’s “destroy everything in front of me” pursuit stalls when he starts the game on the bench. With nearly 300 gifted youngsters in the building, kids accustomed to unlimited minutes and shots feel the cold steel on the sideline for the first time.
Lightford is surrounded by middle-school standouts who can match him on both ends of the floor.
Daniel Rogers, a 6-foot-4 eighth-grader from Australia who left the camp with the No. 1 ranking in his age group, throws his frame around a pickup run on the next court. He’s gangly and timid at times. But he’s effective when he focuses on effort over execution. He’s athletic, and he’s comfortable outside the paint. Rogers is the most intriguing prospect at the camp.
He traveled to San Diego from Australia to compare himself to American talent, he says.
“It’s the best players in America,” Rogers says. “I wanted to see what it’s like over here. It’s a different style of play than Australia.”
On another court, Eddie Pezzulo watches his son, sixth-grader Jayden, hustle for loose balls, show off his midrange game with a 15-footer from the wing and pressure opposing ballhandlers.
“He lives this, Bro,” Eddie Pezzulo watches his son, who was ranked 10th among sixth-grade shooting guards at the camp. The 4-foot-11 Staten Islander’s team lost the game, but his contributions helped his squad battle through a double-digit deficit in the second half.
Perhaps he’d have done more for his squad if he’d finished his lunch.
“Huh? How did you forget to eat?” Eddie Pezzulo asks his son, who shrugs before accepting a $20 bill from his father after the game and walks to the snack hub near the court.
Across the gym, another Staten Island product, Georgios Stathopoulos (No. 15 small forward in the eighth-grade division), leads Team Oregon to a win with bruiser Clevmore Lubin (No. 2 eighth-grader overall), a muscular kid from Valley Cottage, New York, and ambidextrous guard Devon Junghans of Salina, Kansas, the No. 3 shooting guard in the camp’s eighth-grade division.
Stathopoulos’ dimes and behind-the-back maneuvers, along with the bounce of the 5-foot-7 guard’s curly Afro, impresses the smattering of onlookers, including anxious family members and friends.
“This camp is run really serious,” he says. “I want to be ranked as one of the best, and I want to play against guys who are the best.”
Are the sacrifices worth it?
Each morning, Cardell Lightford rises while the sun sleeps to reach his job as a ramp agent at the Huntsville International Airport by 4:30 a.m. That’s not his full-time job. Lightford co-owns a Huntsville restaurant, Best Wings, with his father. After he leaves the airport at noon, he drives to the the wing joint and returns home by 8 p.m.
His airport gig’s perks include free travel for his family, which is necessary to haul Calen to camps and events around the country.
“You know,” Cardell Lightford says about his long hours, “sometimes you gotta make sacrifices for your kids.”
Some of the parents who spoke to ESPN.com say they turned the San Diego trip into a family vacation or picked up additional work to give their children a chance to attend the Junior Phenom Camp. Others built their summers around the event.
Every year, Hock Young takes his family to Malaysia and Taiwan to visit relatives and friends. But he ended this year’s trip three weeks early so his son Evan Young, 11, could return to Mission, Texas, and prepare for the Junior Phenom Camp, a trip that cost Hock Young’s family nearly $5,000.
“This is the priority,” Hock Young says about his decision to end his summer trip early. “I think this is very impressive. They all have very good fundamental skills. They all have bright futures. This is a great place to know where we stand.”
Evan Young, who is also nationally ranked in chess, attends basketball practice three times per week and skills training two days per week, all while maintaining his classwork and chess regimen.
“This teaches basketball and life lessons at the same time,” says Evan, who just completed fifth grade and secured the No. 15 ranking among guards in his age group. “I want to try to get recruited and have fun at the same time.”
Calen Lightford, ranked as the sixth-best guard in his age group, enters the game with a Team Texas squad that has amassed a lopsided advantage against Team Florida State. On one of his first possessions, he pump-fakes and hits a shot in the lane to extend that lead. His teammate, Shakir Ahmad Jr. of Santa Barbara, California, is the best player on the floor, though.
The seventh-grade honors student stands 5-foot-5, but he plays power forward for his team. Camp organizers say this year’s group lacks the big bodies of past years, forcing Ahmad (No. 4 rising seventh-grader) and others to play out of position; he’s a shooting guard on his AAU squad, one now playing with unfamiliar teammates.
But he toys with the other rising seventh-graders around him. He’s too strong and fierce for the lot.
“He’s gonna score everything he wants to out there,” his father, Shakir Ahmad Sr., says during the game.
He added that he’s most proud of his son’s efforts in the classroom. Shakir Ahmad Jr. reads at an 11th-grade level and recently accepted an academic achievement award from President Obama. Hoops, he hopes, will lead his son to an elite university, not a “basketball factory,” in the future. That’s why he brought his son to the Junior Phenom Camp, he says.
“They still have to work,” Shakir Ahmad Sr. says. “It’s summer. So, for some, it’s music camp or work out. It’s our money. It’s expensive as hell. I’m trying to get him into college. He ain’t gonna chase Pokemon all day.”
Near midcourt, Clark Francis mumbles his initial thoughts about each player.
I like him.
He’s just OK.
He didn’t do anything for me.
For a time, you forget the discussion centers on soon-to-be-seventh-graders who sometimes forget to eat lunch.
Once the afternoon’s games end, the campers take a break before the evening sessions begin. The next day’s all-star games will feature the players who stand out Saturday. This is just another filter of talent. Until then, the kids join their new friends and exit the gym.
Many frowned when the game’s meat market began to impact kids too young to drive. At this camp, some of these kids are too young to stay home alone. But their hopeful parents will continue to cancel vacations and take on extra work to send them to camps and grassroots events, unsure if any of this is worth the time and money. The kids will tout their rankings at their respective schools once they return home. And they’ll work hard to justify or surpass them as a crowd gathers to expand — or exploit — their talents.
Kevin Spaulding, a former semiprofessional baseball player, lingers. The owner of something called Leoche Sports promoted the benefits of his hand-eye coordination system all afternoon. It’s more advanced than anything you’ve ever seen, he promises. Any partnerships and promotions would help, he says.
The technical jargon in his rapid-fire monologue is not easy to decipher. Something about tennis balls, mobility and agility. His final message, however, is clear.
“Reach out, man,” he says. “Maybe everybody can make some money.”