“Everything’s wrong,” Terrance Williams said, his voice growing raspier with each word. He looked around at the teenagers on his basketball team, many of whom were chewing the necks of their jerseys and staring at the ground.
“Shot selection! Body language!”
Williams, the head coach of the Team Scan Cardinals, one of the best youth basketball programmes in America, had his players huddled up in the corner of a decommissioned Air Force hangar in Sacramento. It was late April, the time of year when the high school season gives way to the chaos of non-scholastic basketball. Several hundred Division I coaches, NBA scouts, parents, handlers and a chunk of the Nike payroll had gathered for the start of the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL), the sport’s largest incubator of teenage talent.
During the weekend, Team Scan, a favourite to win the EYBL title, suffered two disappointing losses to teams from New Jersey and Texas. The trip cost $15,000 — flights, hotel rooms, dinner at Chili’s — and the players, Williams felt, had done little to justify the expense.
“We’re down 12-0, and I didn’t see anyone up trying to encourage your team-mates,” he said afterward. “If it’s about you, that’s fine. But in order for you to be successful, we have to be successful.”
In the world of grass-roots basketball — the phrase now used to describe the sport as played by anyone too young to vote — playing for the varsity has become largely irrelevant. Teenagers hoping to earn scholarships to Kansas and Kentucky, or those dreaming of the NBA, all play for outfits that travel around the country, allowing the nation’s best prospects to compete head-to-head without the interference of geography or homework. It can be a mutually beneficial relationship — players join top teams to gain exposure; teams receive cash to outfit players in a particular sneaker logo — and no league offers more of both than the EYBL.
The league, which started five years ago, sends each team to four cities in five weeks during the school year and then invites the best to the Peach Jam, a de facto national championship tournament held each July in South Carolina. In 2012, Andrew Wiggins, this year’s top NBA draft pick, solidified his position as the most hyped prospect since LeBron James with 23 points in the Peach Jam final.
Every player in the EYBL hoped to recreate Wiggins’s performance, and most coaches hoped to leverage that ambition for their own benefit — to secure a larger Nike deal or, perhaps, a job on a college staff. Williams, though, had more idiosyncratic reasons for wanting to reach the Peach Jam.
While many teams in the EYBL were named for the famous stars who helped fund them — the King James Shooting Stars (LeBron James), Team CP3 (Chris Paul) — Williams named his for the after-school programme where he worked in the Bronx.
As a kid growing up in the borough, Williams was a decent basketball player but a better student, earning admission to a New Hampshire boarding school and eventually Wesleyan University. Williams, who is 35, started Team Scan as a way of reverse-engineering his own path: he wanted to help local kids turn their above-average jump shots into scholarships for private school and college — if not to play for the University of Connecticut, this year’s national champion, then perhaps Connecticut College.
He brought on three friends from Wesleyan, who began mentoring kids from the neighbourhood and cold-calling boarding schools throughout New England on their behalf.
Together, they hoped to create a basketball version of Prep for Prep, the renowned New York City programme that sends underprivileged students to private schools and helps them survive once they get there.
But Williams’ players quickly outperformed even his most unreasonable expectations.
In 2012, Team Scan’s roster of local talent finished as the nation’s top-ranked team of sophomores. Nike soon offered the programme a contract worth tens ofthousands of dollars a year — just enough to get them to and from the summer’s Nike-sponsored events — as well as crates of sneakers and, most important, one of the 40 coveted spots in its EYBL. Williams’s ambitions subsequently expanded.
“I want to be the No 1 not-for-profit agency in the country,” he said at the time, “and the No 1 basketball programme in the country.”
‘This is not a game, this is a business’
Entering Scan’s second EYBL season this spring, the two goals had become mutually reinforcing, if not co-dependent. By reaching the Peach Jam, or even winning it, Williams believed he might be able to earn a six-figure deal with Nike, which would help jump-start his non-profit.
But the EYBL season was a 16-game sprint, and Scan got off to a poor start in Sacramento. After the team fell behind 12-0 to Team Texas Elite, Scan’s players sulked on the bench. Williams, who has a boyish face behind a manicured beard, departed some home truths.
“This is not a game, this is a business,” he said after the loss. “If you don’t have chemistry, you can’t win Peach Jam. It’s impossible.”
For decades, elite youth basketball was the exclusive domain of the Amateur Athletic Union, a non-profit organisation. But by the 1980s, sneaker companies, led by Adidas, began pouring money — and shoe boxes — into the market, luring talented teenagers to sneaker-sponsored all-star camps. This grass-roots scene morphed into a place where adults could parlay talented teenagers into cash. But it also became a lucrative and ever-expanding labyrinth of independent operators and organisations.
By the 2000s, Nike, which has always maintained a stranglehold on the pros, found itself playing catch-up in the youth market. So in 2010, the company spent millions to create a league modelled on the NBA. Within a year, the EYBL championship was being broadcast on ESPN, and competing in the emerging copycat leagues — the Adidas Gauntlet, the Under Armour Association — became the equivalent of attending a safety school.
When Nike first offered Scan a contract in 2012, Williams and his friends spent a long night debating the merits of accepting it. On the plus side, the programme needed money: The coaches had full-time jobs but couldn’t afford to pay for dozens of boys to travel to tournaments around the country. Taking the deal, however, would put them in the uncomfortable position of running an educational non-profit that leaned on some of the seedier elements of youth sports.
Contending at the Peach Jam would require recruiting more high-calibre players at the expense of some of the local kids the programme was built to serve. And recruiting could be a dirty game: Many people told me that some programmes were willing to make under-the-table payments in the low five figures for a highly coveted player.
Williams initially entered the recruiting circuit with some misgivings, but he soon developed a natural talent. Scan’s best player, Cheick Diallo, was spotted playing a pick-up game in Bamako, Mali by Tidiane Dramé, a Malian-American, who had started a venture importing players from the African country. After hearing about Diallo, who was 6ft 8ins and still in middle school, Williams agreed to pay for his plane ticket to New York sight unseen. According to one of the numerous websites that rank teenage athletes, Diallo came into the EYBL season as the second-ranked high-school basketball player in the country. When one reporter asked Diallo what he liked about living in the United States, he revealed both his still-maturing English and single-mindedness. “I love here because — NBA!” he said. “My goal is to go to NBA. That was the only one thing I’m looking for is NBA.”
Williams had also landed Devonte Green, a sophomore guard from Long Island, who is the younger brother of the San Antoni Spurs’s Danny Green; and Thomas Bryant, a highly-ranked forward, who had recently left his home in Rochester to spend his junior year at Huntington Prep, a basketball factory in West Virginia with a student body of 12, the same size as its varsity team (Wiggins is an alumnus). This year, Williams signed Tyus Battle, a 6ft 6ins guard from New Jersey who has been nationally ranked since sixth grade. Battle played the previous season for an EYBL team in Philadelphia and was coveted by the New Jersey Playaz, a rival squad. But he agreed to join Team Scan, in part, after Williams promised Battle’s father, Gary, that his son, a natural shooting guard, would start at the point.
At every stop on the EYBL circuit, Williams seemed to seize the chance to build new relationships. “I heard you’re changing addresses?” he said to an opposing player he heard might be switching teams. “Get out your phone, I’ll give you my number.” A B team, meanwhile, had to be created for players like Joel Villa.
It didn’t take long before Williams found himself spending less time working with kids in the gym and the classroom and more time on the considerable logistical challenges that faced his team. Players had to be bussed, flown and otherwise transported from their homes and boarding schools for every game or practice — when it was possible to schedule practice at all. Before the season, Williams decided to resign from his day job at Scan, which meant that he lost access to the programme’s gym and had to call in favours to get court time at a community centre in the Bronx, a high school in Harlem and a gym on the Upper East Side.
The lack of practice time showed this spring in Dallas, the second weekend on the EYBL circuit. Diallo averaged more than 20 points a game, but Battle struggled at his new position, which prevented Bryant from getting his touches. The top 20 teams in the EYBL regular season would qualify for the Peach Jam, and Scan’s 4-4 record put them on the bubble. If they didn’t make the tournament, Williams would lose his leverage with Nike. “These dudes can’t handle that pressure,” Williams said, before correcting himself. “I can’t handle that pressure.”
When shoe money moved into the grass-roots world in the ’80s, many among the first generation of profiteers found their occupation as handlers, the universal term for an adult who makes decisions on behalf of a basketball-playing child. (Handlers themselves prefer the terms ‘mentor’ or ‘adviser.’) There are still plenty of handlers in the sport — Diallo alone has two, in Dramé and his assistant high school coach, Eric Jaklitsch — but as the Sportsplex made clear, the EYBL has since created a much more sophisticated job market.
Nike, of course, was omnipresent. Its employees were sprinkled throughout the Sportsplex making sure every coach, player, parent and handler was taken care of: I heard one Nike rep described as a “Nike snitch” and a Gladwellian “connector” who had been “blessed with looking like a Puerto Rican from the Bronx.”
During one game, a player was asked to remove his Under Armour shoes; during another, a Nike rep playfully tried to scrape the Adidas logo off Gary Battle’s hat. Players were given jerseys, shirts, shorts, wristbands, socks, backpacks, jackets and all other manner of Swoosh-marked gear. They seemed particularly ecstatic about the purple-and-orange Kevin Durant-branded sneaker that was designed exclusively for the EYBL. During one game, I sat in the stands with Alec Kinsky, the proprietor of D1 Circuit, a website dedicated to covering the EYBL. Kinsky started the site a year ago after noticing that his favourite college team, Syracuse, had 12 EYBL players on its roster. Nike did not approve. “They emailed all their teams telling them not to talk to us, banned us from the events,” he said. Eventually Nike decided that peace was more profitable, and it paid Kinsky’s company nearly $100,000 to build the league site. It was now his job to write articles on topics like “10 Bold Predictions: Team Scan’s Cheick Diallo will lead all big men in scoring.” Adidas has since offered his company more to build sites for its league. (Adidas and Nike each declined to comment on financial matters.)
It was becoming clear that Williams’s goal of winning the Peach Jam often diverged from his players’ desire to boost their individual stats, which they viewed, not unreasonably, as their best chance to earn scholarships. (No one remembered that Wiggins’s 23-point game came in a loss.) To avert ball-hogging, Williams demanded that his team play within a controlled offensive and defensive structure, arguing that, as a bonus, the players would be better prepared for learning intricate college systems. He was an obsessive viewer of game tape, spending long nights breaking down an opposing team’s plays. (He drank Red Bull to stay awake during games.) To encourage the team to buy in, he told them that he was going to withhold their Kevin Durant sneakers until they played the game as he hoped they would.
But while Scan was among the EYBL’s best defensive teams, it struggled to score. And during the team’s first game in Virginia, against the Baltimore Elite, many parents who made the trip — it was as close to home their children would play all season — didn’t try to conceal their frustration.
“Is this rec-league basketball?” Gary Battle said, when Diallo tried to bring the ball up the court himself. After a pass meant for Diallo went out of bounds, Drame threw up his hands in exasperation. “Give my boy the ball!” Linda Bryant yelled at one of the guards. As Williams would tell me: “It’s just super hard to make 10 people happy. They feel like they’re the only ones complaining, but there’s nine other people saying the same thing.”
After the game, as Dramé complained to Williams about his prized recruit’s shot count, I heard a commotion and looked over to find Eric Jaklitsch, Diallo’s high-school coach, standing face to face with Andre Charles, a Scan assistant. They were screaming at each other. “Don’t disrespect me,” Jaklitsch yelled, before another Scan coach pulled him away. The incident was embarrassingly petty — Jaklitsch had taken a cup of water from the players’ cooler during the game — but it was clear that a conflict had been simmering between him and the Scan coaches all season. Jaklitsch, who needed Diallo during the school year, disagreed with how the player was being used by Williams, who needed him now. “I used to have to buy a ticket to this circus,” Williams said, shaking his head as Jaklitsch was pulled away from Charles.
No one seemed to notice that the team had won by 17.
Williams wanted little to do with the spectacle surrounding his best players: “I don’t wanna be involved,” he told me of Diallo’s recruitment. But players like Diallo were also the primary reason that he had his Nike contract, and their concerns required his attention. And so one night in Virginia he called the players into the coaches’ hotel room — they slept four to a room, with one on the floor — for a team meeting. It appeared that Dramé and Gary Battle had gotten their wish. “I’m gonna give you some more freedom,” Williams said, announcing that he was going to loosen the reins of his tightly controlled offensive scheme and give the players a chance to prove that their natural abilities were enough.
He then turned the floor over to the assistant coach Andre Charles, who often plays the good cop: Before every game, as the team’s players lined up for the tip, Charles would walk onto the court and give each player a hug, telling him, “I love you.” Charles went around the room identifying what made everyone on the team special. Diallo, he said, was the best player in the EYBL. Battle, who had been spending less time at the point, could be its best shooting guard. And Bryce Aiken, who had been displaced by Battle, had become the league’s best backup. Green had a crossover dribble gifted from above, and Bryant was a “dog,” which Charles meant in the best junkyard kind of way. Quincy McKnight, who tore his meniscus a year earlier, was the “heart and soul of the team”. (McKnight had just come back from a visit to Quinnipiac University, where the promise of a full scholarship awaited.) Charles went on to describe a dream he recently had. “I told Munch on the van ride here, ‘We’re going to the championship game of Peach Jam’,” he said. “I haven’t had the vision of whether we’re gonna win. But we’re going to the championship.”
In relating to their players, Scan’s coaches have the advantage of having grown up in similar circumstances as many of them, while also experiencing the upper reaches of privilege at Wesleyan. They were just as conversant in the latest Meek Mill track — the coaches and players celebrated one win with an on-court a cappella version of the rapper’s Dreams and Nightmares — as they were with Kaplan test-prep strategies. During a timeout in Virginia, one coach punctuated a call for better help defence by yelling: “SAT word! SAT word! ‘Reciprocity’. You scratch my back, I scratch your back.”
Halfway through the EYBL season, the team would have to win the majority of its remaining games to qualify for the Peach Jam, and now, in the hotel room, Charles tried a less refined motivational approach. “There’s two things we discussed in the van, me and Munch,” Charles said. “First, ‘I.N.T.’ — ‘I Need That.’ Not ‘I Want That’; ‘I Need That’ — that layup, that pass, that rebound.
Then, ‘S.T.B.’ — ‘Shoot That Bitch.’ Run it up the court and shoot that bitch!”
The pep talk seemed to lighten the mood, and during the team’s second game of the weekend, its size, speed and skill finally came to bear. “Wow, who was that?” Alec Kinsky said as he paused to tweet that Green had just thrown a pass behind the back of his head to Diallo for a dunk. (“I taught him that!” Green’s father, Danny Sr., said excitedly.). On a fast break, Aiken found Bryant streaking down the middle of the lane with a bounce pass, earning a slap on the butt from Williams. Then in one remarkable sequence, Diallo blocked a shot, delivered an outlet pass to Battle, sprinted past every other player on the court and got the ball back in position to slam home another dunk. Battle grinned, the first time all season I saw him smile on court, and gave Diallo a chest bump. After the game, an eight-year-old approached Battle and said, “They should put you on a poster, so I can put it up on my wall.”
Scan won its last three games in Minnesota, the EYBL’s final regular-season stop, and came to the Riverview Park Activities Centre in North Augusta, South Carolina, as one of the favourites to win the Peach Jam.
Hundreds of fans watched from the stands at each of their games, with an overflow leaning over from an elevated track. The sidelines were filled with two rows of chairs accommodating college coaches from around the country. ESPN was broadcasting part of the event, and at the team hotel the players excitedly watched themselves being discussed on a preview show. “Turn that up, I can’t hear!” Bryant yelled, as his name flashed on the screen as the country’s 10th-best player. When one broadcaster said that another player was the country’s best, Diallo responded: “This guy doesn’t know anything.”
The Peach Jam was conceived as Nike’s way of distilling the recruiting process into a single weekend, but it was hard to completely see the event’s purpose. After a thunderous Diallo dunk, which he celebrated by marching around the court with his arms flexed like a bodybuilder, coaches in the stands were staring down at their phones. “Most bigger programmes have done their evaluating,” Tom Izzo, the head coach of Michigan State, told me, noting that he and his staff were looking at 15 players and were unlikely to discover any others they might consider offering a scholarship. Coaches had flown from around the country simply to let the players and handlers know that they were a priority. The coaches weren’t technically allowed to come into contact with the players beyond a polite greeting — there were separate bathrooms marked for college coaches — which created an awkward dance in the hallways. “It’s like he’s following me,” Dramé said after one head coach said hello for what seemed to be the 10th time that day. Whenever I was standing near Dramé, coaches who passed by made sure to shake my hand as well as his, in case I might wield some influence.
While Izzo acknowledged that the EYBL made recruiting more convenient for coaches, he was concerned that it might be counterproductive for the players.
“I worry a little bit about how much basketball these guys are playing,” he said, adding that his players at Michigan State had been coming out of high school more prone to injury. And after a full high school season, four sessions of EYBL over five weekends and then a month spent travelling to various all-star camps, Team Scan’s teenage bodies were beginning to wear. Diallo was suffering from a bad back and came down wincing anytime he jumped. Bryant had wrapped his wrist with tape and was constantly winded. In the team’s second game at the Peach Jam, Quincy McKnight’s knee again buckled as he landed after leaping for a rebound. The gym fell quiet as Scan’s coaches huddled, fearing a second — and potentially scholarship-jeopardising — injury.
McKnight wanted to play in the team’s game the next morning, but Williams told him he was done. “It’s about their futures,” Williams told me. “At the end of the day, you win a game, what do you get, bragging rights? Who cares about that.” But Williams needed McKnight — Scan lost the one game he missed — and it was arranged for him to see a knee specialist in town, who cleared him in time for Scan’s semi-final game against the New Jersey Playaz.
Williams’ team was flustered, too. Scan fell behind early against the Playaz, and Diallo was in obvious pain. During a timeout late in the game, he stood on the sideline getting a back massage from Charles as he winced and bit his jersey. After each of the team’s games, the coaches and parents discussed which pain medication would best soothe Diallo’s back. And though Williams tried to keep his players’ health at the front of his mind, he couldn’t be successful without them, especially at Peach Jam. Diallo returned to the game and helped Scan narrow the deficit to two points before it slipped away. The team, reverting to its old offensive struggles, had a hard time scoring and lost 65-55.
Afterward, Diallo stuck his head into his jersey like a distressed tortoise. McKnight, then Charles, tried nudging Diallo out of his chair, to no avail. Finally Williams walked by, grabbed him under the arms and lifted him up with both hands.
“Sometimes in life the ball isn’t gonna fall your way,” Williams said, once the team gathered in the gym’s basement. “At the end of the day, you’re going to college for free. You might play basketball overseas or in the NBA. If you don’t do that, you’re gonna get a good job. You’re probably gonna get a masters degree for free. You’re gonna come out with no debt. And then you’re gonna get out to adulthood, and I guarantee you’re probably gonna make more money than us.”
He paused and smiled. “I love y’all, man. Everybody up.”
Late one Friday night this summer, Williams stood with his arms crossed at midcourt in a community centre in the west Bronx, overseeing practice for Scan’s eighth-grade team. All of the programme’s elite players were elsewhere. The gym was around the corner from the elementary school where Williams had worked for four years after Wesleyan, as a first-grade teacher and dean of students. Barring a major growth spurt, there wasn’t a Diallo or a Battle on the court, but the group was closer to Williams’s initial aspirations.
During the season, Williams suggested that this would be his last coaching at the EYBL level. He and the other coaches from Wesleyan had filed paperwork with the IRS to form the group’s new non-profit, Pro Scholars Athletics, and were looking for foundational support, a generous benefactor or perhaps another company — Adidas reportedly had been offering teams more than $200,000 to join its nascent league — and Jason Forde, another friend from Wesleyan, had recently enrolled in a masters program in fund-raising management at Columbia. “My goal is to get out of this as soon as possible,” Williams said, referring to the EYBL. He wanted to focus on the programme’s rebranding from Team Scan to the Pro Scholars Athletics Cardinals and expected he would coach only the eighth-grade team next season.
But shortly after the loss to the Playaz, Williams was having second thoughts. He was already lobbying to make sure Battle didn’t switch teams again, and mulling which of the junior players would have to be cut. The team’s contract negotiations with Nike were still to come, and absent another source of funding, Williams figured he would have to get a real job in the autumn. But in the meantime, he had decided to fly his players to a non-EYBL tournament in Kansas City.
Pro Scholars Athletics had to wait. There was game tape to watch.