He’s an Instagram phenomenon who fascinates college coaches—but he’s not quite a sure thing. He’s also a high school freshman trying to navigate the awkward phases and social mysteries that come with being a teenager. Meet Nico Mannion, a 15-year-old (sorta-maybe) basketball prodigy
Four years from now, if all goes as planned, Nico Mannion will be on your TV, playing for a big-time college basketball program, like UCLA or Duke or Kentucky. He’ll lead the offense fearlessly, rain deep jumpers and regularly dunk on fools. He’ll also own a bazillion free pairs of shoes, eat Oreos whenever he wants and have, like, a hundred thousand followers on Instagram. He might even have a girlfriend, though he’s not totally sure about that part yet.
And after that? Well, after that the future gets awfully big. The NBA? The face of a shoe company? His own bobblehead, complete with a poof of red hair? Yes, it’s all possible. After all, when Nico was in middle school, his youth coach watched him skittering around the court and zipping passes, and declared that if you want to see what an NBA lottery pick looks like, well, there you go, and he’d point at the tiny, goofy-looking pale kid, all elbows and ears, who couldn’t weigh more than a wet golden retriever. And of course this was a ridiculous and unfair amount of pressure to put on a 13-year-old, because as any parent knows, extrapolation is an inexact science when it comes to human beings. Many a towering seventh-grader becomes an average-sized adult, and just because little Judy is good at math now doesn’t mean she won’t end up working the night shift at IHOP.
Still, Nico grew some and kept getting better until, one afternoon in eighth grade, his dad handed him a cellphone on the way back from practice, and the voice on the other end was Cal State–Northridge coach Reggie Theus, who said he just knew that Nico was going to be his kind of player, and that he wanted to make him a scholarship offer right there, on the phone, without even seeing him in person, because that way Nico would always remember that it was Theus, a former NBA star, who offered first, way before all the big schools. And upon hearing this, Nico freaked out a bit but tried to look supercool, because one of his teammates was in the car and, besides, that’s what you do when you’re a real baller. That night his parents reminded him that the road before him was long, saying, “Be proud, enjoy it for an hour or two, then get your head right and keep working.” But in the months that followed, Nico couldn’t help but fantasize about his future, the recruiting trips and packed arenas and body-painted bros cheering for the Ginger Ninja—pronounced GIN-ja NIN-ja—which is what his friend Trent likes to call him.
But all that is way, way off in the future, if indeed it is in Nico’s future at all. For now he is not in college or the NBA. He is still just a high school freshman who loves watching Friends with his mom and playing Ping-Pong with his best friend, CJ; a sweet, easily excited kid who’s not sure whether Steph Curry should be his favorite player, because Steph is everybody’s favorite player; a 15-year-old who’s not allowed to use his cellphone after 9 p.m., is terrified of bridges, has only shaved once and gets in trouble if he doesn’t scoop the dog poop in the backyard.
Like all boys his age, Nico’s brain and body are still developing, meaning every day is a tangle of emotions, hormones and sudden, overpowering desires. Like, say, to sleep in the middle of class. Or to eat a whole bag of Skittles. Or to mate with the nearest female life form. While most boys drift through this awkward stage in thankful anonymity, Nico’s relative specialness, in tandem with the era of social media and the overzealous, ethically questionable nature of prep-athlete recruiting, sets him apart, making him a quasi-celebrity. That means he exists in a weird limbo, stuck between boyhood and adulthood, between ordinariness and a certain kind of fame, between naiveté and the realization that the world is not always a kind or fair place.
This is what it’s like to be a 15-year-old sorta-maybe basketball prodigy in the year 2017.
Here is what you need to know about Niccolo Mannion. He’s 6' 1" but projected to grow to between 6' 3" and 6' 7". He weighs 155 pounds, but you’d believe 140. He has lived in Sicily and Salt Lake City and now resides in the cactus-strewn expanse north of Phoenix, in a well-appointed house with his mother, Gaia; his father, Pace; a 6-year-old Rottweiler named Zeus; and a 7-year-old black Labrador named Bella. Though Nico can already beat his dad in one-on-one, he lost the last time they played, on Pace’s 56th birthday. Now his dad refuses to play again until he turns 57, which brings Pace much cackling joy but does not yet eat away at Nico, who is competitive with people his own age, but as of yet has no discernible interest in diminishing his current, lofty view of his father, himself once a formidable basketball talent. Nico has seen only a few clips of Pace, but knows he was a 6' 7" small forward with a sweet mustache who played at Utah, spent six seasons coming off the bench in the NBA, then 13 starring in the Italian league. Similarly, Nico has never seen footage of his mom playing pro volleyball in Italy but knows she must have been legit because, well, just look at her, all quads and biceps even now, at 42. Also, as Nico’s friends will tell you: Gaia is for real. “A complete badass,” says CJ. It is a running joke in the Mannion family that Nico’s impressive hops and competitive drive originate not from his NBA father but from his spiking, stomping mother, who, if Nico starts to complain, will say, in her Italian-accented English, “Oh, no, call the Whaaa-mbulance!”
This brings us to a comparison. As you may know, Steph Curry’s mother, Sonya, also played high-level volleyball and is something of a badass. And Steph’s dad, Dell, was also an easygoing NBA player. You might even find it significant—some do—that Steph and Nico share the same birthday. Despite these similarities, and a kindred scrawniness and temperament, Nico’s game—slashing, angular, diming—is not all that similar to Steph’s. Then again, whose is? Anyway, Nico’s friends prefer to compare him to Brian Scalabrine, Chase Budinger and Matt Bonner, none of whom Nico is remotely similar to as a player but all of whom are similarly endowed in the follicular arena.
Gaia has always told Nico that his hair—bright red, cauliflower-shaped, resistant to styling—makes him special, and Nico embraces it, for he is the type of boy who enjoys being different, wearing bright-green shirts under his uniform and, once, a pink tux to a school dance. Pace tells Nico that his hair gives him five minutes. Five minutes to take advantage of his opponents’ preconceptions. So he does. In the first half of the first scrimmage at a camp in Los Angeles last summer, Nico passed to a teammate, cut, got the ball back, sized up a leaping defender and then—Ker-rack! Unless you have seen many, many dunks in your life, you have most likely never seen one this incongruous. Short white kid in low-tops with crazy hair yaks on a big man. It was like a glitch in the basketball system. Also: It was Nico’s first dunk in a game over an opponent.
In an earlier time, Nico’s throwdown would have been the talk of the other eighth-graders at the camp. In this age it pinged around the Web after a twentysomething filming the game posted a clip. A Mashable writer tweeted it with the caption: “[The] end of this Vine is more surprising than an M. Night Shyamalan movie.” NBA point guard Brandon Jennings retweeted it. Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott followed Nico on Instagram. Soon enough, Nico was at dinner with his mom and looked down to see he’d gained 1,500 new followers just during the meal. He now has 49,000.
Nico attends Pinnacle High, a school of 2,600 that is ranked in the top third of Arizona public schools academically while demographically skewing white, jock-y and SUV-ish. To follow Nico from class to class, through concrete courtyards teeming with self-conscious kids and boisterous kids and cool kids, united by the earbuds looped over or wedged in their ears, as if all are about to take an important conference call, is an overwhelming, almost claustrophobic experience. But Nico moves through the crowds with ease, passed off from one cluster of kids to the next, forever dapping and waving , intercepted by this giggling, pretty girl and then that giggling, pretty girl, all of whom seem to want a quick hug. “Nico! Nico!” says a petite brunette, who scurries next to him so her friend can snap an Instagram pic. “Big game tomorrow, bro!” shouts a tall boy vectoring Nico’s way. The attention is welcome. A few months earlier Nico was nervous as hell to start high school.
Sometimes all the love can become a distraction. Like on the first day of a week I spent with him, last December, when the kids in second-period physics wanted to talk about Nico’s college offers, and whether he was going to throw one down in the home opener the following night, against Cesar Chavez High.
If all this attention has gone to Nico’s head, it’s not yet apparent. His English teacher says he’s “pretty much a model student.” Even Ms. Aguilar, his strictest teacher, likes him, though she is prone to say, while strolling about class and glancing his way, “Education is important . . . right, Nico?”
With status come perks. Sixth period is supposed to be freshman phys ed, but Nico gets out of it so he can hang in the training room with Mason, the team’s starting center, halfheartedly icing various appendages. As the other freshmen file by, on their way to mandatory softball in matching gray T-shirts and glum expressions, Nico and Mason coolly stare at their phones, adjust their ice bags and endeavor to talk about various topics with great authority. They use the word literally a lot, if incorrectly, and reserve ridiculous for the highest of compliments. (Russell Westbrook averaging a triple double? Ridiculous.) Other athletes stop by and join in. Here, in roughly descending order, are what Nico and his friends spend the most time discussing:
1. Basketball prospects doing dope stuff. As in “Yo, did you see Marvin Bagley’s mixtape!!! It’s sick!”
2. College offers. Who has them and at which schools.
3. Girls. Naturally.
4. Instagram. Which is where you can see other basketball prospects doing dope stuff, post college offers and check out girls.
5. Snapchat. Useful for saying “What’s up?” to aforementioned girls and communicating with friends when you’re bored in class. In Nico’s case, also forever in danger of being cut off by wary parents.
6. Who can bench-press the most. This is a furiously debated topic, both in literal and hypothetical terms. As in: “Yo, Mason, I bet you if I trained for two weeks I could bench more than you, because you have no chest.” Or: “Dude, Spencer can bench 225 with his feet up!” Which is impressive because Spencer, in this case the sophomore Pinnacle forward whose last name is Rattler and who is unanimously acclaimed to be the best athlete in a school full of good athletes, doesn’t even lift. Rather, he’s just naturally yoked, and he will sometimes bench with his feet in the air, which is harder, just to show you he can. Spencer not only balls out; he is a talented quarterback with nearly a dozen scholarship offers, including Miami and Oklahoma. His stature at school surpasses even Nico’s. He is extremely legit.
7. Coach Wilde. Distributor of playing time, haranguer of one’s defense and fodder for imitation, due to his propensity to extend the final syllable of the last word of every sentence, as in, “C’mon, boys, you have to play haarrrrrrd.” (Also, understood but not usually mentioned: Charlie Wilde is a hardworking, well-respected 17-year coach at Pinnacle, with two state finals appearances to his name.)
8. Parents. Sometimes referred to as “parentals.” A source of income, occasional pains in the butt and—you may be surprised to learn—an endless topic of fascination. For example: “CJ’s dad is always wearing a scarf, but he pulls it off.” Another father invariably answers “Living the dream” when you ask how he’s doing, which is hilarious. And then there is Gaia, who’s interesting not only because her b.s. radar is finely tuned but also because she can probably kill it on the bench.
Someday, if he’s like most of us, Nico will look back on this stage of life with a mixture of nostalgia and embarrassment, each moment rendered in exquisite, excruciating detail. Because a teenager’s synaptic plasticity is significantly better than an adult’s, it’s easier for them to make memories, and those memories last longer. While Nico’s brain is in learning hyperdrive, it is still only 80% formed. And as neuroscientist Frances Jensen points out in her excellent, scary-as-hell book, The Teenage Brain, this means someone Nico’s age necessarily lacks in other areas, including but not limited to “attention, self-discipline, task completion and emotions.”
This is to say nothing of Nico’s body. His testosterone level is jacked up from before puberty, so he’s pretty much in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight. He needs more than nine hours of sleep, but his brain releases melatonin two hours later than an adult’s, so good luck nodding off at night and better luck staying awake during Pinnacle’s sadistic 7:30 a.m. first period. The math is brutal: Nico gets up at 6:15 and, after some away games, doesn’t get home and into bed until 11 p.m. Less sleep means his brain has a harder time managing stress and, since growth hormone is released at night, the lack of sleep can even impact his height.
What sets Nico apart is that his life is a bizarre mixture of the stuff all teenagers go through—the pimples and insecurity and clanking front teeth on your first kiss—and the stuff very few teenagers go through. By sixth grade he was being written up by prep websites. (“His composure and savvy play will make him a much-sought-after prospect in time.”) Because Nico holds dual citizenship, the Italian national team has called, but the U.S. beat it to the punch, inviting Nico to the junior national team minicamp this past fall. (He performed admirably.) An impressive edifice of boxed basketball shoes rises on one side of his small, uncluttered bedroom. Jordan 4 Retros on top of ClutchFit Drive 2 lows next to Curry 2.5S and Kobe IX Elites. They are divided into ‘Shoes For Wearing’ and ‘Shoes For Playing’ and ‘Shoes You Only Put on Once or Twice and Then Sell on eBay’. Of 13 pairs, which retail between $125 and $275, Nico says he received 12 for free. The new Curry 3’s, not yet on the market, are supposed to arrive any day.
The man responsible for delivering those Curry 3’s is a 40-ish former nightclub owner named Ryan Silver. An excitable man with slicked-back brown hair, Silver runs the Earl Watson Elite AAU program, which is sponsored by Under Armour, which is in turn endorsed by Curry. Silver is prone to texting Nico at 3 a.m. to say, “Just thinking about you!” even though he knows Nico’s parents make him plug in his phone in the kitchen overnight. The Mannions allow that Silver is a bit different—“refreshing, really,” says Pace—but they like him because in a vast sea of b.s., he strikes them as a man at the oars of a boat of truth, relatively speaking.
For example, if they are walking into a restaurant and Nico is distracted, Silver will say, “Dude, what are you doing? Hold the f------ door for your mother!” He also espouses, at all times, an “attitude of gratitude,” drilling Nico on the best way to tweet and post to Instagram, which is always “we” and “team”, not “me” and “I.”
Not incidentally, Silver is also a conduit to the shoe folks. “The Under Armour people told us, We’re going to need a new face of the brand in four or five years, after Steph,” Pace said one night after dinner, sitting on the couch with Nico as the Knicks-Cavs game played on the flat screen. “Someone good who’s different, interesting, marketable.” Pace looked over at his son, sock-encased feet splayed out, shoulders hunched in iPhone position. “Is Nico marketable? Well, if he grows to 6' 6" he’ll be good. He’s got red hair, he’s athletic. Who knows?” Pace pauses. “And if he doesn’t, that’s fine too.”
At this age the price of Nico’s allegiance is free gear, but that could change. After all, Curry’s first contract with Under Armour was $4 million a year; he now makes millions more in equity. First, though: college. Offer number two came last June, from Arizona State, when coach Bobby Hurley saw Nico at a summer camp and was transfixed. Fortunately, Nico had Googled Hurley before the camp—at Pace’s recommendation—and thus understood that when Hurley said Nico reminded him of himself, this was a big compliment.
A couple of days later Dan Majerle—former Suns star, current college coach, no Googling required—came up during a camp game and said, “Nico, Grand Canyon University is offering you a scholarship. Now go back to the game.” San Francisco came next, sight unseen, followed by Utah State and Utah, Pace’s alma mater. This meant Nico had six scholarship offers before he’d played a game in high school, which Pace deems “crazy” but is not all that uncommon. High-profile middle schoolers have been targeted for years, going back to 2003, when Taylor King accepted an offer to UCLA before his first high school game. More recently, LeBron James Jr., who is 10, reportedly received college offers, which understandably pissed off his dad. And there exist websites already covering “The Class of 2027”, also known as second graders. The fact that all this happens does not make it right, much less beneficial in any way to the still-developing boys, only legally allowable.
In Nico’s case, college coaches can’t directly recruit him until the June after his sophomore year, at which point they’re free to deluge him. Pace plans on getting a dedicated cellphone for Nico to use for “an hour or two hours a day—that’s it.” Until then, however, recruiters can call Wilde or Silver anytime they want, and those two can in turn put Nico on the phone. They can also mail letters, a stack of which Nico keeps in a shoebox. Many are bizarrely written, on account of the myriad NCAA regulations governing recruiting. “Hope you’re doing well,” one reads. “Here is some info on Utah. It’s all we can legally send you right now. We’re very excited about you and looking forward to seeing you on campus soon. Go Utes.”
None of this strikes Nico as weird, for this is the only world he knows. When he was in the eighth grade—the first time, before Pace and Gaia held him back to let his body catch up, which is something good players now do—he worried that all his contemporaries were being ranked, and getting buzz, and had mixtapes, and he didn’t. When a camp offered him a “presentation package”—basically, we’ll film you all week and make you a mixtape for $75—he begged his parents but they stood firm. You have to earn it, Pace said. Besides, being ranked when you’re in the eighth grade is meaningless. For every kid who meets the loftiest expectations, countless others fall short.
As for Pace and Gaia, they rely on their own experiences. When Pace was 10, he knew he wanted to be a basketball player, so he pursued that goal relentlessly, relying on defense to scrap his way to the league—or The League, as Nico’s awestruck friends say—then becoming a legend in Italy, playing against everyone from Mike D’Antoni to a young Manu Ginóbili and finally retiring at 42. In 1995, divorced from his first wife, with whom he has two kids, he met Gaia. He was 35 and a star. She was 21 and a firebrand.
From an early age Pace groomed Nico to be a point guard, because it’s easier to switch from the one to the two than the other way around. Always, he told him to be aggressive and drive to score, not to pass. At first, this seemed a bit ludicrous, as Nico was always the smallest kid, drowning in his jersey. Only in the last year or so has his body caught up to his peers’.
Now Pace, who works in merchant services, alternates between doting on Nico—“I’m basically a taxi driver”—and cutting him down to size.
When Nico changes shirts at a workout, exposing his chest: “Son, please put that shirt back on!”
At dinner, the night after a game: “Last night’s dunk was weak, you might as well have laid it up. I wouldn’t even count that as a dunk.”
While barbecuing at the house: “Son, why’d I have you?”
Nico: “To get you beers.”
Nico returns with Heineken in a frosty glass.
Meanwhile, Gaia, a personal trainer and cooking instructor, drops the hammer when necessary. She closely monitors Nico’s social media usage—“the biggest challenge of raising a teenager today.” A GPA below 4.0 means no phone for a week. Last year, she finally let him join Facebook, but then he realized no one his age was on Facebook (“I didn’t even get it on my newest phone.”)
Good nutrition is similarly enforced. Dessert at home is rare. “She’ll buy snacks, and the best thing is, like, Nutri-Grain bars,” Nico moans. Chores are not optional. Nico’s are: Make your bed every morning, feed the dogs, do your laundry on the weekend, scoop the poop, take out the garbage when full, and use Clorox wipes on your bathroom once a week.
Gaia does not entertain excuses. Whenever Nico complains about a coach getting on his case or a teammate freezing him out, Gaia says the same thing: “You can get bitter or you can get better!”
Nico’s upbringing shows: He looks adults in the eye, is thoughtful and is almost preposterously clean for a teenager. He is fortunate in many respects, blessed with an enviable genetic and socioeconomic situation. This makes him different from many of the other 15-year-old sorta-maybe prodigies. Both Pace and Gaia have already achieved their own athletic dreams, so they are not living through their child. They can afford sessions with a basketball trainer and a sports-scientist type, and, since Pace worked as a broadcaster for the Jazz—Nico would kiss the TV screen, saying, “Dad! Dad!”—Nico is not cowed by NBA life. His most indelible memory, from when he was nine, is Kobe Bryant kneeling down and speaking Italian to him. “The best player in the world and he’s treating me like a regular person,” Nico says.
Like most of his friends in this era of youth sports specialization, Nico plays only basketball. He tried football for a while but didn’t like being tackled. He hated baseball. Asked about his hobbies outside hoops, he thinks for a bit. Finally, he mentions fishing. Yes, he sorta likes to fish. Future careers, non-NBA division? None come to mind. Favorite subject? Math, I guess. Asked what portion of his life is devoted to playing basketball, or thinking about basketball, or watching basketball, he pauses, calculates. “About 85%. A lot.”
This focus is multiplied by the inherent tunnel vision that comes with being a teenager, so that when he is talking with someone—say, for example, a visiting writer from California–Nico is both shocked and embarrassed for said writer if he does not recognize the name of this or that 9th grade prospect, or the acronym of a big youth summer camp. You don’t know NYBL? You’ve never heard of DeAndre Ayton?
“Really?” Nico will say in these instances, a look of pity on his face. “WOWWWWW.”
Better, the writer learns, to just nod and pretend.
W, W, W, W, W, L. This is Pinnacle’s season before the home opener, on Dec. 6. Considering the Pioneers combine a lack of size with a lack of experience, they are surprisingly good. Wilde employs a three-guard attack behind one upperclassman (Mason), three sophomores and Nico, who is only the second freshman ever to start on varsity. The first, Trent Brown, is now a sophomore.
Before every home game the players meet for a pregame meal at Majerle’s Sports Grill. A sign by the door reads NO FIREARMS, just in case you forgot you were in Arizona. While most of the boys arrive in cars, Nico—who is 0-for-2 in passing his driver’s permit test, by one point each time!—bums a ride or gets one from Pace, the taxi driver. Gathered around a high-top table, in matching warm-up gear, the boys discuss a wide range of topics—girls, other dope prospects, the fact that Mason has no chest—then bring up hecklers.
Player One: “My brother says that Shadow Mountain does research on you, and they actually target you! They DM’ed every single player on this one team last year and said ‘You’re ugly.”
Player Two: “That’s crazy!”
Player Three: “We just need a majority of our students to take their shirts off while we’re playing. You want to play with a bunch of students with their shirts off?”
Player Three, authoritatively: “No, you wouldn’t. You’d be like, ‘Look at those kids with their shirts off!”
Player Four: “Shut up, dude.”
Then it’s off to the gym, where the Pinnacle Crazies do not take their shirts off. They do stand and chant, “NI-CO MANN-ION!”
One riser over sit the team parents, in a diamond-shaped cluster, looking serious. Three film the game; one live-streams it. Pace and Gaia sit in portable chairs, stomping and cheering and exhorting. If Nico could hear his parents above the din during the game, this is what he would hear:
“Nico, force him left!”
“Number 24 can’t guard. Go at him!”
“Foul! That’s a foul!”
“Go to work son!”
On the court Nico is a blur, attacking and sprinting and firing 24-footers off the dribble. You can see why Hurley couldn’t stop watching: the basketball IQ, competitive fire, athleticism. In the first quarter Nico has two holy crap! moves, one chasing a loose ball and finding a teammate for a layup, and the other a soaring, above-the-rim lefty finish around a 6' 4" leaper. It is easy to forget he’s a freshman.
Still, Pinnacle blows an early lead and is losing at the half. Wilde, a compact, gap-toothed man who looks as if he might wrestle you at any moment, throws a clipboard in the locker room, lamenting the mental errors. Because he endeavors to never swear around the kids, he instead yells “God dang it!” and “Man alive!” and Un-accept-a-ble!” It is, he later says, as mad as he’s been all season.
Despite a late rally, Pinnacle loses by three. In the locker room Mason stands up and announces, “This will make us better.” Eventually Nico walks out to his waiting parents, stopped en route by the opposing team’s star, who wants to take a picture, then two girls interested in hugs. Privately his parents are pleased by the hugs; it’s always good to see your son find a social groove. Still, they want to set limits. When Nico asks if he can get a ride with Mason to BJ’s, for postgame dinner, Pace thinks for a moment. “O.K.,” he finally says, “but you’re sitting with us.”
An hour later, picking at grilled cheese and drinking a strawberry lemonade, Nico remains despondent over the loss and his play. He did not shoot like Steph tonight.
“Let it go,” says Gaia, putting an arm around Nico.
“It’s over—nothing we can do about it,” says Pace. Besides, it’s noted, this was the first home game of Nico’s first season of high school. Just think of how many more games await in his life. Hundreds? Thousands? Nico looks up. He does not appear reassured. “That means we only have, what, eight more home games this year?”
Two days later Pinnacle plays at Mesa High, the defending Division I state champs. Wilde has spent two days preparing the boys: film at lunch, more film at practice. At 4 p.m. the players climb onto a long yellow school bus. The starters huddle in the rear. The normal banter—whether J. Cole’s album will be nice, maybe even better than Chance the Rapper’s, maybe the album of the year?!?—soon gives way to a weightier concern.
This week some freshman got in a scrap at a skate park and then—so the boys heard—threatened on Twitter to shoot up the school on Friday. And today is Thursday.
The boys are freaked out. They are concerned. And they aren’t about to show it.
“I told my dad. He said, ‘You’re still going to school. . . .’ ”
“They canceled practice. . . .”
“They canceled your mother. . . .”
“Dude, I was watching a documentary on some kid who actually did this. That’s why I’m not f------ with that. Go to school? No way, bro! Straight up!”
No one knows what to think. Is it a real threat, a sign of these messed-up times? By the end of the bus ride they reach consensus: Trent will talk to Coach Wilde before the game. Also: Most of the team will be skipping school tomorrow.
Mesa’s gym is smaller than Pinnacle’s. While the JV plays, Wilde stands in the linoleum-tiled anteroom, forcing down a pretzel and nachos, purchased at the student-run concessions stand. “Dinner, twice a week,” he says. Wilde’s been at this a while and is thinking about retiring, but his kids and his wife urge him to stay. Still, times have changed. Wilde is Nico’s coach, but not in the way I—and maybe you—once had a high school coach, 20 or 30 years ago. For most teenagers, a coach is an authority figure who controls your life because he controls your PT. He may be a mentor, or a bastard, but you did what he said because you had no choice. But Wilde is just one of Nico’s (and Spencer’s) coaches, and he knows it. Just by coming to Pinnacle, Nico brings other talented players, attention, and that Under Armour deal. Coaches from UCLA and Gonzaga and Stanford came to open gym this past fall, just to watch Nico shoot around. If he doesn’t like Pinnacle, he can transfer. If his dad wants to suggest a play, to get Nico or Trent a good look, Wilde is wise to listen. It’s possible Nico wields as much, or more, power than Wilde. Fortunately, as Wilde says, “He’s a better kid than basketball player.”
During the JV game, I gather Trent, CJ, Spencer, and forward Jordan Mains. I ask them to describe Nico.
“Cool. He’s definitely cool.”
“He forgets his jersey a lot. And he never has a ride-”
“He’s basically increased everything, fans, publicity-”
“-and Under Armour. We get way more stuff this year-”
“-those gray jerseys are dope-”
“-those are tough!”
“Most people, if it weren’t for social media, they’d be completely oblivious to him-”
“But then you scroll through and see 40,000 people and you’re like, God!”
“I think he’ll go big-time DI-”
“He’s got a real shot at The League-”
“If he gets to 6’4, 6’5-”
“-depending on injuries-”
“Yeah, he stretches a lot.”
“Seriously, though. He’s different. We all know it.”
Thirty minutes later, Ryan Silver walks in, fresh off a flight from L.A., wearing an Under Armour polo shirt. He is nervous energy in human form. The reason becomes clear: An assistant from USC is here to see Nico, at Silver’s urging.
Silver sits in the bleachers, leg tapping, watching Nico. “He’s got great bloodlines,” he tells me, as if describing a thoroughbred. “Mom’s an athlete, and Dad’s in the NBA. If he’s 6' 5"—whoooooo, it’s over.”
He continues. “Look at him. He’s not shaving yet, no hair on his legs. He can grow. And what makes him special is that he’s a passer, not just a scorer. The other kids on the Earl Watson team are all jealous of him.”
The USC coach arrives just before tip-off and sits in the first row, near the door. Nico starts slowly. Finally, late in the first quarter, he scores on a tough pull-up from the baseline. Two minutes later he comes out, gassed. “Hydrate!” Pace commands from the stands. Silver thumbs out a tweet, equal parts promotion and flattery: “USC Associate Head Coach Tony Bland courtside tonight at Pinnacle AZ/Mesa for 2020 Nico Mannion. Bland tremendous Coach primed to be HC soon.”
Silver looks at me. “Watch. Once I send this out, I’ll get texts from, like, 10 coaches.”
We wait. Thirty seconds pass. A minute. Ping! An eyeballs emoji from an Arizona coach. UCLA responds as well. Silver is pleased. His job, he explains, is to help Nico get to the best school possible. “After that, it’s up to him.”
Nico continues to struggle. The crowd, which numbers maybe 400, gleefully chants “o-ver-ra-ted!” At least it’s better than the “Fire crotch” chant he hears at one gym. The opposing point guard goes after Nico, as all opposing point guards do now that he’s a phenomenon, banging and elbowing and bumping. Gaia can’t stand it. Pace tells Nico to man up. Nico gets crossed over something wicked and falls down, causing the crowd to go nuts. Nico responds with a turnover. In the stands Bland looks down at his phone. Silver is bewildered and frustrated.
“Do you think the pressure is getting to Nico?” he finally asks, and the answer seems obvious.
Fourth quarter, 6:30 remaining: Nico gets his fourth foul. He walks to the bench, upset. He looks young. On the verge of tears. He looks to Pace for kindred indignation, finds none. “You’ve got your hand on him. If you push, it’s a foul, son!”
Fourth quarter, 3:30: Pinnacle rallies to take a lead. Mesa answers, then Pinnacle. Timeout. The gym is buzzing. “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” blares from the speakers, cheerleaders whoop, and the jackrabbit mascot boogies. Little sisters and brothers hop up and down, and the Mesa student section stands as a block, clapping and yelling, and a girl of maybe 13 air-guitars the solo, and no one looks at their phone, and it’s hard not to feel like, Damn, if this isn’t the essence of high school sports, the way it’s always been, maybe even the way it’s supposed to be, with the players rubbing the bottom of their shoes and the parents freaking out and the pretty girls in the stands giggling, and it strikes you that no matter what’s to come for a boy like Nico, whether it’s college offers or the NBA or whatever else, this is still a pretty cool moment, one that makes those who are not young wish they were, and those who are feel like nothing could possibly matter more.
And then Pinnacle gets a stop and is running down the clock, the lead in hand and–oh, crap!—a pass slips right through Nico’s hands and caroms off the bleachers, next to Bland. Then, moments later, up 56–54, Nico tries for an ill-advised steal—“Noooo!” yells Pace—only to see Mason, the soft-spoken junior who’s hoping that if things break right, he’ll get an offer from Cal Poly or Dartmouth so he can study engineering, swoop in from behind and pin the layup on the backboard, sealing the win.
Bland isn’t there to see it. He left a minute earlier, vanishing into the night. Nico finishes with 11 points, three rebounds, three assists, one steal and three turnovers. It is easily his worst game of the season.
Walking to the car, half an hour later. Pace turns to Nico.
“I can’t believe they offered you a scholarship after that performance.”
“I know,” responds Nico.
And it’s true. Bland texted Silver. Silver, excited, put him on the phone with Nico. The coach told Nico that he loved how he wasn’t just a scorer. How he D’d up and rebounded and understood the game. How he’d fit in well at USC. And then he offered him a scholarship. Actually, he offered two, “in case your dad wants to come out of retirement.”
This put Silver into motion. He texted a recruiting analyst named Josh Gershon, giving him a five-minute head start on the rest of the media. Gershon posted the news. Silver retweeted it, then followed with his own Instagram post 10 minutes later. It carries more weight, Silver explained, if it doesn’t come from him initially, because people are always saying he’s just hyping his guys.
Over dinner at a nearby Chili’s, Nico is quiet while Silver tells cautionary tales: about surefire guys who got offers from Kansas, then just never got better, or got fat, or had the wrong priorities. He tells Nico that he needs to rest, rest, rest, rest. He has a big summer coming up. The Biggest. N.Y.C., Indy, L.A., USA Basketball, probably the Under Armour All-Star game. High school is O.K., somewhat important, but the summer’s what matters. That’s when the coaches notice. When he sees better comp. “If you’re going to go to UCLA or USC, you need to play against those guys.” Silver stares at Nico, picking at his grilled cheese. “Bro, it’s going to get crazy. Agents will call, runners will call, trainers will call—”
Nico turns to his mom, seated next to him, with her hand on his shoulder. “What are runners?” he asks her.
If she knows—that runners are the go-betweens who ferry gifts and sweet nothings between college coaches and prospects—she doesn’t have time to explain. Silver is still going.
“–especially without social media.” By the time Nico is a junior or senior, his following will be insane. Like 100,000 followers. Insane! Then he’ll become the face of Under Armour.”
Gaia is not about to let this pass without some of the ol’ bringing down to earth. “I tell him all the time,” she announces, “that I don’t care how many followers you have, go pick up dog poop.”
Later, on the drive home, I ask Gaia and Pace where they hope Nico will be when he’s 25. “Happy,” Gaia says. “Just happy. But I always worry that he’ll be disappointed. The pressure. What if it doesn’t work out? Does he understand that he’s a valuable human being, that he can be anything he wants to be beyond basketball?”
In the driver’s seat, Pace smiles. “Yeah, because I’d have just said, ‘I want him to be an NBA All-Star and make a lot of . . . ’ ” He chuckles, winks. “Just kidding.”
In reality Pace, who gives the appearance of never worrying, thinks about it a lot. Nico’s his third child. The other two were athletes, but neither faced these expectations. “Obviously your biggest fear is he doesn’t get to where he wants to get, and the odds are that’s the case. Only a few guys get to play professional, and a lot of it is luck and staying healthy.” He looks out at the highway. “Last summer I told Nico to try to enjoy every moment. Don’t think, ‘I’m playing because I want to get a scholarship or this or that.’ Just enjoy the game. Because it goes by so fast, and then it’s gone. You don’t think that right now, because you’re 15, or 14, but believe me, it will be over before you know it.”
In the backseat of the Lincoln Navigator, Nico has his knees scrunched up, earphones in, face lit by his phone. He looks worn out. And it doesn’t seem fair. Here is a boy who works hard and is mature beyond his years, likable and gifted. He’d be primed for success in so many industries but has already narrowed his life to this one goal, and whether he reaches it may be out of his control. It may come down to his growth plates, or a fluke injury, or some coach’s whim.
So yes, he’s sorta like Steph. But Steph is also one in a million.
There is no gunfire at school the next day. Security and police are on top of it. “It was just social media running out of control,” school principal Chad Lanese said. Most of the players aren’t there to find out. Besides, as Pace points out, they could use the sleep. Instead a group meets at Denny’s at the very teenager time of 10:30. “I wet my hair with the garden hose on the way out of the house,” Trent announces upon arriving 20 minutes late.
The boys order chocolate-chip pancakes and lumberjack specials and generally eat things that would horrify you if you knew the ingredients and quantities. They pass around video of Kyree Walker, the top high school freshman in the country, and a junior named Zion Williamson.
“Holy crap! You see this?!” Nico says, holding up his phone.
CJ watches. “Ooh! He had this move, I think I liked it on Instagram; it was the most lit thing I’ve ever seen.”
They talk about a group text named “Bio is depressing,” which everyone had to delete.
“Like, word got out to a parent and they, like, reported stuff and he’s, like, all mad now.”
“Why, because his class is depressing?”
“No, a parent thought somebody was actually depressed—that’s why they reported it!”
“Oh, my God!”
And on it goes, stories about flat tires and missed dunks and weird teachers, the older kids leading the charge while Nico sits, swiveling his head and smiling and occasionally taking grief. In the months to come, Pinnacle will win six in a row, and Nico will score 38 in a game, and The Arizona Republic will write about him, and the letters from colleges will continue, giving Nico hope that he will soon need a second shoebox.
But for now, on this morning, as the thin winter light filters in and the waiter comes by wearing a button that reads “ask me about adding avocado”, Nico is not yet an adult or a superstar, but just a skinny freshman among elders, a kid whose father had to drive him to Denny’s and who’s sitting right over there in a booth by himself—“Hi, Dad!”—pretending not to pay attention. For now life is both amazingly simple and vexingly complicated. Play basketball. Do your homework. Hydrate. Think about the future. Live in the moment. Keep your cool. Scoop the poop. Be yourself. Be different. Act old. Cherish your youth.
Nico picks up his phone, checks to see if he has any notifications, puts it back down, looks back up. The boys are talking about practice that afternoon. It’s going to be good, they agree. Real good.
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