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THE FAST TRACK

Jan. 24, 2005
Jan. 24, 2005

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Jan. 24, 2005

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THE FAST TRACK

The next LeBron? Some say 14-year-old Demetrius Walker is on the express to the NBA. Others say he's traveling too quickly, too soon

YOU SEE?" Kisha Houston storms across the Rialto High basketball court, waving a blue, filigreed document--her son's birth certificate. "You see? Demetrius Walker is 14 years old. Say that. Write that. Tell them D is 14. Stop all this about his being 16, 17, people lying, saying we held him back. He's the right age." ¶ She holds the document up for inspection. "That's his birthday right there," she says. And sure enough, Demetrius Walker, or D, the best eighth-grade basketball player in the country, is only 14 years old. But that man out there on the court, 6'3", 175 pounds, built more like an NFL tailback than a junior high school point guard and with enough game to be running the point for a Division I program--how can he be 14? It doesn't seem possible, but deal with it: This kid is 14 going on LeBron. ¶ I shouldn't be writing this. You shouldn't be reading it.

This is an article from the Jan. 24, 2005 issue Original Layout

The photographs on these pages shouldn't have been taken. Isn't it too early to start poking and prodding at a kid, to shine the kliegs of sports celebrity upon a mere child, to start stoking the superstar-making machinery for a boy who is barely into puberty? Isn't it too early for interviewers to be traipsing into his bedroom and sitting down beneath his recreation-league trophies and tacked-up newspaper clippings to ask a kid who's sucking on a Pixy Stix about going to college or even turning pro?

Apparently not. D has crates of letters from college coaches--Mike Krzyzewski, Lute Olson, John Calipari--with their autographs at the bottom of notes that begin something like, "NCAA regulations forbid us from giving you information about our university, but we would be happy to talk to you about the opportunities to play here." Adidas sponsors his AAU team. A half-dozen magazines hoping to do profiles have contacted Demetrius's coach, Joe Keller. There have been newspaper, TV and radio features on the prodigy from the Los Angeles suburb of Fontana.

If child stars in golf, tennis, gymnastics, ballet and skateboarding are getting buckets of ink and stacks of endorsement dollars, then why should we discriminate against a young athlete because he plays hoops? After all, eight of the first 19 picks in last year's NBA draft were high school players. And if 17- or 18-year-olds are now pro prospects, it follows that talent scouts need to start keeping tabs on even younger players. "Middle school is the new high school," says Keller.

That's why we know, for example, that Orlando's Austin Rivers (son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers) is the best sixth-grader in the country, as determined by Hoopscoop, an Internet scholastic basketball scouting service. Adidas, Nike and Reebok already spend millions on grassroots programs and summer basketball tournaments for the nation's top high school players. Last year, hoping to get an even earlier read on potential endorsers, Adidas launched its Junior Phenom Camp for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, and college coaches are finding it increasingly difficult to stay away from such prepubescent meat markets.

"We are all rushing [to find the next] Kobe, Tracy or LeBron, and it's not fair to the kids," says Sonny Vaccaro, senior director of grassroots basketball for Reebok and one of the pioneers at seeking out and developing teenage talent. "It's getting ridiculous."

team california, Demetrius Walker's AAU squad, hasn't lost a game in 21/2 years--that's 160 straight wins, including last year's AAU championship for boys 13 and under. Most of Team Cal's games are against high school teams, and even in those matchups Demetrius looks like, well, a man among boys. Forget the smooth way he strokes the J, the ease with which he draws contact on the drive and then goes to the line and converts, the crisp chest passes, the 360-degree dunks, the first step so fast it once caused a defender to slip out of his Nike. Instead, check this highlight from the championship game of an AAU tournament at Rialto High on Nov. 21: On a two-on-three break against a high school squad from Lake Elsinore, there are three defenders between Demetrius and fellow eighth-grader Rome Draper, apparently obstructing every conceivable passing lane, but D throws a bounce pass that vanishes into the welter of arms and legs before reappearing in Rome's hands, its arrival so surprising that he bobbles the rock for a second before laying it in. "You can't teach that," says Keller, who in addition to his coaching duties is a talent scout, earning a six-figure compensation package from Adidas. "I've never seen any kid that age do what D can do." Keller should know: He's worked with dozens of players who have gone on to the NBA, including, most recently, Chicago Bulls center-forward Tyson Chandler, Atlanta Hawks guard-forward Josh Childress and Charlotte Bobcats forward-center Jamal Sampson. "I've never seen a combination of speed, size and coordination like this kid has," Keller says.

"He's a great athlete, he's got excellent skills, he can play inside, outside," agrees Clark Francis, editor and publisher of Hoopscoop. "If he grows, it'll be scary; if he doesn't, he can still make a lot of money at this game."

Keller spends several hours every day with Demetrius, chauffeuring him, checking that he's done his homework (Demetrius is homeschooled by a tutor), phoning him during the evening to make sure he's at home instead of out with the boys, even helping Houston hook up the surround-sound speakers for her home entertainment system.

D, who has not seen his father since he was an infant, spends more time with Keller than most sons do with their fathers. "I can't talk to my mom about everything," says D. "I can't talk to her about girls. I need to go to Joe." Demetrius sits on a sofa in the three-bedroom bungalow he shares with his mom, chasing amino acid tablets with fruit punch. He just shrugs when asked who is tougher on him, his mom or Joe.

"Now that's a good question, a real good question," he says, smiling. "Put it this way: If I'm not doing right, if I'm chasing girls or something, then my mom will kick my a-- first. Then coach will. Then my grandma. They'll be lining up."

He laughs. He speaks with a slight twang, not yet accustomed to his voice's bass tones. His wide brown eyes seem prematurely weary. "Sometimes I regret that I can't just go to the pizza parlor with my friends," he says. "But we have a plan."

Precocious superstar athletes usually have a surfeit of confidence, which adds to their luster and convinces those around them from an early age that they are special. Up close, it is sometimes perceived as charisma and can be confused with intelligence. Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Peyton Manning--they seem more articulate than they are, in part because of who they are. Demetrius has it.

He's been dunking a basketball (on eight-foot rims) since he was seven, palming the ball since he was 10 and signing autographs since he was 11. It's been five years since Demetrius Walker has walked into a gym where no one knew his name.

this eight-year-old was just killing it. Not in the way a coordinated child might be able to dribble without looking at the ball or sink a foul shot. D was exploding to the rim and finishing with neat finger rolls and extended hang-time reverses. Children just don't do that, thought Joe Keller as he watched the 5'6" kid that day at Rialto Park. "How old are you?" he asked, becoming the first of many adults who would be suspicious of D's age.

"Eight," Demetrius responded.

"For real?"

"Uh-huh."

"Do you play on a team?"

"Rec league," D answered.

"You want to play on my team?"

Demetrius shrugged. "You better talk to my momma."

Kisha Houston--a home retention specialist (she helps homeowners avoid foreclosure)--took one look at Keller, a potbellied, 29-year-old and thought, Uh-uh. Do I really want my boy with this weird white dude who keeps saying, "I can see talent before it is even there"?

But as Keller explained Team California, the Adidas grassroots program and his plans for Demetrius, the guy started to look a little better. In her day Houston, now 35, was a player, a six-foot forward nicknamed Helluva Hops who started for Crenshaw High in 1985 and '86. "If they had Prop 48 and the WNBA when I was coming up, who knows?" she says. Keller was talking about a basketball program that would get D noticed and would also train and discipline him. Even if he didn't develop big-time skills, it couldn't hurt to spend five afternoons a week at the gym instead of on the street. And maybe he'd get the chance she never did. Wasn't that what she'd had in mind when she moved out of the gang-ridden Crenshaw district to Rialto when he was two, then into slightly less gang-infested Fontana when he was seven?

D's first day working out with Team California was almost his last. Keller had assembled a squad that today includes six of the 40 best eighth-graders in the country and was putting them through Hell Week. A typical drill: sprint from baseline to baseline, then drop and do 40 push-ups, baseline to half-court, 40 push-ups, baseline to the top of the key, 40 push-ups. Finished? O.K., do it again. That workout would make a grown-up puke; D was barely nine.

"I thought, Man, this dude must have had a hard life growing up," Demetrius recalls. "I thought, I ain't gonna listen to this guy--he's crazy."

D stopped running, and Keller told him to go home.

"I need to see which kids are mentally tough enough to make it," Keller says. "And D just wasn't."

But D couldn't go home. "I knew if I called my mom and told her she had to pick me up because I wouldn't work hard enough, she'd go crazy," he says. Instead, he hung around outside the gym, crying. When Keller came out and saw him, D said, "Why are you picking on me?"

"Because I think you are the best player I've ever had," the coach said. "And if you work hard enough, you can be big time. You want that?"

He did.

He does.

He will.

D strolls into the administrative offices of Fontana High. He's wearing a hoodie sweatshirt, black jeans and, of course, Adidas sneakers. Principal Thomas Reasin jumps up from behind his desk as soon as D enters the office. "There's the man," he says, coming around to shake D's hand.

This would be a remarkable greeting for any of Reasin's students, but Demetrius doesn't even attend Fontana High--yet. Reasin has hired a new basketball coach, Mark Soderberg, a former Kentucky and Utah center who played nine years of pro ball in Europe. More important, he was an assistant coach for Team California for the last five years and will likely bring in the top players from that squad, especially this kid who just strolled into the principal's office.

When Soderberg looks at D, he shakes his head in awe. "He's so advanced physically, but he still doesn't have a man's body," Soderberg says. "Imagine when that happens."

Keller agrees. "He's beyond where LeBron was at this age, where Tyson [Chandler] was," Keller says. "He's so athletic that he can dominate without developing the fundamentals--"

"But now that we are working with him on that stuff," Soderberg finishes Keller's thought for him, "he's going to become comfortable on the perimeter; then he'll become a better slasher, better defensively."

"Hey, D," says Reasin, a UCLA fan. "Listen to this." He pushes a button on a stuffed bear that plays the Bruins' fight song. "Think about it."

D smiles. "Aw-right."

Can anybody ever live up to these expectations? What if D becomes a merely average college player instead of the next LeBron? What if he decides to stop playing ball? What if, God forbid, he gets hurt? And what if he stops growing?

Keller leans forward. "D is 14 now and 6'3"," he says. "You're telling me he's not going to grow three inches between now and when he is 17? That would be average growth. And you're telling me that at 6'6", with his skill level, he can't play in the NBA? We have him on a special diet and vitamin supplements. Plus," he lowers his voice, "Demetrius don't know this, but his dad is 6'8"."

Houston laughs when asked about her former husband's height. "Oh, no no no, he was six feet" she says. "But D's uncles were 6'7" and 6'9"."

Demetrius and Keller are on their way from a morning game in Fontana to a Subway for a sandwich. While at lunch, D pulls his hood low over his eyes and then falls asleep with his head on the table. When he's not playing, he has an amazing ability to chill.

As they drive back for the afternoon championship game, D is up and running again. "People are always saying, You hang with Joe so much, it's like he's your dad. But I tell them they're just jealous, they don't have that kind of relationship with their coach."

But Keller insists that what he is doing is for the good of Demetrius, for the good of all his middle school athletes. He talks about building character, providing an education and doing everything he can to make sure that D will be eligible for a Division I program if and when he chooses that path. Right now, of course, having to accept a basketball scholarship to a D-I powerhouse would be viewed as a disappointment.

"Demetrius is a great player," says Vaccaro. "He'll be a great college player. But everyone wants him to be the next LeBron, and how can you be sure of that this early? We have set up a situation where a kid can go to college on a full ride and be deemed a failure. That's what we are doing by starting it at seventh grade."

Keller insists that he will be satisfied if D goes to college. In fact, Keller insists that he won't be disappointed if D wants to quit basketball tomorrow. "As long as he graduates from high school," Keller says. "I don't care if he becomes a ballerina."

Keller is careful to keep up the level of competition Demetrius faces; D gets bored with how easily he can dominate other players his age. Team California's opponents on this Sunday are high school squads. The best players in the country are segregated not by academic institution or region but almost invariably by sneaker company. Demetrius Walker doesn't get a chance to play against 17-year-old O.J. Mayo, for example, the Cincinnati guard widely touted to be the best 10th-grader in the country, because O.J. is a Reebok kid and D is an Adidas kid. The shoe companies want their top prospects attending their all-star camps, such as the Adidas Junior Phenom camp. NCAA regulations allow college coaches to watch only 20 days of high school camps every summer, and each sneaker company wants its best athletes showcased at its camps. "[Adidas wants] to be involved with the best kids," says Keller. "That means getting to know who the best are earlier [than ever before]."

Even Houston Rockets guard Tracy McGrady, one of the most successful players to jump straight from high school to the NBA (at age 18), worries about how early these phenoms are being prepped for stardom. "Fourteen? That's too fast," he says of Demetrius and his peers. "That means you don't even get a chance to be a teenager. At least I got to be a teenager for a while. Now they're gonna take that away too?"

After the game, another victory for Team California, Keller drops D off at home. Keller slips on a leather bomber jacket and turns off the radio, which he keeps tuned to the hip-hop station that D prefers.

"I know how this looks," says Keller as he backs the truck out of the driveway. "I know you are going to say that what is going on here is weird. People are going to say it looks bad, like I'm manipulating this kid. Like I'm trying to take advantage. But I'm not going to get a thing out of this. My only hope is that maybe, one day, when Demetrius is in the NBA, he can come back and sponsor my team. We'll call it the Demetrius Walker All-Stars. If he wants to do that, great. If not, that's fine. I'm doing everything that's right for the kid, and right now, what he wants, what I want, what his mom wants--we all want the same thing, and that's for Demetrius to succeed and grow and graduate and do all those things he is supposed to do."

How could that be bad for him?

If 17- or 18-year-olds are now pro prospects, then talent scouts need to keep tabs on even younger players. "MIDDLE SCHOOL is the new high school," says Keller.

Demetrius "is beyond where LeBron was at this age, where Tyson [Chandler] was," says Keller. "He can DOMINATE without developing the fundamentals."

Demetrius has been dunking a basketball (on eight-foot rims) since he was seven, palming since he was 10 and SIGNING AUTOGRAPHS since he was 11.

Right now, having to accept a Division I scholarship would be viewed as a DISAPPOINTMENT. "A kid can [get] a full ride and be deemed a failure," says Vaccaro.

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Robert BeckDemetrius and his handlers have a timetable: NBA by 18. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Robert BeckDemetrius (back row, center) and his Team Cal mates weren't smiling when taskmaster Keller (back, right) put them through his Hell Week. TODD BIGELOW/AURORAAt AAU tournaments Demetrius is head and shoulders above his high school--age foes. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Robert BeckDemetrius got some height and his "helluva hops" from his six-foot mom, Houston, who was a starting forward at L.A.'s Crenshaw High in the 1980s.