Alex is 17 years old. He stands along a white cinder block wall in a hangarlike building outside Philadelphia that has been divided into five full-sized basketball courts. Balls thud. Sneakers squeak. Shouts and grunts and referees' whistles fill in the gaps. College coaches line the perimeter—rock stars in khaki shorts and logo golf shirts. Alex seeks out Dan Hurley, the former Seton Hall star, now coaching at Wagner. For six days Hurley has attended every game of a certain 6'5" high school senior. It's an intense vigil that reflects how much Hurley wants the kid. Hurley senses he's close. Alex Kline already knows what will happen.
This is an article from the Dec. 12, 2011 issue
He'd love to give Hurley some reassurance, but he's got more immediate problems. Alex needs to plug in. It's 11 a.m., and his BlackBerry Curve's battery is running low. As the games of the Hoop Group Summer Classic rumble past, his thumbs flash across the keyboard. "About 30 mid- to high-major schools watching team final," he types, sending a pulse of light to more than 10,000 points in the Twitterverse. The recipients include 140 Division I head and assistant coaches.
There's no way around it: Alex Kline is the world's first teenage recruiting guru. He has brought more than youth to the party, though. He's innovated. He is the first to make widespread use of social media—Facebook, Twitter and Skype—to connect with and report on recruits. His latest tweet hits, and the information is retweeted dozens of times, reaching thousands more. It's posted on recruiting message boards across the country: According to Alex Kline....
Before Alex can consider the chain reaction he has set off, the BlackBerry pings the arrival of a new message. The high school coach of one of the players he mentioned has tweeted a response. As Alex reads it and smiles, a text message buzzes in from an Iowa State assistant sitting across the court who saw Alex's tweet and realized they are watching the same game. He has a scoop: His boss, Fred Hoiberg, is about to extend a scholarship offer to a player the Cyclones have been following for some time.
Alex tweets the news out to the world as a man in a white shirt with ROBERT MORRIS on it walks by and shouts out a hello. "Hey," Alex answers, looking up. An awkward moment lingers as Alex stands frozen, wondering if the guy will stop or keep going. This is the hardest part. Alex wants to greet everyone—he doesn't play favorites—but he doesn't want to make a nuisance of himself either. If the guy wants to talk, Alex is happy to, but he doesn't want to push himself on anyone.
"How've you been?" says another guy, this one in a green shirt with MANHATTAN emblazoned across the front. They talk. Alex texts and tweets. The BlackBerry's battery indicator continues to shrink.
At last the game Alex is watching ends, and he disappears into the thicket of bodies on the court. Rondae Jefferson, considered a top 25 recruit and likely All-America in the class of 2013, reaches out and catches Alex in a bro shake. Alex greets a few other players and slides onto the bench next to Jefferson, a 6'6" small forward from Chester, Pa. Alex pulls out a small notebook and begins firing off questions. This is where he extracts the lifeblood of his enterprise: Who's recruiting Jefferson, who's offered him a scholarship, where he has visited, and, the big one, is he leaning toward any particular suitor?
The NCAA tournament is not won on a temporary court built in a football stadium in March but in sweaty gyms where kids who know Michael Jordan only as a small-market team owner work through the tropes of basketball success—hardship, effort, tricked-out Escalades—and adults hang on the decisions of high school juniors.
Alex has joined the pack of AAU tournament chasers who try to divine for fans which phenoms are worth pining for and to provide nuggets of data about them, often from the mouths of the prodigies themselves—quotes that can be studied and deconstructed by hopeful boosters and message-board junkies everywhere. Most of them, the Twitter followers and readers of Alex's website (therecruitscoop), don't realize that he's not yet out of high school himself. Maybe that's because he's been through so much already.
Go back. Alex is 16 now. He looks the same. His face is a triangle opening out from the point of his chin, complete with patches of acne and a row of braces. His heavy eyebrows seem to rest in a permanent arc, which along with hair that pushes up in front gives him the surprised expression of someone forever asking, Could you repeat the question?
He's 5'8", 150 pounds, essentially the same size he's been since sixth grade. Back then he was the biggest kid in his class and a terror on the football field, convinced that his future lay in the NFL. He still plays on the school team, an offensive guard in a water boy's body. He gives 'em hell on special teams, but as a football prospect he makes a pretty good basketball analyst.
He's sitting in Spanish class at The Pennington School in Pennington, N.J., and his BlackBerry is blowing up. Word is out that 6'4" guard Rodney Purvis, a top 10 player from Raleigh, has reneged on his commitment to Louisville, and Alex needs to weigh in. He asks his teacher if he can use the bathroom, then ducks into a stall and shares the news with his followers. Alex started his Twitter account and website the previous spring, at the end of his sophomore year, and since then some of his teachers have come to believe that he has a bladder problem.
The Twitter account has become a favorite. Alex loves checking how many followers he's added. "I don't know why, but that's exciting to me," he says. Maybe that's why he's up every morning at 5:30 or 6:00, getting ready for school and working up content.
Once he gets to school, he's never offline for more than a few hours, and he spends almost all his free time pursuing information, calling and texting players and coaches. He attends tournaments and showcases, watching games and talking to everyone he can, sometimes spending 14 hours working the sideline. He's begun writing profiles and stories for other recruiting sites within the Rivals network, for which he gets paid, but he views it all as a very intense hobby.
Alex's success has come with some criticism—claims that he doesn't see enough games, uses others' information without crediting it, takes quotes off Facebook and makes them sound as if they're his own, and is a relentless self-promoter. Alex admits there's been a learning curve, but mostly he shrugs off the charges. He's not looking to become a sports reporter.
"It took me a long time to get over what I went through," he says, "but it slowly went away, and it made me who I am today. I figure if I can deal with that, I can deal with anything, including a little criticism from other writers."
Alex is 15. He's on the phone with Harrison Barnes, who's considered the top high school basketball player in the class of 2010. Barnes is being pursued by college basketball's sideline poster boys: Coach K, Roy Williams, Bill Self and, of course, John Calipari, who has recently moved from Memphis to Kentucky.
Alex asks if the Calipari move has any impact on Barnes's recruitment, and the 6'8" small forward from Ames, Iowa, speaks openly: "He's a good coach. I don't know if I like the way they're doing things there right now though. Seems like he left Memphis kind of in a bad situation, and then guys at Kentucky are getting their scholarships taken back. I don't know yet."
When Alex posts the interview, it goes viral, getting reposted on basketball sites across the country and even finding its way onto ESPN's website. Alex notes the spike in traffic and notoriety. He redoubles his efforts with high school players. Before long he's putting up video interviews with 6'2" point guard Kyrie Irving of West Orange, N.J., and 6'9" power forward Tristan Thompson of Brampton, Ont. (both first-round picks in the 2011 NBA draft) and a handful of others.
They are not famous yet, but at least some of them are millionaires in waiting, and it's possible to stand next to them and get a whiff of the money and fame that lie ahead. They're a down payment on an I-knew-them-when story. That, Alex thinks, is sort of exciting.
His mother, Mary, used to take him to plays, mostly local productions. They would see anything: dramas, musicals, comedies. Once a week she would let him go to McDonald's, where sometimes his Happy Meal came with a CD that featured a compilation of rerecorded pop music. Together they'd wear out those discs. They grew to share an affinity for celebrities, for people who perform. It's something that continues to connect them.
Alex is 14. He's a freshman who prefers the company of older kids, adults even. He wants to be the one teen who's not fixated on drinking and drugs and sex. After football season, he becomes the manager of the basketball team. He learns the game. He gets to know the players.
In the spring he and a friend start a pop-culture website— boxofMESS.com (Music, Entertainment, Sports and Style). The idea is to feature news and interviews with bona fide celebrities, but snagging chat time with legit A-listers proves difficult. Finally Alex has a breakthrough.
Jason Thompson accepts his friend request on Facebook. Like Alex, Thompson is a Jersey boy, and after a stellar career in-state at Rider University the 6'11" forward-center became a first-round draft pick of the Kings in 2008. Thompson agrees to an interview, which gets good traffic on the site.
The experience leads Alex to a realization: Getting regular interviews with NBA players will be tough, but five years ago Thompson was just another kid knocking around the New Jersey suburbs. Alex has now become the team manager for a local AAU team, NJABC, and he's come to circulate among the best high school ballers in the area. He begins to interview them and post the results on boxofMESS.
As the summer progresses, the team begins to travel to bigger tournaments—Alex has gone as far as West Virginia and Florida—and he finds himself among a wider array of recruits, including some of the top players in the game. They're standing right there, in flip-flops and baggy shorts, earmuff-sized headphones propped on their heads. Most of them are more than happy to answer questions about where they may "take their talents." Alex likes scouting the less recruited kids too, finding those unpolished gems and giving them a swipe with the cuff of his shirt.
And he's good at it. He's a natural on camera. The players seem to relate to him too. He's not some wrinkled 40-year-old with a tape recorder and an advanced degree in cynicism. He's another kid, and the conversations often have the air of before-the-homeroom-bell chat sessions.
Alex likes the game. It's a forum in which kids command the attention of adults, and unanswered questions drive the plot. Each player is a mystery waiting to be solved, a source of anxiety waiting to be eliminated. Alex knows about questions. He knows about lying in bed at night asking why, how, when?
His name has begun to spider outward like cracks across a windshield, but he wants more—needs more. He goes online and looks up the top 100 high school players, then opens Facebook and sends a friend request to everyone on the list who has an account.
Alex is 10. He and his father, Robert, have moved to New York City, where he attends a private school on the Upper East Side. His father picks him up one day, a rainy afternoon in January. Back at the apartment Alex sits. Robert tells him. Alex cries.
His tears are uncontrollable. He cries because he's sad. Because he never thought it would actually happen. Because it has been five years—half of his life—of weirdness and suffering and wondering. And because on some level he feels a sense of relief, which only makes him feel worse.
Alex goes to school the next day, but the next week is a blur. His buddies are a great support, as is his family. Over the summer he and his father will move back to New Jersey, and Alex will start over again. New school, new friends, new life. No mother.
Alex is seven. The Phillies are on the field at Veterans Stadium. Alex sits in the stands talking to his father and a family friend. He's rattling off stats and percentages. Two guys sitting behind him start to ask questions. Alex talks baseball on and off for the next few innings. The guys look at Robert, impressed: "You taught him well."
Robert goes palms up: "I don't know anything about baseball."
The games are new for them. They've started going to five or six a year. Not only the Phillies but also the Yankees, Mets and the Trenton Thunder. The games are a counterbalance to their other father-and-son excursions: visits to the medical facility three times a week.
Alex doesn't like those. He misses his mother, wants to see her. But he finds more and more that the woman he encounters in the rolling bed with the safety rails, her tongue turned white from drinking Ensure, is not her. She loses the use of her left arm, then her entire left side, and then her ability to speak and finally, her sight. Even before that Alex finds that they have little to talk about. They're going in opposite directions, her world crashing inward, hardly escaping the gravitational pull of her physical being. He is on the verge of exploding, bursting beyond the limited confines of his life into the digital forever.
Alex is five. The family is at Walt Disney World for Christmas. They walk through the lobby of the Grand Floridian, past the life-sized Gingerbread House and little girls in princess dresses who are off to character meals. Mary stumbles. All three of them turn to see what made her trip, but there's nothing there. At lunch, a glass slides out of her hand.
Back home she heads for the doctor, who suspects MS. Tests are scheduled, but the next day she has a seizure, right there in the house with Robert and Alex watching. A CAT scan and an MRI lead to a diagnosis more daunting than the first: glioblastoma multiforme, grade 4. A form of brain cancer, in its most advanced stage.
The experts give her 18 months. Mary vows to beat it. She's strong and healthy, the kind of person who won't sit near a smoker or go into a room that has recently been carpeted for fear of the fumes. In the coming months she will undergo three craniotomies—in which surgeons remove a section of skull to get at the tumor—plus chemo and radiation.
Mary was 40 when Alex was born. He was the late realization of an almost abandoned dream, and ever since he has been her life. They've spent every day together. She's seen to his every need, dedicated herself to him. But now she is gone more and more, each hospital stay seeming to last longer than the one before. She wills herself to Alex's end-of-kindergarten ceremony, which she attends in a wheelchair and a hat. He's the reason she fights on.
Robert, a lawyer, has been a background figure, emerging for family vacations and soccer games but otherwise somewhat preoccupied with work. Suddenly he's thrust into the role of full-time caregiver, for both wife and son. With the help of a live-in nurse he holds out for a year and half before Mary deteriorates to the point that she must be moved into a long-term-care facility.
Alex has long since disappeared into baseball, making two or three trips a week to the store to buy cards, the backs of which he memorizes. He has substituted the talk of appointments and treatments and medications for RBIs and ERAs and batting averages, trading the mystery of cancer for the knowable facts of a game. "I didn't know what to think. I didn't know about the disease," he says, looking back. "It was scary. I really didn't know what was going on, and I didn't know how to handle any of it."
Back in the gym outside Philly, Alex is on the move. As he makes his way across the floor, people call out to him. He's shaking hands, bumping fists, waving. He's stopped every few feet by a player or coach. "Oh, no," he says as one player approaches laughing, "look at this knucklehead." They greet each other with a half-hug shoulder bump. A few other players come over, and they all joke and talk conspiratorially. As Alex walks away he gets a text from a coach asking him what the players were talking about.
Alex hasn't yet found Dan Hurley, but he spots a power outlet along the near wall. (Hurley will get his man, Eric Fanning, the following week.) Alex plugs in the phone and slides into a plastic chair next to Steve DeMeo, the associate head coach at Hofstra. They run through the rosters of the teams playing before them. Alex helps DeMeo put names to the numbers, tells which schools are recruiting which players and offers his opinions.
"When it comes to evaluating, I don't trust anyone's opinion but mine and my boss's," says DeMeo, "but Alex can help cut through the process. He can point out some guys worth looking at, give you a feel if a kid's a good fit for you and if your school is the kind of place the kid would consider." As they talk, Alex gets a text from a Division I assistant asking him which players he should pay attention to in the game he's watching.
The news finds him now, and he tweets it out. He loves this—the information flowing through him, the long sweep of his BlackBerry bringing answers and information and a sense that he's at the center of a web that's forever expanding in a million directions. "I'm the world's biggest pen pal," he says. "I'll reach out to anyone. I see it as a triangle, with the coaches in one corner, the players in another and me in the third. In between is all this other stuff—NCAA rules, injuries and off-the-court stuff—and I'm trying to make the connections."
He has delivered. Davon Reed was an underrecruited 6'4" shooting guard after his freshman year at Princeton (N.J.) Day School. Alex began to tout him and tweet about him, and heading into his junior season, Reed, now 6'5", has 13 scholarship offers. As always, the player earned the offer and the coaches did their own legwork, but Alex pointed the way and brought urgency to the recruitment by keeping the player's name in focus with a series of updates. "Coaches will call about players and then actually recruit them," Robert Kline says with a hint of amazement. "Parents will call and ask for help. Kids have gotten an education because of Alex. He enjoys that."
One of the parents who reached out was George Briscoe, whose son Isaiah had not yet entered eighth grade. Alex was wary of getting involved with someone so young, but when he saw the kid play, he was blown away. Isaiah is now a 6'3" freshman point guard at St. Benedict's, a hoops powerhouse in Newark, and he has seven scholarship offers.
Alex wanted to take it a step further. He had gotten the basketball world to listen, but could he get it to come to him? "I wanted to run my own event," he says. "I'd seen it done. I had the connections. Why not?" Last year Alex spent six months putting together his own tournament of top-ranked high school players, working the phone, texting and using his Facebook and Twitter accounts.
For Alex, the day of the event was filled with stress and fear. Some players had canceled, others weren't sure how to get to the site, his high school gym in Pennington. It was terribly hot. Alex had no idea how many people, if any, would show up. For the first time in a long time the boy who had spent 10 years eliminating uncertainty, answering questions and battling feelings of abandonment didn't know how things were going to turn out. Would he be left behind again, wondering why?
In the end Alex had 20 of the best players in the Northeast, including future Big East and ACC headliners and a capacity crowd of about 500 people packing the gym. The first Mary Kline Classic earned $7,300 for cancer research, but for Alex it did more than that. This tournament, this act of reaching into the abyss and giving life to something that had not previously existed, was the most terrifying and gratifying experience ever, according to Alex Kline.