Thursday, February 26, 2015

Childhood, interrupted

LeBron James is right about his son, and he is wrong about his son. That's where we've arrived now with American childhood, particularly when that childhood has any precocious shine or genius glimmer to it.

And so here was LeBron the other day, telling colleges to quit sending recruiting letters to his 10-year-old son, LeBron Jr., who apparently is a chip off the block on the basketball floor.  And yet here he also was, putting LeBron Jr. out there in an AAU pipeline expressly designed to showcase individual talent for college recruiters.

Can't have it both ways, LeBron.

And yet ...

And yet, he's right. Ten-year-olds should be off-limits. Mainly because, well, they should be 10-year-olds, and not commodities to be warred over by fat-dollar athletic programs.

The worst crime you can commit against childhood is to corrupt its innocence, and that's what's now happening now. The most damning line in the entire LeBron/LeBron Jr. story is buried deep within it, and what's damning about it is its very innocuousness. Here's what it says: "Kentucky's John Calipari watched LeBron James Jr. play last summer during the AAU Fourth Grade National Championship in Lexington."


There's a fourth grade National Championship?

For God's sake why?

When I was in fourth grade, my biggest concern was whether or not we'd be having Tater Tots or Tri-Taters for lunch (I was always a Tri-Tater man myself). It certainly wasn't playing for a national championship while a bunch of college coaches evaluated me like a piece of meat. I was a kid, and I was allowed to be a kid. And that was true even for my classmates who were precociously athletic and not, like me, comic relief.

But now 10-year-olds are not 10-year-olds but Prospects, future parts for a machine whose stated academic mission long ago became a sly wink and a poke in the ribs. The Blob's unease with AAU ball is well documented, and it's backed up by the likes of Kobe Bryant and Charles Barkley, both of whom have utter disdain for it. They believe it serves no purpose but to impede young players' fundamental skills and distort their sense of self, and they're absolutely right.

To belabor the point: No kid ever learned how to play basketball by playing AAU ball. That's because its implicit purpose is not to develop basketball IQ but to showcase talent for the college coaches with whom AAU coaches sometimes have entirely too cozy a relationship. And while there may be  good intentions in all of that, the corrosive nature of it is obvious -- particularly on kids as young as LeBron James Jr.

Nothing good can come of treating 10-year-olds like stars, and yet that's what AAU ball does. Its very function makes it unavoidable. And unless that 10-year-old has some pretty solid guidance at home -- and it sure sounds like LeBron Jr. does -- the inevitable result is a warped sense of entitlement that's only reinforced the older and better he (or she) becomes.

I've seen it happen, over the years. Not often, but on occasion, I've interviewed high school stars who clearly thought I should be grateful for the access. I always came away feeling not so much offended as sad and a little sorry for them.

 And I always wondered what would have happened if they'd been allowed to have normal childhoods, to not have such a bright spotlight turned on them at such a young and vulnerable age. If, when they were in fourth grade, their biggest concerns were Tater Tots or Tri-Taters, and rounding up enough bodies at recess to play five-on-five.

Somehow I think John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski still would have found them.

When the time was right.

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