Near the end of a March state playoff game, underdog Oakland High is tied with host De La Salle of Concord, a perennial Northern California basketball power. Oakland's speed, quickness, and athletic creativity were enough to hold a small lead through the game's first three periods. But one minute into the final frame, De La Salle's "green machine" — a troupe of crew-cut teens operating with assembly-line precision in silver and green uniforms with American flags patched between the shoulder blades — has methodically worked its way back to even the score. Needing a basket to regain its edge, Oakland inbounds the ball to star junior guard Jabari Brown. Brown's gait is bouncy as he dribbles across mid-court and surveys the nine players laid out before him.
Just beyond the three-point line, Brown breaks his defender down with a low right-to-left crossover dribble and drives down the lane. Leaping toward the rim, he absorbs a body blow from De La Salle's big center. Brown double-clutches to flip a soft shot off the glass backboard. The ball drops through the net. The referee's whistle blows. Two points — plus a foul shot. Brown raises his fists above his shoulders and flexes his tattooed biceps toward the Oakland High bench as his teammates shout and celebrate. The Oakland fans go wild.
But De La Salle's grinding execution puts the machine back on top. It leads by two with a minute remaining when Brown receives a pass on the right wing. He squares up to the hoop and un-spools a long three pointer. It's a gutsy shot; Oakland still has time to work for a better look against the stingy De La Salle defense, but if he makes it he can put Oakland in control for the final minute rather than simply tying the game. Brown's shot rims out. Seconds later, he has to force another contested three. He double-pumps and splays his legs in hopes of eliciting a foul call from the referee. But no whistle comes and the shot bounces off the top of the backboard, effectively ending Oakland High's season. Brown spends the game's closing seconds at the end of the Oakland bench, his head bowed in his hands and his black jersey pulled up over his eyes. After the final horn sounds he puts an arm around a distraught teammate then shakes hands with the De La Salle players and coaches and disappears into the locker room.
It's an unceremonious ending to a tumultuous season for Brown, considered by some to be the Bay Area's best basketball prospect since Leon Powe — now a member of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers — graduated from Oakland Tech in 2003. At a muscular six-feet-four-inches, the seventeen-year-old Brown is ranked among the top fifteen players in America for the graduating class of 2011. During the summer, he plays for the elite Nike-sponsored Drew Gooden Soldiers traveling team, which competes in front of famous college coaches in tournaments and events around the country and counts several NBA players among its alumni. "I rank Jabari right up there at the top," says Soldiers director Mark Olivier. "The sky is the limit for that kid." A recent ESPN.com evaluation of Jabari is similarly effusive. "Brown has everything you want in a shooting guard," it reads.
But as an in-demand junior, Brown is at the heart of the maelstrom that elite-level high school basketball has become. The distinction between amateur and professional has become increasingly murky with the advent of multimillion dollar contracts for teenagers, nationally televised high school games, the rise of shoe-company-sponsored summer travel teams, and the proliferation of scouts who scour grade-school gyms across the nation in search of promising new talent. Brown himself played for three different high schools in a year, winning a California state championship with Salesian High School of Richmond his sophomore year before finishing his junior season at Oakland High. In between, he spent half a season at Findlay College Prep, a controversial Nevada prep school.
Brown's transient year and the resulting clamor, which included newspaper write-ups in multiple states and vitriolic online message board gossip, are emblematic of the changing culture. "I think all this stuff, it's too much," says Jabari's father, David Brown, who grew up in San Francisco and played at Morehouse College. "When I was coming up, there just wasn't this kind of attention. There just wasn't. It's just so different, and I think it's too much for these kids."
Since 2006, the NBA has required players to be at least one year removed from their scheduled high school graduation date to play in the league. So in 2008, a high school star named Brandon Jennings became the first American to skip college to play professionally in Europe, joining a team in Rome for a year while waiting to become eligible for the NBA draft. After playing a season in Italy, Jennings was drafted tenth overall and signed to an NBA rookie contract worth more than $2 million per year. In 2009, another high school phenom named Jeremy Tyler took Jennings' idea a step further. Tyler skipped his senior year of high school altogether to join an Israeli pro team, with the idea of jumping to the NBA two years later once he became eligible. But while Jennings had flourished abroad, Tyler struggled on and off the court. He ended up quitting his Israeli team mid-season and his future is now in limbo.
On a Tuesday evening back in Oakland about a week after the season-ending loss to De La Salle, Jabari Brown looks more like a regular teenager than a businessman who plies his trade in basketball. In the house on a hill behind the Grand Lake Theater where his family has lived for the better part of two decades, Jabari and two friends play the NBA 2K10 PlayStation video game. They rib one another and talk about lifting weights later. "How hungry are you?" asks Jabari's mother, Fannie Brown, before telling him to wake his napping brother soon. In the adjoining living room, David and Fannie begin discussing the college recruiting process. On the low coffee table between them, glossy recruiting mail from dozens of universities sits stacked in neat piles. Most of the nation's top programs are represented, including the University of Kentucky, the University of Florida, Marquette University, and Gonzaga University. Trophies dating back to grammar school overflow from one corner of the living room. Eventually Jabari wanders in, dressed in basketball shorts and socks. He sprawls his large frame sideways in a big easychair, periodically text messaging on his frequently vibrating cell phone.
Jabari has stood out in basketball since grammar school. Tall and strong for a guard, he's equally capable of throwing down vicious tomahawk dunks, taking defenders off the dribble, or stroking deep three pointers. Moreover, he plays with a cerebral understanding of angles on the court and of how plays and situations will develop that's unusual for a player of his age and talent. It's a precocious package of size, skill, and athletic ability; Brown says he was "really excited" to receive his first recruiting letter, from the University of Arizona, before he had even entered high school.
As a middle schooler, Jabari was recruited to play for the Drew Gooden Soldiers, the Bay Area's highest-profile travel team in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). One of the premier travel teams in the nation, the Soldiers have produced a disproportionate number of NBA players, including LeBron James, arguably the world's best basketball player and one of its most marketable celebrities. The Soldiers also have sent more than a hundred kids to college programs. The current Richmond-based Soldiers team includes, in addition to Brown, top prospects from Oregon and Arizona, and plays a nationwide April-through-July schedule. "It's a really high-level team, probably ranked in the top five or ten in the country," said Soldiers director Mark Olivier. "We deal with a lot of elite kids."
David Brown says a friend initially cautioned him against sending his son to play for the Soldiers, telling him the team steals kids from other organizations, doesn't care about all its players, and is wont to push formerly featured kids down the bench when a new hotshot is brought in. "I took it with a grain of salt initially, but a lot of what he told me has come through," Brown said. He maintains a skeptical detachment when discussing the organization but admits that, since letting his son play for the Soldiers, Jabari's experience with the program has been generally positive and his son has excelled on the court.
The Amateur Athletic Union is a vast network of sponsored and un-sponsored traveling teams that play in events around the country during the spring and summer. Since the late 1990s, summer basketball has come to be regarded as an almost-essential way for ambitious young players to garner the attention of scouts and college coaches. "It's a high-level recruiting vehicle that serves a purpose," said Sonny Vaccaro, a driving force behind the emergence of summer basketball, an advisor to Brandon Jennings and Jeremy Tyler during their stints overseas, and the subject of an in-development HBO film starring James Gandolfini. "I, for one, agree with it, because it gives kids with extraordinary ability a platform."
But not everyone is comfortable with summer ball's rise to prominence. AAU coach and basketball trainer Phil Handy played professionally in the NBA and overseas. He's trained dozens of pros, including the first and second overall picks in last year's NBA draft, and worked with Jabari Brown as well. After launching his travel team four years ago, Handy says he was surprised and dismayed to see what the circuit had become since he was a player. "I think in AAU ball across the country right now, there's maybe about 30 percent of the programs that are really good for the kids and have solid intentions," he said. "The car is before the horse with AAU ball, so to speak. Lots of kids are getting a raw deal with some AAU programs. They don't always help the kid. It's more about what can the kid do to help the program raise its profile than what can the program do to make the kid better, to help him improve."
AAU did exist when Handy was coming up as a high school star in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but he says it was a markedly different world. "You didn't have this big business where each tournament costs $500 per team, and you bring in four or five hundred teams for tournaments where all the major scouts are going to be." Players and their families are typically expected to pay for a portion of these entry fees, plus transportation, lodging, etc. Not surprisingly, the concerns that Handy and others have with today's AAU revolve around money.
Handy says the sponsored AAU programs, flush with shoe-company cash, are usually the most predatory and least well-intentioned. "They have the most money," he said. "They can go after the elite kids, all of whom want to play on elite teams, get free shoes, get free gear. Nowadays, AAU is going through a phase where a lot of people say, 'This guy's going to be a really big player, going to play in the NBA, and that's going to be future dollars for me.'"
One of the Soldiers founders, Calvin Andrews, is now senior vice president at a major sports management agency that represents some forty NBA players, including a former Soldier. In 2008 Andrews was suspended from representing NBA players for one year upon allegations that his company had funneled tens of thousands of dollars to college star OJ Mayo, who was briefly a client of Andrews' until the recruitment story broke.
The murkiness surrounding summer ball — on one hand it's a necessary vehicle for a player looking to showcase his talent, and on the other, it introduces players to the more shadowy side of amateur basketball — has led to a complicated set of decisions for the Brown family. "The reason that Jabari's still there is that Jabari wants to be there," explained Fannie Brown, seated in the family's living room. David added: "His take is, 'I know what the Soldiers are all about. I know the good, I know the bad, and the good is that they can put me on the court in the big events where I can be seen.'"
Partly as a result of his performance with the Soldiers, Jabari was offered a spot last year at Findlay Prep, a Las Vegas-area prep school famous as a basketball talent factory. For Brown, it was a golden opportunity for more exposure and top-flight competition, with national television appearances on ESPN and a cross-country schedule. Findlay players regularly land at the nation's best college basketball programs. In its short existence, the team has suited up players from numerous foreign countries including Nigeria, Puerto Rico, Australia, and Croatia. "It will be hard, but something I'm willing to do to make that sacrifice," Brown told a local newspaper last June, three months after winning a state championship with Salesian. "I want to be successful."
Even for Brown, a blue-chip prospect coming off a stellar season, the move to the controversial Findlay was a big jump, both on and off the court. During the 2008-2009 season, while Jabari Brown was leading Salesian to its state championship, Findlay played in eight different states and logged some 30,000 air miles. Findlay Prep was founded and is financed by Cliff Findlay, a Las Vegas automobile tycoon and University of Nevada-Las Vegas athletics booster who started the team as a vanity project of sorts in memory of his late parents. Lacking an actual campus of their own, Brown and his teammates attended class at the nearby Henderson International School, where Cliff Findlay and his cohorts paid each player's $17,000 tuition. While his mother, father, and younger brother remained back home in Oakland, Brown lived with his teammates and an assistant coach in a five-bedroom house outfitted with wireless Internet, cable televisions, and two fully stocked refrigerators. The house, player tuitions, coaches, and nationwide schedule comprise an operation with annual costs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, a budget only partially offset by a Nike sponsorship.
It's paid off, as the Findlay Pilots have won two straight ESPN RISE National High School Invitationals, an end-of-season tournament widely regarded as a de facto national championship. It's also garnered the program a substantial amount of criticism, but head coach Michael Peck is unapologetic. "The last time I checked, this is America," he said. "Kids and parents have the right, if they don't feel comfortable or don't like the public school they're geared toward, to go somewhere else. Our program offers a great opportunity for development and exposure. It's not about our program or our school. It's about the kids. People are always going to be hating on it and that's fine, I can't control it. All I know is what we're doing is good for us."
For a while, Jabari seemed to be doing well at Findlay. He continued to succeed in the classroom, and, as the Pilots began the 2009-2010 season ranked first in the nation, Brown averaged 16.8 points per game, good for second on the star-studded team. But the pressure was intense and midway through the season things began to deteriorate. The death of a cousin and close friend — in addition to an ailing terminally ill grandmother — hit Brown especially hard living away from his family. Meanwhile, on the court, Brown and his coaches disagreed over his commitment to defense and hustle and Brown saw his playing time abruptly decrease. Brown felt like he was ramping up his effort level as Peck and the other coaches requested but they didn't find it satisfactory, even though Peck said he still regrets Brown's departure. Brown says he approached the coaches multiple times to find a solution, but to no avail. "You wonder why you don't play!" Peck yelled at Brown in a timeout during one game, which was caught in an online documentary that chronicled the team's season. Brown raised his eyebrows and palms apologetically and opened his mouth to speak. "Don't give me excuses!" Peck screamed, and pointed Brown toward the bench. Just after the new year, Brown packed his bags and left Findlay. He enrolled at Oakland High, his local public school where his younger brother Jamil Brown plays basketball.
Sprawled over the easychair in his parents' living room about a mile from the Oakland High campus, Jabari reflected on his time at Findlay. "It was a good experience," he said grudgingly. "I think it opened my eyes to a lot of things. Off the court it helped me not being with my parents, not being as dependent. And then you kind of see that the higher up it is, the more it's a business. At the top it's kind of cutthroat. There's a sense of team but then, at the same time, it's kind of like, 'I gotta get mine, I gotta do me.' It's kind of like you want to be unselfish, but then at the same time you have to have a little bit of selfishness to be able to make it at that level."
Asked if moving away on his own at sixteen was difficult, Jabari adjusted himself in his chair and struggled to think of what to say. "I always knew I wanted to be back at home, but I had to do it to become better as a player. But when things started to go south, it was like I really wanted to be at home anyway so if things aren't going well then I might as well go back to where people care about me and where I can be with my family again."
When Jabari came back to Oakland midway through the November-to-March high school season, his family was surprised at the amount of attention the move received. "I didn't expect it," David Brown said. "I thought somebody would say, 'Oh, he's back home.' But they were trying to get TV cameras at the school the first week he was back and we said, 'No, just let the kid come back home and settle in.'" Oakland High won its first two games with Jabari back, and he averaged nearly 30 points per contest. But then, just before his third game, Brown's tumultuous season took yet another turn. An unknown source raised questions with the California Interscholastic Federation about the legitimacy of Brown's transfer to his second team of the season and third high school in eight months. The review meant Brown would have to sit out until the matter was resolved. Just before a game against Skyline High, Oakland coach Orlando Watkins broke the news to Brown. "He was suited up and ready to go," Watkins recalled. "I had to walk in the locker room and tell him, 'You can't play.' He just looked at me like, 'What? Why?' It was tough."
As the federation reviewed his change of residency and a hardship waiver that would allow him to transfer back to his hometown, Brown, dressed in street-clothes and often massaging a basketball in his palms, watched Oakland High's games from the end of the team bench. He was eventually allowed to play again two weeks later, but the attention had nearly reached a breaking point. Anonymous posters on online message boards denigrated Brown's character and questioned his family's motives and values. Meanwhile, the heckling at games became more and more cruel and the rumor-mongering in basketball circles grew — that Brown was selfish, lazy, and egotistical, or not good enough to hack it at Findlay, or that his recent spate transfers epitomized everything wrong with high school sports.
One message board thread about the move on the popular NorCal Preps web site was dozens of posts long, many of them harshly questioning or lambasting Brown. Among the much milder posts on other boards, a poster called JerryWayne commented, "sounds like someone wasn't a fan of hard work," while another called Mike Zillion weighed in, "Don't have any idea what the specific story is, but Brown's father is supposed to be a real pain to deal with."
The vitriol got so bad for Brown that, at one point, Watkins told him to take a few days off practice because he was starting to treat something meant to be fun like a job. "I just saw this kid that was just being overwhelmed by stuff that kids shouldn't have to deal with," Watkins said. David Brown agrees that the effect on Jabari was marked. "I'd never seem him that upset since he was a little kid, so I was worried about him for a while."
Basketball trainer Phil Handy, who in addition to training professional basketball players also works with a number of younger players, said the experience of spiteful online gossip isn't unique to just Jabari. "I've seen a handful of other kids over the last several years get it stuck to them pretty hard" he said. "I think a lot of that falls back on how much people really know about these individual kids. They're publicly passing judgment and forming opinions that 99 percent of the time are not accurate."
David Brown agrees. "It's a weird phenomenon because some people seem like they're on those message boards all day long," he said. "All the character assassination that goes along with him coming back home, that's the piece that really angers me." Nonetheless, the father added later, the negative attention "doesn't make me regret who he is."
Of course, simply ignoring what happens online would be one option, but Jabari's mother points out that's harder in practice than in theory in the Internet age. "Kids have the world at their fingertips when we didn't," Fannie said. "Then you got people blowing up your text messages and if you didn't see it somebody else did, and it'll get back to you some way."Sitting on the family's living room couch, David Brown describes the effect the past year has had on his son. "He's much more cynical now than he has been in the past."
As the conversation turns to the message board gossip and rumor mill, Jabari appears to grow increasingly uninterested and uncomfortable. He checks his phone more often and glances at the virtual basketball game being played in the next room. His long sleeve T-shirt covers the tattoos on his arms and shoulders. But up close, sprawled on the big chair in his socks, he looks a couple years younger than he does on the basketball court.
The clicking of joysticks can be heard in the next room. Jabari fires off a quick text message then stands up, stretches, and turns toward the TV room. "Can we talk in here so I can play?" he asks. He pauses for a second, then pads over to the couch next to the television in the other room and sits down.
Before long, his critical final season of AAU ball will kick into high gear. The online recruiting rankings will update and the message board posters will continue to do their thing. But for now, sitting in his parents' den, Jabari Brown is just a normal teenage kid playing video games with his friends.