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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.