Hunting for Kids

On a clear and warm Sunday afternoon in September of 1996, a basketball game was played in the gym at Riverside Community College in Southern California. No one from the school knew the game was scheduled, and the organizer, twenty-six-year-old Joe Keller, thought he would have to break into the gym and open the doors from the inside. At the last minute, a friend procured a key, but Keller was unable to turn on the scoreboard or the clock, so the score and the time were kept manually. There was no advance advertising of the game, no newspaper articles or Internet postings, yet fans filed in as soon as the doors opened. Estimates vary as to how many people filled the worn bleachers, but the crowd numbered at least 300 and might have been as large as 500, a considerable audience for a game in which none of the participants was older than fourteen.

Of the two teams playing that day, the Southern California All-Stars (SCA) were by far the most well known. Their coach, Pat Barrett, cut a wide swath in the world of grassroots basketball. Nike paid him more than $100,000 annually to assure that his players were aligned with that brand and gave him another $50,000 in shoes and other gear. His skills as a basketball instructor were limited, but his ability to identify and acquaint himself with the best young basketball players in Southern California was legendary. Given the considerable talent flowing annually from that part of the nation, this made him one of the most powerful figures in basketball, courted by college coaches, NBA scouts, and sports agents. A year earlier, after UCLA won the national title with a team that included several SCA alumni, including Final Four most valuable player Ed O’Bannon, the team’s coach, Jim Harrick, gave Barrett a championship ring. A prominent UCLA booster also donated $200,000 to a nonprofit organization—Values for a Better America—that Barrett controlled.

Barrett had coached since the mid-1980s and operated teams in various age groups, but the team of seventh- and eighth-graders competing in Riverside that Sunday may have been the most impressive he’d ever assembled. There was Jamal Sampson (who would go on to play for Cal Berkeley and then the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks), Josh Childress (Stanford and then the Atlanta Hawks), Cedric Bozeman (UCLA and the Hawks), and Jamaal Williams (the Washington Huskies). The point guard, Keilon Fortune, was considered the best of the lot, even though he was a year younger than the other players. Two months earlier, SCA had claimed the 13-and-Under Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national title, fueling talk that Barrett’s assemblage of young stars was among the best ever.

SCA’s opponent that day, the Inland Stars, was considerably less distinguished, and its coach, Joe Keller, paled in comparison to the mighty Barrett. A full-time welder and a part-time coach, Keller was considerably better at the former than the latter. When he started coaching a few years earlier he couldn’t even demonstrate a proper defensive stance. In his first season, his team played an SCA squad and lost by almost 100. While Barrett was flush with Nike money, financial stability constantly eluded Keller. He had only recently moved out of an apartment he shared with his mother in Riverside and often asked people he’d just met: “Do you know any rich people who could sponsor my team?”

Keller’s squad in Riverside that Sunday was not without talent. Forwards Lance and Erik Soderberg—the sons of former Kentucky player Mark Soderberg—were capable players and would go on to earn college scholarships, as would the Inland Stars’ best guard, Josh Dunaj. But they were no match for SCA’s kids, and the swagger of Barrett’s players was unmistakable as they entered the gym in matching Nike sweat suits. Keller’s players—dressed in yellow uniforms he had borrowed from another coach—were already warming up when Barrett and the SCA kids arrived. They stopped and watched as fans streamed down from the bleachers to greet the recently crowned national champions.

Basketball games are often framed as battles between coaches, as if the players on the floor are chess pieces easily manipulated by the men on the sidelines. At the youth level, this is an especially foolish line of thought. Kids make mistakes. They act unpredictably. Coaching them requires an understanding of their fallibility. The biggest influence Keller and Barrett would have on the outcome of the game would come long before it began, in the procurement of players: The coach who assembled the most talent would likely win. Barrett had few peers in that regard, least of all Keller. If a bookie had set odds on the game, SCA would have been favored by at least 20, and it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Barrett’s collection of future NBA players whipped the Inland Stars by more than 50.

But Keller would not have scheduled the game had he not believed in his team’s chances. In the days before, he boldly predicted victory and became convinced that the game would be his defining moment as a coach. The reason for his optimism became apparent to the SCA players as they shed their sweat suits and began their pregame routine. Glancing toward the Inland Stars’ end of the court, they saw the players that had long been part of Keller’s team, but amid them was a boy they had never seen before. He was the tallest player in the gym, nearly six foot five, with impossibly long arms and a nimbleness unseen in a player so tall for his age. They watched as he executed a layup, jumping so high that it was clear he could dunk every time if he wanted. In a bit of showmanship scarcely seen from a player so young, he repeatedly surged upward toward the basket and, just as everyone anticipated him slamming the ball home, merely dropped it through the rim. He was letting the crowd and the SCA players—most of whom could not yet palm a basketball—know that dunking came so easily to him that he’d grown bored with it.

Questions about this boy spread quickly around the gym. Who was he? Where had he come from? Was he really the same age as the other players? Answers emerged slowly, passed from one person to the next in hushed tones. Keller had unearthed him after hearing rumors of a prodigal talent on the blacktops of San Bernardino. He had never played for an AAU team before. And, yes, he was only thirteen years old. His mere presence infused the game with an unexpected gravity. A boy of that size and obvious ability gave Keller’s squad a puncher’s chance. For the first time anyone could remember, a local team posed a threat to Pat Barrett and his Southern California All-Stars.

When the tall boy lined up against Sampson for the opening tip, the one advantage the Inland Stars had was obvious. Keller’s center was several inches taller than Sampson, and his arms seemed twice as long. When the official tossed the ball skyward, the boy reached it at such a high point that Sampson appeared hopeless. He then sprinted upcourt, took a pass in the lane—catching the ball high above the reach of any of the SCA players—and flipped in a layup over Childress. On the sideline, Keller grinned and said to himself: “The rout is on.”

No videotape of the game exists. The only stat sheet was lost. Keller does not remember the final score or how many points the tall boy scored, but he recalls never before seeing a more dominant performance by a player. The young boy swatted shots back at SCA guards brave enough to drive to the basket. He seemingly grabbed every rebound and scored at will. After Keller’s team raced to an early 10-point lead, one of Barrett’s assistant coaches was ejected for yelling at the officials. When the lead increased to 20 points with eight minutes left, Barrett was ejected too. Keller told the officials: “Let him stay. I don’t want him to use that as an excuse for why he lost.” Near the end of the game, Barrett sat down on the bench and put his hands on his knees, no longer wanting to watch the action on the floor. When Keller saw this, a feeling of immense satisfaction washed over him. With one game he’d gone from a coaching nobody to the guy who beat Pat Barrett.

At the final whistle, Keller ran onto the court and celebrated with his players; a few poured tiny cups of Gatorade on his head. The two teams never shook hands, and the SCA players quickly left the gym. Barrett was still shouting at the officials as he followed his players out the door. Keller had thought Barrett would be gracious in defeat, but it didn’t dampen Keller’s mood. “We beat the best team in the country,” he told anyone willing to listen. Later that night, he told his wife that he thought his life was about to change.

A few days passed before Keller’s premonition came true. Barrett called him and made a surprising proposition: He wanted to merge the best of the Inland Stars with SCA. The team would be called the Southern California All-Stars and be funded by Barrett, but Keller would be its coach. To Keller, this seemed like a sweet deal and he quickly agreed. He was short on money and coaching experience, and Barrett had both. He envisioned Barrett as something like a mentor, ushering him into a coaching career. He hoped Barrett would call his contacts at Nike and tell them about Keller and his talented new star. But Keller was naïve about the culture of grassroots basketball and how Barrett had built his youth-basketball empire. His life was indeed about to change, but not how he imagined.


I met Keller four years later, a few weeks before Christmas 2000. We met at an unremarkable brewpub just off Interstate 15 in San Bernardino. I was seated at a wide oval table watching a Los Angeles Lakers game on one of the restaurant’s dozen televisions when Keller walked in. He wore jeans and a loose sweatshirt, and when I stood up to shake his hand, he ignored me and sat across the table and to my left, farther away than I expected. The mutual acquaintance who arranged our meeting had mentioned that Keller was afraid to talk with a writer from Sports Illustrated, and in that moment I felt that his paranoia had been undersold.

I was in Southern California, reporting on a story about Tyson Chandler, then an eighteen-year-old senior at Compton Dominguez High School, as he prepared to jump straight from high school to the National Basketball Association. The story was intended to expose the myriad of people (coaches, agents, relatives, friends) trying to align themselves with Chandler, which included Barrett. He had allegedly bought Chandler a Cadillac Escalade, moved Chandler’s family from San Bernardino to a house closer to Barrett’s in Orange County, and taken him on shopping sprees for clothes and shoes that often exceeded $5,000. If Chandler met a girl at an out-of-state tournament that he wanted to see again, Barrett bought her an airline ticket to California.

I had been told that Keller was Chandler’s first AAU coach, until Barrett lured him to SCA and pushed Keller out of the picture. I was hoping Keller would give me some dirt on Barrett, but when I asked about him, he said only: “He is a powerful man in basketball.” When I inquired why Barrett, not Keller, was coaching Chandler now, Keller got a pained look on his face. “Talking about that will only come back to hurt me.” A frustrating argument followed. I suggested that if Keller hated Barrett, as I suspected, exposing his misdeeds in Sports Illustrated might put him out of business. Keller insisted that nothing I could write would ever push Barrett out of youth basketball and so tattling on him would bring Keller nothing but harm.

Keller was thirty when we met. He was two inches taller than me, about five foot ten, with wide shoulders but pale, skinny legs. He looked as if he’d been into weight lifting at one time but had stopped. A sparse goatee couldn’t hide the acne scars on his face or detract from his two most striking features—deep-set blue eyes and a flattop haircut that seemed suited for a younger man. A narrow scar on the left side of his forehead ran into his hairline, making it seem as if his barber had tried to manufacture a part.

I didn’t think much of Keller. For all his paranoia, he could be dismissive and arrogant. He asked when I thought Chandler would be selected in the NBA draft that June. I said somewhere in the top 15. “That’s ridiculous. You don’t know anything,” Keller snapped. “He’s top five, maybe top two.” I spent an hour alternating between assuaging Keller’s mistrust and enduring his insults before he consented to tell me the story of how he found Chandler.

During an Inland Stars practice in the spring of 1996, Keller was criticizing his players for not being tough enough, when one kid said almost matter-of-factly, “Then why don’t you get that tall kid from San Bernardino?” Keller questioned the player, who knew nothing about the mysterious kid, not even his name. Keller called schools in the area, finally finding a teacher at Arrowview Middle School who thought he knew the boy and came up with a possible first name, Tyson, but nothing else.

Keller spent weeks cruising the roughest neighborhoods of San Bernardino, searching for the boy. He finally got a tip that led him to a low-slung house in one of the poorest areas of the city. During the 1990s, many African American families had fled inner-city homes in Los Angeles for nicer neighborhoods in the Inland Empire, the common name for the sunbaked cities of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. But as Keller walked up a dirt driveway to the front door, he bought this family would have been better off staying in the ghetto. The house was originally painted white but was now gray. A falling chain-link fence surrounded a dirt-and-grass yard, which framed a porch of broken concrete. The neighboring houses were in the same shape or worse. Keller was a little afraid of what awaited him behind the front door, but then a lanky kid standing about six foot five answered. At first, Keller thought this was the older brother of the kid he had heard about, but the boy assured him that he was indeed just finishing the seventh grade.

“My God,” Keller said, and for a moment he couldn’t speak. He finally uttered, “Can you dribble or run or anything?”

“Yeah, I can dunk,” the boy said.

Keller’s mood softened as he told me the story and described how unbeatable his team became with Chandler. “And I can coach too,” Keller added, a statement that seemed to be a criticism of other youth coaches. It felt like an opening to ask again about Barrett.

“So then why would Tyson want to go play for Pat Barrett?”

Keller frowned and shook his head, as if to say he wouldn’t be tricked that easily. A short time later he said he had to get home to his wife and he left.

When the article, titled “School for Scandal,” was published a few weeks later, I remember being greatly disappointed that it didn’t cause more of a stir. There were rumors that Nike cut ties with Barrett because of it, but then I heard he signed a contract with Adidas. I had always known the world of youth basketball was an unregulated subculture where men like Barrett could get away with almost anything in their pursuit of talented kids, but I assumed that if a coach’s dirty dealings were unveiled, the shoe companies and players would distance themselves.

Keller’s ultimate contribution to the story was an insipid twelve-word quote, but I still called him after the article was published. I wanted to get his reaction to the unsavory moves by Barrett that I described, including selling Chandler to various agents. “That stuff from me was the best part of the story,” Keller said when I reached him at his home. He wasn’t joking. As for Barrett, he said, “Pat called me and said that since that article, he’s had more parents calling him, wanting their kids to play for him, than ever before. That article helped Pat a lot.”

His words stung. I was reminded of what Keller said during our meeting at the brewery: If an exposé in Sports Illustrated could do nothing more than increase the business of one of youth basketball’s most controversial figures, then perhaps, as Keller said, I didn’t know anything about the world in which Barrett operated.

I was in Los Angeles on assignment a few weeks later and I called Keller. I stressed that I no longer was working on a story about Barrett or Chandler but that I wanted to better understand the grassroots game. He agreed to meet, and I drove fifty miles east to Fontana, to the Inland Empire, and picked him up at the Citrus Grove Apartments, a complex that abutted train tracks, where he lived with his wife, Violet. We drove to a nearby Mexican restaurant and, after several Midori sours, Keller loosened up enough to tell me how he stumbled into coaching.

He was originally from Long Island and had moved to Riverside, California, with his mother before his senior year of high school. He had been a standout baseball player and dreamed of playing for the New York Yankees, but he tore his rotator cuff in his senior season and gave up the game. “After high school, I was the world’s biggest fuckup,” he said. He hung around guys who sold and smoked marijuana. He held several jobs, the longest for a year on the assembly line of a company that manufactured roofing tiles. He was still living with his mother when, in 1993, he applied for a job with the Riverside Parks and Recreation Department. The only opening was a $200-a-month job coaching ten- and eleven-year-old boys on a basketball team called the Bryant Park Lakers. “I needed the money,” Keller said.

His first team was made up of “little rats,” as he called them, short kids who hung around Bryant Park and had to scrap for every point. They wore black T-shirts with Lakers stenciled on the front, the words faded from too many washings. Keller showed me a picture of his first team. The boys are standing straight and stiff-armed, trying to look tough. Keller is at one end, slightly slouched, dressed in jeans shorts and a T-shirt. It is a typical photo, except for one detail: Keller slipped two fingers, the bunny ears, over his tallest player’s head.

Through a mix of luck and dogged play, the Bryant Park Lakers won more games than they lost in Keller’s first season, and in the spring of 1993 they played a regional qualifier for the state championships. When Keller arrived at a gym in Orange County for the game, he looked at his little players warming up and at their opponents and believed a mistake had been made. “Excuse me, I think we are in the wrong gym,” he told Caynell Cotton, a woman who helped organize the tournament. “My guys are fifth- and sixth-graders.” She pointed to the biggest of the boys on the opposing team and said, “That’s my son, Schea, and he’s going into the sixth grade. Welcome to AAU basketball.”

Keller’s motley bunch lost by almost 100, and Schea Cotton, who would go on to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high schooler and play at the University of Alabama, scored more than 30 points in the first half alone.

The night following the game, Keller called the coach of the team that had defeated him: Pat Barrett. He must have sounded naïve asking Barrett how he’d put together such a talented team. “It’s simple,” Barrett told him. “Go out and find the best players and hold on to them.”

Keller was competitive and he was inspired: He hadn’t known he could just go out and start a team of his own. After poaching the best players off the Bryant Park Lakers, he started an independent team, the Inland Stars. “I’d go to parks and rec centers, looking for kids, and talk to coaches at schools, asking if they had any players who starred during recess,” Keller said. “Hunting for kids is the best part.”

Most of Keller’s energy over the next two years was spent trying to put together a team good enough to defeat SCA and Barrett, and by 1996 his team was almost ready. It lacked only a dominant inside player, someone to rebound and block shots and intimidate. “But then I found Tyson and it all came together.” When SCA returned from Nationals, Keller called Barrett and laid the trap. He goaded Barrett, saying that if he’d had the money to take a team to the Nationals, he would have come home with the glass-bowl trophy.

When Keller described the game to me, his voice rose and adopted a dramatic rhythm. He was not a natural storyteller—he often left out vital facts—but his recollection of that September day included so many details that I believed he thought about it often. At the end of his description, after he talked about the boys pouring cups of Gatorade over his head, a look of gentle sadness settled in his eyes. He hadn’t reconciled the joy that victory brought him with the betrayal he felt shortly thereafter. “That was a long time ago,” he said, and then he fell silent, fingering his empty glass.

Keller wanted to stop there, but I wouldn’t let him. I promised I wouldn’t write in Sports Illustrated what he said but that I needed to know how Barrett ended up coaching Chandler. Before he answered, we moved from a booth to the bar. He ordered another Midori sour and also asked for a glass of olives, which he doused with so much Tabasco that there was more red than green in the glass. He began eating them vigorously. “You should try one,” he said. I told him I couldn’t think of anything I’d like to eat less. He insisted, and I felt as if this were a test, as if him telling me the story depended on me eating one of those soggy olives. I relented, swallowed one quickly, and the face I made delighted Keller. His laughter filled the nearly empty restaurant, and he slapped me on the back. “You’re all right, George,” he said, and then he began the story.

Immediately after he started to coach the newly merged team, Keller became uncomfortable with the attention Barrett showed Chandler. Barrett showered Chandler with gifts, shoes mostly, and would call Keller and ask if he could arrange for the three of them to go to dinner or the movies. About a month later, Keller got a call from George Raveling, the head of grassroots basketball for Nike. He asked for Chandler’s shoe size and his address, and then a few days later approximately twenty pairs of shoes, all in Chandler’s size, arrived at his house. Boxes of other gear—shirts, sweatshirts, bags—followed.

Coaching SCA was more work than Keller expected. He had gotten married only a year earlier, and he and Violet both worked full-time (Keller at a welding company, Artistic Iron; Violet as a clerk at the Riverside County assessor’s office). Getting Chandler and the other boys to practice and games every day proved difficult. Chandler lived more than twenty miles from Keller’s apartment, and other players lived as far away or farther. On weekdays, Keller woke at 4:00 a.m., worked until 3:00 p.m., and then either he or Violet picked up the boys and made the hour drive to a gym in Orange County near Barrett’s home. After a three-hour practice, Keller or Violet carted players home, not returning to their apartment until well after 10:00 p.m. The weekends were just as bad. There was always a tournament in Los Angeles or San Diego or the San Fernando Valley north of L.A. The hectic routine continued even after Violet got pregnant. On the few nights there wasn’t practice or a game, Chandler would sleep at the apartment to avoid the commute the following day. Or he’d call and need a ride to the mall or the movie theater or elsewhere. Violet liked Chandler, but she felt they needed to start saying no to some of his requests. They had become chauffeurs and gofers for a middle schooler who wasn’t even their own son.

One afternoon, Keller was seated at a desk in an office at Artistic Iron, looking over plans for a railing the company was welding, when owner John Robbins hurried into the room. “Joe, you need to go home right now,” he said.

Robbins didn’t want to be the one to break the news, but Keller said, “John, if you don’t tell me what is going on, I am going to bust you in the face.”

“I’m sorry, Joe. Violet just called. She had a miscarriage.”

When Keller arrived at his apartment, Violet was lying on the sofa. Her brother, her mother, and one sister were there. He looked at them, saw the tears in their eyes, and began crying. He fell to his knees in front of the sofa and wrapped his arms around Violet. Her mother said over and over, “God just didn’t mean for this baby to be born.” Lying in bed that night, Violet settled on a more concrete reason for losing the child. “It was because of stress, Joe,” she said. “You know it was the stress.” So right then, while lying next to Violet in their small apartment in the spring of 1997, Keller decided to take a break from coaching.

Keller took more hours at Artistic Iron and made foreman. He ran a side business installing car alarms. He bought Violet an Explorer, the perfect car for the big family they planned to have. When Violet found out she was pregnant again, Keller seemed to be settling into a nice life.

“But I missed it,” he told me. “I would go watch Tyson play once in a while. Violet was okay with that. But it wasn’t the same as being the coach.”

After giving birth to a son, Jordan, named after NBA star Michael Jordan, Violet agreed to let Keller coach again, and he immediately tried to get back in with SCA and Chandler. But Barrett had closed the door. There was an uneasiness when he called or visited Chandler, and he later learned that Barrett had whispered a hurtful lie into Chandler’s ear. “Coach Joe abandoned you,” Barrett told him, “because he didn’t believe in you as a player.”

“The funny thing,” Keller said, “is at first I don’t even think Pat realized what he had in Tyson. He knew he was good, but he kept talking about some of his other guys, like Keilon, kept saying they were better prospects. I told him, ‘Forget those guys. Tyson is the best player you’ve ever had.’ ”

Exactly what Barrett had wouldn’t be known until a few months after Keller and I met in Fontana. In June of 2001, Chandler, having grown to seven foot one, was selected number 2 overall in the NBA draft just a month out of high school. He signed a contract with the Chicago Bulls for $10.6 million and, according to Keller, gave Barrett $200,000 and pledged that, upon future contracts, his former AAU coach would receive even more. Keller watched this develop from a perch far away. He occasionally went to see Chandler play in high school, but he slipped into the gym quietly and left without being noticed. It was a shameful time for Keller. As Chandler ascended, Keller’s estrangement from his onetime star became more noteworthy. In coaching circles, he became a laughable legend: the man who discovered Tyson Chandler, a once-in-a- lifetime talent, and then let Barrett steal him from right under his nose. He couldn’t walk into a gym without someone pointing him out as the dupe who had lost a winning lottery ticket.

When I dropped Keller off at his apartment later that night, he told me: “You should keep in touch with me. Things are happening.” When I pressed him for details, he claimed that he had recently started a new team and that it included at least five young players, none older than eleven, who would one day play in college or the NBA. “I am going to be in Sports Illustrated again someday. These kids are that good.”

I was intrigued by the thought of such a robust collection of young talent, but I found the man touting them to be more fascinating. Keller had recently re-formed the Inland Stars and quit his welding job so he could devote all his attention to grooming a new generation of basketball hopefuls. He was staking his future and his family’s on his ability to make a career out of coaching those kids. In other words, he was betting he could become another Pat Barrett, could land the shoe company contract and build himself into one of the most influential figures in the game. It was a basketball pipe dream, no different from a young boy insisting he would one day play in the NBA.

It dawned on me that Keller and his team presented an opportunity to get inside the world of grassroots basketball in a way never done before. Nearly every great American-born basketball player of the last ten years—from Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant to Tracy McGrady to LeBron James—has been a product of the AAU system, yet it remains a largely unexplored world. Stories about the grassroots game, such as the one I reported on for Sports Illustrated, usually focus on the kids who emerge from it to find a place in the NBA. What about the others, the kids who don’t make NBA millions or land college scholarships? It is not in the best interest of the power brokers, men like Pat Barrett, for a light to be cast on their actions. The shoe companies, sports agents, college recruiters—they all have reasons for wanting the gritty derails of how the machine operates to go untold. They won’t let you inside, so the only way to unveil how the system works is to get inside without them knowing.

I called Keller a week later with a proposal: I would follow him and his team until the boys ended their time in AAU basketball, likely to be their senior year in high school. If he gave me complete access, if he kept no secrets, I wouldn’t publish what I saw or heard until the boys were in college. I framed it as a form of basketball anthropology, a study of how children were raised within the sport. To my surprise, Keller agreed. “When the boys graduate from high school, I’ll be rich and done with coaching,” he said. “I won’t give a shit what you write.”

Another reason Keller approved the arrangement became clear later, when he said, “Mail me about thirty of your business cards.” He intended to hand them out to the parents of the kids he scouted. “Having a guy from Sports Illustrated affiliated with my program will help with recruiting.” So that was the deal we struck. Keller got a recruiting tool, and I got entrée into the underbelly of basketball.

Finding a group of kids at the beginning of their journey felt like a remarkable stroke of good fortune. What I didn’t know was that at that moment a boy named Andrew was practicing his 3-point shot and a quiet forward named Rome was working on his mid-range game. I didn’t know that a boy named Jordan was being urged by his father, John, to be more aggressive and drive to the hoop and that in Los Angeles a coach named Gary Franklin was starting his own team of ten-year-olds, some of whom would one day help determine Keller’s fate. I didn’t know that in Santa Barbara a guard named Roberto was learning the nuances of the game from his father, Bruce, or that across the Inland Empire, in Riverside, a tall boy named Aaron was kicking a soccer ball, not yet introduced to the sport he was destined to play.

I was also unaware how deep into the world of grassroots basketball my alliance with Keller would take me. I would encounter unscrupulous agents, college coaches, and the other profiteers just as they took aim at the best kids; I would sit with parents, good and bad, as they tried to manage the suddenness of childhood stardom; I would watch as men in boardrooms and locker rooms plotted the futures of the most gifted players. Through Keller and his team, I would come to understand why some kids made it and others did not and how the youth-basketball machine determined their fates.

None of that was apparent, however, when Keller agreed to let me follow his team. Most of all, I was intrigued by one of his players, a boy who would influence my charting of the world of grassroots basketball more than any other.

“Now that I can trust you, you need to know something,” Keller had said in a phone call. Then he lowered his voice. “I just found a kid, a player so good you are not going to believe it. He’s a phenom. He’s going to be better than Tyson. He’s going to be the best ever.”