THE PLAYER CHASE / Banking on a Prodigy
Is There Such a Thing as a Perfect 10?
Tuesday, July 4, 2006
BALTIMORE -- Four coaches clapped and snapped fingers in front of Justin Jenifer's face to demand his focus, but Justin's attention drifted. He felt hungry, particularly for Skittles. He turned from the coaches and tossed through the contents of his Adidas gym bag. Nothing. Justin stuck out his lower lip and looked longingly across the gym at the concession stand.
The adults who huddled around Justin spoke in hushed tones. The 10-and-under Bentalou Bombers basketball team trailed by six points. About four minutes remained in the first-round game of the Maryland State Tournament. A loss could devastate the Bombers' season.
As usual, coaches had called a timeout and turned expectantly to Justin, a 4-foot-6 point guard. One problem: Justin, 10, refused to look back at them. He rolled his eyes, bounced in his chair and playfully shoved teammate Cory Watson. "If we win," Justin whispered to Watson, "I'm going to get money from my dad and go straight for the food."
During the last two seasons, youth basketball coaches had anointed Justin as one of the most talented 10-and-under players in the country -- a distinction that would have won him nothing but cheap trophies a decade ago. But now, Justin had become the sought-after prize, pursued by Amateur Athletic Union summer league teams that troll nationally for players, high school coaches who recruit aggressively and shoe companies whose scramble for potential future endorsers continues for a second decade.
The burden of so many pressures rarely registered for Justin, even now in the waning minutes of an important game. But they weighed heavily on a handful of men who watched inside the Chesapeake High School gym in Baltimore. They had invested considerably in Justin's development, and they expected a payoff.
Howard Jenifer, Justin's father, paced behind the Bentalou bench. During the last year, he had fielded requests from at least seven AAU coaches who wanted Justin on their travel-intensive teams, including one in Atlanta who offered to fly Justin in for weekend tournaments. Howard had kept Justin with Bentalou, a team run out of an inner-city recreation center in Baltimore, so his son would remain comfortable and carefree. Could Justin stay that way under pressure?
Don Aaron sat in a section of bleachers by himself because he wanted to watch without distraction. A friend of Howard's and a private basketball instructor, Aaron had outfitted Justin with a weighted vest during workouts to build upper-body strength. He had suggested Justin cut juice out of his diet and regularly run up and down bleachers to build endurance. Would fortified legs carry Justin late in the game?
Across the gym, Scottie Bowden pulled down a flat-brimmed Washington Nationals hat until it almost shielded his eyes. A representative of Adidas, Bowden had invested many weekends and about $20,000 of company money in Justin and his teams. Bowden had provided the boy and his teammates with sneakers and travel money to tournaments in an effort to build brand loyalty in a 10-year-old with distant NBA prospects. In Justin, had Bowden accurately identified a star?
Over the next four minutes, Justin reassured his admirers. As the smallest kid on the court, he looked outmuscled and immature, with shorts that fell almost to his socks and a jersey so big the straps slid off his shoulders. But Justin spun and dribbled the ball as if it were a yo-yo. Then he dropped back on defense and shadowed his opponent, his legs shuffling furiously in perfect form. Justin scored 10 of his team's final 12 points and stole the ball twice, propelling Bentalou to a four-point win.
After postgame handshakes, Howard called to update his fiancee and Justin's mother, Kisha Hull, with the game result. She responded, like always, with tempered enthusiasm. Kisha had often told Howard she felt simultaneously thrilled by Justin's success and dubious as to where it would lead him.
Howard hung up the phone, pulled Justin aside and congratulated him. The father and son would travel to three more games on this Saturday in April, but Howard wanted to dissect Justin's performance. "You took over," Howard told him. "You played big-time out there, broke them down a little bit. What do you think?"
"It was cool," Justin said. Then he shrugged, took $2 from Howard's pocket and rushed to the concession stand.