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Is There Such a Thing as a Perfect 10?
Basketball Prospect Courted While Still In Elementary School

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 4, 2006; A01

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.

Starting Early

Justin never so much as hit the rim in the first five basketball games of his life, as a 6-year-old. Timid and undersized, Justin tended to run away from the ball, not toward it. "He was scared," said Hull, 31. "He hated it."

For inspiration, Howard bought Justin a basketball DVD featuring flashy players, and the father quickly realized that his son learned visually. Justin mimicked the players by dribbling through his legs in the living room of their two-story Baltimore house, and Howard rushed out to buy more DVDs.

The DVD collection swelled -- Howard quickly amassed more than 70 -- and Justin's skill set expanded with it. By 7, Justin scored most of his team's points. By 8, he scored most of the points in leagues designated for 9- and 10-year-olds. Opposing coaches and parents buzzed about the diminutive point guard. More adults came to Justin's games to see for themselves.

Justin's confidence skyrocketed. He appeared briefly last year in a commercial with NBA all-star and Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony, and that three-second spot made him a celebrity at Arlington Baptist School in Baltimore, where he just finished fourth grade. Once reserved, Justin belted out songs from "Beauty and the Beast" in the classroom. He boasted to friends that he would play in the National Basketball Association -- or, if that fell through, at least become an NBA coach. "I don't care how hard it is," Justin said. "I know I will do it."

Howard, 32, calls his son a "young" 10-year-old, and family friends sometimes mistake Justin for 7 or 8. His silliness is revealed through big, curious eyes and a smile so big his cheeks inflate like a balloon. Justin once invited his entire team over for a sleepover and suggested that all eight boys sleep on one single bed -- even though Justin's room has two.

Justin decorated the walls of his room with posters of a half-dozen NBA players, and he decorates his body like they do. Only the tattoos of goblins and monsters that he places on his arms wash off a day or two later.

"Basketball kind of brought him out of his shell and made him silly, which is great," said Ken Gibson, who coaches Justin on an 11-year-old team. "But it's also a little scary, cause if his basketball slips, it's like, 'Well, does everything else slip, too?' "

Howard and Kisha often remind themselves that phenomenal talent, at 10, remains tenuous and fleeting. The uncontrollable terrifies them. Justin must grow taller than his 5-foot-10 father, Howard said, and the family's genes hold little promise. Recently, Kisha told Howard she is 5-2.

"Oh no. No. Don't tell me that," Howard said. "You've got to be at least 5-2 and a half, right?

"I always tell Justin: 'Get to 6-2 and we're good. We're good,' " Howard said. "But if he stops growing way early and everybody else keeps shooting up? Then that's it, man. That's a wrap. We might as well go try badminton or something."

Investing Young

On a Monday afternoon in April, Howard hung a stopwatch around his neck and walked Justin into the football stadium at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore for what had become their regular workout. He told Justin to take a sip of water and a deep breath. Then he told his son to run up and down 240 rows of stairs in the bleachers -- in 100 seconds or less.

Justin widened his eyes in playful disbelief, shook his head and took off. As his footsteps echoed on the metal bleachers, Howard looked at his stopwatch and hollered updates: "Hurry. Seven seconds left. Five. Four. Boy, you better go!"

Two seconds before his deadline, Justin leapt off the last step, sweat rolling down his forehead. Already, these twice-weekly workouts had chiseled his physique. His shoulders and biceps bulged out of a white tank top. Only Justin's round face betrayed hints of baby fat as he dropped his hands to his knees and leaned back up against a fence.

"Don't lean up against that," Howard said. "That's a sign of weakness. Get off the fence."

Before they returned home for dinner, Howard told Justin to do 25 pushups . . . after jumping rope 100 times in a minute . . . after making 14 consecutive free throws . . . after shooting 300 jumpers . . . after running up and down 720 more rows of stairs in the bleachers.

Howard's unwavering commitment to his son's development often left him exhausted; he has gained weight and lost sleep. He walked slowly and moved sluggishly. Breaks came rarely, if at all, because Howard had vowed to not let his son repeat his father's mistakes.

Howard was once a youth basketball phenom in Baltimore. He developed a consistent jump shot on a 16-by-20-foot court his father built in the back yard and dominated high-level youth leagues in middle school. But lack of height and defensive laziness derailed Howard at Cardinal Gibbons School. "I didn't work hard enough," Howard said. "You don't make that mistake twice."

Howard works for Aramark, a food management company, as a chef's assistant from 7 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., and then operates a cleaning business late at night. He spends the rest of the time coaching Justin, his only child. "Sometimes we relax," Kisha said, "and watch basketball DVDs on the couch."

Each time an opposing coach found a weakness in Justin's game, Howard eradicated it. Justin took lessons with local coaches who specialized in shooting, dribbling and defense. The shooting coach, Kevin Bullock, confessed he might not have much to offer after he watched Justin, at 8, make 43 of 50 three-point tries.

While helping coach Justin's team at an AAU tournament game last month, Howard sat on the bench with his right hand covering his eyes. Playing against mostly seventh-graders, Justin -- for once -- looked his age. He had a baby tooth knocked out in a third-quarter collision with a boy twice his size, and Howard wondered later if that had left his son shaken. Justin returned to the game and threw away passes, air-balled a three-pointer and missed an open layup.

When the game ended, Justin gathered his teammates and showed off the bloody gap vacated by his upper left tooth. Then he ran to his Adidas bag and pulled out his uniform for his next game, to be played on a different court in 10 minutes. Justin had just slipped a pair of shorts over his SpongeBob SquarePants boxers when Howard wrapped his arm around his son's shoulder.

"You looked like a little kid out there," Howard said. "Get it together. You have to perform. You can be a little kid at home. But here, you're an impact player."

'It's About Brand Loyalty'

Adidas pays Scottie Bowden to find impact players and get them into Adidas gear. That usually means 15- or 16-year-olds, but the company has no age minimums; it wants to procure the best players, said Darren Kalish, Adidas's director of grass-roots basketball programs.

Bowden courted Justin just after he turned 9.

"It's about brand loyalty," Bowden said. "If you're in my uniform at 10 or 11, maybe you will stay with me later on. I'm not always happy we're focusing on 9-, 10-, 11-year-old kids. That's so early. But this is a business. And if that's what I've got to do now, then that's what I'm going to do."

The Adidas representative blames his recruitment of Justin on an inevitable chain reaction: Three shoe companies -- Adidas, Nike and Reebok -- try to get top players on AAU teams they sponsor. High school players quickly develop firm allegiances. The companies shift to the next set of available players, which means a younger and younger demographic.

Bowden, who is the principal at Golden Ring Middle School in Baltimore, has moonlighted as an Adidas consultant for more than 10 years. Bowden gets about $100,000 worth of Adidas equipment and cash each year, he said. With that he has built the Baltimore Select AAU program, which has four teams in four age groups. Bowden pays for his team's travel to top tournaments across the country; players dutifully wear only Adidas. The company has about 50 or 60 consultants in the United States who operate similarly, Kalish said.

Never had Bowden invested in a player younger than 11 or 12, but Justin, Bowden said, "had a chance at greatness." So the consultant befriended Howard and asked to drop by a Bentalou practice with a little surprise. Late one afternoon in April 2005, Bowden gathered a dozen 9-year-olds around him. He dropped 12 Adidas gym bags on the floor, each one stuffed with shoes, headbands, jerseys and socks. "It was like Christmas," Howard said.

Said Bowden, "I just wanted to give them a little taste of what I could do."

During the months that followed, Howard said Bowden's gift felt more like a backhanded bribe. Bowden wanted Justin to play for the Baltimore Select 10s and 11s this season, each to be backed by an estimated budget of almost $20,000. When Howard, driven by loyalty, decided that Justin would play 10s with Bentalou and 11s with Select, Bowden refused to talk with him for two months.

Justin enjoys the rewards of his courtship: He displays almost 20 pairs of shoes in his room, and he has come to expect free Adidas headbands. He's oblivious, though, to the obligations attached to those gifts. In March, Justin asked his dad, "Why can't I just play for every team?"

"I feel like they give you all of these nice things just trying to lure you to them," Kisha said: "I told Howard, 'Don't take anything else from them. If you take too much, it's like they own you.' "

Said Todd Kays, a sports psychologist who counsels young athletes and their families for the Athletic Mind Institute in Dublin, Ohio: "Those sorts of gifts can create a lot of pressure. I used to think the pressure of sports hit in high school, but now it happens more in middle school. That's risky. It can make a young child a major candidate for low-grade anxiety and burnout."

Moving On

Playing with Bentalou implies risks of its own, Howard said. The organization's teams must raise funds exhaustively, and top tournaments sometimes have entry fees costing several hundred dollars, more than Bentalou can afford. "It could kind of hold Justin back," Howard said. He has made it clear that Justin will not play at all for Bentalou after this year, causing a virtual bidding war.

Bowden said he fully expects Justin to repay his loyalty by playing exclusively for Select next season. Coaches for D.C. Assault have suggested Justin would get more personal attention if he left Baltimore and played for a Washington-based team. Carlton Carrington, coach of a Baltimore-based AAU program called Team Melo, said Nike sponsors his team and could help Justin pay for air travel. If that pitch fails to entice, Carrington said he will have Carmelo Anthony, the NBA star who also funds the team, call Justin to woo him.

"I'll throw everything at them but the kitchen sink to bring them over to me," Carrington said. "I can give them like three trips a year on the bird. It'll be my ace in the hole to have the big fella call them and say, 'Shorty, this is where you've got to be.' And once 'Melo calls, it's basically impossible to say no."

Elite high school teams also started to pursue Justin this season. He's become familiar with a handful of top high school coaches, though he sometimes has trouble remembering which school each man represents.

Howard has a cousin, Damien Jenifer, who works as an assistant varsity basketball coach at Montrose Christian in Rockville, and Justin watched its varsity team practice earlier this season. Damien said the Montrose coaching staff would love for Justin to enroll as soon as next year, for the fifth grade. "We could instill the discipline here," Damien said. "We could work him out and make sure he's improving every day."

Baltimore area private schools Boys' Latin and McDonogh might also like Justin to attend in sixth grade to "lock him in" for high school, Howard said. Tony Martin, the head coach at the John Carroll School in Bel Air, Md., already has seen Justin play a few times. Mount St. Joseph Coach Pat Clatchey said he might actively recruit Justin starting in sixth grade.

"It's kind of crazy to talk about a 10-year-old, but he's on everyone's radar," said Clatchey, whose team finished 38-1 last season. "His ability to handle the ball, his vision on the floor . . . those aren't just tremendous for someone that young; I'd take any player who can do that. I don't think there's a coach in the state who doesn't want Justin in his uniform."

College recruiting Web sites will rank Justin for the first time next year, as a fifth-grader, and he could well be No. 1 nationally in his class. By middle school, the shoe companies will beg him to go to their summer camps. The first college recruiting letter will probably roll in shortly after that, Howard said. Then the high school coaches will really descend.

Kisha said visions of that future sometimes wake her up in the middle of the night. "It's too much," she said. Already, she runs interference between Justin and the men who pursue him. Justin practices regularly at Hoops, a large gym near his house in Baltimore, and men impressed with his jump shot sometimes give him a few dollars, Kisha said. Last year, Los Angeles Clippers guard Sam Cassell, who is from Baltimore, watched Justin make a dozen consecutive jumpers and slipped a $100 bill in the boy's pocket.

Each gift blends together for Justin, who still lacks a solid grasp of money's worth. He heard the song of an ice cream truck outside his home last month and rushed into his room to grab money for a SpongeBob ice cream pop. He bolted out the door holding $13.

"I try to tell Justin, 'You can't always take free money, free shoes, free food,' " Kisha said. "Later down the line, I don't want everybody to be looking at Justin like he owes them.

"All these people, it's a little like they're trying to buy him or something. And I'm like: 'Wait a second. You really want to do this? My son is 10. He's not for sale.' "

© 2006 The Washington Post Company