Minutes after the Maryland Lakers lost in a national basketball tournament here this week, someone asked the team's coach, Kenneth Atkinson, if he felt if anyone competing would one day play in the NBA.
Atkinson, a 35-year-old who owns a dump-truck business and also coaches youth football, immediately pointed to two players on his team.
One is 6 years old. The other just turned 7.
"By the time they are 12," Atkinson said, "they'll be all-Americans."
As the NBA continues to get younger -- a record eight high school players were drafted in the first round last month -- the starting point to find talent begins earlier and earlier. Twenty-nine teams from around the country gathered in Memphis this week for the first 8-year-old-and-under national Amateur Athletic Union tournament. The event represents the next step in the controversial world of amateur basketball, where players are nationally ranked as young as the fourth grade and kids spend much of their summers traveling around the country participating in camps and tournaments.
The tournament featured players jostling over seats on the bench and skipping rocks in parking lot puddles, and one coach telling his players, "Win a couple more games and you can ride all the go-carts you want."
The tallest player stood just over 5 feet; the shortest didn't reveal a glimpse of ankle under his long, silky shorts.
There were other aspects not as innocent. Many in attendance felt they were watching a few NBA superstars in the making. "I saw some kids who might not be 8," said Reggie Parker, a Maryland Lakers assistant. "If they are 8, there's some future Kevin Garnetts around here."
Bobby Dodd, AAU's president, said the strongest arguments for an 8-and-under tournament are that kids learn sportsmanship and get to participate with peers of varying ethnic backgrounds.
"We do not create the need to rank," Dodd said. "We don't rank kids. We don't do all-American teams. . . . I don't think you can say that an 8-and-under tournament forces you to rank them. If the scouting services and [newspapers] think you need to worry about ranking 8-year-olds, you all need to find something else to cover. There's got to be better things out there than worrying about ranking 8-year-olds. Plus, I think it sends the wrong message to them by ranking them."
The AAU oversees 250-300 national championships in 35 sports each year. Dodd did not rule out holding 7-and-under national tournaments in the future, saying the "demand by the consumer will dictate whether we do or don't," but said one is not on the immediate horizon. Asked how young AAU could go, Dodd said, "Where's the bottom, I don't know."
"That's sick," Jerry Tarkanian, a former college basketball coach for more than 40 years, said of ranking kids. "Totally sick. They never used to have any of that."
Before one game Thursday night, two men, Kurk Lee and Charles Moore, sat a few feet apart on a bleacher. Lee, a father of a player on the Bentalou Bombers (Maryland area) team, felt his team's guard, Justin Jenifer, was the best 8-year-old in the country.
Moore, an assistant for the Spartanburg, S.C., Bucks, thought his team's guard, Perry Dozier, was the best 7-year-old in the country. "If this kid isn't the second coming of Earvin [Magic] Johnson . . . ," Moore said earlier of Dozier, a deft ballhandler the coaching staff expects to grow to at least 6 feet 8 because his father is 6-10, his grandfather 7-4.
Jenifer, on the other hand, can shoot from beyond the three-point line and dribble behind his back with ease, perhaps a result of watching his favorite AND1 videotapes, which celebrate playground basketball.
"He has the mentality of a 13- or 14-year-old," said Lee, who played for the New Jersey Nets during the 1990-91 season. "How many 8-year-olds have you seen teams play a box-and-one [defense] to defend?"
Do you think he's the best in his grade?
"By far," Lee said.
Could he play in the NBA someday?
"Yes," Lee said.
Another fan chimed in, "Watch, he'll put on a dribbling exhibition."
Lee was doing more than just watching on Friday night, however, getting kicked out of the building by referees for screaming and yelling. After the game, in which the Bombers lost, the referees were escorted into a locker room and a Bombers fan attempted to get inside to confront the them. The fan, yelling and cursing, had to be pulled away as the young players looked on.
The practice of ranking grammar school-aged children is hit and miss. Years ago, Hoop Scoop, a Louisville-based recruiting publication, rated Brooklyn, N.Y., playground star Sebastian Telfair as the top sixth-grader in the nation. But the search for the next Telfair started even before Telfair, 19, became the player who was selected 13th in last month's NBA draft straight from high school.
During last year's Adidas ABCD Camp, arguably the premier summer showcase for high school stars, Telfair said his 9-year-old brother, Ethan, would be better than he is. "We're trying to get him to be the first player to go to the NBA from eighth grade," Telfair said then.
Conversely, Florida's Jason Bennett was ranked as one of the premier middle school players in part because he stood 7 feet. Now, as Bennett prepares for his junior year, his rank has slipped to barely in the top 100 in Hoop Scoop's ratings.
And consider Buffalo's Jermaine Bushae, whom Sportscensus.com ranked the nation's top fifth-grader three years ago. One problem: The Buffalo News found no record of Bushae in the Buffalo area.
While the tournament was devoid of college coaches, new Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers made an appearance but -- he swore -- only to watch his son, Spencer, compete on a Florida team.
Rivers has another son in middle school, who -- Rivers is told -- is ranked nationally. "I think he's ranked in the top five," Rivers said. "That's a bunch of crap. Nobody knows. There's probably a kid his age really good who's never picked up a ball yet."
When Rivers speaks to young traveling teams, he tells them to never stop dribbling. "You're all point guards until further notice," Rivers tells them.
"When's notice?" they often ask.
"At 6-9," he says.
While some pre-teens might possess a size advantage, there is no guarantee they will continue growing. There's also no certainty that an 8-year-old still will be interested in basketball by the time he's a teenager. As basketball increasingly becomes a year-round endeavor, burnout also is a risk.
"It's every sport now, it's not just basketball," Georgia Tech Coach Paul Hewitt said. "Tennis moms and golf moms and Little League dads. I don't think it's good for anyone to specialize that early, but that's what they do now."
Riley Gore, a coach of a Washington area 8-year-old team who has been around the game for decades, said he encourages his players to play other sports, which he believes help prepare them for basketball season.
"You can see potential [at this age], but some kids peak too early," Gore said. "It depends on the ego of the coaches involved [if the hype gets out of hand]. Depends a lot on the parents and coaches."
The Central Kentucky Warriors, led by Lexington, Ky., attorney Shirley Cunningham Jr., mixed basketball with academics on the trip to Memphis. Daily schedules were regimented, allowing for a few hours per day for cultural trips (Graceland, Beale Street, the zoo), another couple for card games and PlayStation and one hour a night for what they called Lesson Lab.
Two parents who are teachers led a lecture in a meeting room in a Holiday Inn Express, where the kids wrote in journals, read aloud, and performed exercises that involved learning nouns and verbs.
"We have kids here, some of whom will have athletic skills enough to go to a Princeton or a Yale or some Ivy League school," Cunningham said. "And if they have the academic skills, that's good. We have some who will have Division I athletic skills, so they have to be academically eligible for that."
Dodd and Rivers believe an 8-and-under tournament is positive as long as coaches emphasize learning the sport and having fun, rather than simply striving to win a national championship.
During one game, Rivers, between sips of Diet Coke, pointed to a player that appeared to be 5 feet.
"He," joked Rivers, "is the best 7-year-old in the world."