It started in the backroom of a townhouse in Silver Spring, Md., no hoop in sight, just an 11-year-old boy and the bum-bum-bum of a basketball bouncing off the hardwood floor.
The dribbler was Jao Ituka, born in Cameroon, used to kicking around a soccer ball, new to this sport everyone talked about in the United States. He was big for a sixth-grader, so his friends tugged him onto the blacktop. Now he was in summer basketball camp during the day and poring over YouTube videos at night, eyes glued to the game's finer details, mind set on a rigid routine.
Sit at the computer for an hour. Dribble for an hour. Watch Kyrie Irving highlights. Mimic the star's around-the-back move. Get yelled at by his parents to go to sleep. Pull up more videos. Russell Westbrook, LeBron James. Imitate them. Bum-bum-bum. Then repeat.
"I didn't like basketball until I realized I could watch players do things and then do it myself the exact same way," Ituka said. "That was like opening up a whole new world."
Just two and a half years later, Ituka is a 6-foot-1 freshman with magnetic handles, a reliable jumper and a mission to tear down any poor rim that finds itself in his way. He is 13, built like a Division I guard, and his four-syllable name is already coursing through basketball circles in one of the country's most talented areas as the high school season tips off.
But even as he studies others to polish his own game, Ituka's approach to high school and AAU basketball counters the sport's modern culture. Top talent, nationally and especially locally, is gravitating toward private and preparatory schools. Ituka attends Gaithersburg High, a public school in Montgomery County, Md., that last won a state championship in 1998. Most of those top players are also concentrated in shoe-sponsored AAU programs, under the recruiting umbrellas of Nike, Under Armour or Adidas. Ituka plays for the 1 Up Warriors, an unaffiliated Montgomery County organization still building a reputation. Many Division I prospects use social media as a recruiting tool, blasting out highlights and scholarship offers and a filtered view of their potential. Ituka doesn't even have a cellphone.
He was pursued by a handful of private schools and top AAU programs in the summer leading into his freshman year. He chose to do things his own way, utilizing an old path to a high-major scholarship and, he hopes, professional basketball career. And now Ituka has to answer a complicated question in an era built on perception and retweets.
Is being good enough?
"I am not worried about the exposure or competition at Gaithersburg or in AAU; those things will come if you play well enough and stand out," Ituka said. "I think I am in a position where I can stand out a lot. And you definitely can't find competition in a Twitter feed. That's for sure."
Seven years ago, the Itukas won a visa lottery and the entire family immigrated from Limbe, Cameroon, with green cards and social security numbers. Ituka's father, Fidelis Beseka, owned the town bakery in Limbe. His mother, Helen Ituka, stayed at home to take care of the kids.
But their lives became more strenuous in the United States. Fidelis and Helen are both caretakers for the sick and elderly, and sometimes work from 8 a.m. to midnight. Eyamba, the oldest of their six children at 20, turned down a Division II soccer scholarship to go to Montgomery College in Maryland and look after his siblings. He works at a Domino's in Bethesda and chips in what he can, sometimes buying Jao new basketball gear and always driving his younger brother to practices and games.
Before moving to Gaithersburg, the Itukas lived in four different houses and apartments, bouncing from Silver Spring, to Bowie, to Greenbelt, then back to Silver Spring before putting down a mortgage on their current home.
"Sometimes we would go nights without even eating. It was hard," Eyamba said. "But we just keep pushing through, and it's better now. There's no guide to making it in America."
Now Jao, the third born, is trying to make it in a sport he started just three years ago. His strength is attacking the rim, where he can draw fouls or finish well above the outstretched arms of opposing big men. He can space the floor with his jump shot, but he would rather pump-fake a defender out of the way, knife into space and create for himself and teammates.
He hopes all of that will attract big-time college coaches, even if he isn't playing where they normally look. Seven senior boys from the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area have signed letters of intent to high-major college programs this fall, and all of them play at private or prep schools and for an AAU team affiliated with Nike or Under Armour. Of ESPN's top 50 recruits in the nation for 2018, 15 are public school players.
Gaithersburg Coach Jeff Holda has already watched private schools approach Ituka about transferring, something that's happened with Holda standing nearby. Tyrian Ridges, Ituka's coach with the 1 Up Warriors, has seen the same. And if Ituka shines in his freshman season, there will be even more coaches and others trying to sway him into a different situation.
Ituka did not want to discuss those private schools, and instead stretched out the front of his jersey and said, "I play for GAI-THERS-BURG," drawing out each syllable to make his point.
"It can definitely be done. There is always that player from a small school or program who makes it and surprises people," said a power-conference college assistant coach, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because of NCAA rules against discussing potential recruits. "But it's hard. You're narrowing your chances of being seen and need to really stand out when you get the chance, especially in a private school-driven area like D.C. and Maryland. But I've actually seen Jao play, and he could do it."
Last Tuesday, Gaithersburg's gym buzzed with excitement as the Trojans tipped off their first preseason scrimmage. It was against Wootton, an in-county opponent, and it was Ituka's first shot at high school competition. He started fast, sinking two free throws, swooping in for a reverse and climbing to 10 first-quarter points.
"That's a big little boy," said one student.
"It's too easy for him," chimed in another.
"I wish I could do that," muttered a junior varsity player after Ituka spun around a defender to get into the paint. A few moments later, after stealing a Wootton pass, Ituka charged down the right side of the court, let a defender lean hard on his left shoulder, and then Euro-stepped behind him before hanging in the air and dropping the ball in.
In the bleachers, three fans held an imaginary ball and moved it just like he did, from the right side of their bodies to the left before pantomiming his smooth lay-in. A girl in the second row did the same seconds later. The game went on like this, with Gaithersburg's new star, who once only needed an empty room, a basketball and his imagination, completing plays that the crowd repeated and cheered.
It only took a few minutes before they were all imitating Jao Ituka.
"He has a chance to really pave the way," Holda said. "He is just different."