By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
Design by Andrew J. Nilsen.
TWO MIDDLE-SCHOOL-AGED BOYS SEARCH FOR COURTSIDE SEATS. They squeeze through a dense crowd, juking and spinning around people, pretending they're dribbling a basketball. The boys are giddy and smiling, in snapback hats and uncreased white Jordans. It is, after all, the first Friday night of summer, the official threshold of afternoon wake-ups and aimless evenings. And on this night they get to watch the Oakland Soldiers, who entered the summer league season as the No. 1 17-and-under basketball team in the country.
As they circle the court, the two boys watch as the Soldiers, game faces on, take the floor. Clearly, the kids on this team are not normal teenagers. They are tall, they are extraordinarily good at basketball, and their names are sprawled across the Internet on recruiting blogs and YouTube highlights.
For the 15 teenage Soldiers, summer does not mean pool parties and camping trips and late-night cruising in packed cars. Summer is about layups and conditioning drills, and cross-country trips to basketball gyms, and showcasing enough of their talent to earn a college scholarship. Summer is about playing the Houston Hoops in Nike's Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL), a spring and summer competition between the company's 40 sponsored teams, in front of dozens of cameramen and reporters plus, on this night, 300 or so buzzing spectators.
There are seven full courts at Hayward's Dream Courts, the host for the fourth EYBL session, but most people have converged on the Soldiers' game. The cameramen and reporters jockey for spots along the baseline. The spectators fill the stands, swelling into standing-room-only spaces behind the baskets.
Still, the boys manage to spot a narrow opening in the second row of the bleachers.
"Yo, yo, let's go over there," says one.
"These dudes hella good, huh?" says the other, nodding his head toward the players.
"Maaaan, it's a squad. Like everybody's goin' D-I," responds the first, referring to NCAA Division I college basketball.
The Soldiers have a mystique. LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world, was a Soldier. Legend has it Tupac Shakur recorded a theme song for the team. Once an underfunded, Black Panther-inspired summer program for at-risk East Bay kids, the Soldiers have bloomed into one of the most prominent collections of high school basketball talent in America.
Each of the five seniors on last year's squad received a scholarship to a Pacific-12 Conference school. This year's team features San Jose Archbishop Mitty High School's Aaron Gordon, a 6-foot-9 spring-loaded scoring and rebounding machine who might be the top high school prospect in the country, and Richmond Salesian High School's Jabari Bird, one of the highest-recruited shooting guards in the state. Three Soldiers are on the USA Basketball Developmental National Team, which represents the country in international competitions.
One of those three, 15-year-old Stanley Johnson, snags a rebound early in the contest. He turns up-court, weaving around back-pedaling defenders, feigns a pass at the free-throw line, then floats between two more defenders for a finger roll. The crowd hollers and whistles. "That Johnson kid, he could be a pro, huh?" a man in a navy blue Soldiers T-shirt whispers to the guy standing next to him.
In some ways, Johnson and his teammates already are pros. The Soldiers are so good that Nike is willing to give them free gear and fly them around the country to play AAU basketball in front of major college coaches. (To be clear, "AAU" is sort of a misnomer. The Amateur Athletic Union now has nothing to do with this, although it has run youth leagues for decades. There are several terms to describe this genre of basketball: summer league, travel team, club, or grassroots. People usually call it "AAU basketball" the way people usually call tissues "Kleenex.")
Traditionally, travel teams spent the high school off-season competing in various tournaments organized by the AAU, by other teams, by basketball junkies eager for entrance-fee and gate profits, or by shoe companies.
For these 40 elite programs, though, Nike has replaced that structure with a single league, complete with 20 regular-season games, a playoff tournament in July, and a championship game televised on ESPNU. This is the brand-new, fresh-out-the-shoebox model for summer league basketball.
Nike is, of course, a mega-corporation with a knack for marketing. Which is obvious, given the hundreds of swooshes peppering the Dream Courts. There are Nike banners hanging from the rafters, Nike nylon barricades between each of the venue's seven courts, Nike padding beneath the baskets, Nike duffle bags and Nike backpacks on shoulders, Nike sweatshirts on torsos, Nike basketballs under tables, Nike slippers and Nike Dri-Fit socks on feet, Nike headbands and Nike wristbands, Nike jerseys tucked into Nike shorts, Nike media credentials dangling from necks, and many, many Nike sneakers squeaking on the hardwood. It's not obnoxious, just ubiquitous. Enough markings so that any highlights of the blue chips dunking and blocking shots will surely include flashes of swoosh.
In return for the gear, travel, and exposure, Nike gets a near-monopoly on young, hip, talented, and influential high school basketball stars as de facto pitchmen. These nouveau celebrities have been thrust into the national sports consciousness as interest in college basketball recruiting rises with each year.