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"See, there's a million AAU teams," says Andrews, who left the Soldiers in 2001 to become a sports agent. "But when the Soldiers go to Vegas, they play on the main floor, the main gym, at primetime hours. All these dudes that write, and all these Internet bloggers, and all the coaches, and all the fans, they're at the main gym, at the main court, watching the heavy-hitting teams play. And that's what all these years of all this has done: It's allowed us to create something that gives kids a platform that they can't get anywhere else."
All the kids have to do is wear some free sneakers.
Four Soldiers from the 13-and-under team slouch on swivel chairs at Dream Courts, watching the games. Their squad is particularly talented, good enough to qualify for the seventh grade AAU National Championship tournament in late June. Damari Milstead and Alex Johnson have been Soldiers since fourth grade. Gamon Howard and Dvan Molden are in their second year, having jumped to the Soldiers after playing for the Oakland Rebels, a quality AAU program without a sponsorship deal.
Somebody asks Molden why he changed teams."Everybody wanna be a Soldier," he says.
"People be all, 'Oh you play with the Soldiers?'" says Milstead.
"Everybody knows at school," adds Molden. "Word gets around, we never gotta tell 'em."
All four seventh-graders say they want to play in the NBA when they grow up, but each is sure to also mention his backup plan. Milstead would be a doctor;. Molden, a lawyer. While the odds of making it to the NBA may be slim for every young player, these four are certainly on the proper trajectory. More so than for most other vocations, becoming a professional basketball player now requires an early commitment.
Even the stodgy NCAA has come to recognize the growing prominence of middle school basketball. In 2009 the governing body officially classified seventh-graders as "prospects," allowing it to regulate the college recruiting of middle-schoolers the way it regulates the college recruiting of high-schoolers.
The middle-schoolers on the Soldiers have already planted themselves ahead of most of their peers. Milstead points out that the team's new point guard, Elijah Duplechan of Sacramento, is "the No. 1 ranked player" in the class of 2017. These kids didn't join the Soldiers just for the schoolyard props. They joined because they want to see how far basketball can take them.
In many ways, the Soldiers' success stands as a realization of its founders' ultimate goal. But the success comes at a cost. Getting those scholarship opportunities means operating within a system where boys are defined as elite athletes fast-tracked for basketball stardom from the time they are 11 or 12 years old — invited to exclusive camps and tournaments because they are good at basketball, given free stuff because they are good at basketball, flown around the country because they are good at basketball, interviewed and written about because they are good at basketball.
"When basketball becomes a venue for commodification, then you have kids who are single-minded," says Alauddeen, who left the Soldiers in 1995 to pursue a master's degree. "Instead of seeing themselves as individuals, they see themselves as a product. And AAU basketball has done that. I don't think the Soldiers have done that, but the American market is going to commodify athletes."
The summer league circuit is similar to the way young athletes are groomed in Europe. Except over there, professional sports organizations, such as the International Basketball Federation, oversee the youth system, and here, corporations do. The commodification of youth basketball, says Edwards, forces aspiring pros to get on the NBA track as soon as possible, to keep up with the expectations placed upon them.
"We are choreographing kids at a younger and younger age to define themselves not just as a basketball player, but choreographing them down to a position," he says. "The downside is this phenomenal compression of human potential down to a position on a basketball team. Don't pay nothing but shoes at this point, but they have bigger aspirations."
Most people agree that the shoe companies have fueled the hype surrounding amateur basketball. Andrews and Alauddeen played the companies' game, and now every college coach in the country knows about the Oakland Soldiers. Now "Everybody wanna be a Soldier."
"Basketball is a sport that keeps kids off the street," says Alauddeen. "The Soldiers program has historically been the program to remind kids about what's bigger than basketball. That there's more to life than basketball. The trouble is reminding ourselves."
The Soldiers lose two consecutive EYBL games. They play short-handed, as a couple of players couldn't make it on Saturday and Sunday. Mario Dunn, for example, had an SAT prep class. Even the most cynical person must admit that it is in the Soldiers' best interest that their players do well in school. The program's main selling point is that being a Soldier all but assures a D-I scholarship. To do that, Olivier, the executive director, must get his kids to take academics seriously. In May, five former Soldiers graduated from college.
"Nike captured something that other people didn't with this league," says Olivier. "But it's not about the shoe company. It's about using basketball to open some doors."