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The company, Olivier declares, facilitates important experiences that would otherwise be unattainable to some kids. He remembers when Leon Powe flew on an airplane for the first time, and the way his big hands squeezed the armrests during takeoff. He reveals that you can spot the kids who have never flown before because they keep their phones and keys in their pockets when going through security. His face gets serious when he talks about the fancy Italian restaurant in Norfolk, Va., where some players told him it was their first time at a sit-down restaurant with the thick napkins.
The money injected into youth basketball may help create a single-mindedness at a young age, but that single-mindedness is often rooted in socioeconomic reality. Public school classrooms are overcrowded, extracurricular programs are being cut, college tuition rates are rising, grants are limited. This single-mindedness can make a kid think and care about his future. Professional basketball aspirations, says Edwards, can be the hook that keeps a kid in class and keeps his mind focused on setting and reaching goals. "You can't say, 'Well, if we take out basketball, he'll focus on everything else,'" he says. "You've got to fix everything else first."
The way the kids see it, it's not Nike using them to make money; it's them using Nike. They know they have something shoe companies desire, and they're happy to wear free stuff in exchange for the national platform.
"You see all this stuff, you see all this gear, you know they're doing all this so that if you make it they can say they were there from the start," says Brandon Ashley, a Soldiers alum who will play for the University of Arizona in the fall. "But it benefits us too."
Basketball got Raymond King a lot of free stuff. Vaccaro, infatuated by King's flashy playing style, often mailed him packages of Adidas gear. Basketball also helped King get a scholarship to Cal. He remembers one semester when his childhood neighbor Kevin Washington came to visit. They hooped at the university facilities, just as they had for years at Hilltop Park in Richmond. Washington had always been good at basketball, but never played competitively. He was a good guy with two good parents, King recalls, but he spent his free time running the streets. So when King went off to Cal, Washington stayed in Richmond. A few months after the visit, King was on campus when he got a phone call. Washington had been shot and killed.
"It's kinda scary," he says. "Because you think, like, 'Damn, that could easily be me. Easily be me.' I was just very lucky to have basketball as an outlet."
The Sunday night games finished 10 minutes ago. The Monday afternoon games are a few hours away. With a win over the All-Iowa Attack tonight, the Soldiers clinched a spot in the EYBL playoffs, the Nike Peach Jam tournament in South Carolina. The 24 qualifiers get their Nike sponsorship deal automatically renewed for another year. The other 16 teams have no such guarantees. Over the EYBL's previous two seasons, 10 total teams did not play the following year. No more subsidized plane trips, no more free sneakers, no more ESPN-level exposure for those kids — but a lesson in free enterprise.
Aaron Gordon should be fully healed by Peach Jam. But for now, he stands at half-court and gestures to the walking boot on his left foot, explaining to yet another reporter that his rehab is going well. He keeps a serious but cordial demeanor. He's done several interviews over the last two days, dozens more over the last few months. Answered questions about the colleges he's considering, about how talented and hard-working his Soldiers teammates are, about what it felt like to lead Mitty to a California Interscholastic Federation state championship in April.
The stands are empty. Children shoot hoops on the courts. Ushers funnel spectators toward the doors. Soldiers, slippers on their feet and bags on their shoulders, solicit rides home from teammates.
Finally, the interview ends. Gordon, a gray snapback tilted three-quarters to the back of his head, skips over to a group of children under a hoop. Tomorrow the cameras and questions return. As his notoriety increases with each 30-point performance, the expectations and the scrutiny will multiply. But none of that is on his mind right now. Right now he is just a 16-year-old boy who hasn't been able to play his favorite sport in weeks, and his focus is on that stray ball that somehow rolled unnoticed past those jump-shot-happy children. He chases it down, the boot thudding on the hardwood. Then he bounds toward the basket and throws down a one-handed slam. Gordon is laughing as he scoops up the ball before launching his next dunk.