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.

Kelly Nicolaisen
The Oakland Soldiers began the summer league season as the No. 1 ranked travel team in the country. Through Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, the team faces off against top competition, such as 
Chicago’s Meanstreets.
Kelly Nicolaisen
The Oakland Soldiers began the summer league season as the No. 1 ranked travel team in the country. Through Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, the team faces off against top competition, such as Chicago’s Meanstreets.
Even with a boot over his injured left foot, Aaron Gordon, one of the top high school basketball prospects in the class of 2013, draws reporters and cameras.
Kelly Nicolaisen
Even with a boot over his injured left foot, Aaron Gordon, one of the top high school basketball prospects in the class of 2013, draws reporters and cameras.
Nike sponsors the 40 travel basketball teams who compete in the Elite Youth Basketball League. It costs Nike more than $2 million to fly those teams around America for league events.
Kelly Nicolaisen
Nike sponsors the 40 travel basketball teams who compete in the Elite Youth Basketball League. It costs Nike more than $2 million to fly those teams around America for league events.

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.

"These kids become commodities," says Harry Edwards, a sociology professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and a well-known commentator on the cultural role of sports. "They literally are being developed into marketable commodities that somebody is willing to pay money to have access to by the time they're 15, 16, 17 years old."

For elite travel teams like the Soldiers, though, the benefits of Nike's EYBL are too great to pass up. Exposure is the point of travel-team basketball. Coaches and players say that the league provides the best platform for scholarship opportunities. Every major college coach attends at least one EYBL session. National publications cover the league. The media sign-in sheets at the events read like a roll call of college-sports recruiting websites.

To those coaches and players, Nike is a necessary partner in today's hyper-competitive world of travel-team basketball. It is a world Nike and other shoe companies shaped in the first place. Where the path to professional stardom starts at a younger and younger age. And it is a world in which the Oakland Soldiers have thrived.

The Soldiers are up four points with less than a minute left in the game when Johnson steals the ball, then glides down the court for a tomahawk jam, sealing the win. Because Gordon is out with a fractured left foot and Bird is out with tendinitis in his knee, Johnson has carried the offensive load, scoring 23 of the team's 68 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.

Johnson, 6-foot-5 with a smooth jumper, is not from the Bay Area. He's from Fullerton and goes to Mater Dei High School, the famous Catholic sports factory. He'll be a junior in the fall and the buzz around him is growing. After the teams shake hands, Johnson whips off his jersey and finds a pack of reporters waiting to talk to him.

This is his second year on the Soldiers. He'd played for California Supreme, another EYBL program, but jumped to the Soldiers because the Supreme wanted him to play on their 16-and-under team, according to his mom, Karen Taylor. She promptly called Soldiers' Executive Director Mark Olivier. He just as promptly offered her son a spot on their 17-and-under team. So Johnson flies up for practices and games, spending his nights in hotels or crashing at a teammate's house. Nike covers all the Soldiers' traveling expenses, which add to up around $60,000 a year.

One reporter asks him why he thinks Nike is being so generous. "Nike tries to monopolize the game," says Johnson, shrugging his shoulders, hands on his hips. "And the NBA players — LeBron, Kobe, Durant — they got everybody. [Nike] got the best players. They wanna have the best league, too. I mean, this is just them doing their thing, being Nike, and just being the best."

A quick walk around the Dream Courts proves his point. Four of ESPN's five highest-rated class of 2013 prospects are in the building. So are the three highest-rated class of 2014 prospects. On Court Four, for instance, playing for the Chicago travel team Mac Irvin Fire, there's Jabari Parker, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated a week before, beside the headline "The Best High School Basketball Player Since LeBron James Is ... Jabari Parker."

When Nike kicked off the EYBL in spring 2010, one ESPN writer said that the company had "revolutionized" travel team basketball. While shoe-company-run camps and tournaments have served for years as the premier platform for top high-school basketball talent, elite travel teams still had to fill out the rest of their summer schedules with weekend tournaments of varying competition levels, organization, and exposure. The teams would waste time against weak teams in the early rounds. They'd play four games a day, wearing out legs and increasing injury risk. They'd compete in tournaments with no media coverage and few scouts.

The EYBL solves those problems: Every game is competitive, teams play no more than two a day, and they receive extensive media coverage. For elite high school basketball players, it is simply a better product. So the talent has converged, and a majority of the top players and teams now compete in one league for an entire season. The EYBL diverges from the classic model of amateur youth sports, where every kid can participate and learn about hard work, teamwork, and sportsmanship. The EYBL, simply, is a market for college coaches seeking elite athletes.

"We can go out and watch the best players against the best players," says Randy Bennett, head basketball coach at Saint Mary's College. "You get to see them against better competition. It's convenient."

It costs Nike more than $2 million just to cover teams' travel fare for the season. That doesn't include all the gear, venue staffers, on-site trainers, insurance, and more. But it's a slim price for a corporation that generated more than $21 billion in revenue last year. Nike is the most successful sports apparel company in the world. One reason is its innovative marketing. This is the same company that turned Michael Jordan into a commercial icon, the company whose products are so desired that young people wait in lines outside stores for hours through chilly dawns, sometimes rioting, sometimes even killing each other. All because Nike turned its swoosh into a symbol — of winning, of success, of cool — and kept it that way.

"Generally, Nike doesn't rest on their laurels. They think of something new," says Sam Poser, a senior research analyst at Sterne Agee, a brokerage firm. "They'll be satisfied for a little while, and then someone asks, 'How can we do it better? What's the new thing?'"

The EYBL is the new thing, and it has also revolutionized the marketing of travel-team basketball. After Nike recruiter Sonny Vaccaro, widely credited as the first man to bring shoe company sponsorships to the AAU level, signed Michael Jordan and turned the swoosh into a juggernaut, shoe companies' strategy was: bankroll a travel team so that it draws top players, connect with a promising player at a young age, build a relationship by sending him gear, push him toward a college affiliated with the brand to maintain the relationship, and then hope that he signs with the company if he makes it big.

That strategy recently changed. Nike doesn't have to wait for one of its kids to become the next Michael Jordan anymore. Nike already has Aaron Gordon and Jabari Parker.

"Those high school kids are brands today," says Don Yeager, co-author of Sole Influence, which first illuminated shoe companies' pull on amateur basketball in the '90s. "Where before they were hoping to influence where they went to college so they could become brands, now they're already brands."

Nike has adapted to and benefited from this new paradigm. The company is able to hone its resources, funding and hyping those 40 elite teams, those 400 or so top ballers with media followings and much-Googled names. (Nike did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

"In the past they used to cast a wide net. They went from being a shotgun to being a rifle in their approach to targeting kids," says George Dohrmann, who shadowed a Southern California travel team for most of the last decade while writing his book Play Their Hearts Out (and who first made the AAU/Kleenex analogy).

Within a few days, dozens of highlights from the local weekend session will pop up around the Internet: uploaded onto YouTube, tweeted with a #EYBL hashtag, posted on the Oakland Soldiers' Facebook page, which has more than 5,000 likes. All this sharing will help satiate fans' desire to track the progression of the country's next generation of NBA stars. It's a viral marketing strategy, says Dohrmann, one that blurs the line between branding and reality. Unlike, say, college football bowl sponsorships, Nike isn't just affiliated with the event; Nike is the event.

"What sponsors are looking for is to be woven into the cultural fabric in these fundamental ways," says Matt McAllister, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the evolution of corporate branding in sports. "This is an extension of sponsorship activities that we've seen for the last 20 years."

After the Soldiers beat Chicago's Meanstreets on the second day of the session, a cameraman and a producer call Gordon and Bird over for an interview. Nike contracted with these guys to record footage for a new web series called "The Circuit." The YouTube channel describes the show as "a behind-the-scenes series following the greatest high school basketball stars through their grueling summer travel schedule on the Nike EYBL circuit." Posters on the Dream Courts' walls remind people to "Follow us on Twitter @EYBL2012."

A few feet from the court, Gordon's mom, Shelly, looks on. She shakes her head and grins as she contemplates the spectacle of it all. "I'm always a little bit flabbergasted that people spend so much time worrying about 16-year-old boys," she says.

Her 16-year-old son happens to be a basketball prodigy. A YouTube video titled "Aaron Gordon is the NASTIEST player in the country!!!" has garnered more than 100,000 views. The video was edited by Travis Faris, whose production company, Yay Area's Finest, creates highlight reels for many of the region's high school basketball stars. Olivier was so impressed with Faris' work that he invited him to travel with the team.

A recent Yay Area's Finest video titled "Soldiers Go UNDEFEATED in Minnesota!!! 1st Session of the 2012 EYBL" begins in an airport, where Bird speaks to the camera. On a chair behind him is a black Nike duffel bag. A few seconds later, stills of the venue set the context. Flashing on the screen to the beat of the background music: an orange nylon barricade featuring a swoosh and "EYBL"; a black banner featuring a swoosh and "Basketball"; a black sign featuring a swoosh and "Elite Youth Basketball League." And then Aaron Gordon slams in an alley-oop.

Long before the YouTube clips and the college recruiting websites and LeBron James, back in the Soldiers' first summer, the program's co-founders Calvin Andrews and Hashim Alauddeen, a pair of El Cerrito High School grads, weren't even sure how they'd be able to pay for the team's trip to a Las Vegas tournament. While Alauddeen drove the packed van nine hours from Richmond, Andrews stayed back, frantically working to close a $1,000 deficit.

That was back in 1990. Alauddeen was a 21-year-old African Diaspora studies major at UC Berkeley. Andrews was selling phone systems in South San Francisco, his first job after graduating from Montana State University, where he was a scholarship basketball player and business major. And the Soldiers were a hard-nosed bunch scraped together from Richmond rec centers and playgrounds. "At-risk" kind of kids, says Alauddeen.

During the road trip, in the middle of the desert, the team van stopped for snacks at a remote 7-Eleven. An assistant coach riding shotgun, a recently reformed gang member, leaned toward Alauddeen and whispered, "Yo, I got a nine on me. We just could rob this place." Alauddeen said, "No, we're not gonna do that."

Soon after the team arrived at the motel, Andrews called Alauddeen. Two of Andrews' bosses, impressed by the Soldiers' purpose, had each just written them $500 checks.

That purpose was to give East Bay kids a safe place to play basketball in the spring and summer, away from the gang-infested parks. It was also intended to help the most talented ones get college scholarships. For years the pair had seen quality players shine through high school, only to end up on the streets after graduation. College coaches didn't consider Northern California a recruiting hot spot, and didn't spend much time scouring the region for prospects.

The two men modeled their nonprofit program off Los Angeles Slam 'N Jam, a spring and summer league featuring 400-plus Southern California high school players. The 12 best would form Slam 'N Jam's travel team, and they would compete in tournaments in front of college coaches. Izzy Washington, the founder of L.A. Slam 'N Jam, helped Alauddeen and Andrews build their league, sending them extra shoes from Slam 'N Jam's LA Gear sponsorship, as well as a few thousand dollars.

Alauddeen, now a doctoral candidate at Cal's School of Education, wanted to use the basketball program to teach kids about black empowerment and the Black Panthers. He thought the best way to interest kids in the history would be to shape the team's identity around a Black Panthers theme. Admittedly militant, he named the team the Soldiers. The Soldiers' first logo was a silhouette of Huey Newton holding a rifle. Lessons on George Jackson and Bobby Seale would seep into pre-game speeches.

From the start, the team drew eyes: The Soldiers would march onto the court single-file, wearing Malcolm X T-shirts and those LA Gears with the light-up heels, saluting each other, as Alauddeen trailed them holding a boombox bumping Public Enemy. He would wear a dashiki or military camouflage. And people from all around a tournament venue would wander over.

Through his connections as Cal's Black Student Union president, Alauddeen befriended the local rap group Digital Underground. He hung out with them in the studio and hooked them up with LA Gear sneakers. He even popped up in the background of music videos. One member of the music group, a notably political up-and-comer, especially dug what Alauddeen was doing with the Soldiers. So, Alauddeen recalls, Tupac Shakur wrote "Soulja's Story" for the team, recording it for his debut album, 2pacalypse. The song narrates from the perspective of George Jackson, the Black Panther leader killed by San Quentin prison guards during an escape attempt.

"Is it my fault, just 'cause I'm a young black male?/ Cops sweat me as if my destiny is makin' crack sales/ Only 15 and got problems/ Cops on my tail, so I bail till I dodge 'em./ All you wanted to be, a soulja, a soulja./ All you wanted to be, a soulja, like me."

The Soldiers' reputation grew throughout the Bay Area, which brought more players to the program, which led to more wins, which led to more attention from college recruiters. But to really get their kids scholarship opportunities, the founders needed deeper connections in the college basketball world.

So Andrews and Alauddeen flew out to Indianapolis for the 1991 NCAA Final Four to network with coaches. The next year, in a Minneapolis hotel lobby, USC's coach, George Raveling, introduced them to Sonny Vaccaro, Nike's longtime liaison to the travel team basketball scene.

Vaccaro had just been fired by Nike, for reasons that never became clear. But he kept the rights to his ABCD Camp, an invitation-only showcase for the country's elite prospects and a must-see event for every major college coach. He asked Andrews and Alauddeen to serve as camp counselors, and told them they could bring their two best players, Jaha Wilson and Raymond King. The relationship between Vaccaro and the Soldiers' founders quickly solidified.

"That changed everything," says Andrews. "Because that gave our program the muscle. It gave us the platform. It gave us access. It gave us ties to stuff that no one had. We had the political clout now."

When Vaccaro joined Adidas a few months later, he got the Soldiers a sponsorship deal. That brought invitations to the elite camps and elite tournaments, as well as attention from Division I scouts.

"This all happened during the explosion of AAU basketball," says Andrews. "What happened was, the shoe companies started getting involved, and all the money started coming in through the shoe companies. That's what blew AAU up."

The Soldiers took off. In 1994, future NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups, then a highly recruited Colorado guard who had gotten to know King, Andrews, and Alauddeen at ABCD, joined the Soldiers. The Billups-King backcourt drew packed arenas.

And so began the classic travel team positive-feedback loop: Talent leads to exposure leads to scholarship offers leads to more talent. In 2001 the Soldiers fielded Leon Powe, DeMarcus Nelson, Kendrick Perkins, and LeBron James, who would all end up in the NBA. That summer established the Soldiers as a national travel-team powerhouse.

"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."

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.

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