FAST BREAK TO THE BIG TIME

The squeak of basketball shoes on hardwood, the chirp of whistles, the thump thump thump of the ball. The familiar sounds echoed through the gym on Chicago's Near North Side as a bunch of high-school kids zipped and soared through their best moves. Many of the players were friends--they'd been sharing courts for years--but this was no mere game. It was serious business, with millions of dollars at stake. It was a practice session for the EA Sports Roundball Classic, a national all-star game featuring 21 of the best high-school players in the country. Looking on this past March as the teenagers demonstrated their skills were dozens of NBA scouts and executives, including Hall of Famer Larry Bird, president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers, and Billy Knight, general manager of the Atlanta Hawks. The pros were trying to decide whether they should select any of the untested kids in the 2004 NBA draft, which takes place this week. "This is part of our process now," says Knight. "We have to look at everyone."

It was big news last year when LeBron James, following in the footsteps of Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, went straight from high school to the NBA. But, good as he is, James is just one product of an elaborate system (largely driven by the shoe companies) to identify the country's best players as early as middle school and develop them into bankable professionals. Bigger and more efficient than ever, the process has produced more potential NBA players this year than ever; by some projections, as many as nine high-school stars are expected to be picked in the NBA draft on Thursday. "This is the greatest high-school senior class since 1979, and 1979 had Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins," says Sonny Vaccaro, the pioneering shoe-company operative (now with Reebok) who signed Michael Jordan to Nike.

The evolution of the high-school game has had a direct impact on college and professional basketball--not all of it positive. In the NCAA, powerhouses like Louisville and Duke get commitments from the best high- school players only to see them hold press conferences to announce they are entering the NBA draft instead. Meanwhile, NBA executives have to commit millions in guaranteed contracts to boys who will soon find themselves competing against men. While some observers say the current rush to the NBA has weakened both the college and pro game, others point to an even bigger problem: players as young as 10 become blind to college and see the NBA, with a maximum of 450 jobs available at any time, as their primary goal.

However it ends, the journey usually begins early. Promising young players are often noticed for the first time in fifth or sixth grade, when they start playing Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball, which has emerged as a kind of national early-warning system for hoops talent. The national AAU program comprises hundreds of teams across the country. Among those many teams are dozens of elite squads of high-school-age players. Some of these top teams are backed (to the tune of $25,000 or more per season) by shoe companies. The level of competition is high among these traveling all-star teams; high-schoolers Dwight Howard (who could go No. 1 this week) and Josh Smith (a possible top-10 pick), both played for the Atlanta Celtics, an AAU team supported by Adidas. For Smith, who joined the Celtics in ninth grade, the Adidas connection continues; in May he signed an endorsement deal with the company that reportedly guarantees him $12 million over six years.

Another way the shoe companies help create future stars (and logo wearers) is through "sneaker camps." There are three of these, sponsored by Nike, Adidas and Reebok, and since the camps all take place the same week in July, the companies compete for the best players. Also called "exposure camps," they are invitation-only affairs where select high-school players get to show their stuff for college coaches and NBA scouts. In all, about 600 players will attend the sneaker camps this summer, and a good showing at one can dramatically raise a kid's profile and feed his dreams. There is also Five Star Basketball Camp, a traditional teaching ground (started in 1966) where players are drilled in the fundamentals. As the sneaker camps and AAU teams become more important, Five Star founder Howard Garfinkel says, fewer elite players return to his camp after their sophomore year. Garfinkel hates what he sees happening to the game he loves. "It's hard getting the great players today to work on their game in the summer," he says. "They don't think they have to get better; all they have to do is stay the same and they'll go in the NBA. That's their mind-set."

While some top guns, like Sports Illustrated cover boy Sebastian Telfair of Brooklyn, still take their games to the local public school, many others go to private academies. A lucky few, including Josh Smith, get to go to Oak Hill Academy, in Mouth of Wilson, Va., and play for Steve Smith (no relation to Josh), whose record over the past 19 years is an astounding 560-36. Oak Hill, with just 125 students, finished this season undefeated and No. 1 in the USA Today national rankings.

The Oak Hill team, which played in tournaments in Europe and Hawaii this year, generates as much as $100,000 annually for the school, says Smith. "You have all these tournaments vying for teams," he explains. "It's big business now." Tournament sponsors cover the team's expenses and may also pay an appearance fee. Oak Hill's fees have ranged from $5,000 up to $25,000. It's also a "Nike school"; the company supplies the team with shoes and apparel and pays the coach a consultant's fee.

For the players, of course, the big money is in the NBA. In the 1990s, tired of paying tens of millions of dollars to unproven college underclassmen, the NBA instituted a rookie wage scale that tied newcomers to --the teams that drafted them for up to five years at much smaller salaries. But with the success of Garnett and Bryant, the rookie wage scale suddenly became a perverse incentive for youngsters to bypass college for the NBA. The idea: to get into the league as soon as possible, get those first five years behind them and sign a second, more lucrative contract while still in their early 20s. Even NBA vets who played college ball rarely begrudge the new crop for choosing a different path. At February's NBA All-Star Game, Houston Rockets shooting guard Cuttino Mobley told NEWSWEEK, "There's no time limit on an education. I couldn't tell my son not to take a million dollars at 18."

NBA commissioner David Stern has advocated raising the league's minimum age requirement to 20, on the ground that more seasoned players would be better for the league. But he acknowledges that several teens have succeeded in the NBA, and admits that raising the age limit doesn't top his list of priorities. Meanwhile, NCAA president Myles Brand says that despite low graduation rates and increased defections to the NBA--top players who opt for college rarely stay four years--paying college players isn't an option. "It would be the demise of college sports as we know it," he says. As for coaches who earn more than college presidents in salary and endorsements? "Coaches have significant market value," Brand says. "To say that you are going to transfer money from the coaches to the players is a pipe dream." That bottom-line view may be one reason elite high-school players are so focused on their own market value.

Players who go straight from high school to the NBA start a new life as young men with lots of money. Walter (Pete) Smith, the father of Josh, has already talked with his son about the potential pitfalls. "We're looking at Kobe Bryant; we're looking at a lot of situations where athletes have fallen prey to what gathers around them," says Smith. And he plans to live full time with Josh for the next two years, at home and on the road. "I said, 'Look, I'm not going to stop you from being a man, but I'm not going to let you be a foolish man'."

The players at the center of all this seem to handle the spotlight with aplomb. Sebastian Telfair cruised through a press conference at the ESPN Zone in Times Square, where he announced his big-bucks endorsement deal with Adidas and his plans to turn pro. At the Roundball Classic in Chicago, Shaun Livingston, a slim, 6-foot-7 point guard who could be a top-five draft pick, was as composed off the court as on. "I'm just relaxing, man," he says, when asked how it feels to be scouted by the likes of Larry Bird. "Not putting pressure on myself, you know what I mean? Just play my game, relax, have fun." And end up signing a guaranteed contract worth at least $10 million.

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