AAU/Grassroots: “The Game is the Game”

We have entered officially entered the heart of “basketball season”!

We’ve had a few weeks to digest the Falcons shittin’ the bed like no other team in the history of sports… Except maybe the 2016 Golden State Warriors…

It’s March!

Very soon… in a matter of days… we will be relentlessly bombarded with ads for NCAA March Madness. Shit gets crazy… People with absolutely no interest in college basketball will spend hours pouring over brackets trying to pick a winner from the field of 68 schools lucky enough to participate. Inevitably, some small school with a name like “NorthSouthEast Pennsylvania A&M” will knock off “Big State.” Or, maybe an HBCU with a shoestring budget like “Tubman University” will squeeze past “Big Tech.”

American sports fans, not just college basketball fans, will be mesmerized by the possibility of the 1 vs 16 or the 2 vs 15 upset. It’s magnificent theater! As good as it gets in the American sports landscape. One ALMOST gets a sense of what it was like to watch Roman Emperors feeding humans to hungry lions.

In an orgy of spending, the NCAA will make over $1,000,000,000 dollars televising Lil’ Man’s crossovers and Stink-Stink’s dunks over a three week period. With a couple of good wins a few relatively obscure coaches will go from making $300,000 to $2,000,000 in a three week period as the mega-programs at the top of the food chain poach leaders of the best mid-size basketball programs. All this stuff will be covered in the most minute detail by ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS Sports, YahooSports, ABC, NBC and hundreds of mainstream sports outlets.

Meanwhile… There’s some other really interesting shit taking place…

Out of view, in every major city across the country there is a real fuckin war underway!

Look at a US map and pick a city… Any city? Houston, Baltimore, Miami, Oakland, Chicago, Kansas City, New York… Doesn’t matter…

For illustrative purposes, today I’ll focus on a high school in Jackson, Mississippi. Medgar Evers High School is where Darryl Johnson, a 16 year old 6’7’ high school sophomore, received 87 text messages while he was in school today. Darryl tried to focus on his school work but his jack was on fire…

What the fuck? Bzzzzzzzzz… Bzzzzzzzzzz… in his pocket over and over…

Stealthily, every few minutes he reached in his pocket and read text messages from coaches with various AAU/Grassroots programs.

“What up Kid? What we gotta do to make this happen?”

“What size you wear? I got 2 pair of KDs and the new Duke Kyries for ya!”


“What’s your Pop’s inmate #? Gonna put lil’ sumthin on his books.”

Darryl tried to listen to the history lesson on the Great Depression, but he couldn’t focus…

The teacher words were gibberish… Just like Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice! (click link)

His team is still alive in the state playoffs. They locked up the county title last week. He’s trying to focus on his High School quest for another state title, it’s 3rd in 4 years, but it’s nearly impossible…

The war is raging!

AAU/Grassroots teams are in the middle of their “tryout” season… Darryl is the top sophomore in Mississippi. The Nike program in his area has been trying to lure him for two years non-stop. Same with the Adidas program.

But Darryl’s surrogate father, Jimmy Earl, is his youth coach and he’s been a fixture on the Under Armour Circuit for years. They met when five years ago when Darryl was in the 5th grade. Back when everybody called him “Dirty Darryl.” He hung out at the local playground while Earl was teaching his own son the fundamentals of basketball. Long, gangly and quiet Darryl caught Earl’s attention when, standing about 6’1″, he said he was only 11 years old. Although he could barley tie his shoes and could not make a layup, Earl knew the kid would have a chance if he worked at it. Besides, his son was a point guard and here was the BIG he could develop alongside his son.

“Where’s your Daddy?”

“I don’t know my Daddy….” Darryl said…

Where’s your Momma?

“She at work…”

“You want learn how to play basketball?”

“Yessir… I do…”

With that, Earl and “Dirty Darryl” entered into an arrangement… They later formalized it with Darryl’s Momma, Bernice, an in-home health aide working 12 hour shifts 7 days a week, 9:00 am – 9:00 pm. Bernice make $8.25 per hour. Just enough to keep a roof over Darryl’s and his 4 siblings’ head and something resembling food on the table.

Her job leaves very little time, however, for actually raising her children… She welcomed Earl’s help with Darryl…

When Darryl first came home with two new pairs of sneakers, she’s pleased. She profusely thanks Earl knowing she would NEVER spend $125 on a pair of basketball shoes.

“No big deal…” Earl replied.

Actually, it’s wasn’t… Earl has three storage rooms where he keeps about $40,000 worth of sneakers at all times.

After a few months, the neighborhood kids drop the “Dirty” from Darryl’s moniker… He wears new basketball gear everyday. Darryl has over 20 pair and he meticulously cleans them each time they are worn. He never wears the same pair twice in a week.

Eventually, Earl learns that Darryl has been suspended from school over 30 times… Shit doesn’t make since since he’s extremely well-behaved when he’s with Earl’s family in his home. Keeping it real, Earl’s wife never fails to mention that Darryl does more around the house than her own children. Why is Darryl so obedient and compliant in the home and disruptive and defiant in school? What gives?


Darryl requests that the school psychologist “test” Darryl to see if he has any learning “issues.” He’s shocked to learn that while he was in the 6th grade at the time, Darryl was reading at a 2nd grade level and his math skills were barely 3rd grade. Clearly, his long-standing pattern of acting out behaviors were designed to cover up the fact that Darryl could NOT do the work. Facing a perceived choice between being considered “dumb” or “bad”, Darryl chose the later time after time.

Earl intervened and broke that horrific pattern…

The evaluation discovered that Darryl had neurologically-based processing problems. These processing problems interfered with basic skills such as reading, writing and/or math. They also interfered with higher level skills such as organization, time planning, abstract reasoning, long or short term memory and attention. In other words, he needed an Individualized Education Plan with special accommodations in place to help him learn.

Earl made that happen… He changed the trajectory of Darryl’s educational journey…

Earl attended every school meeting, dragging the Mother along when a parental signature was required. Within a year, Earl was the de facto parent. Darryl spent at least 5 nights a week at Earl’s house. On Christmas, he reached under the tree retrieved and opened his gifts just like Earl’s other kids. On Thanksgiving, he sat at the table with the rest of Earl’s extended family.

Earl was his Pop…

Earl chose his high school… A local public basketball power with an exceptional special education program. In doing so, Earl had to fend off EVERY private and Catholic school in the region. By the 8th grade Darryl was 6’5” and 190 lbs. He more than held his own with local High School stars in workouts and pick up games. Everyone knew he was ‘next up.”

In the past, Earl referred most kids to private and Catholic schools, but the kids with “special needs” floundered academically. They would receive mostly Ds. They would earn enough credits to remain eligible, but their low GPAs would put them at-risk of not meeting NCAA eligibility requirements.

Not this time…

Earl knew full well that Darryl’s ONLY shot at going to college was a basketball scholarship. His family could never afford to send him… Earl met with the principal, the Special Education Coordinator and the coach. They put a plan in place to support Darryl and make sure he had adequate accommodations in place.

Freshman year, Darryl starts varsity and does well. He blends in with some of the older players and becomes the “glue guy”. He defends the other teams best player… He leads the team in rebounds… He draws charges… He dives for loose balls… The HS coach LOVES him…

His GPA is 2.8…

In the summer, he plays for Earl on the Under Armour 15U circuit… There he shines… He’s the MAN on Earl’s team and they are ranked in the top 5 nationally… He get invited to several Top 100 Camps where he does extremely well against the top players in the country.

Sophomore year, Darryl expands his game… While he still does much of the dirty work, he’s become a much more polished offensive player… He’s also grown… Now, standing a legit 6’7” and weighing at 21lbs, Darryl is real problem at the high school level. Mississippi, Mississippi State, Southern Mississippi, Jackson St, Alabama and about 12 other schools have offered full basketball scholarships…

As noted earlier, Medgar Evers is in the midst of a playoff run. Darryl is trying to stay focused on the task at hand…

But that fuckin phone is on fire… Every 2-3 minutes another text…

“You gotta look out for you…”

“Earl ain’t got ur back… You should come over here…”

“Hit me when you get out of school… Got sumthin’ for you…”

Non-stop… Eventually, Darryl shows Earl the texts… At first, Earl becomes visibly pissed off…

BUT… What’s he gonna do?

He sent damn near identical texts over the past couple hours to 5 kids that play for the same coaches contacting Darryl…

In fact, he has to meet the parents of one the other coaches kids at the Cheesecake Factory in 45 minutes… One thing for sure…

The game is the game…


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