High school basketball has produced a pretty astonishing amount of great writing. Darcy Frey’s “The Last Shot” is one of the best works of journalism I’ve ever read and still the best thing ever written about Stephon Marbury (a robust genre unto itself), and it’s enervated by anxiety, a lingering sense of “maybe it is super fucked up that I am writing thousands upon thousands of words about a 15-year-old kid in Harper’s.” The same runs through George Dohrmann’s Play Their Hearts Out, Jason Zengerle’s “Empty Garden,” Bill Reynolds’ Fall River Dreams and other classics of the “phenom” genre. These works sought to critique unseemly hype at the same time they were creating it, precisely the sort of tormented exercise that makes for the best prose.
The front of the most recent Sports Illustrated boasts an image of an African American teenager dribbling a basketball on the shore of Lake Michigan. “The Best High School Basketball Player Since LeBron James Is … JABARI PARKER,” the headline blares, and then, underneath, “but there’s something more important to him than NBA stardom: HIS FAITH.” As covers go it’s pretty lazy: there’s a self-satisfied reflexivity, hearkening back to SI’s famous LeBron “Chosen One” cover of 2002, as well as an essentially laughable assumption that a star athlete’s religiosity is a remotely newsworthy revelation.
The profile itself is competent if almost impossibly purple (two of its first three paragraphs are dedicated to Parker’s humility). The “faith” teased on the cover is revealed to be Mormonism, interesting because there are precious few black Mormons but only interesting if you address why there are precious few black Mormons, which the story assiduously avoids. There’s a half-hearted attempt to sow a “perhaps Jabari Parker will pass up the NBA to go on his two-year mission” angle, but that’s not a suggestion that’s remotely easy to take seriously, nor should it be.
SI’s encomium to Parker stands as an interesting companion piece to another recent article on a high school phenom, Pete Thamel’s March New York Times profile of Kentucky-bound center Nerlens Noel. Thamel’s piece is thoroughly reported but pitched in the key of concern: whereas the SI profile is devoid of suggestions of exploitation except in its implicit insistence that that is NOT how Jabari Parker rolls, the Noel profile is overwhelmed with them, a vision of an at-risk kid flailing in an ocean full of avaricious sharks.
Between the two stories they might leave us wondering if the phenom-writing genre so many of us have known and loved has reached its end. An unintended byproduct of the one-and-done-inducing NBA age limit has been to expose the business of amateur hoops as the coldly transactional morass it’s likely always been. John Calipari used to be seen as a heel but he’s now the one-eyed man among the blind: when we hear him declare his professional obligation to be not shepherding young men to commencement but rather to the NBA Draft our hearts quicken with righteousness.
Hyping high schoolers is no longer viable, nor is wringing our hands over that hype, because hype is understood to be so constitutive of the atmosphere of amateur hoops that it’s not an angle. So instead we get studied concern over how much time Nerlens Noel is spending on Twitter, or breathless gushing over Jabari Parker’s (irrelevant) high school GPA and Godly exceptionalism. It’s a development that’s probably good for the phenoms in question—despite my problems with the Noel piece I’d rather exist than it didn’t, and the Parker profile isn’t hurting anyone—if not those of us who like to read about them.
Where have you gone, Stephon Marbury, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.