Teenage boys in big cities share a primal desire. It's the impulse that drives Tyson Chandler today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, at Los Angeles's Dream Classic high school basketball tournament.
Tyson wants to go to the NBA. He's only 18, but at 7'1" he's virtually sure to do so this summer, straight outta Compton ( Calif.) Dominguez High. As the Dons play Clovis West, a team from Fresno, he pulls up on the wing, gathers his bony limbs, then rises for and bottoms out a three-point shot. He flashes through the post, takes a pass, turns and flexes down a dunk. Trailing a Clovis West fast break, he shows off his ability to run the floor, catching up with the action and knocking an attempted layup harmlessly off the glass. "This is the hardest I've ever seen him play," a college coach says. "You should have seen him last summer. Uninterested didn't even begin to describe him. I wanted to check his pulse."
The reason for Tyson's vigor can be found courtside, where scouts from a half-dozen NBA teams sit, exercising due diligence in this era when a high school kid can wind up a lottery pick. Dominguez loses for only the third time this season, but Tyson scores 17 points, grabs 15 rebounds and blocks 11 shots. "Sometimes late at night, trying to go to sleep, I lie back and think about what I might miss if I don't go to college," he tells a knot of reporters after the game. "But if going to the NBA is one of my goals, [bypassing college] may be something I've got to accept."
By any honest measure, Tyson is already a professional. Elite schoolboy ballplayers in Southern California are routinely paid—if not by their high school coaches, then by out-of-season traveling-team coaches, agents or a combination of the three—with cash, cars and other considerations. They are swaddled and coddled with gear and shoes, primarily from Nike or Adidas. They attract middlemen and hangers-on, and lead lives of bizarre itinerancy, relocating from far-flung towns and far-off states to showcase themselves at high-profile hoops schools. Those who come to Compton are exposed to gang violence, deplorable academic standards and, if sensational charges pending against Tyson's high school coach are true, sexual predation.
To an astonishing number of young men and their families, such conditions are worth enduring for a shot at a college scholarship—or in Tyson's case, an NBA contract, no collegiate stopover required. And when a 7-foot teenager finds his way to a place as bleak as Compton, where youth basketball is one of tire few growth industries, other parties with their own agendas will follow.
The P.A. announcer at the Dream Classic introduces Tyson as "the Frannnn-chise!" Like any franchise, he has his stakeholders.
In the late 1980s Tyson Chandler's mother, Vernie Threadgill, moved with Tyson, then a grade-schooler, south from Hanford, Calif., near Fresno, to San Bernardino. Split from Tyson's 6'10" father, Frank Chandler, she met and married a man named William Brown. "William is Tyson's dad," says a confidante of the family. "Not his father—but his dad."
By the time he was ready to enter high school, Tyson stood nearly as tall as his natural father and had already appeared on 60 Minutes as a superstar-in-the-making. He and his family decided that he should take advantage of an interdistrict permit provided for by the California Inter-scholastic Federation (CIF) and attend Compton Dominguez, even though it required a 132-mile round-trip commute each day during his freshman year. Only a year ago did Tyson's mom and stepfather buy and, with Tyson and his three half brothers, move into a house in Buena Park, a 20-minute drive from Dominguez. Tyson and his mother declined interview requests for this story, but last month Los Angeles magazine reported that Brown owns a check-cashing business and Threadgill runs a day-care business out of their home—although neither she nor Brown is registered with the Orange County community-care licensing office as a daycare provider.
Children in the Compton Unified School District have long tried to learn without sufficient textbooks, fully credentialed faculty or civilized rest rooms. As recently as 1998 fewer than half of the city's schools had functioning libraries. The sound of gunfire would sometimes trigger "code yellow" alerts that confined students to campus buildings, which were plagued by peeling lead paint and leaky roofs. Eight years ago the Compton schools were such a fiscal and physical mess that the state seized control from the local school board. Since then four state-appointed administrators have come and gone, and only under a fifth have conditions slowly begun to improve.