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Karl Taro Greenfeld
January 24, 2005
The next LeBron? Some say 14-year-old Demetrius Walker is on the express to the NBA. Others say he's traveling too quickly, too soon
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January 24, 2005

The Fast Track

The next LeBron? Some say 14-year-old Demetrius Walker is on the express to the NBA. Others say he's traveling too quickly, too soon

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YOU SEE?" Kisha Houston storms across the Rialto High basketball court, waving a blue, filigreed document--her son's birth certificate. "You see? Demetrius Walker is 14 years old. Say that. Write that. Tell them D is 14. Stop all this about his being 16, 17, people lying, saying we held him back. He's the right age." � She holds the document up for inspection. "That's his birthday right there," she says. And sure enough, Demetrius Walker, or D, the best eighth-grade basketball player in the country, is only 14 years old. But that man out there on the court, 6'3", 175 pounds, built more like an NFL tailback than a junior high school point guard and with enough game to be running the point for a Division I program--how can he be 14? It doesn't seem possible, but deal with it: This kid is 14 going on LeBron. � I shouldn't be writing this. You shouldn't be reading it.

The photographs on these pages shouldn't have been taken. Isn't it too early to start poking and prodding at a kid, to shine the kliegs of sports celebrity upon a mere child, to start stoking the superstar-making machinery for a boy who is barely into puberty? Isn't it too early for interviewers to be traipsing into his bedroom and sitting down beneath his recreation-league trophies and tacked-up newspaper clippings to ask a kid who's sucking on a Pixy Stix about going to college or even turning pro?

Apparently not. D has crates of letters from college coaches-- Mike Krzyzewski, Lute Olson, John Calipari--with their autographs at the bottom of notes that begin something like, " NCAA regulations forbid us from giving you information about our university, but we would be happy to talk to you about the opportunities to play here." Adidas sponsors his AAU team. A half-dozen magazines hoping to do profiles have contacted Demetrius's coach, Joe Keller. There have been newspaper, TV and radio features on the prodigy from the Los Angeles suburb of Fontana.

If child stars in golf, tennis, gymnastics, ballet and skateboarding are getting buckets of ink and stacks of endorsement dollars, then why should we discriminate against a young athlete because he plays hoops? After all, eight of the first 19 picks in last year's NBA draft were high school players. And if 17- or 18-year-olds are now pro prospects, it follows that talent scouts need to start keeping tabs on even younger players. "Middle school is the new high school," says Keller.

That's why we know, for example, that Orlando's Austin Rivers (son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers) is the best sixth-grader in the country, as determined by Hoopscoop, an Internet scholastic basketball scouting service. Adidas, Nike and Reebok already spend millions on grassroots programs and summer basketball tournaments for the nation's top high school players. Last year, hoping to get an even earlier read on potential endorsers, Adidas launched its Junior Phenom Camp for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, and college coaches are finding it increasingly difficult to stay away from such prepubescent meat markets.

"We are all rushing [to find the next] Kobe, Tracy or LeBron, and it's not fair to the kids," says Sonny Vaccaro, senior director of grassroots basketball for Reebok and one of the pioneers at seeking out and developing teenage talent. "It's getting ridiculous."

team california, Demetrius Walker's AAU squad, hasn't lost a game in 21/2 years--that's 160 straight wins, including last year's AAU championship for boys 13 and under. Most of Team Cal's games are against high school teams, and even in those matchups Demetrius looks like, well, a man among boys. Forget the smooth way he strokes the J, the ease with which he draws contact on the drive and then goes to the line and converts, the crisp chest passes, the 360-degree dunks, the first step so fast it once caused a defender to slip out of his Nike. Instead, check this highlight from the championship game of an AAU tournament at Rialto High on Nov. 21: On a two-on-three break against a high school squad from Lake Elsinore, there are three defenders between Demetrius and fellow eighth-grader Rome Draper, apparently obstructing every conceivable passing lane, but D throws a bounce pass that vanishes into the welter of arms and legs before reappearing in Rome's hands, its arrival so surprising that he bobbles the rock for a second before laying it in. "You can't teach that," says Keller, who in addition to his coaching duties is a talent scout, earning a six-figure compensation package from Adidas. "I've never seen any kid that age do what D can do." Keller should know: He's worked with dozens of players who have gone on to the NBA, including, most recently, Chicago Bulls center-forward Tyson Chandler, Atlanta Hawks guard-forward Josh Childress and Charlotte Bobcats forward-center Jamal Sampson. "I've never seen a combination of speed, size and coordination like this kid has," Keller says.

"He's a great athlete, he's got excellent skills, he can play inside, outside," agrees Clark Francis, editor and publisher of Hoopscoop. "If he grows, it'll be scary; if he doesn't, he can still make a lot of money at this game."

Keller spends several hours every day with Demetrius, chauffeuring him, checking that he's done his homework (Demetrius is homeschooled by a tutor), phoning him during the evening to make sure he's at home instead of out with the boys, even helping Houston hook up the surround-sound speakers for her home entertainment system.

D, who has not seen his father since he was an infant, spends more time with Keller than most sons do with their fathers. "I can't talk to my mom about everything," says D. "I can't talk to her about girls. I need to go to Joe." Demetrius sits on a sofa in the three-bedroom bungalow he shares with his mom, chasing amino acid tablets with fruit punch. He just shrugs when asked who is tougher on him, his mom or Joe.

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