Can anybody ever live up to these expectations? What if D becomes a merely average college player instead of the next LeBron? What if he decides to stop playing ball? What if, God forbid, he gets hurt? And what if he stops growing?
Keller leans forward. "D is 14 now and 6'3"," he says. "You're telling me he's not going to grow three inches between now and when he is 17? That would be average growth. And you're telling me that at 6'6", with his skill level, he can't play in the NBA? We have him on a special diet and vitamin supplements. Plus," he lowers his voice, "Demetrius don't know this, but his dad is 6'8"."
Houston laughs when asked about her former husband's height. "Oh, no no no, he was six feet" she says. "But D's uncles were 6'7" and 6'9"."
Demetrius and Keller are on their way from a morning game in Fontana to a Subway for a sandwich. While at lunch, D pulls his hood low over his eyes and then falls asleep with his head on the table. When he's not playing, he has an amazing ability to chill.
As they drive back for the afternoon championship game, D is up and running again. "People are always saying, You hang with Joe so much, it's like he's your dad. But I tell them they're just jealous, they don't have that kind of relationship with their coach."
But Keller insists that what he is doing is for the good of Demetrius, for the good of all his middle school athletes. He talks about building character, providing an education and doing everything he can to make sure that D will be eligible for a Division I program if and when he chooses that path. Right now, of course, having to accept a basketball scholarship to a D-I powerhouse would be viewed as a disappointment.
"Demetrius is a great player," says Vaccaro. "He'll be a great college player. But everyone wants him to be the next LeBron, and how can you be sure of that this early? We have set up a situation where a kid can go to college on a full ride and be deemed a failure. That's what we are doing by starting it at seventh grade."
Keller insists that he will be satisfied if D goes to college. In fact, Keller insists that he won't be disappointed if D wants to quit basketball tomorrow. "As long as he graduates from high school," Keller says. "I don't care if he becomes a ballerina."
Keller is careful to keep up the level of competition Demetrius faces; D gets bored with how easily he can dominate other players his age. Team California's opponents on this Sunday are high school squads. The best players in the country are segregated not by academic institution or region but almost invariably by sneaker company. Demetrius Walker doesn't get a chance to play against 17-year-old O.J. Mayo, for example, the Cincinnati guard widely touted to be the best 10th-grader in the country, because O.J. is a Reebok kid and D is an Adidas kid. The shoe companies want their top prospects attending their all-star camps, such as the Adidas Junior Phenom camp. NCAA regulations allow college coaches to watch only 20 days of high school camps every summer, and each sneaker company wants its best athletes showcased at its camps. "[ Adidas wants] to be involved with the best kids," says Keller. "That means getting to know who the best are earlier [than ever before]."
Even Houston Rockets guard Tracy McGrady, one of the most successful players to jump straight from high school to the NBA (at age 18), worries about how early these phenoms are being prepped for stardom. "Fourteen? That's too fast," he says of Demetrius and his peers. "That means you don't even get a chance to be a teenager. At least I got to be a teenager for a while. Now they're gonna take that away too?"