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The ring of Keller's phone interrupted the conversation.
"Saved by the phone, Joe," Daniels said, "saved by the phone."
Unbeknownst to Keller, meanwhile, Vaccaro had traveled to the East Coast a few days before Team Cal landed in New Jersey. The purpose of his trip was to discuss an issue many of the parents and players on Team Cal had begun to ponder: the wisdom of hyping an eighth-grader. The parents of Lance Stephenson were concerned about the rising interest in their son. More and more people compared him to Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair and other former New York phenoms. They didn't know how to manage the attention or the expectations.
Early in their conversation at Vaccaro's hotel room in Manhattan, the proposed matchup against Demetrius in Asbury Park was brought up. "Nothing good can come out of this," Vaccaro told Lance. "You are a great player. The spotlight is going to come. Playing this game is like manufacturing attention, and there is no point in that. At some point in time the world will see you. Don't rush it."
Stephenson wanted to play Demetrius and, one can imagine, would have liked to be ranked No. 1 by The Hoop Scoop. "But right now none of that matters," Vaccaro insisted. He then told a story: In July 2001, at his ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., the No. 1--ranked senior in the country was 6'6" Lenny Cooke, who was also from Brooklyn. He had been the camp's MVP as a junior in 2000 and was one of the most hyped athletes to emerge from the city's boroughs. His spot atop the 2002 NBA draft seemed preordained. Also at camp that summer was a rising junior named LeBron James, a kid from Akron few people knew about. When their two teams met, Cooke was expected to dominate, but James scored 23 points, held Cooke to nine and made a three-pointer at the buzzer to give his team the victory. That one game began James's rise to the top of basketball, and as Vaccaro saw it, it was the beginning of the end for Lenny Cooke. In a New York minute he was declared a bust. After he went undrafted in 2002, he faded into obscurity.
"People can judge you on one game," Vaccaro said. "You don't want that game to come when you are in eighth grade."
Team Next pulled out of the tournament not long afterward, but Keller did not get the news until Sunday, after Team Cal advanced to the finals. He learned that Team Cal's opponent would be the lightly regarded Reebok Raiders. Keller's analysis: "Lance is scared."
On one level, the news put Keller at ease; Lance backing out of the game was equal to a victory for Demetrius in his eyes. But Keller had promised the boys a challenge and had promised Mats and others they would see a show. Dominating the Reebok Raiders was not what he had in mind. He called the organizer of the Martin Luther King Classic and informed him that Team Cal would forfeit the final. There was no point in beating up on the hapless Raiders, he said. With help from Taron Pickett, a member of Adidas's grassroots division, he organized a game with a 15-and-under team, the Boston Saintz, for the following afternoon. The Saintz had won the AAU title the year before as 14-year-olds, and forwards Nasir Robinson and Gabriel Fumudoh were considered future college players. "This will probably be the best team we have played in our lives," Keller said.
He had no idea.
A few hours after Keller announced that he didn't consider the Reebok Raiders a suitable opponent, news of the slight reached the ears of Tyreke Evans. A 6'6" guard from Philadelphia, Evans was the top-rated high school freshman in the U.S. He was also a member of the Reebok Raiders' under-17 team, and he was upset that Team Cal had refused to play his program's younger team. "That's not how we do things on the East Coast," he said. When Evans found out that Team Cal would be playing the Boston Saintz, he contacted their coach and asked if he could join them for that one game. He wanted to teach Team Cal, Keller and Demetrius a lesson.