WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s a story that you hear far too often in basketball circles.
A basketball player becomes a star before leaving middle school, getting scholarship offers to the biggest programs in the country while he’s trying to decide who he wants to ask to the eighth grade dance. That player gets flown around the country to play in exposure events, becoming a hired gun for AAU programs looking to secure a deal from a shoe company only to fizzle out before ever his career really ever got started.
The most famous example these days is Demetrius Walker, the biggest name in George Dohrmann’s book Play Their Hearts Out. ‘D’ was a star in his pre-teen years, having sprouted to 6-foot-3 and physically maturing before the rest of his peers. That size and athleticism allowed him to dominate, getting “ranked” No. 1 in his class as a center. He was capitalized on by his AAU coach and dubbed ‘The Next LeBron’ by Sports Illustrated. But Walker never got any bigger, and by the time the rest of his peers had caught up to him physically, Walker found himself behind when it came to developing perimeter skills.
Walker eventually finished outside the top 100 in his graduating class, enrolling at Arizona State for a season before spending two years as a reserve at New Mexico and, finally, transferring to Division I newcomer Grand Canyon University for his final collegiate season.
And he’s far from the only cautionary tale out there.
Renardo Sidney had the size and talent to be an NBA all-star at 15 years old, but he never learned how to work out, spent the first year-and-a-half of his college career suspended for illicit benefits he accepted as a high schooler, and is now an out-of-shape has-been looking for one final shot at a career. Taylor King committed to UCLA as an eighth-grader, ended up at Duke, and flamed out of two schools before finishing his career at an NAIA program. He was last seen playing in Taiwan. The list goes on: Derrick Caracter, Lenny Cooke, Schea Cotton. Cooke and Cotton both have documentaries being made about their life and their downfall.
Think about that.
When Allonzo Trier was 13 years old, he was on the front page of the New York Times magazine, the subject of a feature on the capitalization of grassroots basketball in America. (The article can be found here.)
At the time of the story, which was written in early 2009, Trier was fully immersed in that world.
The summer before his sixth grade season, according to the author, Michael Sokolove, in the span of three months, Trier flew from his hometown of Seattle to the east coast four times while also making trips to LA and San Diego. He participated in the Adidas Junior Phenom Camps, which were run by Demetrius Walker’s former AAU coach Joe Keller. He had his own line of clothing with his personal motto, “When the lights come on, it’s time to perform”, and signature on them. He had received a questionnaire from John Calipari, who was then a coach at Memphis, and his mother was consistently receiving text messages from another college coach. When on campus at one school for a camp, he received a private, all-access tour of the team’s locker room and arena.
All of that happened when Trier was a 5-foot-5 point guard. All of that attention was heaped on him when he had just turned 13 years old.
Trier’s now 6-foot-3. He’s still a point guard, having developed some pretty good bulk for a high school junior, and is currently ranked 35th in the Class of 2015 by Rivals. Now living in Oklahoma, the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Marquette and Wichita State have offered him a scholarship.
And, according to Trier, the biggest regret he has with the article has nothing to do with the hoops side of it.
“It definitely released a lot of my life,” Trier told NBCSports.com while taking part in the Nike Global Challenge last week. “It put all my personal things out there of me and my family. There was a lot of good sides to it, but there were a lot of bad sides to it. Not everything that was said was true.”
In fact, Trier embraced the added pressure that came with being the coverboy for a magazine that covers much more than just basketball. He enjoyed the fact that it put a target on his back, that every time he took the court the team he was going up against had a chance to make their name and build their reputation by outplaying him. “I’m a competitive dude,” he said. “I like to win. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. If a guy is going to come competitive at me, I’m going to come competitive right back.”
Trier is different that some of the other phenoms, however. He’s not blessed with freakish athleticism, and he didn’t survive as a youth simply because he was bigger or faster or stronger than everyone else. Remember, Trier was a 5-foot-5 point guard when that story was written. “You have some kids that grow early, but I was small for a while, and I just started growing pretty recently,” he said. The reason that Trier was so good, and part of the reason that the New York Times story was written, was that his work ethic even as a 13 year old was tireless. He’d play for more than four hours a day after school, going through individual workouts and team practices.
The reason that some of the guys listed above flamed out was their belief that the NBA was a foregone conclusion; they didn’t need to work hard to get to the next level, they had already “made it”. They bought into their hype, Trier earned his.
But Trier admitted that, at times, the attention and the pressure to perform would wear on him. At times, it still does.
“You definitely have something to live up to. It’s as much pressure as you want to put on yourself,” he said. “You don’t ever want to disappoint. To be advertised to be this good, that means that every single game you play, there’s someone that hasn’t seen you play. If you don’t live up to it, then there’s a guy that’s seen you play on your bad day. He doesn’t think you’re that good.”
Imagine having to deal with that as a 13 year old.
Imagine thinking that every game you play will define your career despite being in the sixth grade.
What’s worse is that there will be people who think that the fact that Trier is “only” ranked 35th in the class means he’s a failure. The idea that a 6-foot-3 point guard who can’t jump all that high, who isn’t super-quick and who has made himself good enough to represent the US in Nike’s Global Challenge through hard work is a “failure” is crazy, I know. But the fact that he’s gone from No. 1 to No. 35 in four years will lead some folks to believe as much.
I’ll never support the idea of ranking and publicizing middle school athletes, but to Trier’s credit, he has a refreshing take on the subject.
“You have some of the most important people in the world that haven’t been able to [make the cover of the New York Times],” he said.
“It is what it is, but I don’t regret it.”
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.