Tucked away among the trees deep in the Portland suburbs, a group of emerging professionals, on the cusp of completing their formal education and transitioning into a highly competitive work environment, are attending an event where they’ll work to sell themselves to executives; titans of their industry. Elite law schools will hold the same kinds of events, where scouts from big law firms across the country endeavor to attract young talent, seducing bright young lawyers with promises of partnership, wealth, and power. But the Nike Hoop Summit, the world’s most prestigious professional basketball scouting event, is different in form if not function. It’s not a hotel we’re in — it’s the Portland Trail Blazers’ practice facility. Prestige is determined in AAU and National Prep Championship titles, all-star game appearances, commendations from coaches, and letters of intent from major college basketball programs.
The prospects are also much, much younger than a law school graduate. The Nike Hoop Summit is a game that is played on a Saturday (April 8) at the Moda Center in Portland, a matchup between a team of the best American high school basketball seniors and their counterparts from around the world. The game, a delight to attend every year, is a pretext for the week of practices that precede it, affairs attended by NBA scouts and general managers and media types, all looking to form precise opinions about the glut of prospects who will be submitting for the NBA Draft in about a year’s time.
Some of the world team players are already proper professionals, plying their trade for foreign clubs. Some of them are American products, deep in the AAU/prep school vortex, training away from home. The U.S. kids have mostly committed to a high-level college program by now. Their young age has always caused consternation and light moral panic in America, where athletics are given a faint sheen of respectability through their early association with education. How can these young men achieve in school when they’re so focused on basketball? This anxiety has always read as condescending nonsense, exclusive to a country that has outsourced its entire sports development apparatus to a series of unregulated school and travel teams sponsored by athletic wear companies.
An athlete’s prime will occur between the ages of 20 and 32. By the time your average lawyer is sitting down to highlight their first thousand pages of documents, a pro athlete will be out of their biggest-earning years. If they’re going to impress these scouts and get their cleanest shot at the NBA, it’s best to start early. If they flame out, they’ll still be young, might have a chunk of change in their pocket, and be able to pursue the next thing that follows, but you only get one shot at this thing, and you only get it early, so it stands to reason that you have to go get it. There’s a special air of excitement this year given the appearance of LeBron James’s eldest, Bronny James, a McDonald’s All-American from Los Angeles’s Sierra Canyon School.
The first day of practices I attend, on Wednesday, April 5, are just drills. Running, layups, passing and shooting. One drill that felt endless to me involved teams of five moving in a blob and shouting at each other. I asked some of the more seasoned watchers sitting next to me what they were doing. They told me the teams were practicing defensive rotations, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
By this point, the kids are known quantities to a lot of the scouts in the gym. Reporters have been written, biases inlaid. The NBA GMs who are present, on the other hand, attend fewer events and have fewer preconceptions about the prospects. This represents an opportunity to make an impression. The kids themselves know it. One scout tells me that Andrej Stojakovic, the son of sweet shooting former NBA forward Peja, is going out of his way to win every running drill as a way of announcing his hunger for the next level. Michael Visenberg, a scout at Pro Insight, an independent scouting outfit, tells me that executives and scouts are looking for athletic traits — innate edges that they can bring to the big leagues. But what they’re really evaluating is engagement: the ability to subject yourself to an endless barrage of drills and still treat them as important even if you’ve done them a thousand times before.
Once, Carlos Boozer was a McDonald’s All-American player from Alaska, gunning for the league. Now, he’sa retired two-time NBA All-Star and the father of twin boys who are some of the country’s highest-rated basketball prospects. I asked him what he tells his kids about the process of becoming a professional in this strange environment. “I tell them: be yourself,” he says, an arch of pride in his voice. “They’re already hard-working kids, they love the game, they love the process of it, they love to get better. There’s a ton of talent out here. Guys can run, jump, shoot from half-court, but between the ears is where people separate themselves.”
You hear stuff like this a lot when you follow sports, and it’s easy to dismiss. But having sat and watched these tedious drills for several days straight, it rings true. It’s patience. Otherworldly patience.
Jared McCain, a point guard who will attend Duke in the fall, has placed his mental approach dead center. McCain grew up in Sacramento, but moved to Los Angeles to integrate into LA’s booming competitive basketball scene. Ever since he started playing, he wanted to be a professional, “But I didn’t really think of it as something you work that hard for until my seventh, eighth grade year, when I saw my cousin Devin Askew go through the process,” he says. “That was the year when I started working out way more, finding habits, building routines. That’s when I started yoga, meditation, stuff like that.”
I ask McCain if he enjoyed it, devoting himself fully to a discipline when he was a measly 13 years old: “When I found myself working hard and getting better, that’s what I became addicted to. Finding new ways to get better, seeing that working hard is gonna make results. That’s what I got addicted to.”
When McCain got into high school, he hit a wall. “I came into the season, I wasn’t gonna start but some seniors ended up leaving so I was starting as a freshman. I really felt a lot of pressure. I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be on varsity, I wasn’t hitting any shots, I just wasn’t playing my game. That’s when I really hit a wall, because I was like… why isn’t this working anymore? But it was all mental.”
“I talked to my coach, and we had a whole session. I was crying, as a freshman, in his office after a game.” McCain’s coach gave him a book, The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey, a minor classic in the athletic development field. McCain reads it habitually. The book is about training yourself (or not training yourself) into a state of “relaxed concentration.” McCain describes this state as he experiences it: “A float state. Everything is just in between these lines, you’re focused on whatever is going on in the game, you’re always staying present. I think that’s a huge one for athletes, staying present.”
“These are the ones where it’s hard to get in that float state,” McCain says of the Nike Hoop Summit. “Tomorrow morning, there’s gonna be hundreds of scouts here. A lot of players say, like, ‘I don’t see it,’ but you see it. You know who’s sitting in these chairs! The scouts are looking at you; you know they’re looking at you.”
McCain’s right. Faces recognizable to basketball sickos everywhere are posted up in chairs in the Blazers’ facility, taking in the myriad drills and scrimmages. One session saw Utah Jazz president and former Boston Celtics irritant Danny Ainge, wearing a fitted Titleist baseball cap; Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, who has a dominant psychic air, in a leather hoodie; and Tayshaun Prince, once a key defensive forward on the 2004 Detroit Pistons title team, and now the Memphis Grizzlies’ current VP of Basketball Affairs. Half of the country’s national NBA writers are also here.
McCain tries to remain nonplussed: “I just kind of accept that they’re there, do my routine before every practice, and trust in my work.”
Two dozen 17 to 18-year-olds have chosen to come to Portland, Oregon. Now, don’t get me wrong: they get to stay in a nice hotel, get shoes, and get the opportunity to square off against the best basketball players from around the world in their age bracket. It’s not a a hellscape. But really, the thing that brings them to Portland at the tail end of its rainy season, to a week of grueling practices and the inane jabbering of reporters, is the opportunity to be observed.
I asked Hall of Fame forward Chris Bosh, twenty years removed from a similar experience as a high-level prospect, how he felt about the sensation of being scouted. “No. I wanted to be scouted,” he offers, smiling and cracking a laugh. “I wanted to be successful. You look in the stands and you see [John] Calapari and all the great coaches over in the stands and they have their logos and something like that, maybe a couple of NBA shirts, and you wanna perform, you wanna do well.”
“Yeah, you’re nervous,” he continues. “Looking at Bronny right now, all these cameras around, it’s nerve-racking. To be undecided, not knowing where you’re going, to be eighteen. You pretty much have the next level of basketball watching you.”
No one is more watched at this event than LeBron James Jr., listed in the program and known everywhere as “Bronny.” In case you didn’t put it together yet, Bronny is the eldest son of LeBron James, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, a four-time league MVP, a four-time NBA Finals MVP, the consensus best NBA player since Jordan (with apologies to Tim Duncan, who doesn’t care if anyone mentions him in this conversation anyway), and one of the most famous people on Earth.
As an NBA prospect, Bronny is one of the least intriguing players on the floor this week. A mere four-star recruit amongst five-star studs, Bronny is a 6’3” guard with a shaky jump shot and iffy handles. The main qualities he’ll bring to whatever college squad (or NBDL team) he’ll join next year are athleticism, a commitment to defense, and an admirable willingness to defer and play a role. In the NBA, his future seems murkier. No part of his skillset seems extraordinary or bankable.
Bronny was off limits to reporters all week. There is very little to be gained, for Bronny or the James family, in someone inquiring about his underwhelming play. They did two scrums: the first was focused on his relationship with USA Basketball, the second was a post-game where he repeatedly emphasized his commitment to defense.
It’s at this point where anything I say will collapse into rank speculation regarding an 18-year-old. Does his dad openly juicing Bronny’s draft prospects by heavily implying he will spend his twilight years on his boy’s squad annoy him? Is his public humility an act? Is his habit of yanking at his hair during down time a worrying sign of his anxiety, or a small habit that keeps him in the zone? Does he really even want to do this, or would he be happier studying poetry at a small liberal arts college? To tell you anything about Bronny for certain, I would need to know the answers to these questions, and I don’t. Maybe he doesn’t even know.
This is the most I could glean: he took the event seriously, seemed to enjoy the company of the other players, and was not looking to be demonstrative or make a name for himself on the big stage. You can tell his dad has emphasized professionalism to his son, and encouraged him to not seek attention for attention’s sake.
But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, because attention finds its way to Bronny anyway. One major difference between this professional basketball job fair and an equivalent event for lawyers is that normal people don’t give a damn about David Boies’s children. But the son of a living legend whose impressive dunks have been habitually pumped into internet video platforms for about half a decade now?
The best part about the Hoop Summit isn’t the game itself, but the internal scrimmages, away from the public eye, where scouts and media heads get to see the players in action. In the drills you see the athleticism, the determination, and the focus, but in the games, you see the genius. In a high school gym I see Ron Holland, a power forward from Texas attending UT in the fall, the most interesting guy out there all weekend, taking weird drives at the basket, falling out of bounds to catch loose balls. A guy who seems possessed by the spirit of the game. At one point, he fouls someone, clearly, and, right in my range of motion, I watch him deny the call like a guy who’s been in the NBA for a decade, truly convinced that he didn’t do it. Reality wraps around Ron on the court, the game bending to his omnipresent talent.
It’s here where I start to begin to see Bronnymania converge on the actual event. The scouts, the reporters, we’re all so over it that it reeks of overdetermination. Bronny? I’m actually here to see Isaiah Collier, thank you.
But the high school kids who attend Lake Oswego High and have wandered into the gym after class to check out all the hubbub? They’re familiar with Bronny as the famous son of the most famous active basketball player on the planet, and they eat it up whenever he gets the ball. Right in my line of sight, across the gym, I see the girl’s lacrosse team watching the game. When Bronny gets a ball in transition and throws in a sweet LeBron-esque tomahawk jam, I see them get a little jolt, the thrill of seeing something that once only existed on your phone happening right in front of you. He’s famous! He did the thing!
The Bronny hive persisted during the actual game on Saturday, at the Moda Center. In intros, he got the second biggest roar of approval (Jackson Shelstad, a local product, topped him by a sliver of a decibel), and the room was juiced whenever the ball was in his hands. Groups of children are sporadically yelling in unison to grab his attention. He’s unremarkable on the court, but the whole stadium is just dying of curiosity, enchanted by the novelty of Bronny.
Near the end of the game, when Bronny’s defensive chops were called on, I had left my seat in the media section and posted up on some stools courtside. From this position, I was tormented by a small child with a bad haircut, yelling at the top of his lungs, “BRONNY! BRONNNNNY!” When the ball was in someone else’s hands, the child screams, “GIVE IT TO BRONNY!”
What is this child’s relationship to Bronny? He’s probably seen him on TikTok, dunking. He knows about his dad. He recognizes a name, a face. He has taken these little scraps, and, with the imagination of a child, built a whole world around this incredibly famous, somewhat unimpressive basketball prospect. I might now know if Bronny has acquired a chip on his shoulder in the process of becoming a four-star recruit, but I do know that this child has done it on Bronny’s behalf, through limited exposure on social media.
This young man has adopted Bronny parasocially. Bronny is not a prospect, a professional, the way all these other kids he’s never heard of are. He’s his dunking Instagram pal, and right now, the world is doing him dirty. But the more I think about this annoying child, the more I realize that even if the source of his yelling is foreign to me, I’m not immune to the impulse of yelling. I’ve rooted for the Blazers for a long time, developed complicated opinions to validate the team’s players when they stink, insisted to anyone who might listen that, even if his defense isn’t great and the team has fallen face-first into the toilet, you have to admit that Damian Lillard is the best leader in the NBA. You can’t hide, no matter how old you are, because sports fandom is inherently parasocial.
I want to tell one more story. During one practice, I wandered over behind the coach’s bench, for reasons that have become obscure to me over the course of a week. There, I saw several USA Basketball gofers — interns, maybe, or low-level support staffers — kneeling on the floor, removing the labels from bottles of Gatorade. “Hey,” I ask. “What are you guys doing?”
“Oh, we’re taking the labels off because Gatorade isn’t a sponsor.”
Oh yeah. Money. The Nike Hoop Summit is happening at the behest of Nike, the world’s largest sportswear behemoth. Want any possible exposure from our event? Then you better pay up.
What is Nike shelling out these bucks for? Part of it is getting their logo on the broadcast, the phrase “Nike Hoop Summit” plastered all over articles about the event, like this one. But that’s not all they’re getting. They’re also getting their foot in the door on these players, making tiny investments in two-dozen guys, getting it in their heads that, when it comes time to enter the league, step on that floor, and maybe become the subject of a whole city’s or a whole country’s parasocial fixation, that they will want to do that in a pair of fresh Nikes.
Seeing these kids excel, overcoming all reasonable expectations for any normal teenager, was inspiring. But you can’t talk about that without mentioning that the entire thing was constructed, Sonny Vaccaro-style, to peddle sneakers. Perhaps Bronny would agree with me.
This content was originally published here.