There are roughly six million boys between the ages of 16 and 18 living in the United States. There are approximately 26,400 high schools and close to that number of starting centers playing on high school basketball teams.
There are approximately 1450 colleges and very close to that number of starting centers playing on college basketball teams. There are 29 NBA teams and 29 starting centers. The average salary for an NBA player is $4.5 million per year.
Earth’s atmosphere becomes exceedingly rare at the altitude of $4.5 million per year. Only a nano-portion of humankind is permitted to live at that elevation. And so when you come upon a possibility, even the most negligible, tenuous, remote possibility, of breathing that air, of becoming one of those 29, that alone will change your world.
Jarrod Boswell is the starting center for Lakeside’s El Capitan High School varsity basketball team. He is seven feet tall and, according to one area sportswriter, only the third legitimate seven-footer to ever play high school basketball in San Diego County.
At the end of his junior year, wrote Mike Sullivan of SportingNews, Boswell was the “sixth all-time shot blocker in the country.” Boswell racked up 141 blocked shots during the 2001–2002 season, a Grossmont North League record, and 65 more blocked shots than the runner-up. Bill Walton, UCLA All-American, NBA Hall of Famer, and 1970 Helix High School grad, is the previous Grossmont league record holder.
Last year Boswell averaged 20.5 points and 12.3 rebounds per game while shooting .637 percent from the field. He was also the league’s best field goal shooter. Boswell is rated among the West’s top ten high school centers by several scouting services. FutureStars, an online subscription-based scouting service, ranked Boswell 78th on its list of the 100 best players in the United States.
Although a senior now, Jarrod is 17 years old. He won’t turn 18 until July, which makes him one year younger than the boys he competes against. When I first met him, in February of 2002, he was 16 and had already received more than 500 letters from universities and colleges. They were kept in a cardboard box. The box was left in the kitchen of his parents’ 32-year-old three-bedroom Lakeside home.
Our first meeting took place at a patio table in the Boswells’ back yard. I began our conversation with “People must look at you and think, ‘He’s a very tall, very good basketball player. He’s going to get a great scholarship, maybe make it to the NBA.’ ”
Jarrod says, “I just play basketball. It’s what I like to do. Whatever comes with it, that’s great, but I just want to play right now.”
Smart answer. Reveals nothing. I smile and take a moment to adjust my chair. Okay, what do we have here? Jarrod has black hair, very thick on top, full on the sides, but cleanly cut at ear level, as if to forswear the possibility of sideburns. He has blue-gray eyes, a Roman nose, square chin, even lips, wide shoulders, very smooth skin; all in all, someone my mother would have called a good-looking kid. Unlike most tall men, he has excellent posture. When he stands, he stands straight. He speaks without accent or much inflection, but not in a monotone. He has no trouble looking me in the eye. He’s not trying to be my friend, nor is he affecting teenage condescension. Instead, he maintains a neutral expression, one I can’t read, which is unusual.
Simply to see what will happen, I harden my voice and push. “You must feel pressure from other people’s expectations.”
“Yeah, it gets difficult.” Jarrod studies the tabletop. “Sometimes people build people up, and later on that person won’t seem to be what people made him out to be in the beginning. I don’t want to be like that.” Silence. “If I’m not playing good that night, it’s like, ‘Oh, he sucks.’ I try to play up to expectations, but it’s hard.” Silence. Then, quietly, “I just want to play basketball.”
He doesn’t sound like he wants to play basketball. “What do you like about the game?”
“I found myself getting better at it. I like to rebound; I love that. I like blocking shots. Blocking shots makes you…makes you feel good.” Jarrod smiles for the first time.
Young Boswell has an unusual physique for someone so young and so tall in that he’s gracefully proportioned. Seen from a distance, he looks like any other mature, well-conditioned high school athlete. It’s not until he stands next to another person or alongside an artifact of daily life that you become aware of his height. Even then, odds are you would not guess his weight, 270 pounds, because there is no observable fat on him.
Moving on. “Your father told me you played high school basketball while you were in the eighth grade.”
“What was that like, playing in the big high school gym?”
“I watched the varsity players play. That was kind of intimidating. It was fun, though.”
“What did you learn?”
“Keep up with it.” Silence. More silence. And more silence. Then, “I learned if I stuck with it, I might get good at it.”
“If you were able to send us back in time to see you play basketball in the ninth grade, what would we see?” My God, what an idiotic question.
Jarrod grimaces, which bumps my respect for him up two clicks, and says, “I wasn’t very good, so you’d probably see someone a little goofy. I was skinny. Had a hard time running up and down the court, keeping up with everyone.”
“How have you dealt with that?”
“Try to keep in shape and run the floor as best I can. In school, we have weight training and conditioning. I jog a lot. I play year-round ball. That keeps me in good shape.” This is said without excessive enthusiasm.
“Don’t you get burned out? Twelve months of basketball is a lot of basketball.”
“Oh, yeah.” Jarrod nods his head. “But, my mom and dad make sure…they don’t push me too hard. They’ll say, ‘You need some time off. Have fun for a while.’ Or, I’ll tell them, ‘I need a day off,’ or, ‘I need a couple days off.’ ”
I’ll come back to this later on. “You said you play year-round ball.”
“Yeah. My dad says to go up against the best talent, the biggest players…he takes me to the big tournaments.”
I stop and remind myself again that Jarrod is 16 years old. “I would guess, when you’re playing basketball, there’s a part of you thinking, ‘I’m better than this guy’ or ‘I’m worse than this guy’ or ‘This guy I don’t know about.’ ”
“I know where I fit. I know what I can do and what I can’t do.”
I’d like more. “So by going to these big tournaments, you’ve seen all the best players in Southern California?”
“Do you have a sense of where you stand in that field?”
Jarrod takes a moment. “I don’t know if I want to answer that question.”
This is a smart kid. “Your mom said she can go anywhere in Lakeside and someone will mention your name. Does that happen to you?”
“Well, last night I went into Vons to get some money and this lady walks in and says, ‘Oh, do you mind if I use the ATM machine real quick? By the way, you’re a good basketball player. We came down from Ramona to watch you play.’ ”
“Does that happen often?”
“Yeah, quite a bit.”
“Does it feel strange?”
Jarrod takes a long, deep breath. “I know I’m going to get it more and more, so it’s not…I don’t think it’s too strange. It’s kind of embarrassing sometimes.”
“What do you say when it happens?”
Youth basketball is an industry, and its purpose is to feed adults. Anybody within reason can put together a youth basketball team. The team can be run by, supported by, or affiliated with government, community service clubs, businesses, nonprofits, churches, athletic organizations, volunteer organizations, a person, a corporation, or none of the above, or a combination of the above.
For our purposes we’ll stick with high school–aged boys and elite teams, teams with nationally ranked players or players who are on the cusp of being nationally ranked. On these teams, players are drawn from any number of high schools and any number of cities, or states, for that matter. These teams usually play in the spring and summer. So a parent who’s looking to have his superstar son get a shot at the NBA would want his kid to play on an elite team, especially one that travels to big-deal tournaments.
Big-deal tournaments attract elite teams from every part of the country. Last summer’s adidas Big Time Tournament, held in Las Vegas, featured 344 teams from 41 states, Canada, and Mexico. More than 300 college coaches clogged tournament sites, the number of college coaches on hand being the most important stat and the reason elite teams were there.
The idea is to show your super-talented kid to college coaches and scouting services in hopes of having him rated nationally, which means he’ll be recruited and offered a scholarship. In the process, in the years of having your super-talented kid play club ball, play in hundreds of games and scores of tournaments, all those coaches, scouts, tournament producers, the tens of thousands of people who have a money connection to youth basketball will need to be fed. And since we’re talking about adults and money, there is no such thing as too much — too many teams, too many camps, too many scouting firms, too many tournaments, too many spring leagues, too many summer leagues, too many clinics, too many tennis shoes, too many T-shirts, too much of anything that might generate one extra dollar.
Ross Furrow, 59, is the boys’ varsity basketball coach at El Capitan High School. Aside from the suicidal left turn one must make off Ashwood Street to enter the school parking lot, El Cap looks like any other public high school built in Southern California during the 1950s, neat rows of one-story classrooms tied together by cement walkways.
We meet in a classroom located on the back side of campus. A small portion of the space is set aside as Furrow’s office. His office decor is Late-20th-Century Clutter, meaning a riot of papers, books, trophies, newspaper clippings, photographs (some framed, some pinned to the wall), plaques, knicks, and knacks.
Coach Furrow is a small man, I’d say five foot eight, with close-cut gray hair, a ruddy complexion, an egg-shaped face, and a blocky torso. He’s wearing a festive tropical sports shirt that’s busy with blue palm leaves and colorful birds. The impression is Southern California Kind of Guy. But do not be deceived; there is a testosterone-driven oomph about him that lets you know Furrow is a basketball coach.
I ask, “When did you first meet Jarrod?”
“I first saw Jarrod when he was in the eighth grade. He bounced into our gym with his dad. He was tall, probably six foot six. I knew his father because he’d gone to school here, so I knew him from years ago. I simply mentioned to the father that if he wanted to bring Jarrod down to the gym we could start working with him.
“It looked like he had a lot of potential, just in terms of his size, but I didn’t get involved with him very much. The thing you want to find out is, does the kid want to do this? Sometimes tall kids get pushed down this road, and it isn’t something they want to do. Other people, whether it be a coach or a parent or someone else, want him to play basketball because he’s tall. So I stepped back to see what the kid wanted to do. It’s my memory that he went ahead and played freshman basketball as an eighth grader. In those days you could do that.”
Those days were three years ago. “What did you notice about Jarrod, other than his height?”
“He was in there for a few minutes and left. He came back a couple of times but didn’t have a burning desire. Jarrod was laid-back, not terribly assertive. But he went ahead and played, like I said, freshman basketball as an eighth grader. And then he played on the JV team as a ninth grader. Usually only sophomores play on that team. I brought him up to varsity at the end of that year. He played for me as a tenth grader and as a junior.”
“What sort of game did he have in the eighth grade?”
Furrow takes a moment to reflect. “He’s always had agility. He’s tall and agile, which is unusual. And he has great hands. He has absolutely gifted hands, which is a huge asset in a sport where you handle a ball. He brought that with him; therefore, I believed he could if nothing else have a real good high school career. Other things had to be looked at for the future. People were talking college already, but he struggled because, unlike his coach, he wasn’t terribly competitive. Jarrod was very laid-back.
“He’ll probably have a much better life than I will, but the bottom line is, he chose to be in competitive athletics. And you can’t be laid-back in competitive athletics; the other side will take advantage of you. So we had to work with Jarrod about playing hard, about competing. It doesn’t come naturally for him. This year, he’s improved a tad in that area. Probably he’s maturing. He’s moving from being a little boy to a young man and is beginning to dominate the game.”
I note with gratitude that Furrow does not litter conversation with sports babble. “How do you coach competitiveness?”
“I think ‘encourage’ is the appropriate word. All I did was provide him with information. I’d say, ‘I don’t care how big you are. If you don’t play hard, those guys are going to work you over.’ Jarrod thought he had slow feet. I would tell him, ‘Jarrod, it’s not that your feet are slow, it’s that you don’t move them. It’s not that you go from here to there too slow, it’s that you never leave here. You’re fast enough to get there if you move.’ ”
Furrow puts his hands together. “Well, he’s doing much better now. I think males, as they mature, begin to actively seek competition. It becomes fun for them to bang bodies a little bit. Jarrod is at that point. Plus, he’s getting stronger. He’s working out with weights, and as you get stronger, you become more comfortable in that arena.”
I’ve been waiting to ask this. “When you first saw him, some part of you must have said, ‘Wow.’ ”
“Yeah, but I’ve said that a lot over the years. I’ve been coaching 30 years, and I don’t get as fired up early on as I used to. I wait and see, because most of the time when you say ‘Wow,’ it doesn’t become that. There’s something amiss. There’s something that doesn’t happen for whatever reason. But Jarrod seems to be developing early.”
Coach Furrow falls quiet, then volunteers, “I don’t know how familiar you are with the basketball world, but there are legends…like John Wooden, for example. There is another man named Pete Newell who is…” Furrow can’t think of a descriptive big enough. “Pete Newell came to our gym the other night to watch Jarrod. And to have Pete Newell in our gym is incredible. It’s an honor for me, just the fact that he came. And Pete thinks this kid can play at a high level.”
Pete Newell, 87, is as close to a deity as it gets in college basketball, with the sole exception of John Wooden. Newell began coaching in 1939 at St. John’s Military Academy. He won the 1949 National Invitation Tournament while coaching San Francisco. He won the 1959 NCAA Tournament while coaching California. He won the Olympic gold medal while coaching the United States team in 1960, the same year he was named National Coach of the Year. He was general manager of the San Diego/Houston Rockets. He was general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers. He was director of player development for the Golden State Warriors. Newell was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979. He has consulted and scouted for several NBA teams during the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, retiring from his last NBA job, consultant and West Coast scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers, in 1999. He has worked with the Japanese Basketball Association for many years, run basketball clinics around the world, coauthored several books on basketball, and, for the past 25 years, run Pete Newell’s Big Man Camp. Past attendees, in no particular order, include Shaquille O’Neal, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kermit Washington, Joe Barry Carroll, James Worthy, Danny Manning, Scottie Pippen, Shawn Kemp, Chris Mullin, and Vlade Divac. There is much more on his résumé, but you get the idea.
By the way, Jarrod has been invited to Newell’s Big Man Camp courtesy of a two-and-one-half-page handwritten letter penned by Mr. Newell himself. But that’s six months distant. Right now, I allow a reverential moment to pass, then ask, “Are you getting crowds at your basketball games?”
“That’s just starting to happen. We’ve got a lot of media attention this year, particularly after Christmas  when we started doing well. And then Jarrod is getting amazing statistics. I mean, he got 30 points, 18 rebounds, and 10 blocked shots in one game. We’ve never had a player, ever, in the history of this school, do that.”
Of course, Furrow has never coached a player like Jarrod. And he never will again. Which brings to mind, “The amount of money in the NBA for anybody, for the last man hired on a one-year contract by the poorest team in the league, is so phenomenal that one season’s employment could set up a levelheaded person for life. Do you feel a special sense of responsibility for Jarrod, in the sense that you have precious cargo under your care?”
“I do feel a sense of that.” Furrow stops, thinks, makes a decision. “I’m going to tell you this. I want you to be careful with it or I’ll get in trouble. But I do want to explain to you, so I’ll answer your question in this way. I’m doing things for him just for that reason. I don’t want, down the road, to hear, ‘Jeez, Coach, if you’d have just done this, I could have gotten there.’ So on paper my assistant coach is Jarrod’s father.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I got him a key to the weight room. So Dad can go in the weight room with his son anytime he wants: night, weekends, whenever. Because Jarrod needs to lift weights. I’m trying to make sure that we’ve done everything we can to open this door for Jarrod, because it’s a hell of an opportunity. He’s seven feet legit, and growing.”
Ross Furrow was born in San Diego. His parents had come from Texas during World War II. He was raised in East San Diego, “just off Euclid,” and graduated from Crawford High School in 1961. While a student, Furrow played guard on the Crawford basketball team. “I’d play basketball in my driveway until ten o’clock at night. I lived it. My last game was against Lincoln High School, and we lost the game. I was devastated. I went into my coach’s office, broke down, and cried. I told him, ‘I’m sorry.’ He was a good guy. I wanted him to know I felt bad that we lost the game.”
Furrow attended San Diego State, dropped out, and went to work “driving a truck and hauling heavy equipment around.” Time passed. “I had a friend who was working at Madison [High School] as a teacher and coach. He said, ‘Why don’t you work here as an aide, help coach and go back to college?’
“I had a wife and a kid. But I quit my job, went on student loans, and borrowed a ton of money. Then, all of a sudden, I was back on the basketball court, coaching. I thought, ‘This is it.’ I’ve been at El Cap since 1971. It’s been the most wonderful life.”
I’m tempted to continue with 1971 Ross Furrow. After all, indiscriminate curiosity is an occupational prerequisite. But…not this time. “How has Jarrod’s game changed from last season?”
“Dramatically. Jarrod is playing harder than he ever did before. His confidence is soaring. I mean, he’s a handful. Teams are having a hard time with him. They double-team him, they triple-team him. He’s improved. It’s just dramatic.
“I’m not kidding you, it’s been wonderful to watch him, because he is so appropriate. He’s been on television — they’ve interviewed him — and he is so conscious of his teammates and the team and all that. He never says anything dumb or stupid or inappropriate.”
“Not at all. He was in the beginning and is now a very, very nice boy. He has something about him that is quite flattering. He’s talented and humble. Oftentimes arrogance comes with talent, and that’s unflattering. Jarrod has humility, which makes it nice. His teammates like him for that reason as well.”
In the Chinese game of Go, the game ends when there is a mutual recognition by both players that the game should end. Furrow and I have reached that place. “Is Jarrod playing in a summer league this year?”
“Oh, yeah. Pete Newell wants him in his Big Man Camp. George Raveling is inviting him to a Nike All-Star.” Furrow stops, then says, “His parents sometimes get fired up. They’re nice people, but sometimes they want Jarrod here, they want Jarrod there. They don’t realize they’re jerking him all over the place, and the kid gets tired of that. He needs to be a kid. He’s got a girlfriend here. He needs to be able to hang out. Too much of this All-Star, too much of this George Raveling and Pete Newell — pretty soon, what happened to the kid’s life?”
“You’re involved in a summer league, aren’t you?”
“I have a six-week camp in the summer that runs three days a week. The other two days we have summer league games at Cuyamaca College with other high school teams.”
“And Jarrod will be playing for you?”
There is a universe of club teams, summer leagues, spring leagues, clinics, camps, and tournaments, tournaments, tournaments. There are other universes for girls, for positions, for senior high school players, for juniors, sophomores, and freshmen high school players, for junior high school basketball players, elementary school basketball players, and, I would bet my dog, there are preschool basketball clinics, camps, and tournaments.
Follows are a few raindrops in the swimming pool of year-round youth basketball, randomly retrieved from the Internet in less than three minutes.
“PowerAde Las Vegas Holiday Prep Classic. Top high school teams, competing in 5 different brackets.” “Torrey Pines National Prep Classic. California’s Biggest National-level prep tournament, 52 teams.” “adidas Double Pump West Coast All-Stars. Geared toward college prospects and all-star caliber high school and prep players. Over 300 college coaches and scouts from all levels come to the camp each year.” “Fullcourt Press All-West Camp. Third year for this NCAA Certified camp. College coaches from all over attend.” Also, American Press Invitational, First Energy Challenge of Champions, High School Hoops Classic (broadcast on ESPN), Holiday Hoops Classic, King of the Bluegrass, Les Schwab Invitational, GlaxoSmithKline Holiday Invitational, AAU Seeding Tournament, Boo Williams Invitational, Pump Easter Tournament, Nike Sports Express Spring Challenge, AAU National Qualifier, Golden Gate Summer Shootout, Nike Peach Jam, AAU Super Showcase, adidas Big-Time, Slam N Jam National Invitational, Double Pump Best of the Summer, Elite 8 x 2, Nike Global Challenge, adidas Sweet 16 Invitational, Double Pump Fall Pump Premier…
“Nike All-American Camp. Nike’s elite level camp. 200+ top prospects.” “adidas ABCD Camp. 200+ of the best college prospects in the country.” “Super Star Camps. Attended by college coaches, excellent exposure camp; players have to be nominated by their club or high school coach, or the camp has to send an invitation.” “USC Henry Bibby Basketball Camps. Presented by Trojan Men’s Head Coach Henry Bibby.” “UCLA Sports Basketball Camps.” “Bobby Braswell Cal State Northridge Basketball Camp: Open to young men between the ages 7–18. Cost: $225 per person. Tuition can be paid by check, Visa or MasterCard.” “San Diego State Steve Fisher Individual Skill Development Basketball Camp,” “University of San Diego Basketball Camps.” “Jamaal Wilkes Yearound Basketball Camp”…
Now multiply by 1000.
Jarrod’s dad, Jeff Boswell, was born in Lafayette, Indiana, in 1957 while his father was studying for an electrical engineering degree at Purdue University. The Boswells moved to “San Diego in 1960, ’61.” Jeff Boswell graduated from El Capitan High School in 1975, the same school where, 28 years later, his son is set to do the same. Mr. Boswell works “for Honeywell, in the engineering department, gas controls group. We build gas valves and furnace controls.”
Turns out Lakeside is a hotbed of Boswells. Jeff’s parents, Jarrod’s grandparents, live less than one mile away. Jeff’s brother, Keith, lives in Lakeside as does sister Shelly. Brother Brad lives in La Mesa, Kim in Alpine, and Kyle in Los Angeles. Add siblings’ spouses, siblings’ children, siblings’ in-laws, and you’ll always have enough Boswell family members to populate a town meeting.
Jeff Boswell is six feet four inches tall, heavyset, with intense brown eyes, a forehead that rises to the middle of his skull and then gives way to longish black hair. This is complemented by a goatee and mustache that join together to form a circle around his mouth. Everything else about him can be described as large.
We are sitting in what has become the interview pit, otherwise known as the Boswells’ back yard. I ask, “When was the first time you thought, ‘Jarrod’s going to be tall’?”
“When he was ten years old and six foot three. He was playing Little League, throwing good pitches, looking really good. We won that year. I was an assistant coach on the team.”
Only six years ago. “How did Jarrod find basketball?”
“He played basketball at the Lakeside Boys and Girls Club in the sixth grade. He didn’t know how to breathe correctly. He would get winded, start hyperventilating, and pass out on the floor. At first we didn’t realize what was going on. I had to fish a bag out of a trash can. A Burger King bag. He blew into the bag and then got out there and mixed it up with the boys. After that we brought our own bags.”
“Well, yeah, a little bit, but I watched him enough to know it was the excitement. It took him a little while to get the hang of running. It was more work than he was used to.” Jeff pauses, seems to relive the memory, then says, “At first, he wasn’t interested in basketball.”
Sensible kid. “If I was Jarrod’s size, I’d assume everybody in the world is thinking I should play basketball. I wouldn’t want that kind of pressure.”
Jeff says, “He wanted to be a kid and ride skateboards with his buddies. He still hangs out with his skateboard buddies, although he sold his skateboard a while back.”
I should add, in my description of Jeff Boswell, that there is a perceptible Jarrod’s Dad nimbus about his person. It is so integrated into him, so attached to his skin, that I doubt he’s aware of it. Getting back to buddies and skateboards, I ask, “If he wasn’t interested in basketball, why did he play?”
“The freshman high school coach at El Cap called us. I told Lloyd we’d get back to him the next day. I felt Jerry had to do it. I talked to his mom and said, ‘This could be a blessing in disguise.’ We sat down and talked to Jerry and went back and forth and back and forth with him. I had to bribe him a little bit. He had this skateboard. I told him, ‘I’ll buy you a nice pair of new shoes. I’ll get you a nice bag, get you a pair of new shorts, and we’ll make this as much fun as we can.’ ”
“ ‘Deal.’ ”
“That’s exactly what he said, ‘Deal, Dad.’ So he started playing with the high school freshman team even though he was an eighth grader. At first, Jarrod was out there doing what he was told to do. He was going through the motions. And then he started to blossom. He showed flashes of total brilliance, and then he’d go back to being a kid.”
“Could you see him playing college basketball from the beginning?” Can you see sunshine on a cloudless afternoon?
“He had good motion. I’d seen kids like him run flat-footed, herky-jerky, and they would flap all over the place. So I knew his body was right, his body was there. Jerry has a very good sense about what’s happening on the court. He’s a good passer and very unselfish. And then, what has to come last, is his heart. He had to develop a passion for the game, and that’s what he did this year. This year it’s ‘If I’m two or three steps from the basket, I’m going to take it to the hole. I’ve got to do that. That’s my job.’ ”
One. I don’t think Jerry actually said that. Two. I didn’t get an answer to my question. Three. I’ll circle back and ask the same question another way. “What were you going through while Jerry was in the eighth grade, ninth grade, tenth grade? Did you think in the very beginning that he’d be a star in high school, maybe go to college on a scholarship, maybe a big-time basketball college, and then, maybe, maybe, professional basketball?”
“He had flashes of greatness, of really looking good. Other times there was a lot of frustration. Nennoa [Jarrod’s mom] would tell me, ‘He’s just a kid. Come on, settle down.’ I’d get upset. I’d be screaming and yelling and jumping up from the sidelines. Then this past year, I finally settled down.
“Jerry is running a marathon. He’s not running a sprint. He has a lot of miles to run before he can be a good player. Pete Newell refers to him as a ‘franchise player.’ Pete said some very flattering things about Jerry’s potential.”
Pete gets around. “What did he say?”
“ ‘Jerry has the ability to take a team from the outhouse to the penthouse. He could be a franchise player if he works hard and gets stronger and stays healthy.’ I’ve heard a lot of different coaches say how impressed they were by Jerry. But when Pete Newell came out, in an unsolicited way, and said these things…well…”
I note Pete likes hack phrases. Nonetheless, I make way for another Pete Newell reverential moment. Time passes. I say, “You have the normal and burdensome responsibilities of any parent plus you’ve had to manage Jarrod’s basketball career. Was that difficult to learn?”
Jeff laughs. “I’m still learning. First thing I had to learn was that he’s a kid. There were times when I wanted him to do too much. Last year, I wanted him to play three, four, five nights a week. There are times when I need to back off and back down. And there were times when I simply said, ‘Even though you may not think it is, Jarrod, this is the right thing to do.’
“You usually learn from your mistakes. But you also learn when you work hard. I once told him, ‘We may have to jump in the van and drive two hours to go do this.’ He argued, he fought me on it. I went to his mom and talked about it; then we talked to him, and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ ”
Three thoughts come to mind: I wonder how many We’ve Got To Do This times there were; this guy loves his son; dads are supposed to be the bad guy. I cover the intrusion with a grunt and ask, “What would you do if it turned out he wasn’t that good? Let’s say he’s attending college, you’ve done your part, he’s on scholarship, but in the end, basketball didn’t work out for Jarrod.”
“I’ve thought that, I’ve thought all those things.”
“What would you do?”
“I’d encourage him to be a good student and find something that will make him happy.”
Of course. “Has Jarrod taken any trips to scout college campuses?”
“We took a junior recruit trip to UCLA, and it was the most eye-opening experience. They took us around to the weight room, the training room, and the conditioning room. They took us to the academic support area, where they have a computer room and tutoring sections just for athletes. We were going, ‘Oh, my God.’ And then they surrounded him with girls. Usually the recruiting assistants are cute girls. They run two by you every 30 minutes. After a half hour or so you get another two, and then, after a while, they rotate.”
It’s a smoggy Saturday morning and I’m inside the yawning blog of greater Los Angeles. More precisely, inside the yawning blog of Lynwood, which, according to a roadside sign, is a town. I’m here to watch Jarrod play basketball.
Jarrod is playing spring league basketball for Nike Sports Express, a Nike-sponsored travel team coached by Miles Gonzales. The team is based in Long Beach, which means the Boswells will have to make a six-hour round-trip drive every time Jarrod plays for Sports Express.
But there isn’t an Express game today. Today is a casting call, a beauty pageant, an audition, a tryout, for, as Mr. Gonzales explains, “the Nike All-American Camp. Nike has a camp that meets in Indiana. Coach Raveling runs it. They choose players from all over the United States. Raveling doesn’t get a chance to see all the kids, so they bring them together in a central location.” Today’s central location is the Lynwood High School gym.
For readers who don’t follow basketball, George Raveling, 65, was head coach of Iowa, Washington State, and USC; assistant head coach of the 1984 and 1988 USA Olympic teams; head coach of the 1994 USA Goodwill Games; CBS Sports analyst; author of two basketball books; and important Nationwide Speakers Bureau client, “…this Gold Medal Olympic Basketball Coach is a guaranteed standing ovation speaker. His lecture, ‘If It Is To Be, It’s Up To Me,’ combines George’s amazing humor, wit, and motivational talents.”
At this moment the director of Nike Camps, wearing black loafers, black slacks, and a long-sleeved flamingo-colored shirt, is strutting the gym floor looking much like an enormous peacock. And why not? The Nike All-American Camp is a big-, big-, big-deal basketball camp. Hundreds of college coaches will be there. There’ll be oodles of media. So if you’re in charge of all that, and in charge of the dreams of every teenage boy who comes before you, why not treat them with contempt?
I ask Gonzales, “How many kids did you invite?”
“We invited 50 kids, but word of mouth… I think there are 68 kids here.”
“And how many will make it to the Nike All-Star camp?”
“I couldn’t begin to tell you. It could be 20, it could be 5.”
There are two basketball courts in the gym. Several dozen high school boys, dressed in basketball shorts and T-shirts of choice, stand in a line against the far wall. The boys are directed onto the courts by an assistant, who orders, “You, you, and you, over there. You, you, and you, there.” In this way, four teams are assembled and begin play. This is pure basketball. No referees, no clock, only earnest young men doing their best to impress. Every once in a while an athlete is taken out of the game and replaced by another. Players range from good to very good. I do not see any take-my-breath-away, never-saw-that-before brilliant star.
Jeff and Nennoa Boswell are sitting in the bleachers with their daughter Joy. I walk over, take a seat next to Nennoa, and ask, “What are college coaches looking for when they watch these kids?”
“Stronger players,” says Nennoa. She’s frustrated. “Jerry is playing like a bitch right now. He can sit on the floor for all I care.”
Jarrod has seemed tentative. I point to a tall, sleek black kid playing forward. “Number 8 looks strong.”
“Yeah, but Jerry’s strong too. He’s just not playing very well. He hasn’t settled into it yet. He’s still playing soft. His intention was to come up here and show them what he’s got.”
Jarrod, under the basket, misses a block; the ball rolls along the rim and falls through the net. Jerry runs, runs pretty good, the length of the court. Now the ball is passed to him; he’s standing ten feet back from the basket, takes a shot, misses. Not a pretty shot. The sleek kid brings the ball across center court, darts to a corner, takes his shot, and misses. Jerry gets the rebound. The Boswells clap; Nennoa yells, “Rebound, Jarrod!” I note that Jarrod is not naturally, instinctively, around the ball at all times. At least, not today.
A whistle blows and the game stops. Players, hands on hips, walk in circles; some amble into the entrance hall in search of a water fountain. I find George Raveling, introduce myself, and say, “I was told this was a statewide tryout. Is that right?”
“No. The two guys who have Nike-sponsored travel teams brought these kids in for us to evaluate, to see if there’s anybody we thought should go to All-American Camp or Hoop Jamboree, which is our top-100 sophomore/freshman national.”
I observe the presence of We. “How many of these kids are likely to go to your camp?”
“It depends on how good they are.”
“How do we make that determination?”
“I go around the country and look at players. I contrast these kids against kids I’ve seen in other parts of the country. And then I pick them by position. I’ve been doing this since last September, so I’ve seen thousands of players play.”
“When do we make the final decision?”
“Oh, I’ve already made it on some players.”
“That’s right, Sports Express, that’s my AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] team, my travel team. We play from end of March until Memorial Day.”
Speaking is Miles Gonzales, Jarrod’s Nike Sports Express coach, and this is mid-April, several weeks after George Raveling and the Dance of the Nike Camp Wannabes. Since this is a telephone interview, I’ll present it in transcript form.
I say, “Thanks for taking my call. How did you find Jarrod?”
Gonzales: “Through Enrico Tucker.” (Tucker is a standout point guard playing for University of San Diego High School.)
“You were talking to Tucker one day and he said, ‘They got this big kid out at Lakeside’?”
Gonzales: “Right. At that point, I had not seen him. I’d just heard good things about him. So I went to see him play.”
“If I had a son who had a shot, however remote, at the NBA, should I put him in a high-profile summer league so coaches and recruiters can see him, or in the most convenient league and trust he’ll get better by playing regularly?”
Gonzales: “Put him in a program where he plays against better kids, and then he gets better. As far as getting him to the NBA, no, not really. The NBA finds out about them wherever they are.”
“I’m thinking of Jarrod’s parents; how do you go about deciding between 50 legitimate offers?”
Gonzales: “That’s one of the biggest decisions you’ve got to make, next to the person you’ll marry. I do not get into that. Why? Because those decisions are so big. I think that the average kid doesn’t know what he wants. You’ve got to scrutinize it so closely. You’ll get hundreds of letters. Eventually you’ll have to knock it down to, say, ten schools, which means you need to look at that school, look at the major the kid wants to take, look at the basketball roster, look at the coach, use a little judgment, and get a feel if that’s for you. Because you’ll surely find out if you’ve made the wrong decision. Once he signs that letter of intent, he’s locked in.”
“Are college scholarships standard, or can you negotiate?”
Gonzales: “They don’t give a four-year scholarship. They’re renewable after each year.”
Gonzales: “That’s everywhere.”
“Suppose my son is a seven-foot-four-inch center, the number-one high school center in the country. Are you telling me I can’t negotiate a no-cut or a five-year scholarship?”
Gonzales: “They’ll give him a four-year scholarship as long as he does what the coach says, keeps his grades up, and is part of the team. Even though it’s not guaranteed, I haven’t seen them take a scholarship away from a kid in all my years of doing this unless there was some type of a problem.”
“There must be boys who accept scholarships, trot off to college, play a bit of basketball, everything is going along, and one day the coach thinks to himself, ‘I was wrong about this kid.’ ”
Gonzales: “I’ve got two kids in that situation. When the college coach is recruiting them, it’s like a dating situation. He tells those kids, those parents, everything they want to hear. Then, after he signs them, the real world comes up. Now he finds out whether he’s going to play, whether he’s going to develop. I tell everyone to watch out for the High Profile School. An example would be UCLA. It’s not that I don’t like UCLA, but they want what I call the prettiest face. The coach is telling you everything you want to hear, you sign a letter of intent, and then, later on, it doesn’t work out.”
“Seems like a lot of ways for it not to work out. The coach who recruited him dies. The coach who recruited him is fired or quits or gets another job, or simply doesn’t like the kid, and, boom, his scholarship is gone.”
Gonzales: “The scholarship is not gone. You just don’t play. You go get your education and your robe, but you sit on the bench.”
“What about these stories of coaches making it so tough on a kid that the kid quits the program? Now the coach has the kid’s scholarship and will use it to recruit another prospect.”
Gonzales: “I’ve had kids tell me that’s what some coaches have done to them. I’ve been doing this for many years and I’ve had a lot of kids come back and say their coach provoked them or maybe the coach got an assistant coach to provoke them. That’s how they get rid of them. Kids have told me that. I don’t want to use names.”
“Would you say that’s common or not common?”
Gonzales: “It happens. I don’t want to say it’s common, but it’s out there.”
“How would you describe Jarrod? Let’s say we’ve come back from a game, sitting around your house having a beer, and I asked you, ‘What do you think of that kid?’ ”
Gonzales: “He’s got a great body, he’s going to have great skill. Yes, he needs a little bit more athletic ability. Yes, he needs to work a little bit more on his conditioning, work a little more on his transition up and down the floor. He’s a good kid, probably a very good student. If he goes to the right program, you don’t know how far Jarrod can go. Go to a school with the wrong program and he could ride the bench for four years.”
“I thought Jarrod played poorly at the Nike tryouts.”
Gonzales: “I know Raveling was not impressed with him enough to say that he would get an invitation to the All-American Camp. But Raveling was not impressed with anybody that day. We let the kids play loosey-goosey and let them play on themselves, nothing organized. Raveling needs to look at some of those guys a little bit more. You’ve got to watch them two or three times; everybody plays over their head sometimes, and everybody plays under their head sometimes.”
“But nobody’s going to get looked at two or three times by Raveling. That was it, right?”
Gonzales: “No, I wouldn’t say that. When we go back to Virginia, to the Nike/Boo Williams Spring Invitational, Raveling will be there. They’ll have teams from all over the United States there. The college-basketball aristocracy will be there. It’s a situation that would certainly help any boy who wanted a college scholarship.”
“So club basketball is more than mere recreation. It’s…”
Gonzales: “It’s serious.”
“I never, ever say, ‘Jarrod you have to do this.’ I don’t do that. I spend a lot of time talking to him, explaining things to him, but ultimately it’s his decision.”
As you have probably guessed, that’s Nennoa Boswell speaking, and we’re in the backyard interview pit. Mrs. Boswell is tall, six foot two, with long brown hair, brown eyes, and a large oval face whose default expression is loving bemusement. This is not to say that Mrs. Boswell serves tea and tofu for breakfast. She’s farmer’s wife tough and says what she thinks. Still, she’s a mom, which means I’ll begin with mom question number one. “What was Jarrod like when he was three, four, five years old?”
“Pretty much like he is now. Just a normal kid. He smiled easily. When he was happy his whole body was happy. Mischievous at times. Big for his age so people expected a lot out of him. That was very hard for him. When he was three years old, we’d go to a grocery store and he’d look at a cereal box and ask, ‘Mom, what does that say?’ People would come up to him and say, ‘Can’t you read that?’ He was only three years old. My God, people expected a whole lot out of him.”
I suspect no one asked about his reading skills twice. “Did you ever worry there might be something wrong with him?”
“Not really. I’m old school. If they’re eating and they’re growing and they’re not puking and they’re not running a fever, they’re okay.”
Farmer’s wife tough. “Let’s jump forward. Jarrod is in the eighth grade and an El Cap coach sees him, wants him to play on his high school team. Do you remember that day?”
“Actually, I was shocked. Jerry had been playing for the Boys and Girls Club. Because he’s tall he was able to make the baskets better, able to rebound better, and all that. But to me, you know, he’s just Jarrod. Okay, he’s tall, so he can get the ball. No big deal.
“When they picked him to play on the high school freshman team in the eighth grade, I thought, ‘Well, he’s tall, of course everybody is going to want him. No big deal.’ It was never, ‘Oh, he’s going to be a star.’ And up until a year and a half ago, that’s how I thought about basketball and Jarrod.”
“I became more involved,” Nennoa says. “I got out there and looked at the other players and watched other teams. I realized, ‘Okay, he can play basketball pretty good.’ He had a lot of work to do. He still has a lot of work to do. But something happened this year and it clicked. He realized he was playing down. He would play with a bunch of 13- or 14-year-olds and play down to their level, because he doesn’t like to hurt people. He’s very sensitive about hurting other people — emotionally, physically, whatever. But something happened this year and he decided, ‘Okay, I’m big. I gotta play big, and if they don’t like it, they can get out of my way.’ It clicked and he started playing big.”
I wonder if she likes basketball. “Do you like basketball?”
“I like to sit and watch basketball, not 24 hours a day, but I’ll sit and watch it. I became the unofficial scorekeeper this season. Everybody comes up and asks, ‘How many blocks did So-and-So get?’ And I started comparing Jarrod to other kids. Some are better than him. But I’m probably Jerry’s worst critic.”
“How do you mean?”
“My role is to keep his feet on the ground, keep his head in the books, and keep him humble. That’s my job.”
I’m beginning to see Jarrod with new eyes. “How have you gone about finding the right coach and the right college for Jarrod?”
“To be honest with you, I haven’t learned how to do that yet. My husband and my brother-in-law do a lot of research on different coaches, their different styles, the way Jarrod might fit in their programs. I have to depend on them. I research the educational part of it. This is such a learning process for me. I have no idea how to pick the right school.”
For the first time, Nennoa sounds tentative. I ask, “What have you learned so far?”
“When we first started thinking about colleges, I was very naïve. I figured, ‘Well, any college he can go to is fine.’ That’s not the case. You have to look at what he wants to major in. You have to look at the school’s standards. You have to look at its basketball program. Are the coaches right for him? Are they going to play him? Is he going to fit in? Are they going to guarantee him a scholarship? There’s so much to look at. You have to watch what you’re doing. There are a lot of unscrupulous people out there.
“They’ll give you free tickets and they’ll give you this and they’ll give you that. They’ll say, ‘Come up to our campus, look it over.’ I’m having a hard time with Jeff. He’s got stars in his eyes. It’s very difficult. Then, to balance all that with what Jerry wants, especially if he doesn’t know what he wants.”
The conversation turns to recruiters. Can you tell when a recruiter is lying? Does it matter if you can? How many motel nights a year do recruiters average? Which brings to mind the cardboard box in the kitchen, the one filled with letters. I ask, “Is there a standard form to the letters? Something like, ‘Hi, I’m Coach Joe Bob and I want your boy more than a dog wants dinner’?”
“Pretty much. The last part of the season they sent handwritten letters.”
“What do they say, generally speaking?”
“ ‘Jarrod, I came down and saw your game.’ That’s kind of a shocker, because you don’t know they’re there. ‘Jarrod, came down and saw your game. You played great. We’re really impressed. We want to talk to you. See you in a few months.’ That kind of thing, just to let him know they’re interested. I’ve heard a handwritten letter is important.” Silence. “We’ll see. We’ll see.”
I’d wondered about that. Adidas sells a book containing the name, address, and phone number of every prospect in the nation. Any college coach could turn on a computer, fashion a template, and churn out greetings to every one of them. Underlings are on the payroll to, among other duties, pen letters. At what point in the recruiting continuum…
Nennoa interrupts, “The biggest challenge we’ve ever faced is getting through this next year and making the decision about which college he’ll go to. It’s very scary. You have so many questions and you don’t know how to voice some of them. I’m just…I’m scared. I’m worried. I’m scared. I don’t know how to put it into words. I have absolutely no idea how to make the decisions we have to make for him in the next year. I wish they wrote a book, How to Be a Sport Star’s Parent.”
“What do you worry about today, as opposed to what might happen up the road?”
Nennoa frowns, then says, “The attention he’s getting stresses him out. Everybody knows about him. He’s a shy kid, actually.” Silence. “He’s going to have to learn to deal with it. I can’t do it for him. Jeff can’t do it for him.”
Life seems to be perversely evenhanded in that there’s always something. The smart person has no sense of humor. The good-looking woman is tortured by self-doubt. The man who loves books can’t fix a faucet. Nobody gets a free pass. “That’s hard, to be seven feet tall, a high school star, and feel stressed when you’re noticed.”
Nennoa agrees. “We go to the supermarket and someone will ask, ‘Hey, did Jerry play basketball last night? How did he do?’ Everybody. Everywhere we go. It’s amazing. Shocking. They’re talking about my kid. Because to me, he’s just Jerry. He’s always going to be Jarrod. It’s no big deal. He’s just Jarrod.”
“How’s his life in high school?”
“Everybody knows him, everybody expects certain things out of him. He can’t walk down the hall and be a normal person. Everybody is ‘Hey, there’s Jarrod, the big basketball star.’ ”
“He must get the negative side of Big Basketball Star.”
“Oh, sure. There are kids who call him ‘Gump’ and make fun of him.”
“Do you know his friends?” This is a rhetorical question.
“He’s got three kids he would call friends. He’s got a lot of people who know of him and think they’re his friends. He’s known one boy since kindergarten, and they’re absolutely tight. It’s wonderful to watch them; they think the same thoughts. I think Chris helps him deal with things.”
“Good kids?” Rhetorical question number two.
“Oh, yeah, very good kids. Of course, we’ve always been protective about who he hangs out with. He’s never been in trouble. I’ll beat the crap out of him…I don’t care if he’s seven feet tall.”
I mark the tone of Nennoa’s voice as midpoint between metaphor and death threat. “When you go to a game, what do you do? For instance, do you arrive early?”
“I’m there early. His best friend plays on JV; he just got brought up to varsity. I’d go early and watch Chris and then stay and keep score for Jarrod.”
“Do you cheer or are you quiet?” She cheers.
“I scream, ‘Heads up, Jarrod!’ ”
“And everybody in the gym knows you?”
“Pretty much. ‘That’s Jarrod’s mom.’ They don’t know my name; they just know I’m Jarrod’s mom.”
Let’s see, is there anything else? “Does Jarrod have a girlfriend?”
“He’s got a girlfriend, but he’s surprised me. I figured when the hormones kicked in we’d start having a lot of trouble. And the hormones have kicked in, but he knows he has something bigger to do right now.” Nennoa smiles wide. “It’s amazing to me. He has surprised me. I’m so proud of him for that.”
“Do you have the feeling, ‘Knock on wood’?”
“Every day. Every day. I sure do. I don’t let myself dream about the NBA stuff. There is so little chance he can make it, so little chance. It’s so hard. If he can just get a scholarship — bitchin’.”
We’re into summer now, mid-July. Jarrod has been to the National Basketball Players Association camp, the Boo Williams/Nike Spring Invitational, played spring league basketball, played in assorted tournaments, and, at present, is in the midst of summer league basketball with another round of tournaments on deck.
Right now I’m pulling into the El Capitan High School parking lot, surprised at the number of cars here. I’ve come to watch Jarrod scrimmage. I park, get out of my truck, and walk along a cement walkway, past the crowded swimming pool, which explains the crowded parking lot, and on to the gym.
The boys are warming up. Another day at the office. I saw Jarrod play 20 hours ago at Cuyamaca College in El Cajon. That was his summer league team; at least, one of them. Jarrod has changed since I saw him in L.A. three months ago. He reminds me of a toddler in that, if you miss being around for three months, you’ve missed a lot. Jarrod is much stronger now; his passes, always quick, are brutally quick; he runs more consistently, is much more in the game, and in the game with more authority.
On the other side of the court is a middle-aged man wearing dark khaki shorts and a black T-shirt. He has a gut, but a lineman’s gut, set below massive shoulders and muscled arms. This is the Wyoming recruiter Leroy Washington. I walk over, introduce myself, and ask, “What do you look for in a prospect?”
“During the summer session, you’re always looking for your needs. In this particular case our need is a center. A guy who’s skilled, a guy who will play in our system, a guy who will develop in our system and become a heck of a player for our future.”
I think he said he wants a center. “I don’t know if you recruit nationally, but you must recruit all over the West. How do you winnow a pool of prospects down to a manageable size?”
“It’s never a perfect system, how you winnow. You’ve got to find out, through all the contacts you make and through the list of kids you’ve got and the reports you receive, who you can get involved with, in terms of them having an interest in you and you having an interest in them. Then if you get down to five to ten kids, that’s a pretty good pool to choose from.”
I have learned pretty much nothing. “How do you sell Wyoming?”
“We are the only show in town. We’re in a nice community. It’s a college town. If you want a real college atmosphere and you want something in terms of getting your education, not having the distraction of playing college basketball in front of 16,000 people, you should look at Wyoming. If you’re looking to go somewhere in a city and go party — where there are things to do all the time, and maybe find there is a distraction or two, and you may fall behind on your studies — then don’t come to Wyoming.”
Want to wind up in the gutter eating dead rodents? Don’t come to Wyoming. “What’s your answer when prospects say, ‘The winters, come on, give me a break’?”
“I tell them, ‘Go get a big coat. That’s why they make coats.’ ”
Like big coats? Come to Wyoming. “How many students?”
Washington says, enthusiastically, “Around 12, 14,000 students, and it’s growing every year.”
“How many basketball scholarships do you have this year?”
“We’re going to have four scholarships. So we’ve got to have a couple wings and we need a couple bigs. We graduated a couple bigs, so…”
That leaves a two-big deficit. “How long have you been on the road?”
“Ten straight days. There is a break coming up. Today is the last day to evaluate kids. Then we’ll have a four-day period where we’re off, and then we’ll start up again on the 22nd [of July] and go back and evaluate some more. We’ll be in areas like Vegas, where there is a big tournament, the adidas Big Time.”
Out of the corner of my eye I see Jarrod make a three-point shot. “Is recruiting like real estate in that whatever deal you make is the deal you make. In other words, if you can close a prospect today, that’s fine. If you close him in a month…”
“Especially if you feel like you got the property that you want.” Washington chuckles. “Yeah, that’s always a good deal. But, you know, kids these days got to be careful. I always tell them the two most important decisions they’re going to make in their life is where they will continue their education and who they’re going to marry. You can’t monkey around with that. You’ve got to weigh all the pros and cons and see what fits best on both sides.”
But of course nobody does. “It’s quite a chess game, at least from the parents’ side. You’ve got all these possibilities: you want to make sure your kid is in the right conference, with a coach who plays his kind of game, that the coach is going to be there for a while…”
“And know who else is on the team, who will complement you, who will compete with you for playing time…”
“A lot of moving parts.”
“Yeah, there are. Kids want to make the right decision. Make sure they go to a place where they don’t have to transfer. Make sure everything fits the bill in terms of academics, in terms of the character of the coach, in terms of the players who surround you, and then there is the atmosphere. Can they survive Laramie, Wyoming, or San Diego, California?”
Surf’s up. “When you say ‘sign,’ do you mean a contract?”
“No. It’s called a letter of intent. There are two signing periods, one in the fall from November 13 through the 20th. And the other is from April 16 though May 15. It’s a contract that binds the student athlete and the university together. No one else can come tamper.”
“If Jarrod signs come November, it will be close to a year before he arrives in Wyoming.”
“Right. If we get a particular kid signed in the fall, we’ll come back once we sign him — it’s not like we stop recruiting him. We want to continue that relationship and come back and support him during his senior year. It’s a total commitment; that’s what it’s all about. You’re talking about a mom and a dad who are trusting us with their son, trusting us to put him in a situation that’s positive both academically and athletically. With the University of Wyoming, our word is our bond.”
The gym is intensely hot; this is East County in July. I walk back across the floor and find a righteous breeze blowing through a pair of opened double doors. Nennoa Boswell arrives. We retrieve folding chairs, lug them to the center of the wind tunnel, sit down, and watch Jarrod scrimmage. Nennoa says, “He plays with his hands down and misses so much in his reaction time. If this is the last thing to come…oh, well.”
We chat about last night’s game, about El Cap’s prospects for the coming season. We agree that Jarrod is playing harder, and then, after a pleasant while has passed, I ask, “How long have you been doing this?” “This” being attending scrimmages, games, practices, spring leagues, summer leagues, tournaments, school games, school tournaments, keeping score, keeping track, keeping morale; in other words, the year-round, nonstop, day-and-night business of being a star basketball player’s mom. Nennoa says, “Five years.”
There’s another recruiter here today. And, yes, it is a bit weird having two college recruiters court the same player at the same time, particularly when the courting is done inside a small gym on the campus of a small-town high school. It feels a little like two men attempting to pick up the same woman; everything is polite, everything is professional, but one feels an undertow of masculine competition.
Dale Layer is a Colorado State University recruiter. He stands, arms folded, apart from Leroy Washington but on the same side of the gym. Layer is well over six feet tall, appears to be in his late 30s, with short, auburn-colored hair, deep-set George Bush eyes, a square jaw, and thin lips. He’s wearing a Colorado State gray-and-white-striped sports shirt and black slacks. I introduce myself and ask, “How often do you do this?”
“The month of July, we’re out 20 days, probably 12 hours each day, all across the country, in search of guys who can play at Colorado State.”
“Do you sit down in the beginning of the year and say, ‘We need this kind of guy, that kind of guy’?”
“You probably evaluate 10,000 players to get 3.”
“Really?” We never sleep at Colorado State.
“It’s quite a funnel, very broad at the top and very narrow at the end. You weed out a lot of guys because of their grades or attitude or playing ability or height. At the end of the process you hope to get three who can really help you.”
“It’s mid-July. How many prospects are left?”
“About 100, I guess.” Layer smiles. “You add guys and you take guys away every time you go into a gym. It’s part of the process. You like certain things, you don’t like certain things.”
Two years ago Colorado State recorded a 6-8 Mountain West Conference record. Last year that number was 3-11. “Let’s say you’re looking at five prospects for the big man’s spot on your roster. One guy looks like he’ll sign with Oregon. Now, there are four. One of the four has just taken a trip to UCLA. He likes the campus. Another guy broke his ankle, and it’s a bad break. Are you down to three? Or is it two? Or is it three? It’s musical chairs.”
Layer says, “Yeah, sometimes, sometimes it is.”
“Have you talked to Jarrod on the phone?”
“We can talk to him on the phone, but we can only say hi.”
Right. “When you talk to Jarrod, what do you say? I mean, there are only so many ways to say ‘I want to sign you.’ What do you say when you’re not saying that?”
“There’s a lot of stuff to talk about. How things are going. ‘How are you doing in school?’ And find out about him personally.”
Hey, kid, welcome to the adult world of lies. “Do you learn anything new by coming here? Don’t you already have all the information you need on Jarrod by way of scouting reports and videotapes?”
“Every time you see someone in person it’s a little bit different. Some guys are a little bit quicker on tape, some guys look slower on tape.”
Here’s the deal. At this point in the recruiting year colleges know exactly the prospects they want. No one is here to evaluate Jarrod; that was done long ago. This is sales. This is “Jarrod, Colorado State is here. We are here for you!”
Dinner beckons. I wave good-bye to Nennoa and amble outside in time to catch the last pink of sunset. The temperature has dropped 15 degrees. The evening breeze is sweet and cool, so I take my time walking through campus. In the parking lot, Jeff Boswell is getting out of his car. I ask how the scholarship hunt is going.
“Since June 21 we’ve gotten dozens of phone calls from schools. We get calls all the time from Oregon, USC, and Cal. Some schools have offered Jarrod a scholarship.”
“The ones toward the cellar. The ones who need him more than anybody.”
“The first one was Colorado State. They came right after him. But they were at the bottom of the Mountain West [Conference] last year. We’re going to hold out, but they’re hoping we’ll give them a verbal now.”
“Seems a bit early.” Two weeks from now, Stuart Creason, a seven-foot, 245-pound center out of Coppell, Texas, will commit to Colorado State.
Jeff says, “Yeah. We’re looking at some Pac-10 schools. Jerry is two and three on their lists. He isn’t quite at the top, but he’s on their short lists. Wyoming wants to have him come play. They’re the closest thing to a good deal we’ve got.” Jeff thinks for a moment. “I got a call at work from the Colorado State assistant coach wanting to know if we were taking him seriously. I said, ‘Heck, yeah, we’re taking you seriously. It’s just that it’s early.’ ”
It’s midnight, it’s raining, and a Colorado State recruiter is mowing your lawn. “Where would you like to see Jarrod play?”
“From what we’ve been told, he’d be a great Mountain West Conference player. The Pac-10 plays on a higher level. He could be a good player there, or he might be an average player. It depends how much the school wants to work with him. The feedback we got from UCLA was that they don’t have the time to develop him. They were up-front with us. It was nice. They said if he got a Pac-10 offer, great, but they think he’d be a standout in the Mountain West.”
The Mountain West Conference consists of Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah, and Wyoming. “Has one college emerged from the pack?”
Jeff sighs. “It’s going to depend on where all these kids decide to go. One goes one way, one goes another way, another goes another way. Who’s going to make the first pick? Then, which schools are left after he picks? I think the first kid to pick is going to be Padgett [David Padgett committed to Kansas]. Then, out of Washington, there is Zach Proett [Proett committed to University of Idaho]; he’s another six-foot-ten-inch kid. There is Ray Shafer [Shafer committed to Oregon]. Now, who’s left? I think Jerry is going to have a seat somewhere. What it comes down to is figuring out when is the best time for him to commit.”
We walk over to my truck and assume the lean-against-the-back-bumper position. Jeff says, “We’ve seen a kid here in town, one of this year’s best seniors — we all expected him to be going to one of the better, bigger programs, and he wound up settling for Riverside. That surprised the hell out of everybody.
“And this kid is really good. I understand by the time he got ready to commit, he turned around to the schools he liked and one by one they had all signed someone else. So that’s what we’re worried about. We’ve got to make sure we settle for something we like. I have my favorites. Jerry has his favorites. Some schools flatter him more than others. Some programs are good at that; they know how to lay it on a kid. But when you look at that school’s record, well, wouldn’t you rather play on a team that has a winning record and a chance to go to the big dance?”
I nod my head like a good fellow. “Have you heard anything more from Oregon?”
“We hear from them all the time, but they’re elusive about where Jerry is. Pepperdine, Wyoming, they tell me where Jerry sits in their lineup. Wyoming tells us he’s number one and Pepperdine says he’s in the top four.”
“What happened to Cal?”
“I don’t think Cal showed up.”
Cal tied for fourth place in the Pac-10 last year. “So it’s ‘We’re still evaluating,’ while they wait for their number one and two guys to make up their minds. Is that how it goes?”
“I think so. This is going to drag out a while. Right now, Jerry has two offers, and I think he’s going to get more. It’s not going in the right direction at Oregon, and it’s not going in the right direction at Cal. That’s okay. I want him in a conference where he’s going to be used a lot.”
“You’re not worried, are you?” Barring a terrorist or FBI attack on the Boswell home, there is no way Jarrod will be going to college on his own dime.
“Jarrod was seen by enough people and got enough scouting reports to show he’s pretty good. I think schools know him by now. Still, people do appear out of the shadows; the light comes on and they have a great summer. The Pac-10 can sit back and wait, as can some of the Mountain West.”
Which leaves, in the West, the Big Sky, Big West, WAC, and West Coast Conferences and their 36 colleges. “Where does Jarrod rank among this year’s prospects?”
Without hesitation, Jeff says, “I think he’s in the top 10 in the West. He’s in the top 20 in the U.S. for centers. Some scouts have him in the top 15, some have him rated lower than he should be, and some have kids rated higher than they ought to be.”
It comes to mind that Jarrod has been playing basketball since I first met him in February. Continuing that thought out loud, “If I was a high school basketball player, I could play from November to March on my high school team, then move over to a spring league and play from March until June, spend June through August going to tournaments and playing summer league, travel to tournaments in September and October, and then pick up playing high school basketball in November. It never ends.”
“There is a break right after school for a little while. Then there’s a break after summer season ends for a little while, but, yeah, you play nine to ten months a year.”
Jeff gestures toward the campus and says, “High school is nothing. Club ball is where you want to be. When Jerry is playing club ball, he’s playing hard against all these D-1 kids [Division I kids, or more precisely, kids who will be signed by Division I colleges]. Then he comes out here to the gym and plays with all these little guys and shifts down. It’s hard for him…he’s worried he’s going to hurt somebody.”
Coming into August now. I’m slumped onto a lawn chair in the back yard of Grandfather Boswell’s Lakeside home. Jarrod wanted to go for a swim after his summer school class, so we agreed to meet here. I’ve brought two soft drinks from the house. Jarrod goes for one more dunk, climbs out of the pool, and towels off. After greetings and pleasantries, I invite him to think back to the end of the school year and tell me about the last two months.
Jarrod says, “Right off the bat, right after school ended, I had a day off. Then I flew to Virginia to the NBA [Players Association] camp. It was exciting, pretty hard, pretty tough. I think there were 100 kids there. You play from 6:30 in the morning until 11:00 at night. College coaches weren’t allowed, but there were scouting services there. It was a five-day camp.”
“Did they teach you anything, or did you just play?”
“They have sessions. There was a big-man session. There were point guards, shooting guards, and power forwards sessions.”
I nudge my chair into the shade. “Okay, what happened after you finished with that?”
“Came home, played with my high school team. I got a day of practice in and then a night game, and right after that night game I had to go to Utah for another camp. That was a three-day camp. It was Rick Majerus’s Big Man Camp.”
“Was he screaming at everybody?” Rick Majerus is Bobby Knight’s little brother. He screams, he bellows, he swears, he bullies, and he wins, although not the national championship. He is also a 300-pound bachelor who, well into his 40s, lived alone on the seventh floor of a hotel in Salt Lake City.
Jarrod says, “He was screaming. I didn’t like that camp.”
“Then you came back to Lakeside, and then what happened?”
“I played with my high school team for a week and a half, and then I went to this Fullcourt Press Showcase up in L.A. That was a lot of fun. It was a three-day camp.”
The Fullcourt Press…hang on a moment, I’ll let them say it. Follows is from their brochure.
FULLCOURT PRESS ALL-WEST CAMP (Showcasing the West’s Finest Ballers)
INVITATION-ONLY CAMP — LIMITED TO 240 PLAYERS
This college exposure camp is designed to provide all players an opportunity to demonstrate their skills to the 300-plus college coaches, scouts and media expected to attend.
Back at poolside, I decide to throw a fastball. “Do you ever feel like a piece of meat?” Silence. More silence. “Maybe hooker is a better word. You’re on display, in a line with 100 other young basketball players. Strangers come by and say, ‘No, this one is too slow,’ or, ‘That one can’t pass,’ or, ‘Maybe I’ll take that one, but then again, maybe I won’t.’
“No, actually, it’s fun. You go along with it. It’s just basketball.”
Effortless sincerity. “Okay, Fullcourt Press ended, and then what happened?”
“I got to play with my high school for another week and a half. Up till my birthday. Then I played in a league for Saturday and part of Monday. That wasn’t anything big. Now I have this thing in L.A. [Double Pump Best of Summer Tournament] coming up this Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.”
“You’re playing basketball five days a week, right?”
“Working out in the weight room three days a week and then going to tournaments on the weekends?”
“Yeah. I’ve only had a day and a half off.” Jarrod is quiet, then says, more to himself than to me, “That was my birthday weekend…I had a Friday and a Saturday off.”
This is not spoken in a plaintive way, but slowly, as people do when retrieving a partially remembered historical fact. “How many letters have you gotten all together?”
“A couple thousand.”
I don’t think I’ve gotten 2000 bills in my life. “Has it ever gone to your head, even a little bit? If I got 2000 letters, if I got 20 letters, I’d start to think…”
Jarrod smiles. “Naw. My mom, she’s the one who keeps my head small.”
Indeed, I have observed that Nennoa enforces a no-bullshit zone around her person. “When did basketball become a job?”
“It dawned on me, probably right after my sophomore high school season. I saw that the best players on the [El Capitan] team were leaving, and it was up to me and the rest of the team…that’s what gets you.”
Momento, por favor. “There’s the team, but nobody else on the El Cap team is going to have your opportunities. Nobody else is going to get 2000 letters from colleges. In all likelihood, that will never happen again to an El Cap basketball player.”
Jarrod says, softly, “Yeah, no one else has the opportunity I have. It doesn’t make me feel sad, but it is a lot of responsibility.” Silence. “I just want to help my team as much as I possibly can.”
This is where we started six months ago: the star athlete says he only wants to help his team. Funny how different the words sound when you believe the person who’s saying them. “I talked to your dad the other day and he mentioned Manhattan Beach. Apparently, while you’re playing in the Best of Summer this weekend, you two will be staying with a rich booster in his Manhattan Beach house. Looks like you’re getting a taste of what comes with being a star athlete.”
Jarrod says, “You’re always building up. You’re going to know people. Even if I don’t go on to play basketball, I’m going to know people. In some way or another it’s going to help me out.”
Again, zero arrogance, merely a statement of fact. “So when people say, ‘They make this kid play basketball all the time, and he has no time for fun; it must be horrible,’ that’s not how it feels?”
Jarrod laughs. “No. I like it. It’s going to give me a $100,000 scholarship. That’s money I don’t have to pay. Basketball is what’s going to help me. That’s what I have to do. You get used to it, and you have to learn to like it too.”
That’s what Bill Clinton said about campaigning. “From a parent’s standpoint there is a delicate line between pushing your kid and knowing when to back off. How has it been with your parents?”
Jarrod’s voice becomes big with pride. “My mom handles everything like that.” Then, appreciating the implications of his statement, he says, “Oh, my God, if I didn’t have her, my dad would be the one telling me, ‘You need to do all this stuff.’ I would have no breaks at all!”
We both laugh at the sudden arrival of revealed truth. I take a long drink of cola, then ask, “Do you make yourself available to coaches when they telephone?”
“I have to be available to them. I try to set a time limit when I will answer calls. At nine o’clock, if I’m still awake, I’ll have my mom or my dad say, ‘I’m sorry, he’s in bed.’ ”
“How many days a week do coaches call?”
“Oh, every day.”
“You talk to recruiters every day?”
“What do recruiters talk about when they call?”
“A lot of them say the same things. In a way, you can see them as salesmen. They want to buy you off…not really buy you off; they want to sell you their school. They’ll say, ‘Oh, we know why you should come here, because we know how to coach big guys.’ ”
“Do they chitchat like, ‘How was your day, Jarrod?’?”
“Yeah, they do. They try to get to know you.”
“Do they let you get to know them?”
“Yeah, you can ask them pretty much anything.”
Coach, do you have a criminal record? “When they call, how long do you talk to them?”
“Some, maybe ten minutes, others…I was on the phone with the Colorado State coach for an hour and a half.”
The telemarketer from hell. “What….on earth…did you talk about for an hour and a half?”
“I don’t know. They want to get to know me. They’re really interested. They’ll get pretty personal, like, ‘Do you have a girlfriend? Do you have a job? What do you like to do in your free time?’ ”
“Can you tell who’s really, really interested versus who’s interested?”
“At first I couldn’t tell. A lot of colleges were calling. But I’m only staying in touch with a few, so I can tell who’s interested now.”
“San Diego State, Colorado State, Wyoming, and I’m starting to like Washington. They’ve expressed how much they like me. They tell me I’m number one, but that’s another part of selling me their school, telling me I’m number one.”
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach. “How do kids at school treat you? I assume some hate you and some like you and most don’t care one way or the other.”
“It’s high school, it’s normal high school. You’ve got friends and some people who aren’t your friends.”
“Do you feel separated from other high school students? You go to school, sit through classes, but you have another life that no one else has.”
Jarrod leans forward. “People don’t realize. They don’t know all this stuff I do. If you think about it, it is kind of weird.”
Weird is not the word I had in mind. “I have caught myself, 50 times, wanting to give you advice, because what’s happening to you doesn’t happen to people, because it’s exciting and it would be fun to be a part of it, and because you’re the most generous teenager I’ve ever met. You must get that a lot. Every uncle and friend of the family, every adult who comes into your life must lay on advice.”
Jarrod shrugs his shoulders. “You get used to it. You try to listen to them. They may not have anything different to say, most of it is repetitive, but it’s good to know people are seeing the same things.”
Zen Boswell. “Don’t you get annoyed listening to the same stuff over and over?”
“Yeah, but you can’t look at it like that. They’re just trying to help you.”
University of Wyoming
November 13, 2002
University of Wyoming head basketball coach Steve McClain announced on Wednesday the signing of one San Diego–area high school senior to a national letter of intent. Jarrod Boswell of Lakeside, Calif., signed with Wyoming.
November 17, 2002
Jarrod received his scholarship papers yesterday.
I would have e-mailed you sooner but the hard drive on the pc took a dump so we lost your e-mail address.
Last nite was the senior dinner at El Cap and Jarrod was named Most Memorable.
Hope you’re doing fine and staying healthy.