What Happened to New York High-School Hoops?

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Photo: Getty Images

Lance Stephenson is the best high-school basketball player in the city, and any day now, he’ll be announcing that he’ll be attending Kansas, or possibly St. John’s, or maybe Maryland next year. There was a time when being the best high-school player in New York pretty much meant you’d go on to a successful career. Similarly, the best players in the NBA were disproportionately New Yorkers. (There was an eleven-year stretch in the seventies and eighties in which the NBA MVP was a New Yorker seven times.) But that’s not really the case anymore. And in a terrific New Republic article, Jason Zengerle explores why exactly the city’s high schools no longer produce the superstars they once did.

Though he focuses on Stephenson and what it’s like to be a schoolboy star in 2009 (lots of family involvement, AAU ball, and sneaker contracts), Zengerle offers some possible reasons for the decline. There’s the abundance of public schools (and thus lack of quality competition), as well as prep schools outside of the city that steal away talent, but the most likely explanation is this: They don’t succeed in the long run because they’re overhyped, and maybe not all that good to begin with.

The best quote in the piece also sums up the problem. Says Gary Charles, director of the New York Panthers, an AAU squad: “I now see kids who I consider mid- and low-Division I prospects walking around with posses.” There’s so much hype, from both friends and the increasing number of websites and magazines that cover this stuff, that it’s hard to accurately peg a kid’s skill level, especially for the kid himself. Going a step further, his focus may not be on continuing to improve, because if you’re always being told you’re great, why bother?

In a sense, it’s almost like each generation lives on the reputations of the one before it, even if the returns are diminishing. Lew Alcindor was one of the all-time greats even in his days at Power Memorial. Chris Mullin wasn’t quite so good, but was a legendary high-school gym rat, a great college player, and a member of the Dream Team. Felipe Lopez had as much hype as any of them, but had a pretty average career in college and in the NBA. Fast-forward to a guy like Sebastian Telfair, who was undoubtedly told time and time again that he, too, was the Next Great New York Basketball Star. He’s now on his third team in five years. Will Stephenson have a great career in college and as a pro? Maybe he will. But just being a standout in a city high school no longer makes that a sure thing.

Empty Garden [New Republic]