There are two games going on tonight inside this raucous Brooklyn high-school gym. The first, obvious one is pretty great all by itself: The underdog Bishop Ford girls’ varsity basketball team uses a high-energy attack on offense and defense to scramble out to a twelve-point halftime lead. Then, in the final minute of the second half, the girls of Christ the King, a perennially elite hoops school from Queens, claw back to within two points. CK’s star is Sierra Calhoun, the best sophomore girl basketball player in the city and one of the top twenty 15-year-olds in the country. With 40 seconds remaining, the six-foot-tall, broad-shouldered Sierra muscles her way to an offensive rebound and lays the ball in to draw her team closer. Now, with 9.2 seconds glowing red on the scoreboard, Sierra is fouled and steps to the line with a chance to tie the score.
The second game is taking place just off the court, and it’s no less intense. College-basketball coaches hunting for fresh young talent line the front row of bleachers. Their presence is communicated most vividly by the young woman seated right at midcourt. She’d stand out in this predominantly black crowd simply because she’s conspicuously blonde-haired and blue-eyed. But Megan Duffy is also wearing a bright-red shirt with St. John’s in giant white letters across the chest. The Red Storm assistant coach wants the girls on the court to know she’s here and why. There are players on both teams who would be useful to college programs, but Sierra is the only game-changer. Duffy is a strict observer of the NCAA’s byzantine recruiting rules, so she politely refuses to discuss whom she’s scouting. Other coaches in the crowd, though, openly salivate. “Sierra has it all,” one says. “Everybody wants her.”
So it doesn’t matter that Sierra misses the pair of free throws and that her team loses. The coaches make sure to chat up the tall, imposing man in the navy-blue hoodie who is also sitting courtside. He is Sierra’s father, Omar Calhoun. He is friendly but inscrutable, a man determined to stay on good terms with everyone but show his cards only when ready. Sitting a few rows back and observing this dance is Calhoun’s wife and their son, Omar Jr., a senior at Christ the King and the best 18-year-old boys’ basketball player in the city. For the past two years, Junior was pursued by top college coaches, with Villanova, Maryland, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia offering scholarships. Last summer, he chose the offer from the University of Connecticut, which had just won the 2011 NCAA championship. The Calhoun family has a lot of experience with the recruiting circus. The parents also have a special understanding of the stakes in the larger game their kids are playing.
The anxiety is constant for any good city parent: Get your kid into the right play group, the best middle school, a prime internship. For the tiny fraction who are raising elite teenage basketball players, the pressure goes up exponentially: They’re staring at the small but very real chance of winning a multimillion-dollar lottery. So Omar Sr. and his wife, Semara, have had to become agents as well as parents, shielding their kids from the worst of a system that’s designed to exploit young athletes while simultaneously maximizing the chances of a huge payoff. The splashiest recent New York success story is Kemba Walker—who, like Omar Calhoun Jr., went from a Catholic high school and the Gauchos AAU program to UConn. Last spring, Walker led the Huskies to a national championship, then was picked in the first round of the 2011 NBA draft and signed a $5 million contract with the Charlotte Bobcats. Yet far more city high-school stars are waylaid by the temptations and expectations, or they flame out in college. Even the rare few who grab the big pro money are often warped by the process. Coney Island’s Stephon Marbury is the prime cautionary example. The last hope of a poor, sprawling family, Marbury made millions but was miserable as he bounced among five NBA teams before eating Vaseline in an online video and later fleeing to China.
Omar Sr. played with Marbury as a kid, as well as other future pros like Felipe Lopez, and still believes he too could have made the NBA. Part of him is the classic sports dad living out his dreams through his kids. A larger part of what drives both Calhoun parents, though, is something deeper and more important than providing the basketball opportunities they never had.