Do it for the ‘gram: Followers and likes are the currency of high school hoopson August 19, 2020 at 1:04 pm

AT CROSSROADS HIGH SCHOOL in Santa Monica, California, a large sign stands outside the gym in January 2019. Leaning slightly left, in big block font, it reads: NO MEDIA.

A month prior, Bronny James debuted for the school’s eighth-grade team and the building was flooded with parents and lookie-loos with striking curiosity to see what the fuss was about. Highlights of the game racked up more than 2.9 million views on YouTube, featuring comments like “Damn Bronny be killing it on the court, he’s gonna be just like his father or better” and “I think bronny looks like michael jordan.”

Crossroads kept the sign up for the next game.

But on this cool Thursday afternoon, Bronny stretches by the scorers table, his Beats headphones perched off one ear, his yellow iPhone XR on the floor. The then-14 year-old’s No. 23 jersey falls over a white long-sleeve shirt.

LeBron and Savannah James walk into the crowded gym and sit behind the Crossroads bench, opposite the rest of the parents. During the game, Maverick Carter, co-founder of Springhill Entertainment, and Rich Paul, founder of Klutch Sports and LeBron’s agent, join the family to watch Bronny, who’s splitting responsibilities evenly between distributing the ball and attacking the basket. A white Maybach is in the parking lot out back. A driver sits in the front, reading.

Before his first Instagram or TikTok account, Bronny was already a social media star. An Instagram fan page that covers the Jameses like America’s sports royal family features more than 449,000 followers, including LeBron and Savannah. On YouTube, there are highlight videos with more than a million views, including a recurring segment called AAU 2K19, which features a custom-made Bronny character.

The NCAA has opened the door for student-athletes to financially benefit off of their name, image and likeness, but the rise of influencer culture has miniaturized the modern NBA’s branding obsession, seeping into high school basketball as players around the country become stars. The internet and the modern fame machine is molding a future generation of basketball stars, changing the business, power dynamics and culture of the sport, on and off the court.

Noah Farrakhan, a four-star prospect not ranked in the ESPN Top 100, plays at The Patrick School in New Jersey and has almost 360,000 followers on Instagram. Paige Bueckers, a consensus five-star girls’ basketball recruit headed to UConn, has more than 555,000 followers. Zion Harmon, a four-star prospect in the Class of 2021, has more than 312,000 followers. Kyree Walker, a four-star prospect in the Class of 2020, has more than 491,000 followers. Even 11-year-old basketball star Isabella Escribano has more than 110,000 followers.

A generation ago, precocious athletes gained college and pro attention from magazines and newspapers. No longer. Today, players can build fan bases and generate enough clout to circumvent the traditional basketball development route of high school to college to pro. But nestled between balancing hype and substance is the nascent prospect of internet fame. They have to be skilled to survive at higher levels but only need the spectacle to be a celebrity.

For now, the whispering parents and squeaking sneakers provide the only soundtrack for the game. Parents clap for baskets as if they’re watching golf, almost like a normal eighth-grade game, until you remember the greatest basketball player in the world is sitting on the other side of the gym, watching his namesake zip up and down the court.

It will be one of the last times Bronny James plays basketball competitively without a large crowd waiting and hoping to witness something special.

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THE CLIP RUNS 13 seconds long, but that’s all it takes to mark the beginning of a sea change. The youngest Ball brother, LaMelo, is pointing at the center court logo in a 2016 high school game involving Chino Hills at the Rancho Mirage tournament. Ball nonchalantly steps up to the half-court line, pulls up and shoots a 3.

The video, captioned “LaMelo Pointed at Half-court then Pulled up form it lol” on Twitter, has totaled 4.8 million views and nearly 17,000 retweets.

The moment might have been just another building block for the Ball family’s journey toward a reality show, but it sent the LaMelo hype train into overdrive. It was a trick shot executed in-game. But it was also a style of perceived disrespect tossed so matter of factly that the youngest Ball brother became a high school basketball celebrity unique to the internet age. Imitators and homages appeared on Instagram and Twitter, from pickup games to high school contests as kids everywhere tried to replicate the shot.

Among today’s young basketball stars, the Instagram blue check marks the status symbol that was once represented by the mixtape: You’re someone to watch. LaMelo, Zion Williamson and Shareef O’Neal were among the first high schoolers to get blue-check verified back in 2017.

The three barely knew one another in real life, but connected regularly on social media. LaMelo started a group chat where the three talked about ways they could play together at the same California high school.

“Chino Hills was a little too far for both of us,” says O’Neal, who played at Crossroads.

Today, at 18, LaMelo boasts 5.5 million Instagram followers, more than All-Stars like Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum. And he has become a favorite of social media managers, regularly drawing some of the highest engagement online among basketball stars. On Instagram, LaMelo averages 638,388 likes and 3,666 comments with a 10.50% engagement rate per post, according to the Phlanx Instagram engagement calculator, adding around 50,000 followers per month. The NBA team with the highest social media engagement online, the Lakers, averages 159,553 likes and 822 comments with a 1.09% engagement rate.

When Zion-mania was in full tilt just before the 2019 NBA draft, the Duke freshman accrued 3.3 million followers on Instagram. The combination of performance and clout gives LaMelo enormous influence before ever having played a minute in the NBA, not only in an ability to impact the win column, but the potential to create a big-market environment wherever he goes.

Like Geneva, Ohio, population: 5,937. In 2019, Nimari Burnett, a McDonald’s All American ranked 22nd in the ESPN 100 and headed to Texas Tech, faced off against LaMelo and Spire Academy. Cameras and a sold-out crowd packed into Spire Academy’s gym to get a glimpse of the youngest Ball brother, setting up a stage for an opposing player to create a moment in the spotlight, whether he realizes it or not.

Burnett put on a show, dropping 34 points as Prolific Prep cruised to a 35-point blowout win, broadcasted live on Spire Academy’s Facebook page. With his teammates crowded around him in the locker room postgame, Burnett refreshed his Instagram profile and saw hundreds of new followers. Fans might have been there to watch LaMelo, but Burnett shifted that attention with an eye-opening performance.

“My teammates were like, ‘How are you smiling for this long?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, bro,'” Burnett says. “I’m just looking up at my phone, and it’s going up, up and up.”

“Instagram isn’t an accurate representation of how basketball is being played. Because of highlights, no one ever misses a shot.”
Crossroads high school coach Anthony Davis

In four days, Burnett accumulated more than 15,000 new followers. It wasn’t long until Burnett’s Instagram profile brandished the coveted blue check. But high school coaches around the country express concern over the changing style of play, with a highlight-driven mindset manifesting on the floor. The influence even extends to warm-ups, where players frequently attempt eye-grabbing dunks in layup lines.

“Nobody wants to talk about it, but it’s a thing,” says Anthony Davis, Crossroads’ high school head coach. “Kids try to do too much. Others can get nervous, it’s a little bit of both. Instagram isn’t an accurate representation of how basketball is being played. Because of highlights, no one ever misses a shot.”

Mady Sissoko, No. 40 in the ESPN Top 100 and a Michigan State commit from Wasatch Academy in Utah, says high schoolers are thinking about too many things on the court.

“You have so many things in your mind and you don’t know what to do,” Sissoko says. “You feel you have pressure if you see a camera around, next to you. You can feel the blood pressure.”

Some players shoot for ankle-breaking crossovers versus trying to move the ball. Others get caught up in their one-on-one matchups with the cameras watching. The short attention span and quick news cycle of Instagram encourages players to constantly top themselves, to do something to stay relevant in the algorithm. Texas Tech transfer Mac McClung, who rose to fame on Instagram with clips of acrobatic dunks, says players are subconsciously aware, and it affects what they chase on the floor.

“You could have 30 points, or you could have a dunk and it goes viral,” McClung says. “The kids want the dunk.”

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN a famous high school basketball player and a top high school prospect has grown among coaches, scouts and evaluators. Much of the gap between hype and substance arises in how a performance is portrayed on social media. ESPN NBA draft expert Mike Schmitz says he often sees players who struggle in showcase events and underwhelm scouts receive massive hype online due to a few compiled highlights.

“Within an hour, there’s posts on Twitter, on IG with a video of that player having one highlight and the caption being, ‘So-and-so absolutely killed in front of every NBA team today.’ And that player’s out there retweeting it,” Schmitz says. “From our perspective, we’re saying, ‘Wait a minute. This guy just laid an egg and was completely underwhelming to NBA scouts,’ but this is what’s out there on social media.”

The power of internet hype isn’t limited to the biggest names and recruits either. When O’Neal enrolled at Crossroads as a junior, DJ Houston, then a senior guard, did not have any official offers from schools. Houston hoped to play basketball in college but wasn’t getting the looks from coaches playing at a school known for its performing arts, boasting alumni such as Jonah Hill, Kate Hudson, Damon Wayans Jr. and Zooey Deschanel.

Soon, Houston found his highlights mixed in with O’Neal’s, and the calls from coaches started coming. By the end of his senior year, Houston was committed to Western Michigan. Today, Houston says he would not have gotten to Western Michigan without the recognition he generated from playing alongside his famous teammate. After one year playing at Division I Western Michigan, Houston transferred to Fullerton College, a community college in Orange County, California.

“It opened my eyes and motivated me more,” Houston says, “to live up to any hype.”

IF THERE’S A big high school basketball game in Los Angeles, Koolmac (real name: Cameron Look, 26) will most certainly be there. He’s hard to miss, often on the baseline near the center of the action, rocking bright sneakers and holding a Sony mirrorless camera. Players, coaches, fans stop by to dap him up. Others walk right past, even if they interacted in the past.

“It’s not a big deal,” Koolmac says before a February 2019 game between Sierra Canyon and Crossroads. “They don’t realize I drove two hours to get here. I spend money on gas. I pay for parking. I don’t have to be here. I just do it because I want to.”

Three years ago as interest in high school basketball grew on the internet, Koolmac noticed an opportunity. At NBA games, rows of established photographers shoot photos of established stars. Instead of trying to compete with the establishment, Koolmac saw a road through high school basketball, where he could be one of the only people taking photos. All he needed was a ticket to the game, which could range from free to $10.

After games, Koolmac would tag the high school players on Instagram, where he had a higher chance of them noticing his work versus a superstar like LeBron.

“I figured it was a lot easier to get a kid to engage on a social media post and double tap your photo as opposed to a grown-ass man,” Koolmac says.

Shareef noticed Koolmac’s work, more professional and stylized than the iPhone photos posted on his account, and recognized an opportunity to make his Instagram profile look more legitimate. Soon, the Crossroads star and Koolmac began chatting after games, developing a friendship. When the O’Neals threw birthday parties, Koolmac was there, shooting. To show their appreciation, the O’Neals bought Koolmac a Sony A7III camera, which he still uses.

The increased effort exploded Shareef’s profile, growing his account from fewer than 100,000 followers to more than 900,000 during his senior year in 2018. And the majority of his followers, according to private Instagram analytics, fall between the ages of 13 (the youngest age someone can claim to be to create an Instagram account) and 17.

“I feel like Disney Channel stars have a lot of younger fans, and it’s the same with high school basketball,” Shareef says. “We got some older fans, but more of the kids looking at the videos are my age or younger. It makes me want to show them cool stuff cause they’re waiting for me to post something.”

As Shareef’s profile grew, Koolmac found an audience too, adding nearly 62,000 followers in the first year of partnership. These days, Koolmac serves as a traveling photographer with Sierra Canyon (where Bronny James now plays), boasts more than 167,000 followers, and enjoys relationships with the O’Neal and James families.

Other photographers followed suit, finding photo-editing tutorials on YouTube and creating content. And with that, what started as a niche community of basketball diehards became home to the gatekeepers of internet celebrity.

Photographers like Koolmac and Instagram accounts like Overtime, SLAM and Tipton Edits drive discussion around the high school game. They photoshop the biggest stars into college uniforms, post recruitment speculation and start discussion about the futures of these kids.

COLLEGE COACHES SELDOM trek to rural Virginia, and Mac McClung felt overlooked. To try to capture someone’s attention, really anyone’s attention, McClung began bringing the acrobatic dunks he did while hanging out with his friends during his free time onto the court for an actual high school game.

“Man, I didn’t want to be the average white guy,” McClung says. “I want to have swag, I want to dunk.”

From between-the-legs to windmills to tomahawks, McClung experimented. And when the feeds of SLAM, Overtime and House of Highlights started noticing, McClung realized the power on his side, even if he wasn’t getting the collegiate offers he felt he deserved.

“I got some followers and was like, ‘Man this can be a tool for me,'” McClung says. “I didn’t have the scouts and stuff on my side.”

McClung emerged from the small town of Gate City, Virginia (population: 1,837) as a high school basketball internet phenom, generating over 600,000 Instagram followers before playing a minute of college ball.

“I had the fans,” McClung says. “I used that as my tool, and kind of my business.”

Standing 6-foot-2 with a 44-inch vertical and a growing online profile, McClung became a target of opponents on the AAU circuit, with players often exerting extra effort to try to cross him over.

“Every kid wants to go viral,” says McClung, who now has more than 734,000 followers. “I think people are trying crazier stuff because they know the attention it can bring them. And on the other side, people are going to want to go at you.”

Soon, McClung had camera crews from Overtime following him around high school, documenting the day in the life of an Instagram basketball star, a video that has more than 1.5 million views on YouTube. McClung felt the eyes of his peers, some doubting the play could live up to the hype. But McClung knew many of the players gaining traction on the internet weren’t playing against high school teams much better than the ones he was facing. When he felt his opponents didn’t respect him, McClung took on an underdog mentality.

“I kind of just rolled with it, and social media rolled with it, and they kind of liked me for that,” says McClung, who was a three-star prospect not ranked in the ESPN Top 100. “It was something that I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand it sometimes.”

The offers slowly started coming, first from East Tennessee State University, then Oklahoma State. McClung initially chose Rutgers before decommitting. At an AAU tournament, Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing noticed McClung. After an open court session on campus, McClung received an offer from Ewing and committed.

As his follower count rose, McClung went from an overlooked three-star high school basketball prospect to Instagram star to Georgetown commit, with everyone from Drake to Quavo to Shaq reaching out, letting him know they’d be following his career. Among his notable Instagram followers: Ezekiel Elliott, Allen Iverson, French Montana, Ansel Elgort and Dak Prescott.

In 2019, McClung exceeded expectations for the Hoyas, leading the team with 15.7 points per game and shooting 39.4% from the field and 32.3% from 3. McClung explored entering the 2020 NBA draft before deciding to transfer from Georgetown, riddled by scandal after multiple players were kicked off the team. Under a spotlight, McClung pays attention to everything he does on the court, knowing a camera will always be on him.

“I’ve seen guys … think they’re something bigger and different, because people treat them that way,” McClung says. “I don’t think people understand that when you’re treated this way, they start to feel maybe they are.”

AS THE PANDEMONIUM around the Ball family grew — from the collapse of Big Baller Brand to the controversy around LaVar’s Junior Basketball Association to Lonzo’s trade to the New Orleans Pelicans — the hype around LaMelo bloomed. All of the drama, from leaving Chino Hills and moving from Los Angeles to Lithuania to Ohio to Australia, helped grow the youngest Ball brother’s international profile.

Debate swirled around whether LaMelo deserved all of the hype, whether he was a top basketball prospect worthy of attention or a byproduct of internet chatter. It wasn’t until LaMelo signed in Australia with the Illawarra Hawks that the youngest Ball brother emerged as one of the top prospects for the 2020 NBA draft. LaMelo had become a point guard with creativity and court vision, and an endless pool of confidence.

The draft hype has brought more attention, more followers, more segments on television and, of course, more scrutiny.

As Shareef O’Neal’s high school basketball star rose, he saw trolls flood his comments with hate after an off night.

“It was like if I didn’t have 30-15-10, everyone would compare me and say that I’m not as good as my dad,” O’Neal says. “For other players, the kids who aren’t getting the attention and they should be, they are telling themselves they need to get highlights in order to be seen and be famous.”

This can all take a toll on a player’s mental health. Graham Betchart trains basketball players on the mental skills needed to overcome the stresses and anxieties of pro-athlete life, with clients including Aaron Gordon (since age 11), Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Jaylen Brown. His main message: Don’t stress over what you can’t control.

“It was like if I didn’t have 30-15-10, everyone would compare me and say that I’m not as good as my dad.”
Shareef O’Neal

Betchart sees many of the same struggles emerging among younger basketball players as the business and media coverage around high school basketball continues growing.

“Normally you don’t get this attention until you’re a pro, but now you’re getting it when you’re 14,” Betchart says. “When all the eyes are on you, it’s much different than when they’re not. If you’ve ever shot free throws in front of people, you know how different it is than when there’s no one in the gym.”

This type of feedback loop can lead to Instagram anxiety, when users who are concerned about how they will appear to their followers and realize the discrepancy between who they are and who others expect them to be, according to a Nova Southeastern University study. Sahara Byrne, a professor of communication at Cornell University says anyone with a following, large or small, will face their share of vocal critics.

“What’s the end game here? A million followers? Two million? Sponsorships? The numbers are empty at a certain point,” Byrne says. “For every every increase in 100 followers comes two awful followers. At a million, it’s 50,000. Suddenly you have 50,000 people who hate you more than anything, and there’s an inability with people to navigate that right now.”

Seventh Woods went viral in 2013 as a four-star prospect with a YouTube mixtape titled, “Seventh Woods is the BEST 14 Year Old in the Country! CRAZY Athlete,” totaling more than 16 million views. Woods spent three seasons at North Carolina, playing 94 games and averaging 1.8 points before deciding to transfer to South Carolina. As quickly as he became a name to watch on the basketball court, Woods faded out of the basketball consciousness, one of the first busts of the internet era of high school basketball hype.

Woods was one of the first to face off against his own hype as a top prospect at the collegiate level, and LaMelo will become one of the first in the NBA to do the same.

MORE THAN TWO and a half hours before Sierra Canyon plays at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts, last January, the crowd waiting for a glimpse of 15-year-old Bronny James finds standing room availability. LeBron James jerseys — from St. Vincent-St. Mary to Miami to Cleveland to Los Angeles — dot the crowd. Lithuanian and Australian LaMelo Ball jerseys are also sprinkled throughout, the only non-NBA player jersey widely represented among the fans in attendance.

Sierra Canyon became a high school barnstorming team this past season. The team opened with a 12-day trip to China, packing arenas of more than 5,000 people halfway across the world. When it played in Minnesota at the Target Center, home of the Timberwolves, it sold out the arena with over 16,000 fans, packing the facility up to the third deck.

As a freshman, Bronny has mostly been a role-playing guard for Sierra Canyon, averaging single-digit points. Still, photographers line both baselines, staking out positions well before tipoff. The ESPN broadcasting crew prepares to showcase the most popular high school basketball team in the country.

As Bronny walks out onto the floor wearing Off-White Nike Vapormaxes, Koolmac trails not too far behind, wearing a Sierra Canyon polo, snapping photos of Instagram’s favorite team, including ESPN Top 100 No. 7 and Kentucky-commit BJ Boston (more than 395,000 Instagram followers), No. 8 Stanford-commit Ziaire Williams (more than 104,000 Instagram followers) and Zaire Wade (more than 2 million Instagram followers), son of Dwyane.

Two security guards follow the team everywhere it goes on the road. While the team warms up, they stand underneath the basket.

How many high school teams need security?

“Not many,” the burly guard says, adjusting his earpiece. “This one does.”

The game tips off, and as one of the best high school teams in the country runs up and down the court, most of the cameras from the crowd are pointed at Bronny, sitting on the bench. At one point, a fan throws debris at Bronny as he sets up for an inbound pass, causing the referees to pause the game. A cop threatens arrest toward the crowd and is met with a wall of silence. During timeouts, a documentary crew sticks boom mics in the huddle.

“You’d be surprised by all the stuff Bronny has to go through,” Ziaire Williams says after the game. “It’s not fair, but he doesn’t let it faze him at all. I’m learning how to be more like that from him, and he’s younger than me.”

On the second day, with LeBron in attendance, “We want Bronny” chants emerge, irrespective of score or context. The fans are restless, eager to see if LeBron’s son lives up to the hype, if what they saw online is what they’ll see with their own eyes.

Back when Bronny first arrived in Los Angeles, he went to Shareef asking what it would be like to play basketball in the city’s high school league. Shareef talked Bronny through campus life at the celebrity-dotted Los Angeles high schools, and assured him that no one really cared where someone came from or who their parents were.

Shareef gave Bronny advice on dealing with the noise, but he also knew what was to come was bigger than what he experienced. Shareef is Shaq’s son, but this is LeBron James Jr., the namesake of the greatest basketball player today.

“He,” Shareef says, “has it way worse.”

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