SCOTT SIMON, Host:
Jaylin Fleming might be the next LeBron James, but we won't know for a while. He's only 10 years old.
JAYLIN FLEMING: I always think of myself like a person who can get to the NBA, like he's in the B League or anything. And once he gets tired, he got to keep pushing.
SIMON: The fifth grader at the Beasley Academic Center in suburban Chicago is already attracting interest from college scouts and coaches. Roger Hinds, the head trainer for the New York Knicks - and that's a pro team that could use a lot of help - told the Chicago Tribune: I've never actually seen a kid like this. That means he's watching.
We're joined now by University of Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber.
Coach Weber, thanks so much for being with us.
STEVE WEBER: Thanks for having me on.
SIMON: Now, I know you can't talk about who you may or may not be trying to recruit, but how unusual is a story like Jaylin Fleming, a 10-year- old who attracts interest?
WEBER: Well, I think that's a little younger than I've ever dealt with. I've been to games for 7th and 8th graders, but usually they're a phenom, a 6'8" seventh grader. But to go down to 10 years old, you know, we have kids come to camp at all ages and we're always watching, but that's a little young, so he must be special.
SIMON: What do you think of it? What do you think of this kind of interest?
WEBER: I don't like it, to be honest. I think kids need to be kids. You know, every kid should have a dream, a goal. But, you know, the problem with us - with the college coaching - is now to get involved with kids we have to get them interested at, you know, as early age as possible, where they're feeling good about Illinois basketball or whatever school you're at. So if it means going to seventh and eighth grade games, we are starting to do that.
SIMON: Well, explain to us some of the pressures you operate under that might be more intense these days.
WEBER: I've been involved in Division One basketball for 31 years now. And when I first started, we were worried about seniors in high school, and that was it. There was a late signing period. Now there's the early signing period. It went to juniors, then sophomores. We've even had a commitment from a freshman in the last four years, so everything's accelerated. And I'm not sure it's good, but it is there. And if you don't do it, it's going to hurt you probably in the long run with the recruiting of these young men.
SIMON: Because if Illinois doesn't do it, Indiana or Wisconsin will.
WEBER: Yeah, there's no doubt. You see what the attention the Final Four NCAA basketball gets. It's made parents, I think, have changed. They see their sons or daughters being the next superstars. And they're pushing and pushing at a very young age. And that's where we've kind of got involved.
SIMON: Practically speaking, Coach Weber, there's a lot of difference between let's say 11, 12, 13 years of age and 17, isn't there?
WEBER: Yeah, there is no doubt. I went to see a seventh or eighth grader and I asked the principal, you know, if you ever had any trouble with the young man. And he said once in a while he tries to chew gum in class. And it made me, like, you know, laugh, because I'm thinking, oh, this is a young kid and I'm going to watch him play basketball and he's worried about chewing gum in class.
And, you know, it kind of got my attention where, you know, hey, these kids are young and they're still kids and, you know, if you put so much pressure on the young men or young ladies, I think it's going to backfire in the long run.
SIMON: Backfire in what way?
WEBER: Oh, I just think the pressure will get to them mentally. They may not like it, you know, down the road get burnt out - you know. The biggest thing is, the older you get the more basketball becomes a job. And if they don't play it for the love of the game, I think it's going to be something that backfires and they're never going to make the progress they should make.
SIMON: Let me understand this, Coach. So you will get tipped to a particularly promising sixth or seventh grader?
WEBER: I've been now at Illinois for seven years, so we know a lot of coaches around the state. They work our camps. They come to our clinics. And there's also parents. Parents are sent - you know, with all the videos now on the Internet and stuff, they'll put out videos, here's the next Kobe Bryant. And these kids might be fifth or sixth graders.
And you don't know if they're going to grow, if they're going to mature, their physical - you know, the physical maturity. And then the other part of it is, do they have the ability to go to college as a student athlete and the academic part?
So more and more people are trying to create or make their child to be this elite person that maybe they aren't, they're not ready to be.
SIMON: So it sounds, Coach, like you'd just as soon call a truce to this, but you're not sure that's possible.
WEBER: I'm part of it. I don't think I created it. And I think more or less it's a lot of - comes down to the parents. And I think you've got to be careful on how fast you push the individual and how much pressure you put on them.
SIMON: Should the NCAA pay attention and maybe try and limit the kind of scrutiny let's say a fifth, sixth, seventh grader can come under?
WEBER: Well, I think they actually have. It used to be a student athlete was called a prospect when he entered his ninth grade. Now, because of what has happened - we're going to games at eighth grade and seventh grade - they've had to change the rule book and say that a prospect begins when they enter the seventh grade.
And so if we have a seventh grader come to a game and give him tickets, he becomes a prospect. If we go watch him, he becomes a prospect. I haven't heard it drift down to fifth and sixth. I'll be honest, I hope it doesn't.
You know, and we get some kids that come to our camps in the summer. And you know, hey, this kid's a pretty good player. And then, you know, two, three years later they've been coming to our camps and we may end up recruiting them down the road. But that's happened for years and years.
SIMON: Bruce Weber, University of Illinois basketball coach, joining us from Champagne.
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