"He's got it
In the eight years I spent reporting Play Their Hearts Out, I heard that over and over from coaches, recruiting analysts, and others attempting to describe a young basketball player's brilliance. Projecting greatness in still-developing boys like the 10-year-olds I began following in 2000 is more guesswork than science. Articulating that greatness, it seemed, was equally challenging.
Many of the boys I wrote about, like current college players Gary Franklin (Cal) and Pe'Shon Howard (Maryland) and Justin Hawkins (UNLV), were credited with having "it," but one boy in particular earned that describer most often. His name is Roberto Nelson, and he currently plays at Oregon State for Craig Robinson, the brother-in-law of President Barack Obama.
Roberto was, at least according to the rankings, the top player among the characters in the book. He had scholarship offers from Ohio State, Florida, and UCLA, and he was a good enough football player to be recruited by several Pac-10 schools. In high school, he took up golf on a whim, and in less than a year got his handicap down to an 8. He joked that his future was more likely to include duels with Tiger Woods than LeBron James.
The grassroots machine heaped amazing pressure on some of the boys I followed, Roberto included. As coaches, the shoe companies, and others came at the boys, they changed, usually for the worse. But not Roberto. At one point, when Nike and Adidas were pressing him to align with their brands, he took the unusual step of choosing neither. "I play for me," he said.
Roberto was the most positive of the boys, always smiling. When I would ask him the source of his assuredness, he would shrug. "Cuz, it's all good," he would say. But his life was not always all good. Late in his high school career, he faced a personal tragedy that would have derailed most boys. At night, he would cry in his bed as his family crumbled, and the next day he would go off to school or basketball practice and attack the game and life with joyful vigor.
When the grassroots machine tried to control him, when he faced adversity on or off the court, he intuitively knew that the best response was to just play his heart out. That was Roberto's "it." He always remembered he was playing a game.