Near the end of a March state playoff game, underdog Oakland High is tied with host De La Salle of Concord, a perennial Northern California basketball power. Oakland's speed, quickness, and athletic creativity were enough to hold a small lead through the game's first three periods. But one minute into the final frame, De La Salle's "green machine" — a troupe of crew-cut teens operating with assembly-line precision in silver and green uniforms with American flags patched between the shoulder blades — has methodically worked its way back to even the score. Needing a basket to regain its edge, Oakland inbounds the ball to star junior guard Jabari Brown. Brown's gait is bouncy as he dribbles across mid-court and surveys the nine players laid out before him.
Just beyond the three-point line, Brown breaks his defender down with a low right-to-left crossover dribble and drives down the lane. Leaping toward the rim, he absorbs a body blow from De La Salle's big center. Brown double-clutches to flip a soft shot off the glass backboard. The ball drops through the net. The referee's whistle blows. Two points — plus a foul shot. Brown raises his fists above his shoulders and flexes his tattooed biceps toward the Oakland High bench as his teammates shout and celebrate. The Oakland fans go wild.
But De La Salle's grinding execution puts the machine back on top. It leads by two with a minute remaining when Brown receives a pass on the right wing. He squares up to the hoop and un-spools a long three pointer. It's a gutsy shot; Oakland still has time to work for a better look against the stingy De La Salle defense, but if he makes it he can put Oakland in control for the final minute rather than simply tying the game. Brown's shot rims out. Seconds later, he has to force another contested three. He double-pumps and splays his legs in hopes of eliciting a foul call from the referee. But no whistle comes and the shot bounces off the top of the backboard, effectively ending Oakland High's season. Brown spends the game's closing seconds at the end of the Oakland bench, his head bowed in his hands and his black jersey pulled up over his eyes. After the final horn sounds he puts an arm around a distraught teammate then shakes hands with the De La Salle players and coaches and disappears into the locker room.
It's an unceremonious ending to a tumultuous season for Brown, considered by some to be the Bay Area's best basketball prospect since Leon Powe — now a member of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers — graduated from Oakland Tech in 2003. At a muscular six-feet-four-inches, the seventeen-year-old Brown is ranked among the top fifteen players in America for the graduating class of 2011. During the summer, he plays for the elite Nike-sponsored Drew Gooden Soldiers traveling team, which competes in front of famous college coaches in tournaments and events around the country and counts several NBA players among its alumni. "I rank Jabari right up there at the top," says Soldiers director Mark Olivier. "The sky is the limit for that kid." A recent ESPN.com evaluation of Jabari is similarly effusive. "Brown has everything you want in a shooting guard," it reads.
But as an in-demand junior, Brown is at the heart of the maelstrom that elite-level high school basketball has become. The distinction between amateur and professional has become increasingly murky with the advent of multimillion dollar contracts for teenagers, nationally televised high school games, the rise of shoe-company-sponsored summer travel teams, and the proliferation of scouts who scour grade-school gyms across the nation in search of promising new talent. Brown himself played for three different high schools in a year, winning a California state championship with Salesian High School of Richmond his sophomore year before finishing his junior season at Oakland High. In between, he spent half a season at Findlay College Prep, a controversial Nevada prep school.
Brown's transient year and the resulting clamor, which included newspaper write-ups in multiple states and vitriolic online message board gossip, are emblematic of the changing culture. "I think all this stuff, it's too much," says Jabari's father, David Brown, who grew up in San Francisco and played at Morehouse College. "When I was coming up, there just wasn't this kind of attention. There just wasn't. It's just so different, and I think it's too much for these kids."
Since 2006, the NBA has required players to be at least one year removed from their scheduled high school graduation date to play in the league. So in 2008, a high school star named Brandon Jennings became the first American to skip college to play professionally in Europe, joining a team in Rome for a year while waiting to become eligible for the NBA draft. After playing a season in Italy, Jennings was drafted tenth overall and signed to an NBA rookie contract worth more than $2 million per year. In 2009, another high school phenom named Jeremy Tyler took Jennings' idea a step further. Tyler skipped his senior year of high school altogether to join an Israeli pro team, with the idea of jumping to the NBA two years later once he became eligible. But while Jennings had flourished abroad, Tyler struggled on and off the court. He ended up quitting his Israeli team mid-season and his future is now in limbo.