‘He needs to be a kid’ A mother’s quest to pro­tect a 9-year-old bas­ket­ball prodigy

In Neiko Primus, the bas­ket­ball world sees a No. 1-ranked phe­nom. His mom sees a 9-year-old with only one chance to grow up.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JESSE DOUGHERTY

Neiko Primus had been in the gym for close to two hours, his shoelaces scrap­ing the worn wooden floor and his bony arms tired from shoot­ing, be­fore he chal­lenged a taller, stock­ier kid to a game of one-on-one.

“Oh, look, look, look,” Michelle Mundey, his mother, whis­pered from the other end of the court. “That kid is at least 13, maybe 14.”

“Oh, he doesn’t know what he’s get­ting into,” said By­ron Jones, who had just fin­ished work­ing Neiko out. “Watch. Just watch. Neiko is go­ing to cook him.”

The game was first to five, and it took Neiko just three min­utes out of this May evening to dis­card his op­po­nent at the com­mu­nity cen­ter near his home in Tem- ple Hills. First, he nailed a floater from the base­line. Next, he high-stepped into the lane, pirou­et­ted like a sea­soned bal­le­rina and tossed the ball through the rim. Fi­nally, with the teenager gasp­ing for air, Neiko darted to the el­bow, slammed to a stop and un­leashed a high-arc­ing jumper.

Neiko turned his back to the bas­ket and shouted “Game!” as his shot swished through the net. He never looked at the teenager again. Then he glanced at Mundey as a big, toothy smile crept across his face, a lit­tle kid mak­ing sure his mom was watch­ing.

He is, af­ter all, only 9 years old, even if he can drib­ble like a high school point guard and make three-point­ers with ease. Even if he is, by a hand­ful of ac­counts,

con­sid­ered the best rising fourth-grader in the coun­try. Even if Mundey has been con­tacted by mid­dle schools, high schools, AAU pro­grams and an agent, all look­ing for at least a small piece of her 5-foot-1 baby boy.

In the grass-roots bas­ket­ball ecosys­tem, there is a per­pet­ual search for the next big thing, and Neiko’s anoint­ment as the lat­est young phe­nom has him some­where be­tween a nor­mal child­hood and a too-early prom­ise of fame. Neiko sees it as fun, harm­less. Mundey sees her son be­ing grabbed at by an ir­ra­tional world.

“He needs to be a kid. He needs to just be Neiko,” she said in June. “Who knows if he’s go­ing to be good when he’s older? No one. But I do know he only has one chance to grow up. Youth bas­ket­ball is crazy and puts so much pres­sure on these kids at such a young age. I am do­ing my best to pro­tect him from all that.”

Af­ter his one-on-one win, Neiko fixed his at­ten­tion on jump­ing up to touch the bot­tom of the net. He tried six times be­fore his fin­gers grazed the ny­lon and looked down to see both his shoes un­tied. He bounced over to Mundey so she could dou­ble-knot them, and Bat­man socks stuck out of his size 61/2 shoes.

“You know, baby,” Mundey said, laugh­ing, as she ran the laces through her hands. “Soon you’ll be dunk­ing.”

Neiko looked up at her and grinned, then picked up a ball and drib­bled back to the court.

By June 2016, Mundey could feel the pres­sure and ex­pec­ta­tions cav­ing in. Neiko was ex­celling in AAU bas­ket­ball on an 8-and-un­der team with New World, a D.C.-based pro­gram. Peo­ple were start­ing to rec­og­nize him at tour­na­ments and when they went out to eat. Teams would base their game plans around slow­ing him down, of­ten send­ing two de­fend­ers to chase him. Op­pos­ing par­ents would chide him from the side­lines.

Still, she wasn’t ready for the phone call from Ja­maal McKnight Sr., Neiko’s New World coach, that took things to another level.

“Michelle, they have him ranked No. 1 in the coun­try,” she re­mem­bers McKnight say­ing through the phone.

“Ja­maal, we’re not go­ing to tell Neiko,” Mundey re­mem­bers an­swer­ing. “I don’t want him to know.”

The rank­ing and ex­po­sure of pre-high school bas­ket­ball play­ers is only ex­pand­ing in the so­cial-me­dia age. Peo­ple are ABOVE: Neiko Primus gets a hug from his mom, Michelle Mundey. “He only has one chance to grow up,” she said. BE­LOW: Neiko, named by one or­ga­ni­za­tion as the Class of 2026’s best player, ar­rives for prac­tice in Tem­ple Hills. al­ways search­ing for that next su­per­star tal­ent, the next Le­Bron James, no mat­ter how un­likely that may be — and there is no short­age of fig­ures look­ing to profit from it.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion that ranked Neiko as the best player in the Class of 2026 is called Coast 2 Coast Preps. Billing it­self as “The World­wide Leader in Prep Bas­ket­ball Cov­er­age,” Coast 2 Coast puts out a watch list for se­cond-graders be­fore rank­ings start with the third grade.

The rank­ings, as ex­plained by Coast 2 Coast founder Deron Breeze, serve as a mar­ket­ing tool for the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s camps and show­case tour­na­ments. Breeze is plan­ning a camp in D.C. that will be open to the Class of 2029. Those play­ers just grad­u­ated from kinder­garten.

“It used to be some­body who is go­ing to be in col­lege in two years,” said Jeff Borzello, a bas­ket­ball re­cruit­ing an­a­lyst for ESPN. “And then it was three years, and then it dropped down to mid­dle school. Now I guess mid­dle school is not enough for some peo­ple, so they are go­ing a lit­tle bit fur­ther.

“It’s im­pos­si­ble to project what a third­grader can do or a sixth-grader or even an 11th-grader. It gets harder and harder as you go down in ages, but peo­ple want to find the next Kobe Bryant at 8 years old.”

Breeze in­sists Coast 2 Coast is not pro­ject­ing the fu­ture for el­e­men­tary school­ers but sim­ply rank­ing who the best are right now.

Jerry Love, the founder of Mid­dle School Elite, starts rank­ing play­ers in the first grade, de­clares him­self the author­ity for pre-high school bas­ket­ball and calls Coast 2 Coast a “big en­emy.” Love once ranked his own son, Jer­ron, as the No. 1 player in the Class of 2015 while he was in mid­dle school. Jer­ron, now a 5-11 point guard, has not as­cended to bas­ket­ball su­per­star­dom and played the past two sea­sons at South Plains Col­lege in Level­land, Tex.

Love said he does not put play­ers on his web­site un­less par­ents pay $25 for a write-up. He con­sid­ers it part of the player’s char­ac­ter if the par­ents are will­ing to in­vest a bit of money in their son and says par­ents are 60 per­cent of the eval­u­a­tion for prospects that young.

But even af­ter Mundey de­clined to pay for a short fea­ture on the Mid­dle School Elite site, Love put Neiko in his rank­ings. He couldn’t leave out a player ev­ery­one was talk­ing about, he said. He has Neiko ranked No. 14 for the Class of 2026.

“There’s just a mar­ket for it,” Breeze said, adding that Coast 2 Coast saw Neiko play in per­son and polls coaches around the coun­try to com­pile its rank­ings. “I know a lot of them ain’t go­ing to pan out, you know what I’m say­ing? But you got that No. 1 rank­ing now. Whether you want or not . . . peo­ple are go­ing to be shoot­ing for you.”

Mundey could only keep the No. 1 rank­ing from Neiko for a few days.

He was at a sum­mer camp in North­west Wash­ing­ton, sit­ting with the rest of the kids dur­ing morning an­nounce­ments. That’s when the adults re­vealed that the best 8-year-old bas­ket­ball player in the coun­try was among the campers. Ev­ery­one cheered and clapped. Neiko won­dered why they were all look­ing at him.

When he got home that day he asked Mundey whether he was ranked No. 1 in the na­tion. She nod­ded her head yes, tears in her eyes, em­bar­rassed that she had kept a pos­i­tive achieve­ment from her son.

“You could have told me,” Neiko said, hug­ging his mom’s legs. “It wouldn’t change me at all.”

But she wasn’t wor­ried about Neiko chang­ing. She was wor­ried about ev­ery­one else.

Neiko burst through the front door and onto the porch, an­nounc­ing him­self by hop­ping into Mundey’s lap.

It was a muggy June af­ter-

“I’m not just rais­ing a young bas­ket­ball player. I’m rais­ing a lit­tle black boy in Amer­ica.” MICHELLE MUNDEY

noon at his grand­par­ents’ house in North­west Wash­ing­ton. Neiko had sprinted out back to play Wif­fle ball with a few of the neigh­bor­hood boys and came back with dirt all over his hands. The tips of his fin­gers were then cov­ered with orange cheese from Dy­na­mite chips, and his teeth were stained red from juice.

He stared at Mundey be­fore clos­ing his eyes for a few sec­onds, a child drained at the heart of sum­mer.

“You want to play bas­ket­ball and foot­ball when you’re older, right?” Mundey asked him, and just the men­tion of bas­ket­ball caused Neiko to perk up. “No, just bas­ket­ball,” he an­swered. “What? Why?” she asked him. “The NBA of­fers guar­an­teed money,” he replied. Mundey looked at him sternly. “I know, I know,” Neiko said, as if the ex­act con­ver­sa­tion had hap­pened be­fore. “High school, col­lege, I know.”

“Good,” Mundey said as she leaned back in her chair. “You can’t get too far ahead of your­self.”

But bas­ket­ball wants him to grow up fast. Af­ter Neiko helped New World win the 8U AAU na­tion­als last July, the at­ten­tion picked up. An In­sta­gram ac­count posted “ex­clu­sive player com­par­isons” for the Class of 2026, and Neiko’s name was at the top of the list. His NBA play-a-like: Le­Bron James. Mundey started and runs an In­sta­gram ac­count for Neiko — which has more than 1,500 fol­low­ers — and some­times posts videos of him miss­ing a shot to re­mind his fol­low­ers that he is 9. In­sta­gram ac­counts for other play­ers on the same rank­ings lists as Neiko have sig­nif­i­cantly more fol­low­ers, with one top­ping 41,000 fol­low­ers and 1,400 posts.

“It’s sort of scary when your son has peo­ple that act like fans,” Mundey said. “I think it’s crazy. Peo­ple will tell me, ‘Your kid is like a celebrity.’ He’s not a celebrity. He’s Neiko. He’s 9.”

Mundey is con­stantly strad­dling the line be­tween want­ing Neiko to suc­ceed and shield­ing him from peo­ple who want to profit off that. She es­ti­mates that she spends be­tween $6,000 and $8,000 a year for Neiko to play bas­ket­ball, with travel, en­ter­tain­ment while on the road, tour­na­ment fees, team fees and gear. She works three jobs to do so, man­ag­ing two com­mu­nity cen­ters in Tem­ple Hills and work­ing part time at a group home in Vir­ginia on the week­ends, all so Neiko isn’t fi­nan­cially tied to any­one but her.

In June, the NY Elite 145 camp put Neiko’s face on a poster and listed him as a “con­firmed” at­tendee. Mundey was never asked whether her son could be used as a mar­ket­ing tool. Neiko was never go­ing to at­tend. The camp cost $150 for three days.

“I don’t ever want to be like LaVar Ball,” Mundey said in June, two weeks be­fore Lonzo, the old­est son of the out­spo­ken LaVar, was se­lected se­cond by the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers in the NBA draft. “I don’t profit off my son, so no one else is go­ing to profit off my son. Once you let peo­ple pay for some­thing or give you some­thing for free, then they are go­ing to ex­pect some­thing in the fu­ture. My son isn’t go­ing to owe any­one any­thing.”

Mundey was re­cently con­tacted by an agent of­fer­ing to be Neiko’s men­tor. He dan­gled his con­nec­tion with Un­der Ar­mour and stressed that he wasn’t ask­ing for any­thing in re­turn. She de­clined and has told mul­ti­ple mid­dle schools and high schools that she isn’t ready to talk about schol­ar­ships.

AAU teams have of­fered to fly Neiko to tour­na­ments and told Mundey she wouldn’t have to pay for travel or tour­na­ment fees. Again, she said no.

Mundey did not want to use the names of those who have con­tacted her about Neiko, wor­ried that they could hold it against her son in the fu­ture. The Wash­ing­ton Post was shown texts and emails to con­firm the in­ter­ac­tions she de­scribed.

“He’s not fully ma­ture enough to re­al­ize that a lot of peo­ple aren’t go­ing to be get­ting into his life to help him,” said En­rique Barnes, who is the bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther of Neiko’s older brother, E.J., and is re­ferred to by Mundey as a “co-par­ent” for both of the boys. “Not ev­ery­one is go­ing to do that. Some peo­ple are go­ing to be there help them­selves. We’ll have to show him that if this stuff con­tin­ues.”

That is only part of what wor­ries Mundey when she thinks about Neiko’s fu­ture. She is wor­ried about a stranger slip­ping $100 into his hand when she is not around. She is wor­ried about all of the crazed peo­ple on so­cial me­dia. She is wor­ried he won’t grow tall enough to achieve his dreams. (She is 5-10 and ran track at the Univer­sity of Florida. Neiko’s bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther, Fred Primus, is 6-3 and played col­lege bas­ket­ball at Pitts­burgh and East Carolina. Fred, who sees Neiko twice a week, said he was “nowhere near as good” at bas­ket­ball as Neiko when he was 9 years old.)

And then Mundey wor­ries about all that she can’t hide from her son.

Neiko is con­stantly watch­ing bas­ket­ball and, be­fore this year’s NBA Fi­nals, was glued to a Le­Bron James news conference. James’s Los An­ge­les home had just been van­dal­ized with a racial slur, and the NBA’s big­gest star was dis­cussing sys­temic racism on tele­vi­sion.

James said racism is “alive ev­ery sin­gle day” in Amer­ica. He men­tioned Em­mett Till, the 14-year-old African Amer­i­can boy who was lynched in 1955. A few days later, a noose was found near Anne Beers El­e­men­tary School in South­east Wash­ingto ton, where Neiko used to at­tend.

“Mama, what’s a noose?” he asked, stand­ing in the liv­ing room door frame, on that same June af­ter­noon.

Mundey paused, un­sure of how to re­spond. Then she walked to stand over Neiko and ex­plain.

“A noose is a rope,” she started, and mim­icked how it would be fas­tened around a per­son’s neck. “Dur­ing slav­ery and be­yond, peo­ple would hang black peo­ple be­cause of the color of their skin.”

She kept demon­strat­ing it to him, and for the first time all day, Neiko was en­tirely still. She fin­ished by telling him that peo­ple would throw the rope over the tree and stran­gle the per­son un­til he or she died. “Are you kid­ding?” Neiko asked qui­etly. “No, I’m not,” Mundey an­swered, and Neiko slowly walked to sit on the couch.

“I’m not just rais­ing a young bas­ket­ball player,” Mundey said later. “I’m rais­ing a lit­tle black boy in Amer­ica.”

Neiko wore a frus­trated look as the game zoomed back and forth, and he begged for the ball at half court.

It was the fi­nal day of the Mary­land In­vi­ta­tional Tour­na­ment in June, and New World was steam­rolling its way to the cham­pi­onship. There was no di­vider be­tween the two courts and no way to tell what coaches were yelling or which whis­tles were for which game. Ear­lier that morning, a game be­tween two other teams ended early be­cause par­ents couldn’t stop ar­gu­ing in the stands. At least five dads had cam­corders fixed on the ac­tion as New World bat­tled a team from Philadel­phia.

It was just another chance for Neiko to im­press, but he was strug­gling. As the third quar­ter started, he walked onto the court with his shoul­ders slumped and his long arms dan­gling at his sides.

“Whatcha gonna do?” Mundey, who of­ten pesters Neiko about tak­ing good shots and get­ting back on de­fense, yelled from the side­line. “Let’s go, boy! Wake up!”

Like that, Neiko snapped out of the lull and took full con­trol. He made two back­door cuts for easy lay-ins. He fin­ished a floater through con­tact and made the free throw for a three-point play. He hit a three from the cor­ner and held his fol­lowthrough in the air as he jogged back on de­fense.

Here, in this cramped gym, Neiko couldn’t be reached by the out­sized ex­pec­ta­tions of the out­side world. There is no telling whether all this suc­cess — the AAU wins, the No. 1 rank­ing, the tro­phies that are taller than him — will spill into his fu­ture.

But now, if only for a few mo­ments, the ball and the game were rest­ing com­fort­ably in Neiko’s hands. As the third quar­ter wound down, Neiko sprung for a steal, tip­toed along the side­line and burst into the open floor. The clock reached one se­cond as he took a run­ning three-pointer, and the ball swished through the rim as the buzzer sounded.

A row of adults pushed off a side wall and cel­e­brated the im­prob­a­ble shot. The en­tire New World team turned and sprinted to­ward Neiko. He kept run­ning, smil­ing from ear to ear, skip­ping into a crowd of team­mates, look­ing like a kid play­ing a kid’s game.

Then the score­keeper put six min­utes on the clock for the fourth quar­ter. Neiko straight­ened his face into a scowl, bent at the waist and grabbed the edges of his shorts. There was still more bas­ket­ball to play, and he pre­pared him­self for what was com­ing next.

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

PHO­TOS BY JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

PHO­TOS BY JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Neiko Primus rests when he can amid a busy sched­ule. AAU teams have of­fered to fly him to events, but his mother, Michelle Mundey, has turned them down. “My son isn’t go­ing to owe any­one any­thing,” she said.

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