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 Maryland home. 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 3-pointers with ease. Even if he is, by a small 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…