The photographer from People magazine pointed his camera at Julian Newman. Stripped along one side of the basketball court by the gym's few rows of metal bleachers was yellow tape that said CAUTION.
"Big smile," the photographer said.
This kid over the last 14 or so months has been on local TV and national TV. He has been on ESPN and Conan O'Brien. He has been on the front of the sports section of the Sunday New York Times.
He plays on the varsity team at small Downey Christian School in Orlando even though he's 12 years old and in the sixth grade. He's 4 feet 9, weighs barely more than 90 pounds, and wears midshin, multicolored socks and size 6 Nikes.
So here was People, celebrity culture's ultimate arbiter. A smiling Julian dribbled furiously, between his legs and back and forth, the sounds of the bouncing ball mixing with rapid camera clicks and brief, blinding bursts of flash.
"Turn yourself in toward the light," the photographer said.
The next night, on the same court, Downey lost for the third time in four games. Julian hit one of his two free throws and one of his three 2-point shots and one of his six 3-point shots to finish with 6 points. It was a statistical output similar to that of the previous week's losses.
"Way to play," Jamie Newman, Julian's coach, and also his father, who had put up the CAUTION tape for People, told his team.
This all started on Dec. 19, 2012, when school sports website MaxPreps.com posted a short article. The headline: Fifth grader starting for Florida varsity team. "He does stuff that hasn't been done before with the ball," Jamie told MaxPreps.com national basketball editor Jason Hickman. Attached to the article was a highlight video, runtime 5:39.
The same day, ScoutsFocus.com, a basketball recruiting site, made a shorter, sharper version and put it on YouTube. The video was watched by thousands of people, then hundreds of thousands, on its way to more than 3.5 million and counting.
Inside Edition called Julian a "star." USA Today called him a "phenom." England's Daily Mail called him "the next big thing!"
Julian made the New York Times not two months after the first video view. In a nearly 1,500-word feature that ran on Feb. 17, 2013, Mike Tierney, a freelance sports writer from the Atlanta area, described "effortless dribbles," "lickety-split crossovers" and a daily regimen of 100 free throws, 200 floaters and 200 jump shots. Jamie was quoted again. "He can do stuff that Chris Paul and Derrick Rose can't," he told Tierney, naming two of the best guards in the NBA.
The New York Times led to Good Morning America, the Today show, NBC Nightly News, ABC World News, Fox News and Univision.
"Julian is, in fact, the real deal," the Orlando Sentinel wrote in late March.
One of my first jobs after college was with a North Carolina company called Prep Stars. For a couple of years I traveled the country and scouted high school basketball players. The first time I saw LeBron James was in Colorado Springs the summer after his sophomore year. The question was not whether this teenager would play professionally. It was whether he would become one of the best players ever. He was 6 feet 6 and 230 pounds, strong, fast and coordinated. He was NBA-ready before he could drive. The definition of a prodigy.
In January I watched the ScoutsFocus.com video. Given my background I was curious. I wanted to see Julian play.
Over the last month, I've watched him play two regulation games, an exhibition game, a pickup game, many games of one on one, and a workout run by his dad. If I still worked for Prep Stars, I wouldn't offer an evaluation. Julian's too young. Coaches from colleges wouldn't want it or need it. But if I had to evaluate him, right now, here's what I'd say: He's above average for his age. In drills, he shoots well, including from three-point range, although he releases from his chest because he's not strong enough to shoot with proper form from that distance. In games, his accuracy dips considerably. He's quick, but not quick enough to get around a capable, motivated high school varsity defender. His dribbling tends to be more eye-catching than effective.
My opinion is, of course, only that.
So I called coaches of teams that played Downey Christian this year.
Some of the coaches — typically those from other small schools whose teams lost to Downey — were impressed.
"He had a really good shot," said Shamus Dougherty of Halifax Academy of Daytona Beach.
"He was a good little ball handler," said Joe Hunter of Merritt Island Christian.
Other coaches — typically those from bigger private or public schools whose teams beat Downey — were more discerning.
"He didn't really do much against us," Orlando University High School coach Billy Owens told me. His team won 77-41. Owens said his team could've won by 100 points and could've prevented Julian from crossing halfcourt. But he told his players to play more or less at half speed. "I wasn't trying to embarrass them or nothing like that," he said.
Windermere Prep beat Downey 111-47. It could've been much worse, according to Ben Wilson, the Windermere coach. The Windermere players knew all about Julian, the viral video, the TV appearances. Once the game started, though, Wilson said, his players "were kind of laughing a little bit — like, 'Is this for real? Is this the kid everybody's talking about?' "
Let's rewind then again. Let's go back to MaxPreps.com.
MaxPreps.com heard about Julian in an email from Jamie. MaxPreps.com wanted video. Jamie sent it. Hickman, the writer of the article, and his boss, Steve Montoya, the executive editor of MaxPreps.com, initially were reluctant to write about Julian. "We kind of went back and forth on this a little bit," Hickman told me. "Just his age was the biggest thing. Is it going to look like we're just trying to exploit this? Is it healthy to give attention to kids this young?"
They ended up being okay with it, they said, because Jamie was okay with it.
"If his father says it's okay," Hickman said, "who are we to say it's not?"
The next-most important moment was the feature in the New York Times. Typically, Tierney pitches ideas to the Times, he told me, but this idea came from New York. Tierney spent one day in Orlando. The game he was supposed to watch got canceled.
"They just did a scrimmage, so it was hard for me to judge," Tierney said. "It was hard to tell how he would fare against real competition."
Nonetheless, after that, Jamie said, "all kinds of people started calling again. Once it hit the New York Times, it blew up again."
Jamie has kept in touch with Hickman and Montoya from MaxPreps.com, and Tierney, too. His daughter plays for Downey's girls varsity basketball team, which Jamie also coaches. She's 9. Jamie wanted to tell them about Jaden.
The Monday of the People shoot started in Tampa when the Newmans showed up at News Channel 8. Jaden was wearing a T-shirt that said I'M WHAT'S NEXT. She got out of their car and vomited bubble-gum pink on the parking lot pavement.
"She had a stomachache all night," Jamie explained. "We gave her the option of staying home, but she wanted to come. She's playing hurt right now."
The family gathered in the waiting room for a show called Daytime. Julian used his tongue to fiddle with a loose tooth on the right side of his mouth. Vivian, Jamie's wife, fed Jaden ginger ale and Tums, touching the stomach of her grimacing daughter.
"Basketball family," a staffer said, opening the door. "We're ready for you guys."
In the studio, Jerry Penacoli, one of the smiling co-hosts along with Cyndi Edwards, bounded over to the Newman children.
"You guys are pretty awesome!" he announced. "How in the heck ...? Is it just all Dad?"
"No," Jaden said, confused.
"Dad isn't the reason you guys are so good?"
"Oh," Jaden said. "Yeah."
Julian smiled and fiddled with his tooth.
"How are they handling all the attention?" Penacoli asked Jamie.
"They're pretty used to it," Jamie said to Penacoli.
Wearing their Downey uniforms, they moved to the center of the studio and stood still under the hot lights, holding two basketballs apiece so they could do what Penacoli called their "fancy moves."
The hosts and Jamie, Julian and Jaden waited for the sign, and then …
"Jaden Newman is a basketball prodigy …" Cyndi Edwards started, staring into the camera.
"... and it runs in the family," Penacoli continued.
Done, in the waiting room again, Julian finally pulled out the tooth. He handed it to his mother. She put it in her purse and peered into her son's mouth.
"My baby," she cooed.
A few hours later, in Orlando, with Vivian having taken Jaden to the doctor, the photographer for People had turned one end of the court into a makeshift studio. He introduced himself to Julian. "I saw some videos of you!" he said. "Awesome stuff! You're a powerhouse!" Julian showed a bashful smile. The yellow CAUTION tape kept other students walking through the gym between classes off the court. "Another commercial for Julian?" one of them said.
The photographer asked Jamie if Jaden was okay. Jamie said she would be. "She wants to be here," he said.
While they waited for Jaden, Jamie in his cramped office used a razor to trim the front of Julian's hair.
Vivian arrived with Jaden. The shoot started. Jaden smiled, or tried, but she winced when she could, in between poses and clicks. Vivian called to her daughter. "You okay? You want Gatorade?" Jaden looked like she was about to cry, and then she did, and then she wiped a tear from her face, and then she dabbed at more tears with the top of her jersey. The photographer stopped. Vivian took Jaden to the side and gave her more Tums. Jaden took sips of ginger ale and said she was ready for more pictures. Vivian used a paper towel to clean pink Tums dust from around her lips.
Jamie bent down and kissed his daughter's head.
"You're almost done," he said.
Jamie stood behind the photographer and made funny faces and contorted his body trying to make his children laugh and smile.
"Keep a smile, keep a smile," he called to them.
"Relax," he said.
"Like nothing is happening," the photographer said.
The next afternoon at the Newmans' house, where the chihuahua is named Hoops and the kids' rooms are decorated with the jerseys of their favorite NBA players, Jamie queued up clips from recent shows. There was Jaden, on Fox Sports 1, saying, "I started playing basketball when I was 3." There was Jamie, on NBC Nightly News, saying, "She knows the game better than most men." And there was Queen Latifah, asking Jamie, "Are you doing this?"
"I got so much DVDs," Jamie said to me, referring to the recordings of these shows that have invited Julian and Jaden. "I really could build my own museum already!"
Let me hit pause here, again, just once more.
Jamie's biography on his website, centralflorida hoops.com, said he was "one of the most highly sought after point guards in the nation" coming out of Orlando's Colonial High School in 1999, accepted a "grant in aid" to Western Maryland College and still holds Colonial's career record for assists with 594.
Jamie, 5 feet 6, wasn't that kind of recruit.
Western Maryland, now known as McDaniel College, at which Jamie never enrolled, is a Division III school and therefore doesn't offer athletic scholarships.
And Jamie's high school coach, Joe Frana, who's now an elementary principal in Lake County, has no idea where Jamie got that 594. "I imagine those numbers are something he's come up with," he said. Frana told me Jamie was "a gym rat." His middle school coach, who also taught him in summer school, remembers him in a health class dood-ling plays in a notebook. They both say he was a good kid with a one-track mind. Basketball or bust. Frana remembers working with Jamie to make highlight tapes and sending them to colleges, trying to attract the attention of coaches. He also remembers they weren't that successful. "He was a good basketball player, and he really, really tried hard, but he was 5-foot-nothing," his old coach said.
"You can market only so much."
Now Jamie drove to the gym with his son, the most marketed 12-year-old basketball player in the world, probably ever, for another game, the last game of the season. Six points and a loss.
Back at home, Vivian made Kraft macaroni and cheese, Jamie turned on a college basketball game on ESPN on a TV in one room, and Jaden and Julian turned on TeenNick on a TV in a different room. Jamie asked Julian to come watch the game with him. Julian did for a bit, but then he moved to Jaden's room, and onto her bed, where he watched his sister play Guitar Hero until he closed his eyes.
A few nights later I watched Julian and his team play against a collection of Downey alums of varying levels of ability. In a setting that was more festive than competitive, a game in which defense was sporadic at first and nonexistent toward the end, Julian scored 22 points.
I sat with him in the cafeteria after as he quickly ate a dinner of Jamaican food before going back to the gym to get into a pickup game.
"Thank you for coming," he told me all of a sudden.
I asked him if he was looking forward to the off-season. He was, he said, because he likes workouts more than games. They help him get better. I asked him what he needed to work on.
"Everything," he said.
Improvement can be a lonely pursuit. People end up watching you because of what you did when they weren't. The challenge now for Julian is the opposite. People are watching. But he has to get better and better, and possibly better than he's capable of getting, so they don't stop watching.
I thought about this recently in the Downey gym, watching Jamie put Julian, and one of his teammates, and Jaden, too, through a workout earnest in its intent but uneven in its pace. Julian sprinted with a medicine ball, leapt over benches, then launched jump shots with tired arms and heavy breath.
After the more organized portion of the session, Julian played one on one with the teammate, a junior guard with some speed and a decent shot, and Julian beat him once early, but then he lost, and lost again, and again and again, game after game. He smacked the wall with his hand. It was getting late. Jamie wanted to go. Jaden wanted to go. Julian, his easy smile now a scowl, didn't want to leave before he won one.
"I ain't leavin', " he said.
Jamie said one more. It was one more loss. Now it was 20 minutes till 10 on a school night. Julian hurled the ball toward the basket and it caromed hard off the rim, bouncing wildly toward the other end of the quiet gym.
As I reported this story, I watched and re-watched the most popular YouTube videos of Julian, which started not with Julian but with Jamie, then went from MaxPreps.com to ScoutsFocus.com to everywhere. They can be kind of hypnotic.
Julian has been taught to believe in Jesus, and in himself, and he believes he will play in the NBA. "I don't have a Plan B," he told me. As Jamie put it: "That's going to be the natural progression."
Could Julian be good? Sure.
Will he be great? Impossible to say.
It's not his fault. His voice hasn't changed.
And in all but the most obvious instances — LeBron James — projecting a player's potential is imprecise and fraught. It's data plus a hunch. Evaluations are based on a mixture of size, speed and skill. The less there is of one, the more there has to be of the others. Somebody on the small side, for example, has to be disproportionately fast, or be able to jump, shoot, dribble or pass exceedingly well.
I had to stop watching the videos of Julian and remind myself what I had seen, live, and what I had heard from people I'd called.
From Ben Wilson, the Windermere coach: "Right now, I feel it's doing more to hurt him than help him to play on the varsity."
From Billy Owens, the University coach: "If he's 6 feet tall, he's going to be dynamite. If he's the same height as his dad, he's going to face the same challenge. But God made you how he made you."
From Alex Kline, a scout from TheRecruitScoop.com: "Sometimes these highlight tapes aren't really what you're getting."
It was time to have with Jamie the kind of conversation it seems he has never been asked to have.
He admitted he hadn't been recruited the way he suggested in his online bio, which days later would no longer be viewable. He said his high school stats were kept by the team's student managers. When I read to him what the other coaches had told me about his son, Jamie didn't get angry. He got talkative.
He said they were "envious" of the "attention." He said Julian and Jaden are "the best players, pound for pound, on the planet, no doubt, no doubt, no doubt in my mind." He said he said this to his uncle, who's a pastor in Apopka, and that his uncle said, "Amen, amen, that's right, that's right, keep saying it, keep saying it, it's going to happen. As long as we keep saying it, it's going to happen." Jamie knows this, he said, because he hasn't seen any other videos on YouTube like the ones of his son, or his daughter. Somebody would post videos. Answers to his.
"They just would," Jamie said. "Everybody has a phone. Everybody has this nowadays. Everybody's trying to compete with everybody."
Photojournalist Eve Edelheit contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.