What happens to the young basketball stars who don’t go pro?

To make it out of Baltimore, basketball hopefuls navigate many dangers, including support from the wrong people

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published May 4, 2019 1:00PM (EDT)


Ideas and talent die without money. If ideas and talent were plants, money would be the water, the soil and the sunshine. There would be no Renaissance without cash from the Medici family, no Facebook without funds from Peter Thiel. They’d just be wasted beauty and brilliant personal thoughts. Financiers and angel investors like Thiel are responsible for the joy and products we appreciate and share by bankrolling the talent until it develops enough to bankroll itself, in hopes of some sort of a return. Every successful movement, business, and subculture is funded by somebody, from the tippy-top of the corporate world all the way down to the streets.

One of the best rappers ever, the late, great Notorious B.I.G., said it best: “The streets is short stop / either you slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” My east Baltimore neighborhood specialized in both.

As a kid, my friends and I spent hours pounding Spaldings on pavement, inventing new crossovers and perfecting the jay­; ten toes on the ground covered by whatever type of Nikes, we bobbed and weaved across the cement, all around multicolored vial caps and in between cracked up hypodermic needles. Games went to 16, the rims had no nets and you’d get your ass beat if you thought about calling a foul. Dope dealers and fiends wrapped the court on both sides, trading pills for cash while watching the show. They all used to be nice back in the day until they got hurt, hated on, or never got that shot. Now they just break days judging our ball playing skills, while we beat the blood out of each other for their approval.

Baltimore is a little different from other urban areas in America. I’ve been through hoods in every section of this country — blocks and blocks of the Black experience — and have to say that my hometown is another planet. We’re not even partially as progressive as the street dudes in New York, moraled and mannered as the homies in Atlanta, or as unified as the brothers in LA — at least they can form a gang: we’re a strictly one-on-one town, winner takes all.  Baltimore is so Baltimore, one of the only places in the world where kids grow up admiring hustlers and trigger happy gangstas more than professional athletes and famous entertainers. Even me, a professor of creative writing and education, grew up selling crack. And I never claimed to be tougher than anybody. I was a regular kid: awkward, goofy with good grades, but zero exposure to and an inability to connect with any culture a mile outside of my neighborhood. That sends regular kids like me into the dangerous spiral responsible for our mentality. I’m lucky to be alive.

The top ball players in Baltimore have as many street stories as sports stories. It’s not crazy to see lanky lottery picks and thick-necked NFL-ready preteens huddled up, deep in conversation about who got shot, who’s snitching and who’s getting money. I understand where the infatuation with the underworld comes from, because being a top ranking athlete in Baltimore can’t save you like it does in most places. Some of our top prospects — like John Crowder, who was headed to Kansas on a full ride — end up gunned down before they get a chance to change the narrative. Crowder wasn’t a gangsta or street kid caught in the mix, he was a 6'-10" standout who received national attention for his athletic talent. The Baltimore Sun reported that Crowder had two brothers who were previously shot and a best friend who had murdered before his own untimely demise. This is a reality that’s way too normalized in Baltimore.

Crowder’s not the only star we've lost to senseless crime. Others have been shot or otherwise lost to the drug trade. To put it in context, to make the NBA you have to be one of the top 453 players in the world, out of roughly 541,000 high school athletes, 166,000 AAU ballers and 32,000 college players in America. Change that figure into millions if we consider the entire world. On top of that, when you're from Baltimore, you have to reach that level of success all while trying not to be murdered.

* * *

It’s almost impossible to make it out of Baltimore City, especially if you are Black. The city had 309 homicides last year, and close to 35 percent of its children live below the poverty line. Bloomberg Magazine called Baltimore the worst city in America to grow up in if you are Black. The reasons stem from that same mix of poor schools, poor housing, and an ever-climbing unemployment rate. Dr. Phillip Leaf, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has researched these issues for years.

"Youth and families in urban American are encountering trauma and toxic stress that for cities like Baltimore is now going into the third or more generations of exposure,” says Leaf. “These stresses are related to a number of factors including racism, violence, drug use, poor performing schools, multigenerational poverty, high rates of incarceration and very limited employment opportunities. Exposure is rarely a onetime event. Efforts to alleviate these challenges require the provision not only of opportunities but of the supports required by us all, supports that ensure that stumbles and missteps don’t result in falling down the side of the mountain.”

Many African Americans are locked out of the work force. Exposure is just a part of problem; being aware of certain opportunities can’t protect you from the systemic racism that actually exists in combination with everything that falls under that umbrella including food deserts, no public transportation and a militarized police force in a population where a white felon has a better chance of getting a job than a black person with some college experience.

Growing up in these conditions creates underground economies, forcing nontraditional industries to be created. That includes the side hustles partly responsible for the city’s crime rate — the woman who sells candy under the table, the basement tax preparer, the door-to-door car washer, the dope man, the booster, the back alley card shark, the credit card scammer, the unlicensed barber, the unlicensed beautician, the extorter, the dog fighter, the home invader, the dope dealer, the fake dope dealer, pimps and prostitutes. And in the sports part of this world, there are street agents.

I first heard the term "street agent" from my good friend Alan Nelson back in the '90s. He was a man-child amongst us boys, the strongest and fastest kid in our neighborhood. We are from a spot in east Baltimore called “Down Da Hill” or “DDH” for short. DDH looks like a poster for HBO’s "The Wire"; it’s packed with row homes that are mangled and boarded, and the tough basketball courts we battled on separated the blocks.

There weren’t many activities for kids like us, but we still stole joy from the simple things: racing, fighting and hooping. Al could do all three. Any and everybody would bet money on him — it was an easy win, and it didn’t matter if he was playing a kid or an adult. For hours, we’d lean on the gates at Ellwood Park and watch him stare down competition with intense eyes before pummeling them with moves, muscle and mouth in one-on-one games.

“I got off to a quick start in football and basketball, some dudes from around the way, street agents, noticed my talents,” Nelson told me. “They approached me, like ‘wassup shorty, you need anything’ and then started shopping me to AAU teams. But I never took any money.”

Nelson recalls street agents receiving compensation for selling kids early on. “They’d always get gifts and small amounts of money that they weren’t supposed to share with us. And it’s definitely all good as long as you’re shining, but when your star fades, the agents dump you and find someone else. Even if you really needed them, they’d be gone”

Nobody knows who the Medici family is where I come from. Peter Thiel types will probably never slide through the blocks that raised dudes like me. Street agents are our only hope. They are the ghetto angel investors. They are already on the courts and connected to the community. They can spot the talent years before it peaks. They lurk in and around the world of AAU basketball, slipping kids cash, strategically aligning themselves with the best by becoming their trainers, their fake coaches, their fill-in fathers.

* * *

“Respected street guys hang around the recs. They see who is popular, who has a shot at catching the league and then start with gifts — $100 here or a pair of feet there, you know, simple shit. Everybody in the hood love Nike!” said David Manigault, director of the basketball film "Poet Pride" and archivist for ESPN’s "30 for 30" on Dunbar High School. “But yo, they really get pumped if your living situation is fucked up. Then they can move in on your moms, make you live with them and basically own you.”

Manigault knows the world well. He too was a standout basketball player in the '90s and received attention from a bunch of street agents.

He and I sat together at Bocek Park on the Eastside, an outdoor training ground for some of Baltimore’s best. All of the city’s greats, from Skip Wise and Mugsy to Sam Cassell and Carmello Anthony, battled on this blacktop. Two net-less rims face each other, hovering above a freshly painted but cracked cement surface. Pieces of grass are struggling but succeeding to grow at mid-court and by both foul lines. A pack of wiry kids trade jump shots and jokes while we grip the fence from the outside looking in.

Manigault, 37 and wearing gold frames, is still thin, even though he constantly denies being in basketball shape. He takes a gulp from a bottle of Fiji water.

“Yo, I played little league for Oliver, and street agents — or pimps, is what I like to call them — were everywhere," he told me. "I know exactly what a lot of these young stars go through. I was a hot commodity back when I entered high school. Big-time dope dealers would offer me Pelle Pelle Soda Club leather jackets, new boots and sneakers, whatever! I owned all the new Jordans."

“Luckily I had family and friends to protect me from them when my hoop dreams didn’t materialize. I could’ve been in big trouble if I had to pay those dudes back,” said Manigualt. “I know some good kids that ended up in the streets selling dope because they couldn’t pay their agents back. Some are probably dead now.”

According to Manigault, the bulk of talented “stand out” kids from his high school and AAU teams fell victim to agents, including one teammate whom he declined to name for safety reasons.

“This dude could always ball, man, and everybody knew it," Manigault said. "Drug dealers from all over the city wanted a piece of this kid! I remember them letting him borrow their luxury cars at the age of 17. I’d hop in the passenger seat and we’d go from neighborhood to neighborhood collecting money from dealers. $1000 here, $500 there. And they were happy to kick the money out because they knew he was going to make it!”

The kid played Division I basketball, got some pro looks, but never made it past the D-League. “Dude ended up back in the hood with the rest of us looking all depressed and f**ked up," Manigault said. "He started selling drugs. I wasn’t sure if it was because he took money from so many people, or because he was broke. I just know that a lot of people started bitching him when he didn’t make it and eventually he was shot. He didn’t die physically, but something inside of him died for sure. He’s not the guy I knew.”

It’s all good when the kid makes the league. He can pay that money back to the guys who invested in him. Talented kid in a rough spot gets a little extra love and makes it through, easy; everybody wins. It only gets complicated when the kid doesn’t make it. “I know of some other guys that had to sell drugs to pay for the gifts they received as vulnerable children,” said Manigault, “Dudes that have been guilted into selling smack because they didn’t make it. Some of those same dudes never recovered from that. Shit, some of them died.”

Street agents were relevant during Manigualt’s era; however, the industry has evolved immensely. Manigault came of age during a different time period. He played in the '90s, before they were raking fourth graders. It's serious business now.

“Man, listen: leather coats, gold chains and sneakers are no longer acceptable rewards for the best players. Millennial stars of this new generation now receive bags of cash like Cam Newton —  $250,000 — cars as gifts like LeBron’s maroon Hummer, and luxury homes like Reggie Bush’s mansion in San Diego," Manigault said. "All of those transactions started on the street. And the street agents who orchestrate these deals are amazingly compensated. I know one personally that got a six-figure Nike job. He’s gonna get lifelong percentages of what his player makes, and a guarantee that he will never have to work a real job again."

* * *

Coach Mookie is the executive director of Team Thrill, a grassroots youth basketball organization named after Baltimore’s own NBA baller Will Barton. He works tirelessly to protect his players from opportunists, including the street agents who linger around the elementary schools and rec centers where his kids play.

“It’s 50-50 with street agents,” said Mookie. “Some of these guys really want to help and have good intentions. Then you have the other half who would surround themselves around kids because of their talent. One of the best examples is Aquille Carr.”

Most people around the world remember Aquille Carr, or Lor Quille, as the Crime Stopper. A 5' 6" assassin on the court who could out-run you, out-shoot you and dunk on you. I used to hang on Ashland Avenue over east before that Crime Stopper nickname went viral. Open-air drug markets ran by rival crews did business on adjacent sides of the block. They avoided beef by selling different products, kind of like a drug food court; there was a crack shop, a pill shop, a weed shop and a heroin shop. Easily, 100-plus people could be out at any time, flooding every section of the corner, from slick-talking kids and plainclothes cops to junkies on their last leg. Every day looked like a block party or a mass raid.

The crowds begin dwindle as Carr picked up steam. Every block buzzed about that dynamic freshman with the freakish 48-inch vertical, dropping 30 on this guy and 40 on that guy, while proudly still repping us­­, the bottom feeders. Midway through the season, Ashland Avenue, along with many other high-traffic blocks, became a ghost town. Everybody from street hustlers to pistol shooters had packed Patterson’s gym, East and West Baltimore alike, leaving the corners bare. Minimal illegal activity would occur during Carr’s games. The cops got an unexpected break and as a result Carr earned the nickname the Crime Stopper. Dime Magazine put him on the cover and his notoriety soared. His highlight reels broke the Internet and the rest was a wrap.

“They rode Aquille’s coattail until he wasn’t in the news as much, or thought he wasn’t going to make it, and now they are looking for the next big thing," said Mookie. "It’s frustrating because Aquille is like a little brother to me, and I mentored him, which was difficult because he had a lot of the wrong people around him. I still mentor him, and still try look out for him.”

Coach Mookie’s program is full of talent. As I interviewed him at, a lanky silhouette glided up and down the court. His name is DeTwan Montague and more than likely he’ll be faced with the same. Montague’s a 6' 7" middle schooler with an A average, and on track to go to one of the best high schools in the state.

“DeTwan’s a young talent who hasn’t been playing that long, and he’s getting a lot of attention from the same reasons," said Mookie. "I try to give him as much positive reinforcement as I can, because even though his mom is providing structure, this is still Baltimore City and agents will do any and everything to creep in.”

It’s almost impossible to earn the respect of and try to protect young Baltimore ball players from the plethora of predators out there if you aren’t from the same streets. Coach Mookie recalls one situation where he had to call guys from different neighborhoods and other basketball programs in an effort to shut some of these agents down.

“I take this world personal. Basketball got me into college and put me on a path to receive my Master’s degree. We know that every kid isn’t going to make the NBA, but we can get them all to college. And I’m offended by anyone who tries to corrupt, block or hinder that process,” said Mookie. “I have to be over-protective in that way because I’ve heard of situations where hustlers, agents, invested in kids who didn’t make it and then targeted the kids in a way that could easily lead to a life and death situations."

* * *

Mookie has built a strong organization in Team Thrill­­. Top athletes from Baltimore and the surrounding areas flock to try outs with hopes of the making the squad. They travel all over the country, even during the doing the school year, making basketball a full time job for grade schoolers. I hung around a couple of practices. The kids looked like mini NBA players with their Under Armor tights and colored Mohawks. All of their faces looked competitive. Especially Fatman, who reminds me of a young of Aquille: the smallest guy on the court with the biggest game.

Samartine “Fatman” Bogues is a pint-sized giant. The small framed teenager is only five feet tall, but easily houses the talent of three or four adults. His highlight film is full of other kids getting lost in his whirlwind of crossovers, ankles being dismantled and helpless competition.  Basketball is embedded in Fatman’s DNA. His grandfather is former NBA star Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues.

Scouts and fans salivate at Fatman’s games, as they should. He’s electric, able to magically handle the ball as if it was on a string, a joy to watch, a great American story, even. You know the one about the little guy who can go on to accomplish anything because his heart is too big for his chest? Anyone with or without eyes can see that he’ll probably get a full ride to any top university. Right?

“I don’t think all these streets agents truly mean harm. Many of them don’t know any better themselves because they weren’t raised right, they don’t know anything else, so you have to be fully aware,” Fatman's mom, Tyisha Bogues, said to me, her voice calm but stern. She clearly understands the game.

“They know my son, but they can’t approach him because I’m from the same streets and I know all of them,” she continued. “I had to teach my daughter that a lot of these men only want you because of your family, because of who you are related to.”

As the daughter of an NBA player and mom of one of the best middle school players in the country, Tyisha has seen manipulation on multiple levels. “My experiences taught me how to navigate this basketball world,” she said. “It’s hard to trust. One of my friends was sleeping with a coach. He was giving her money and raising her son until he found a more talented kid with an available mother. So he dumped her and stop giving her son playing time. That boy sells drugs now, and the cycle continues.”

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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All Salon Baltimore Basketball Inequality Life Stories Poverty Recruitment Sports Street Agents