photography by Heather Simmons
Walk into Christian Jones’ bedroom and you’ll see the usual stuff of a kid’s life: books, electronic toys, cars, a shoe collection — make that a dazzling shoe collection. Lined up neatly in three long rows is a colorful assortment of basketball sneakers: Nikes, Adidas, Converses, Reeboks, more than 30 in all, some scuffed, others barely worn. The grey Nike Kobe VII are Christian’s favorites at the moment. He wears them with these cool, name brand athletic socks his mother shortened at the toe (by hand, mind you, cause they don’t come pint-sized), like the big guys wear out on the court.
He’s playing NBA basketball on his Wii game; his laser-like focus fixed on the screen, his hands twitching slightly as he maneuvers the controls. It’s a temporary diversion. Mounted high on the wall next to the shoes is a regulation-size basketball goal,
“When Christian’s friends come over, they play with their DIs, then they’ll shoot hoops in here, then they’ll go outside and play, and it’s a whole rotation, all night long,” says his dad, Chris Jones, with a laugh.
Christian glances up from his game, his eyes the color of chocolate drops. Kobe Bryant, his player of choice, makes an awesome, three-point shot. He’s his favorite player, hands down. “I want to go to Kobe’s basketball camp!” Christian blurts out, with a grin that lights up the room.
“We’ll try for it next year,” replies his mother, Kim. “You have to be 8 years old to go, remember?” Christian sighs.
He played AAU boys basketball for the first time this year, a national competitive league that draws the best players in Memphis. His mom shows me his medals. His team, Memphis Swag Elite, won the Tennessee Second Grade State Championship. His quick moves and handling dexterity made him a valuable asset, and got him noticed by many of the coaches. Though his team fell in the first round during national finals — held in Memphis last June — Christian was unfazed.
“He always wants to go to the gym. He tells me ‘I’ve got to practice my game, I’ve got to practice my game,’” says Chris. Even when the family is out of town, on vacation, after a full day activities, the boy insists.
That internal drive — to compete, to win — is one characteristic that makes Christian unusual. But coaches say it’s a common trait in gifted athletes. “They’ve got no fear to try new things, it’s a willingness to try new things,” says Doug Jenkins, a gymnastics coach and owner of ConXion Gymnastics in Hernando, Mississippi.
“They also push themselves to excel. I don’t think they even realize they’re doing it. They don’t have the cognitive skill but they want to be number one. They’ve seen someone on TV and they say, 'I want to do that.”'
Then, too, there’s Christian’s incredible ball-handling skills. Says his AAU coach, Frank Harris, “Most kids his age pick up and run with the ball. He can go between his legs and around his body without doing anything illegal. He does it the fundamental way — no double dribble or traveling. His skill level is very high.”
Harris has seen his fair share of talent over the years, but Christian stands out. “He works harder than some 10- and 11-year-olds out there,” he notes. “And we can give all the credit we want to others, but that kid’s got a gift from God. He’s just blessed to do the things he can do with a basketball.”
Which isn’t half bad, when you’re 6, going on 7.
Chris and Kim Jones live in a handsome new subdivision in Olive Branch. Kim sells medical supplies while Chris runs his own cleaning business. I come by one day to watch the two shoot hoops in the driveway. Though small and wiry, their son is exceptionally coordinated — and quick, darting around his dad’s legs, stealing the ball, launching it up to the rim, until swish, nothing but net.
“He’ll do drills for an hour or more almost every day. I don’t have to be on him,” says Chris. “Most kids want to stick with what they can do, but he doesn’t. Since he didn’t shoot left-handed, he started working on his left hand until he got it down. Most kids want to stay in their comfort zone, but he’s the opposite.”
His precocious talent was evident early, at age 2. “That’s when we bought him a basketball goal, and while he was still in diapers, he would run down the hall dribbling the ball. A college friend of mine noticed he was doing moves like a regular player,” he says.
Ironically, Chris didn’t even learn the game until college. Tennis was his forte, a game he played well enough to win tournaments as a kid growing up in Indiana. His father played football, leading his high school to two undefeated seasons, and earning him induction into Lincoln High’s Hall of Fame in Forrest City, Arkansas. Even Kim enjoys time at the gym. So Christian comes by his athleticism naturally.
At age 5, Chris decided to shoot a video of Christian doing his crazy moves. He posted it on YouTube, where it’s thus far received more than 19,600 views.
The kid’s got game.
Going the distance
Yet plenty of coaches will tell you that talented athletes who show promise early on don’t always go the distance. Many prodigies flame out by the time they hit their teens, weary of the pressure to succeed.
That’s why coaches stress the importance of parents doing their part, making sure kids get plenty of rest, eat healthy, and have a mix of other activities. In other words, let a kid be a kid. Which can be challenging when you’ve got someone who absolutely loves playing their sport.
Jenkins also suggests parents leave coaching to the coaches. “Let the coach move the child up, let them develop the talent and move the child forward.”
Those in the know will tell you it’s not going to be easy when your kid is the bright star of the team. “They’ll become the target. Parents will say, ‘That’s the kid I want you to be like.’ There will be envy with other people who may be jealous, you must be prepared for that,” says Harris. But it can be countered, he says, “Just encourage your kid, motivate him, and keep him grounded. Make sure he or she can be a kid as long as possible.”
After all, when you’re 6, going on 7, anything’s possible.