January 10, 2011
K.J. Farfan is like a lot of basketball-obsessed athletes marked as a potential top prospect. He travels around his home state -- Florida -- making appearances, some of which land him on TV. He spends hours working on his jump shot and ball handling, and occasionally gets to meet high-profile college coaches. There's just one, very significant difference between Farfan and the others: He's only 5 years old.
In what may be the greatest over-the-top reach for Tiger Woods-like childhood celebrity in recent memory, the kindergartner from Miami has been labeled a "phenom" and touted as a can't miss prospect, even though he's yet to learn how to read. Admittedly, the 5-year-old's ability to play against 7- and 8-year-olds, in leagues in which he played when he was only 4, is impressive, yet that hardly seems like justification for lumping expectations on the elementary schooler as if he was a high school senior.
Before he's taken a spelling test, Farfan has already been chronicled on multiple websites geared toward young basketball talent. He's done radio and TV interviews, and has been featured on Telemundo and NBA TV. Like all of the rest of us, though unlike most kindergartners, Farfan is on Facebook and Twitter, too (or at least one of his parents is on social media alleging to represent Farfan's comments, etc.).
Befitting of a budding cult-legend, Farfan has an almost impossible-to-believe origin story: According to his parents, young K.J. watched a Michael Jordan highlights DVD when he was 11 months old (yes, before he had a single birthday), and would imitate His Airness' one-on-one moves, with a basketball. That's right, Farfan was allegedly working on a killer crossover when most of his peers were too young to comprehend Barney and Friends.
Despite some alleged reluctance from his father, Farfan undergoes a workout regimen more traditionally geared toward top high school athletes, with miles of running, parachute training, daily sit-ups and push-ups and rope jumping. Of course, these workouts are all supplemental to the three different 10-and-under basketball leagues in which Farfan currently plays.
If that wasn't enough to make one question the pressure being put on the tiny 5-year-old, consider the measures Farfan has to go through to ensure his body is still safe, sound and, perhaps most importantly, marketable to the media. According to ScoutsFocus.com's Joe Davis, Farfan has a personal trainer and massage therapist, not to mention a nutritionist, personal security guards at his games, and a barber who makes house calls twice a week to trim his hair.
All of this would be easier to discount if he wasn't so successful at getting national attention. At the age of 5, Farfan has already received the kind of interest most high school seniors would kill for. The recent-toddler (hey, he was 3 just two years ago) has already received personal letters from Kansas State coach Frank Martin and Miami coach Frank Haith, not to mention one-on-one meetings with basketball celebrities like Isiah Thomas, as you can see in the video above. In fact, Thomas even pledged to attend one of Farfan's games, a quest which will be made easier by the kindergartner's invitation to join the Calusa (Fla.) Prep sixth-grade team this year.
Now, all of this could still be well and good if Farfan was a little further along, but he isn't. He's a 5-year-old kid, who should probably be spending more time defending an imaginary G.I. Joe base than a sixth grader who has 18 inches on him.
With all of his early success -- at the age of 5, Farfan has already collected some 34 different trophies from leagues, summer camps and the like -- there's plenty to motivate him to continue. The hard part will come when those trophies slow. What will happen when Farfan inevitably burns out? It's nearly impossible for most high school athletes to make it through a high-profile four-year career without hitting a low ebb of interest at some point.
How can anyone expect a 5-year-old to last 13 years without questioning whether basketball really is for him? And shouldn't he be questioning that? Isn't that healthy? With all the money, time and effort sunk into his pursuit of hoops stardom already, will his parents be willing to let him walk away if he wants to?
Maybe they will. Maybe that time will never come. Yet the additional pressure lumped on him after years of high-profile attention from every self-styled pundit looking to anoint the next great American athletic phenom won't make walking away easy, and it won't make adjusting to a more normal, traditional childhood easy, either.
In the high-stakes game of modern collegiate recruiting, additional attention breeds additional tension and pressure. The question is whether starting that vicious cycle at the tender age of 5 is fair for anyone, for both better and worse. Whether he wants to be or not, Farfan and his parents may have made him a human test case for that exact dilemma.