In his best-selling book "Outliers", author Malcolm Gladwell examines the relationship between elite Canadian hockey players and the disproportionate likelihood of their birthdays coming in January, February or March.
The reason, he concludes, is not a coincidence.
In Canada, hockey eligibility is determined by calendar year. Therefore, kids born earlier will play alongside those born in November or December, and with several more months of maturity under their belt, are generally bigger, faster and stronger.
While the talent distribution is a crapshoot, the extra coaching and attention paid to the older kids compounds each year and goes a long way in determining success.
In the local boys basketball scene, studies like this have not been lost. It’s undeniable that an extra year of maturity for a rapidly developing adolescent will lead to physical advantages.
The cutoff age for schooling in Arizona is Sept. 1, and with this fact in mind, some parents will hold their child back from the outset.
“Without question, the best thing to do is keep your kid back as long as possible,” Mesa boys basketball coach Shane Burcar said.
Not all parents are aware of this from the start, but it comes up again later for those with gifted athletes.
The practice of reclassifying a player during high school became more popular in the past half-decade, as standouts such as Micah Fetters of Hamilton, and Desmond Medder and D.J. Henderson at Mesa, all sat for a year.
The members of the Arizona Interscholastic Association didn’t like this trend. On March 2, 2012, wording in bylaw 15.9 was changed so student-athletes could not sit for a school year and still retain four years of eligibility.
“The concern was, ‘What is the purpose of high school sports?’” said Chuck Schmidt, the associate executive director of the AIA. “The members brought that forward to, I think, maintain the educational philosophy of high school athletics. You couldn’t just sit out because you wanted another year to mature or grow.”
So now, the trend happens earlier.
There are various ways in which kids can repeat a grade. They can stay at the same school, get home-schooled, sit out completely or transfer.
Principals are catching on now, and since it is up to their discretion, athletes without academic risk have a tougher time staying in the same grade twice at the same school.
Jackrabbits shooting guard Christian Harris was young for his age after initially skipping kindergarten, and when he showed some basketball promise, it was decided that he would remain in eighth grade twice.
He went to Desert Ridge Junior High in 2008-09 and then transferred to Taylor Junior High in 2009-10.
“At first it was like, ‘Nah, I’d rather just stay with my friends,’” Harris said. “But then my parents mentioned basketball and more opportunities. I thought about the future and we decided to make the decision.”
While the physical gains are tough to argue, there is the worry of the social impact on those held back. Once word spreads about a kid repeating a grade, a stigma can attach.
“Absolutely it’s hard,” Burcar said. “You know how mean junior high kids are. But at the end of the day you try to make the best decision for your family and your kid.”
Many coaches believe the benefits of reclassifying outweigh the risks. If it results in better scholarship offers and more options, it’s tough to fault a parent for doing what’s best for a child.
“I had a player last year (Justin Park) who graduated at 17,” Red Mountain boys basketball coach Greg Sessions said. “He would have been a great junior, and he was a pretty good senior. He got to go to a Division II school even though he was that young. If he had sat out a year somewhere in there, I think he would have gone to a Division I school.”
Like Harris, Corona del Sol junior point guard Casey Benson repeated eighth grade, and he is the favorite for the East Valley’s Player of the Year award. However, not all the stars are doing it.
Pinnacle’s Dorian Pickens and Highland’s Jake Toolson both have multiple scholarship offers but are still 16-year-old juniors.
“People have tried to get me to reclassify, but in my eyes, as long as you put in the hard work you’ll get to where you want to be in life,” Pickens said. “For me, there was no need to reclassify. I’m doing good in school, working hard. It was never really an option.”
Toolson said he briefly thought about reclassifying but decided against it.
“I have my group of friends,” he said. “This is pretty much the reason right here. I have all these teammates that I’ve been playing with in school. I wanted to be able to graduate with them and not be behind.”
There doesn’t seem to be much vitriol among players on the issue. Maybe it’s because the option is open to anyone, and most elite basketball players are aware of the opportunity before they enter high school.
Furthermore, the best of the best are already used to playing against kids who are older than them. This is just another scenario.
“I don’t view it as cheating or anything,” Toolson said. “A lot of people do it these days. Everyone sees people doing it, and they think it’s an extra year to get so much better, stronger, faster, and get more scholarships. Really, though, if you can play, you can play, no matter what age you are. That’s what I think.”