by Clay Kallam

CHICAGO — “They’re not ready,” said an NBA scout sitting at one end of the four courts at Attack Athletics somewhere in the wilds of Chicago. “But they have to go.”

“Greg Oden is the name you put on the story,” he said, “but if you go to school and blow out your knee, will the school president pay you $15 million? Will a booster?”

At this level, for the top 24 boys in the country (OK, maybe 24 of the top 50, given the vagaries of the process), it’s about the big bucks that are supposedly just around the corner. It’s about impressing not only NBA scouts, but NBA general managers (Larry Bird was in the house Monday), and impress them enough and literally millions of dollars will flow into a family’s bank account.

Of course, that same NBA scout said only eight-to-10 of the assembled high school superstars will wind up in the Association, but all the others, barring disaster, will be able to get a free education and make significant money playing basketball overseas if they so desire.

And therein lies the problem: The middle school stars around the country look at the McDonald’s game on TV, and see themselves five years from now. The truth is, though, that only 12 boys will get that far, and there are probably 12 million who think they will.

And at the game itself, only the most self-aware have accepted the fact that more than half of them will never put on an NBA uniform, and of those that do, the odds say only a couple will have an actual career.

The rest, at age 30 or so, will return to the real world with the rest of the guys they grew up with. If they’re smart, they got their degree (for free) along the way, and they can leverage that and their connections into a nice job and a shot at a good life. For many, though, they’ll have been trapped by the belief that the big bucks in basketball were inevitable, and they’ll find themselves looking for a job just like the nerds they used to stuff into lockers in high school—or worse, that nerd will be the one who decides whether they get the gig.

But for these few days, the dreams are all intact. The tall boys are shuffled from event to event, there are cameras, recorders and reporters, and they justifiably feel the world is opening up just for them.

On the court, they will look to show off a little, throw one down, or unleash a killer crossover, and hopefully enjoy every minute.

For a few of them (fewer than they think), the ride will continue. There will be the people taking care of every need, worrying about their health, knocking on the hotel door if they’re late, and the money will flow in.

But for most, the road will get bumpier, and this will mark the peak experience—and remember, these are the best seniors in the country. The tens of thousands of other high school players, and middle school ones too, should try to come to grips with the brutal mathematics and harsh reality of the athletic equation: The odds of making a living playing basketball (or any other sport) are worse than that of winning the lottery, and putting too much time and energy into that dream can leave a young man unprepared for the real world when it jumps up and slaps him in the face.

The boys in this game—and they are boys, no matter what they believe—aren’t ready for what‘s coming. And sadly, too many others who set aside school and everything else to chase the hoop dream are in the same spot: They’re not ready either.