NAPERVILLE, IL—In sizzling noonday heat, ten students assemble on a gravel-paved court surrounded by lush grass. One of the students carries an inflated orange ball emblazoned with the enigmatic word "Spalding." After pausing briefly, the lad tosses the ball to a "teammate," and a competition is afoot: no, not to solve Euclidean geometry problems or to discover the most elegant proofs in number theory, but to hurl the ball into a "hoop" suspended high above the court.
The game is "basketball," and the students, aged 15 to 17, are attending a summer camp where they play it every day. Yes, that's right: while most of their peers are brushing up on calculus, flocking to the Center for Talented Youth’s mathematics summer courses, or training for the International Mathematical Olympiad, these quirky teens would rather exercise their arm and leg muscles by chasing after a rubber sphere.
The youths are half-jokingly called "athletes"—mathletes of the brawn, not of the mind—and, like more traditional mathletes, they take their sport seriously indeed. "We’re training for a ‘tournament’ in the winter," explains Brian Ferguson, 16. "If we score high enough in the semifinals, then we get to play the finals." Just like kids who score above 100 on the American High School Math Exam continue on to the American Invitational Math Exam, right?
"As with any other ‘sport,’ basketball players need to stay in shape through regular ‘practice meets’," explains Gary Richardson, a "coach" of one of the camp’s teams. "You don’t want your bicep neurons to go weak."
Ferguson, who started throwing a ball when he was only three years old, describes the camp in almost reverential terms. "At my high school," he says, "I was ostracized as a jock, teased and humiliated because I didn’t enjoy inverting matrices or grinding out Taylor series expansions. But here, I’ve finally found friends who share my passion for basketball."
Don’t think, though, that life is all court and hoop for these precocious young wizards. Like anyone else, they need to unwind—except that when they do, their favored recreations are even odder than their eccentric passion. Rather than playing high-stakes Scrabble, beguiling one another with Gödelian logic puzzles, or composing poems without using the letter ‘e,’ these teens regale each other with anecdotes about beer and sex. "Man, that chick was, like, so fucking wasted, I thought I had her in the bag for sure," basketball player Adam Wirsky, 17, wittily recounts. "But then BJ comes in, and he’s like, that’s my goddamn sister, stay the fuck away from her."
The teenage basketball prodigies may not enjoy all the glamour and attention bestowed on a star math team captain, but one thing’s for sure: they fully intend to keep on playing their quixotic sport. Maybe one day, these "athletes" will even have cheerleaders rooting them on. ¨
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