A half-million kids are playing high school basketball — but only 1 percent can expect to play Division 1 college ball. And then there are kids like Jarred Vanderbilt, a FIBA gold medal winner, future Kentucky Wildcat and one of just 24 players selected for the 2017 McDonald's All-American Game in Chicago.
Vanderbilt says being one of the best high school players in the county means having a target on his back, but he prefers it that way. "I love it," he said. "For them, that's just their Super Bowl. For me, I got to do that every game because everybody is coming at me like that."
And that target isn't just for players; it's for coaches and colleges, too. Standing a lean 6'8" with a 7-foot wingspan, Vanderbilt's had a steady stream of recruitment letters, phone calls and visits from college coaches since he was 14.
That stream of letters has piled up over the years. He says he used to keep all his letters in shoe boxes. And then, he "started having trash bags."
In at least one of those trash bags or shoe boxes is Vanderbilt's invitation to the McDonald's All-American Game — arguably the most coveted high school basketball event. Notable alumni include Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan.
"At first, I was just hooping because it was fun, you know — I liked it. But then, going into high school when I start getting my letters, I was like, I mean, I could really do something with this. ... It just took off from there," Vanderbilt said.
But before all the letters and the phone calls, there was the work.
Vanderbilt's typical day starts in the morning with a workout: "I might get a workout in the morning. Then I head to school, go to class and stuff. Then after class, I go back to the gym."
He said that when he was younger, "Sometimes my mom was like, 'Why are you going to the gym today? You just went yesterday.' I was like, 'You got to go every day.' This isn't a once-a-week type thing."
"He's been doing this since he was 3 or 4 years old. ... We started in the driveway where I would have him go up with the right, come back with the left," his father, Robert Vanderbilt, said.
Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt have had a front-row seat for their son's dogged pursuit.
"I would beat him! He'd come home crying to his momma, but I was getting him ready for what was coming. ... Now it's beginning to pay off — all that hard work, those long nights," Robert Vanderbilt said.
"We have a very close relationship, and he's always going to be there to take care of Mom. ... It's not about me so much as it is about him," Gwen Vanderbilt, Jarred Vanderbilt's mother, said.
Jarred Vanderbilt will join at least three other McDonald's All-Americans at the University of Kentucky next year — the program has 17 NCAA Final Four appearances and eight national titles.
But as the lights get brighter for Vanderbilt, he still has his mind set on one thing.
"Really, I just want to be great," he said. "I mean, that's what motivates me. I don't want to be a failure; I want to be the best person I can be. And really, just my parents, you know, especially my mom, she's my motivation: I want to do it for her."