Inside the Cabrillo gym on a gloomy Friday afternoon, the show is starting. It’s only 3pm, so it’s three and a half hours before the varsity basketball game will tip off—but the show is starting nonetheless. The large partition that separates one of the Jaguars’ courts from the other is open, giving the building the feeling of an airport hangar.
Kameron Chatman is 6’6”, and weighs 175 pounds. He is, by gift and by calling, a point guard. In today’s game, he throws a no-look pass to a teammate who nails a corner three, and he dunks a rebound over an opponent and a teammate. His speed and intelligence, and the fluidity with which he distributes the ball, almost make it look like he’s controlling the other nine players on the floor. Half the time the ball leaves his hand, it results in an assist. His team wins the game 90-39, as their fans jokingly chant, “We want tacos!”
Kameron Chatman is a junior, ranked in the top 60 recruits in his class, and among the top twenty guards in the country. He has scholarship offers from UCLA, Arizona, Oregon, and Louisville. He is, without question, the best JV basketball player in America this season.
This was not how this story was supposed to go.
Chatman has been a student at Long Beach Poly since last March, when he and his father Canaan moved to Long Beach from Portland. He practiced with Poly and played with the Jackrabbits all summer, a stretch during which they went 35-0. Given that Chatman is actually a higher-rated recruit than Poly stars Roschon Prince and Jordan Bell, that’s not a surprise—he also happens to fill in all the gaps on Poly’s team. The Jackrabbits have struggled on offense during some big games in the last few years, and Chatman is a player of almost pure offensive capacity—he’s Poly’s best scorer, and their best passer, someone who could immediately give them points, or get a struggling player going.
But Chatman was ruled ineligible by the CIF due to pre-enrollment contact, since Poly coach Sharrief Metoyer coached him on a travel team the summer prior to his transfer. Poly received word that they lost their appeal with the state office while they were in Florida at the City of Palms Tournament, hoping for a call that would let them know Chatman could play. The issue of his ineligibility could fill its own newspaper, but in short: Metoyer and Poly’s appeal was based on the fact that Metoyer and Chatman’s father have been close for almost two decades, since playing together at Portland State in the mid-90s.
“He was actually my host on my recruiting trip, and we’ve been like brothers ever since,” says Metoyer. “I knew Kameron before he was born.”
The hope for Poly was that the special circumstances would yield special consideration, as they did for a son who followed his head coach from one high school to another this year, an action explicitly forbidden in CIF rules but allowed because the coach was the player’s father.
The ruling was difficult for Chatman, and for Metoyer and his team. “I got very emotional,” says Metoyer. “Because the kid is being punished and he hasn’t done anything wrong. Personality wise, it couldn’t happen to a worse person—he’s a great kid.”
In the darkness of the CIF appeal denial was a light: the initial ineligibility ruling (from the CIF Southern Section office) said Chatman couldn’t play at any level until March 16th. The CIF State office appeal ruling simply said he couldn’t play at the varsity level.
So began the career of America’s best JV basketball player. Chatman continues to practice with the varsity, and sits on the bench for every game. Before Poly’s first game of the season, against Manual Arts, he was on the bench looking forlorn while the rest of the team warmed up, until Metoyer pushed him over and told him to shoot with them, even though he wouldn’t be playing.
Poly JV coach Shelton Diggs says that having Chatman has been a blessing. “Every game he does something. Just maybe a regular layup where he’ll finger roll it and it’s like, ‘Wow, are you kidding me? In a JV game?’” Diggs points out that while it’s been a relief for Chatman to see the court again, it’s even better for his team, who get to play with an elite player, the likes of whom would normally never be seen among their ranks.
“He’s doing the things we’re trying to teach them—to see someone their age doing it is big,” Diggs says. “They get tired of hearing me talk all the time.”
For Chatman, who has been playing basketball since he was three years old, the time away from the court was excruciating. Getting to play again, even at a lower level, has eased the stress.
“Just getting on the court shooting the ball in a live game has been amazing,” he says. “I just go out there and play the same way I always play.”
For the sublimely gifted junior with a big smile, that means an engaging style that gets his teammates as excited to play with him as he is to play with anyone right now. Chatman hasn’t had a “big-time” attitude about playing with the JVs, and Metoyer says he’s not that kind of a kid.
Chatman is so well-liked by his peers, his gifts so appreciated by writers, that before the CIF State appeal came down, he and his teammates got the #FreeKam hashtag trending on Twitter, with the ease of a Justin Bieber relationship status update. Among those using the hashtag were sports scribes from ESPN and Yahoo sports.
Whether the ruling on Chatman’s transfer is justice or not—and opinions are divided deeply on that matter—the return date laid out by the CIF is undeniably poetic. March 16th would bring Chatman off the bench just in time for the SoCal Regional Championship, the game that decides which Southern California representative will reach the state title game in Sacramento.
Each of the last three years, the Jackrabbits have fallen in the game before the SoCal Regional.
“The kids are definitely aware that the longer we play, the better chance for him to get on the court,” says Metoyer. “That’s become a battle cry—they want to play with him.”
He, of course, looks forward to playing with them, too. “It’s been hard sitting through it, waiting,” he says. The support of his teammates, in particular Prince, who Chatman says is like his brother, has been essential to keeping him sane.
“Roschon took Kameron under his wing,” says Metoyer. “One high level player to another, they respect each other’s game, and it’s become like they’re brothers.”
Chatman says he’s adjusted to living in Southern California very quickly, enjoying the weather, the lifestyle, and the atmosphere of Poly’s campus. He also says Prince helped a lot with that transition. “I look up to him,” Chatman says. “I’m over at his house all the time.” He adds, “We’re looking forward to playing together,” making it clear that the team’s promise to him to make it to the SoCal Regional is something he takes very seriously.
When the lower-level game against Cabrillo has ended, Chatman sits with the varsity and waits for their game to start, and then sits with the coaches while the varsity plays. His eyes move back and forth constantly, and he’ll later admit that every time he watches a game, he’s imagining what he’d be doing on the court. When the game is over (Poly wins 88-47), Chatman and the rest of the Jackrabbits pack up and head home. Inside the gym, as the lights flip off row by row, the seats in the even emptier feeling gym still sit vacant, as if waiting for the real show to begin.
Video of Chatman vs. Cabrillo