By PETE THAMEL
Published: November 7, 2009
HAIFA, Israel — Jeremy Tyler came to this scenic city overlooking the Mediterranean as a trailblazer. As the first American basketball player to skip his senior year of high school to play professionally overseas, Tyler signed a $140,000 deal to play for Maccabi Haifa this year. The grand plan revolves around his being a top pick, if not the top pick, in the 2011 N.B.A. draft.
But after nearly three months of professional basketball in Israel’s top division, Tyler is at a crossroads. Caught in a clash of cultures, distractions and agendas, he appears to be worlds away from a draft-night handshake with Stern, the N.B.A. commissioner.
His coach calls him lazy and out of shape. The team captain says he is soft. His teammates say he needs to learn to shut up and show up on time. He has no friends on the team. In extensive interviews with Tyler, his teammates, coaches, his father and advisers, the consensus is that he is so naïve and immature that he has no idea how naïve and immature he is. So enamored with his vast potential, Tyler has not developed the work ethic necessary to tap it.
“The question is whether he’ll take responsibility of his career,” Haifa Coach Avi Ashkenazi said. “If he thinks he’s going to be in the N.B.A. because his name is Jeremy Tyler and he was a very good high school player, he will not be.”
It is too early to declare Tyler a bust, but it is safe to say that he has transformed from a can’t-miss prospect into a project.
Tyler, 18, said he was still acclimating to a new culture and a more precise style of basketball. The plan for Tyler’s older brother to move here never materialized.
To help him adjust, the Wasserman Media Group sent one of Tyler’s agents, Makhtar Ndiaye, to Israel late last month for an extended stay to help him focus.
Tyler still talks openly about retiring with $200 million in the bank after a 15-year N.B.A. career. He also talks about modeling, the documentary being made about him, and how he and his girlfriend, Erin Wright, the daughter of the rapper Eazy-E, will grow up to be an American power couple.
But he scored just 1 point in his first two games, and his coach was baffled that a player with such great potential could arrive without basic skills like boxing out and rotating on defense. Tyler is lost, Ashkenazi said, if he cannot do what he does best: taking the ball to the rim and dunking.
Jason Rich, an American teammate who was a standout at Florida State, said, “It’s hard to say what exactly is that thing that’s going to wake him up.”
Tyler, a 6-foot-11 center considered the best American big man since Greg Oden, cried when leaving the United States. He missed his first flight because he did not know he needed his passport. He left the locker room in tears after playing just 10 minutes in his first game.
The Milwaukee Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings skipped college and had rocky moments while playing last season in Rome. But they were nothing compared with Tyler’s. Jennings has thrived in the N.B.A., in part humbled and hardened by his overseas experience.
“All he had to do was go and do what Brandon did, shut up and go learn,” said Sonny Vaccaro, an adviser to Tyler and Jennings. “He obviously isn’t doing that. He thinks that he’s Kevin Garnett.”
The culture clash here comes from varied agendas. Tyler is using Haifa as a steppingstone to the N.B.A. The team’s American owner, Jeffrey H. Rosen, signed him in part to help make Maccabi Haifa the preferred destination for American prodigies who want to skip college. Rosen is trying to create a global media presence, with Tyler as the centerpiece. Haifa has a reality television show and an “Inside Israeli Basketball” show on cable channels in the United States.
“Jeremy gives us a brand and recognition, globally and particularly in the U.S., for young players who say, ‘College is not for me, and I know that Haifa is a place where I can get a salary and get trained,’ ” Rosen said, stressing that this was not a one-time move. “Jeremy is not a circus act.”
Stuck between the prodigy’s path and the owner’s vision is Ashkenazi, a hard-nosed Israeli coach unaccustomed to handling the attitude, ego and self-importance of teenage American stars. (Most of his players are Israelis who have completed their mandatory three-year army service.)
“I’m in a terrible position,” Ashkenazi said. “But I’m a worker and employee of Mr. Jeff Rosen. If it’s important to him, our commitment is for that.”
For missing a workout and showing up late to an interview, Tyler was fined $1,000, the largest penalty the team had levied in three years. Tyler said he would be fined $1,000 for each subsequent violation, no matter how small, a sign the team is losing patience.
“These are all men out here,” Rich said. “The way you earn respect is by keeping your mouth shut and going to work and being a professional.”
At his apartment, Tyler said, neighbors have called the police three times with complaints that he was playing music too loud.
Discussing his problems, Tyler tended to point fingers. Asked about his immaturity, he said his teammates should treat him like a man. Asked about his reluctance to work and listen to his coaches, he said he was skeptical of their knowledge and methods. Tyler, the captain and focus of his high school’s offense, said he was still adjusting to a new role.
“If you take me from when I first got off the plane,” he said, “I have changed and developed and matured so much.”
Tyler complained that Haifa had failed to fulfill promises. He said that the driver the team provided did not want to take him anywhere and that the apartment he was given was dim and sparse, with a hallway light that hung by a wire from the ceiling.
Tyler’s father, James, cited disruptive outside influences. When his son was at San Diego High School, James Tyler forced him to stop working out with a summer basketball coach, Shaun Manning, because he was told that Manning had tried to sell Tyler to an agent for $40,000. Tyler said he considered Manning his best friend, although they had not spoken in years.
Manning said he was offered far more than $40,000, houses and cars to deliver Tyler but denied accepting any money.
“Jeremy knows,” Manning said. “That’s all that matters.”
James Tyler said that Drew Gallery, who is making the documentary, and Wright and her mother, Tracy Jernagin, viewed his son as a “cash cow.” He described Wright, a reality television star, and Jernagin as “gold diggers,” saying their visit to Israel has stunted his son’s development.
Jernagin said they had given Tyler, who was living alone, structure and discipline. Gallery denied being a distraction and said he had a fair contract with Tyler, whom he has been filming for more than two years.
In a phone interview on Friday, Tyler passionately defended them all.
“I feel like the person I felt like was so dear to me and I loved the most is someone that I can’t trust,” Tyler said of his father. “For him to say that, it really breaks my heart.”
The recruiting analyst Dave Telep said Tyler was the best eighth grader he had seen.
“Jeremy lost focus on what got him a lot of attention as a high school basketball player,” Telep said. “Over the course of his career, the drama surrounding him polluted his development. Unfortunately, it’s a classic example of how things can go wrong very quickly.”
Tyler’s mentor here is Ido Kozikaro, a balding 31-year-old who treats every possession in the post as if it were mixed martial arts. Kozikaro said that he liked Tyler but that he had to grow up.
At a recent practice, Kozikaro spun past Tyler to score a layup.
“If I let up a basket that easy, I would want to stab myself,” Kozikaro said.
Instead, Tyler said that Kozikaro had fouled him with his elbow. Kozikaro, who has been playing at a high level since Tyler was in the first grade, said he just laughed.
Arn Tellem, the head of Wasserman’s agent division, said Tyler’s world had been calmer since Ndiaye went to Israel.
“This hopefully will turn out to be one of the great life lessons for Jeremy,” Tellem said.
His teammates, for the most part, seem to feel the same way, as Tyler’s talent is obvious.
“He hasn’t even been a pro 100 days yet,” Rich said.
During a practice in late October, Ashkenazi ejected Tyler from a drill. Tyler turned away from the court and said, in colorful language, that his coach did not know anything about basketball. That night outside the gym, Ashkenazi had another heart-to-heart with Tyler, saying the coaches were there to help him tap his potential.
As Tyler walked away, he bade farewell to a reporter leaving for the United States and said, “I wish I was going back with you.”