Go to an AAU basketball tournament any given weekend in the Twin Cities and you will see the same things over and over again: lanky teenagers stretched out on the gym floor, their heads resting on oversized shoes as they await their next game; red-faced parents screaming encouragement from the sidelines; younger children playing hide and seek in the bleachers or eating granola bars while their older siblings play three, four, or more games in the span of a few days.
But if you are at an AAU game in the Twin Cities, you will see, alongside those familiar scenes from youth athletics, something else. You will see five-year-old Dealo Bellaphant-Brown in an extra small referee's uniform, running up and down the sidelines in time with the full-grown refs scraping together a little weekend cash; you'll see him raising his hands to signal twos and threes and pantomiming charging and blocking calls. A whistle sits clenched in his mouth but he knows not to blow it. His hair is a mass of springy curls erupting from his head. The nameplate across the back of the black and white striped uniform reads simply, "BOO."
At the recent Nike Elite Youth Basketball League event in Maple Grove, the miniature referee they call Boo was on the sidelines with his grandmother, his four-year-old sister A'Niyah and his 18-year-old uncle Zach Taylor, a rising senior at South Saint Paul High School who looks like a stretched out Boo right down to the shock of wild hair. Teams like Chris Paul's CP3 All-Stars were there from North Carolina with future NBA players like 6-foot-10 inch Harry Giles on board, while local team Howard Pulley featured high former NBA player Gary Trent's son, a high school star. There was a lot to watch, none of it more fascinating than Boo's focused work on the hardwood.
Some slightly older boys in the front row watched him with restrained wonder. Grown-ups exchanged head shakes and bemused smiles. And through it all, Boo maintained his serious demeanor. During a long stoppage in play, one adult in the stands called out to Boo, "Hey ref! What's the call?" and laughed. Boo regarded him with the well-honed iciness of a seasoned official, because that's what he is.
"It was when he was about two," Zach tells me the next weekend at another AAU event, the Northstar Hoops Report State Tournament, in which Zach's team, Prodigy Hoops, is participating. "He always used to watch me and my younger brother play and he started picking up on it. It was hard for him to focus on all ten of us on the court, so he saw the refs. Soon enough he was on the sideline counting off."
Boo had trouble focusing because of delayed sensory and speech issues, as well as a diagnosed reactive attachment disorder, which is a condition that causes children to have difficulty forming attachments to parents or caregivers because of a lack of basic comfort and caring early on in life. Boo's father, who is Zach's oldest brother, is in prison; his mother doesn't make an effort to see Boo and A'Niyah, who has some of the same issues. As a result, Zach's family has custody of him. Zach and Boo are nearly inseparable.
"He goes to all of my open gyms and practices," he says. "He runs with us and dribbles—he can dribble pretty well. Now he's my rebounding partner when we shoot because he passes the ball well."
Boo sits quietly while I talk with Zach, and when I talk to him, he answers most questions with a nod or just a stare while Zach cajoles him into responding. A few nuggets of information are excavated, though: his favorite TV shows are "Hello Kitty" and "Spiderman"; his favorite sport is actually football. He just seems shy, which isn't unusual for lots of little kids, but apparently he's made significant progress in terms of development recently. His reffing is part of that.
"They go to occupational therapy and speech throughout the week," says Zach. "When the teacher came to our house she was talking about how he's improved so much and she asked, 'What are you guys doing?' And I said, 'Well, he comes to basketball' and she's like, 'He started off below average for his motor skills and now everything's above average for his age.' Before we used to go to a park and he wouldn't talk to anyone, he'd be super shy and now he'll run up to kids.
"They think he can be just a normal kid," continues Zach. "He's gonna be in normal classes and everything. They say it's helping him with the social stuff and all of the calls he's doing helps with his precise motor skills."
It seems an unusual and almost impossible task for an 18-year-old to have so much responsibility for a four-year-old and a five-year-old, but Zach carries it lightly. "My mom works nights and my dad works days so usually after school I come home and watch them," he says. "If I go somewhere with my friends, we take them with us. Me and Boo, we're pretty close. He's basically like my kid—everyone calls him my kid. We sleep together, do everything together."
Responsibility, as anyone who's taken care of a child can attest, is a two-way street. The demands can be exhausting, but they also keep you honest. Reffing has helped give Boo a structure to work within, to practice; taking care of Boo has given Zach both a lot of work and a sense of purpose.
"It's a little pressure to be a good role model, but it's good because he looks after me and I know I can be a good role model and make sure he does good in life," Zach says. "Every time I leave the house he makes sure I come back. He says, 'I'll call you' and then when I'm out I'll get a FaceTime from my dad and it'll be [Boo] asking where I'm at. He tells me, 'Be good and get home.'"