The girl’s got game! Do you?

Sue Favor

A video of five-year Milan Simone Tuttle dribbling as many as three basketballs simultaneously, at times between her legs, has made the little girl an overnight sensation, the video one of the most-watched on YouTube. No question, this young lady is a prodigy. But she also turns the spotlight on “handles”–a fundamental every player can and should develop. PLUS video and photo gallery.

It all started last year, when Renee Tuttle began taking her third-grade daughter Courtland to basketball practice. Little sister Milan, then four years old, came along too, and immediately became fixated on what her older sister was doing.

“Everyday she would say to me, ‘I want to play basketball, I want to play basketball,'” Tuttle said. “Eventually I had to let her try it.”

One year of basketball training and a sensational video later, Milan Simone Tuttle, now five, has become a worldwide celebrity for her dribbling skills. Over the past two weeks she has performed at halftime of both the men’s and women’s games at UC Berkeley, and appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. The second week of December, she’ll be featured on The Best Damn Sports Show Period.

Though it’s been a bit of a whirlwind, Tuttle and her husband Jon are taking it all in stride. And so is their budding athlete and kindergartner.

“None of this has phased her one bit,” Renee Tuttle said. “I thought that on Ellen she’d get nervous, but she hasn’t changed one bit –she’s still Milan.”

Soon after relenting to let her play, the Tuttles began taking their daughter to Triple Threat Academy in San Leandro, CA, at what turned out to be a perfect time. A school for developing and honing basketball skills, Triple Threat had provided high-level training for college and professional players looking to improve their game. They had just expanded to include young people before Milan arrived.

Several weeks ago, the Cal Athletic Department was seeking halftime entertainment for their basketball games, so they asked Triple Threat to submit a video. Academy director Tony Freccero selected Milan to star, and she obliged by dribbling two and then three balls continuously, with some under-the-leg passing tricks, for several minutes.

Cal loved the video so much that graduate Rod Benson, who now plays professionally in Europe, put it on his blog. Within 24 hours, two million people had watched the clip.

“It just took off,” Fraccero said. “No one expected that.

Now, young Ms. Tuttle has two new aspirations–a pro basketball career and a chance to go one-on-one with Barack Obama.

Triple Threat Academy focuses on fundamentals and skill development, and is a supplement to athlete’s regular basketball practices. A high school basketball coach himself, Academy Director Freccero knows how fundamentals can be squeezed out of practice for lack of time. Freccero, business partner Lou Richie and a small staff train both individuals and teams.

When Milan showed up, she was one of the youngest students they’d ever had. Freccero had her practice with older children, and her interest in and hunger for the game became apparent immediately.

“She would run up to the older kids saying, ‘I can do that,’ and would then jump in line and do what they were doing,” Freccero said.

“Some of the youngest kids can’t speak a complete sentence, but they understand what you’re saying,” Freccero said. “They watch the other kids and they pick it up.”

In addition to her age (Milan was too young for detailed explanations when she first started), Freccero said Milan is also a visual learner. It’s important for any coach to determine the best learning style–visual, auditory or kinesthetic–for his or her charges. In Milan’s case, showing her how to perform a skill was the best way to teach her.

Getting Milan involved began what Freccero calls a wonderful cycle: The older kids, seeing what the younger kids are learning to do, become more movitated. They’re challenged not to be “shown up” by the little ones. As the older kids improve their skills, this then inspires and teaches the younger children, and the cycle repeats.

Besides her love for the game, another thing that became obvious about Milan was that her natural ability was far above average.

“She does things that there is no way other five-year-olds can do,” Freccero said. “She handles the ball well, but she can also fire a ball into a regulation basket with perfect form. I’ve never met a girl who can do what she does at her age.”

One reason Milan’s skills developed rapidly was her boldness in approaching older kids, Freccero said. Another reason is that she gets extra time each day she comes in.

“I take her in twice a week, and she’s only supposed to work out for an hour,” Renee Tuttle said. “But if I don’t want to fight with her, I have to let her stay a little longer.”

It also helps that Milan is an excellent student.

“Anything Lou and I say, she does,” Freccero said. “She’s a good listener and it’s great, because a lot of times kids don’t listen.”

On the days Milan doesn’t go to Triple Threat, she is at home practicing.

“She has a routine she is to follow on weekends: get up, eat breakfast and shower,” Tuttle said. “But after that, the next thing I hear is three basketballs bouncing, all day long.”

Is Milan obsessed with the sport?

“Yes,” her mother said, with a hint of sheepishness, adding that they’ve given their daughter 21 basketballs to date. She elaborated that she would have no issue with a continued obsession unless her daughter starts slacking in school. So far, there’s not a hint this will happen.

“She’s good — she comes in, gets in the backpack and starts in on her homework,” Tuttle said. “She understands that if there’s no homework, there’s no basketball.”

The Tuttles are so serious about school work that they insisted that Fox Sports Net have a teacher on hand for the week Milan will miss while filming Best Damn Sports Show Period.

Their other main emphasis to their daughter is that she not develop cockiness.

“Jon told her to stay humble, saying that at the end of the day we still have to go home, and the next day I go to work and you go to school,” Renee Tuttle said.

While Milan continues her self-professed quest to one day play in the WNBA, Freccero and Richie are knee deep in training during their busiest time of the year: basketball season. They run classes in 12-week stints, with the next one starting in January. Fraccero said it’s all about teaching fundamentals, which are the keys to basketball.

“No matter what the age, our goal with kids is for them to be successful and have fun,” he said.

Especially in today’s game, where both college and professional players are expected to possess a wide array of skills, becoming as complete a player as possible is important. Ball handling is one of those basics, that many players tend to overlook. That’s why some college coaches have turned their recruiting sights overseas, where even international post players are expected to have sound ball handling skills, University of Oregon coach Bev Smith told Full Court recently.

Penny Toler, general manager for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks and a member of USA Basketball’s Women’s National Team Selection Committee, echoes the importance of sound fundamentals for all players.

“It’s important to learn all the skills. I think if you learn the fundamentals of basketball you will end up on top because fundamentals are the essence of the game,” said Toler. “Learning all of the fundamentals skill-wise and expanding your knowledge of the game will always beat out talent and athleticism in the end. I think you have to learn them all.”

Freccero says there are five keys for any player to becoming a good ball handler:

  • Keep the ball off the palm of the hand (some coaches recommend using the white glove test to check your technique-if dirt from the ball shows up on the palm of the hand, rather than on the balls of the fingers, you’re using the wrong technique);
  • Don’t just slap at the ball. Pound it into the ground.
  • When something gets easy, make it harder (e.g., go from standing still to jogging, from dribbling one ball to two);
  • Do everything 100 percent;
  • Be as creative in your practice techniques as possible.

With so many skills already under her belt, Milan is off to a great start in her aspirations for a pro basketball career.