In heat of summer, cold look at talent Basketball: The focus of college recruiting has shifted to the shoe company-sponsored camps and tournaments, and the excesses they've engendered are spurring cries for reform.

The Recruiting Game

September 18, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Maybe Johnny can't read.

But he has a nasty crossover move, and he's done Vegas.

College basketball is loaded with contradictions: Players represent institutions of higher learning, but March Madness is more about entertainment than education. Games are played in winter, but programs can be built or destroyed in July.

The recruiting of elite talent is no longer focused on high schools, but at summer camps and tournaments primarily sponsored by shoe companies. In July and September, teen-agers travel thousands of miles while marketing themselves to college coaches.

Critics say the organizers exploit the players and steer them to certain universities. Proponents say the circuit offers scholarship opportunities and a way to stay out of trouble in the summer.

"We've put so much emphasis on the summer, we've taken education out of the recruiting process," said Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, the president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. "We've made the school year not nearly as important as it used to be.

"With some kids, you never talk to their high school coach or their guidance counselor. You never see him on his home turf, and add value to the people he comes into contact with every day, so he'll say, 'They must be important.' If everything is done in the summer, that becomes more important, and the danger is that the people who run the summer aren't under any rules."

Two months ago, the NCAA readied legislation that would have lessened the importance of a circuit that winds down this weekend with the Charlie Weber Adidas Invitational Tournament. Held at the University of Maryland, it showcases athletes from Calvert Hall's Reggie Bryant to Maryland signee Steve Blake.

The NCAA instead created the 27-member Division I Working Group to Study Basketball Issues. In so doing, the NCAA decided to step back and survey an entire forest of issues, not just the sprawling tree that is the recruiting calendar.

The conflicts of interest in basketball reform are staggering. If shoe companies like Adidas and Nike can give lucrative sums to coaches like Krzyzewski or subsidize entire college athletic departments, why should they be prohibited from providing high school players summer tournaments and equipment?

"The NCAA has to realize that, as long as they're in bed with the shoe companies, they can't legislate morality," said Sonny Vaccaro, an Adidas representative. "I don't think they have a clue about summer basketball. As long as they keep taking money from me, how can they legislate morality?"

Cost containment

The prospect of reform originated with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. He contends an unregulated "summer environment" contributes to problems in college basketball ranging from players with unrealistic dreams of going to the NBA to attrition and graduation rates that are the worst among Division I sports.

"The spring and summer environment in the sport of basketball at the elite youth level," Delany wrote in a position paper, "has developed into a chaotic series of camps, regional, national and international competitions funded and fueled by corporate entities and non-school-based agencies and individuals."

Anthony Lewis, the coach and director at the Cecil-Kirk Rec Center in Baltimore, said: "The NCAA created their own monster," and Delany would agree.

As late as the 1970s, few restrictions were placed on college coaches in the recruitment of high school talent. Limits were gradually imposed because recruiting abuses had gotten out of hand. The calendar tightened, until cost-containment reforms in

1991 that were designed to limit coaches' travel inadvertently boosted summer events.

The NCAA has two "evaluation" periods, when coaches may watch prospects play. Coaches select 40 days in the winter, when they hope to catch a recruit when he isn't in foul trouble, injured or facing an inferior opponent. Most prospects, however, are typically targeted during a 24-day period in July, when there's a glut of glitzy camps and tournaments.

On July 7-10, Adidas put up 259 players at its ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., while Nike staged its All-American Camp in Indianapolis. Two weeks later, Adidas went to Las Vegas and Nike to Orlando, Fla., to sponsor tournaments that attract clubs that are called AAU teams, whether or not it's an Amateur Athletic Union event.

During the evaluation period, contact is limited to what is called a "bump," when coach A happens to run into player B. During "contact" periods, coaches may make in-person, off-campus contact.

The NCAA is in the midst of a contact period, hence the timing of the Charlie Weber Adidas Invitational, which will attract 64 teams. Last year's event drew more than 150 college coaches, who paid $50 apiece for an informational packet.

Two months ago, the NCAA nearly changed the evaluation periods. Legislation would have trimmed the July period from 24 to 14 days, and increased the winter period from 40 to 70 days.

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