Frenzied pursuit of young players

Star: The search for strong basketball prospects extends into the eighth grade at Holabird Middle School.

January 09, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Once they saw Nathan Bellman play basketball, they promised him the world.

Free tuition. Free transportation to school. A free ride on his grades. The

chance to star for a Maryland basketball power.

All this for a gangly eighth-grader at Holabird Middle School in Baltimore

County.

Since last summer, the 14-year-old Dundalk youth has been the target of a

fierce recruiting effort on behalf of Dunbar High School, albeit not by official

representatives of the Baltimore city school. While it's just one of many

behind-the-scenes recruiting campaigns that go on every year, the aggressive

effort has caused Nathan and his mother no small anguish.

"They've offered him just about anything to get him to go," says Nathan's

mother, Dorothy Harbeson. "They're stopping him on the way to the school bus and

they're trying to talk to him in school." The campaign has been waged by avid

Dunbar supporters who scout talent for the East Baltimore powerhouse that has

produced the likes of NBA players Sam Cassell, David Wingate, Keith Booth and

Muggsy Bogues.

Barbara Allen, Dunbar's athletic director, says that while she condemns

anyone making false promises on behalf of the basketball team, she's powerless

to stop people who don't work for the school.

Still, school officials acknowledge that recruiting has begun at younger and

younger ages as the money attached to sports escalates. No longer is it just

professional teams seeking college athletes and colleges seeking high school

athletes.

" It happens all the time, from when kids are in Little League," says Bob

Wade, the city school system's director of athletics. "Every day, year after

year, there are kids being recruited to play for someone."

Wade -- who has coached basketball at both Dunbar and the University of

Maryland, College Park -- is quick to emphasize that public school coaches

aren't allowed to recruit.

"It's illegal for coaches to recruit, but we can't stop supporters, " he

says.

In the Baltimore area, however, recruiting is more open in private and

parochial schools.

Among other things, those schools are not governed by public school

residency requirements and often have more flexibility in offering breaks on

tuition.

"The bird dogs are out there looking for the players," says Ronald Belinko,

Baltimore County's coordinator of athletics.

"Why do you think all of those private schools are building new athletic

facilities? It's another tool to recruit."

Spotted at outdoor games

For Nathan, the recruiting started early last summer, when he was spotted

playing basketball on the outdoor courts of eastern Baltimore County.

At 6-foot-1, he stands above most other eighth-graders, and his coaches at

both Holabird Middle and the Colgate Recreation Council praise his ball-

handling ability and intelligence on the court.

Nathan has averaged 14 points a game as a guard and forward in Holabird's

first four games, or nearly half of the team's average of 34 points.

Exceptional skills'

" Nathan possess exceptional skills," says Holabird coach Steve Oppenheim,

who teaches social studies and math at the school. "He has more to learn, but

I've never seen someone with as much talent as he has at his age."

Over the past six months, men claiming to represent Dunbar have regularly

talked to Nathan, visiting him when he plays late into the night at Colgate Park

near his house.

They've driven him to play in other gyms and given him a basketball and

other equipment and clothing. They lent him a pager so they could reach him to

play basketball. They have worked with him on techniques.

While Dunbar is a Baltimore high school with open enrollment -- which means

anyone in the city is eligible to apply to its academic program -- a Baltimore

County student such as Nathan would be required to pay $1,500 a year in tuition.

Protection offered

Nathan and his mother say they were told by the recruiters that both tuition

and transportation would be "taken care of."

If Nathan became concerned for his safety at the school, security would be

provided, they were told.

"I was told that it wouldn't matter how I did in classes, that my grades

wouldn't matter," says Nathan, who gets mostly A's and B's. "But I want to go to

college. I want to be a doctor."

The recruiting effort was stepped up this past week as Holabird Middle

students prepared to register for their ninth-grade classes at nearby Dundalk

High School.

One morning, Nathan said, two of the recruiters were waiting for him at his

school bus stop.

To avoid them, he missed the bus and had to walk to school, arriving late.

The men then went to his mother's house.

I got scared'

"They wanted to know when Nathan's next game was," Harbeson recalls. "When I

wouldn't tell them, they wanted to know when his lunch period was, so they could

go to the school and see him there. That's when I got scared.

She called Holabird, asking the school and the coaches to make sure that

recruiters stay away from Nathan.

Holabird's principal, Henry Wagner, says that county policy prohibits

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