March Madness Comes to High School Hoops

Publish date:

One of the requirements of playing for Findlay College Prep is a willingness to repeatedly explain an apparent conundrum: How can the Pilots be one of the best high school teams in the nation when Findlay Prep isn't a high school? In the Pilots' unconventional program, the players live together in a suburban Las Vegas house, travel as much as some college teams, dine occasionally on the Vegas strip and.... oh, yes, take classes at a nearby private school, Henderson (Nev.) International School.

"It can get confusing for people," says senior Carlos Lopez, the Pilots' 6' 11" center from Lajas, Puerto Rico, and a UNLV recruit. "I tell them Findlay Prep is a team, not a school. Then it's like, 'You don't go to school?' Yes, we go to school just like anybody else, but our team is not the same as our school. Like I said, confusing."

It must have been refreshing, then, for the Pilots to spend the weekend at the inaugural ESPN RISE National High School Invitational tournament in North Bethesda, Md., where no one much cared whether a program outsources the school in high school or whether it's ethical for a UNLV booster, Cliff Findlay, to bankroll such a program in his alma mater's backyard. The NHSI, which its organizers, ESPN and Paragon Marketing Group, hope will become an annual national championship tournament, is not an event for typical high school teams, which are made up of players from the neighborhood. It's big business, with programs that recruit globally and attract elite players who want to hone their games for Division I college ball, all sponsored and showcased by corporate entities looking for programming and profit. (Paragon Marketing, for example, bills itself as "the nation's foremost promoter of high school sports today.")

Anyone who wandered into the Hanley Center at Georgetown Prep expecting the innocence of traditional high school hoops would have seen the ESPN cameras and all the sponsorship signs for Nike, Gatorade and the U.S. Marines, and known he was in the wrong place. The eight-team tournament, won by Findlay Prep on Sunday, represented the NCAA tournament sensibility brought to high school, and though the participants certainly considered that a positive development, others aren't so sure.

The National Federation of State High School Associations has a constitutional provision preventing members from competing in national championships, and most state athletic associations endorse that position. One reason for that is to avoid stretching the season interminably and to limit its intrusion on class time. (Findlay Prep's last game, for instance, was more than a month before the start of the NHSI.) "Our perspective is that a national tournament would not fall under our educational mission," says Bob Gardner, the COO of the federation.

Some high school coaches also have concerns about the NHSI, although they hesitate to voice them publicly for fear of alienating powerful forces such as ESPN and Nike. "It's good programming for ESPN, but is it good for high school basketball as a whole?" asked one coach in attendance. "Are you going to be able to convince your best player to stay and try for a state title when he has a chance to transfer to one of these places where they get on TV and play for the ESPN championship or the Nike championship? I don't want to see more of these independent programs popping up to skim off the best talent from the regular high schools."

But that's likely to happen as long as ESPN gives those programs even more cachet by organizing events like the NHSI. It wasn't lost on the players that the tournament rewarded the winners by moving them up the Worldwide Leader's ladder of networks -- the first-round games were on ESPNU, the semifinals on ESPN2 and Sunday's championship game on ESPN. Television exposure was the big prize.

The naysayers didn't worry teams such as Findlay Prep, runner-up Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) and Montrose Christian School (Rockville, Md.), which are not members of any state federation, nor ESPN, which seized upon the opportunity to showcase some of the nation's top high school recruits -- and ignored any questionable circumstances, describing Findlay Prep as having an enrollment of 775 and never mentioning its unique arrangement with Henderson International during Sunday's broadcast. The field included three McDonald's All-Americans, including Findlay's 6' 3" guard Avery Bradley, a Texas signee, and seniors headed to such high-profile programs as Oklahoma, Pitt and Villanova.

The pilots are likely to make regular appearances at the NHSI, since the nature of their program enables them to replenish their talent easily, sometimes even during the season. Just three years old Findlay Prep is 65-1 over the last two seasons under coach Michael Peck, a former UNLV video coordinator. This year's Pilots feature three Division I signees -- seniors Bradley and Lopez and guard D.J. Richardson (Illinois) -- as well as junior forward Tristan Thompson, who has verbally committed to Texas. That group will lengthen the already long list of Findlay alumni who have earned Division I scholarships, including DeAndre Liggins (Kentucky), Jorge Gutierrez (California) and Brice Massamba (UNLV).

Bradley, a transfer from Bellarmine Prep, in Tacoma, Wash., who was ranked No. 7 on the ESPN RISE list of top seniors, is probably the best player Findlay Prep has produced. It was his brilliance at both ends of the court, with 20 points, eight boards and two steals, that propelled the Pilots (33-0) to the tournament championship, which they earned with a 74-66 victory over Oak Hill (40-1).

The Pilots program is the brainchild of Las Vegas automobile magnate Cliff Findlay, a former UNLV forward and the team's main benefactor. Findlay paid $425,000 for the five-bedroom home that houses the eight Findlay Prep players as well as assistant coach Todd Simon and his wife, Kati, who provide the adult supervision. Along with several other minor investors, Findlay also pays for the team's food and travel (the Pilots logged more than 30,000 air miles and played in eight states this season) and contributes to the fund that pays each player's $16,000 tuition at Henderson International.

Given Findlay's status as a UNLV booster, it's not surprising that there are whispers in recruiting circles that Findlay Prep players are steered toward the Runnin' Rebels. In addition to Massamba and Lopez, junior forward Godwin Okonji is considering signing with UNLV. "We're only a few miles away from the campus, so obviously the UNLV coaching staff gets more of a chance to evaluate our kids," Findlay says. "But there's no one in our program who's in any way pushing players to sign with a particular school."

A college booster providing financial benefits to potential recruits sounds like a blatant NCAA recruiting violation, but the program hasn't run afoul of the college basketball authorities. "We're completely open about what we're doing," says Findlay. "We coordinated everything with the NCAA when we were putting this all together to make sure we were doing everything the right way. We set it up exactly the way they told us to."

The Pilots represent the latest step in the evolution of elite high school basketball: a program that operates completely outside the traditional high school system and makes no pretense about its top priority -- to acquire the best talent from all over the world. (Players from Canada, Mexico, Nigeria and Sweden have passed through Findlay Prep.) Not being sanctioned by the national federation means the Pilots have no academic eligibility requirements and no restrictions on travel, transfers or practice time, as conventional high schools do.

Findlay Prep answers to no one, which was evident in its acquisition of Thompson, a long-armed leaper from Toronto, in February. Thompson began the year with St. Benedict's Prep (Newark), which lost to Oak Hill in the NHSI semifinals. He decided to transfer, though, after he was dismissed from the team by coach Dan Hurley because of a verbal altercation with Hurley during a game on Feb. 10. The incident took place on a Tuesday, and by Saturday, Thompson was a member in good standing of Findlay Prep.

It's that freedom from rules that makes critics see Findlay Prep as little more than an AAU team masquerading as a high school program. But the Pilots make no apology for how they operate. "We're really no different from some of the prep schools in the East that bring in very high-level players while helping them acquire a quality education," Peck says. "We're doing the same thing."

But they're doing it in a much glitzier fashion, as befits a program born near the neon of the Vegas strip. Findlay Prep's website makes the team sound like every player's fantasy of a high school program, telling prospective players that they will live in a "near-million dollar home" with "two big-screen [televisions], all new furniture, custom extra long beds... wireless internet, full cable TV [and] two refrigerators kept full." The sales pitch also promises a laptop for every player and a full complement of gear from Nike, which sponsors the program, including "shoes, sandals, running shoes, socks, warm ups, hoodies, practice gear, loose dry fits, tight dry fits, tights, and even compression shorts." If the fully stocked fridges aren't enough, there's dinner at least once a week at one of the resort buffets on the Strip.

It's no surprise, then, that some coaches from other high school programs question Findlay Prep's approach. "You just wonder if we're heading in the wrong direction," says Hurley's father, Bob, who has coached at St. Anthony's in Jersey City for 37 years. "When you've got a kid from public housing and you're trying to push him to do the right thing even if it means things are tough at times, what do you say to him when he sees an easier way to do it, a way where everything is given to you for free?"

But the Findlay Prep players will tell you it's not quite free, that in exchange for all the perks they have to be serious students and perform their household duties. "The basketball and the travel are fun," says Richardson, "but cleaning the bathrooms isn't."

"We stress discipline in the house, in the classroom and on the court," says Simon. "We don't claim to be like the public school down the street. But we're not a fly-by-night school that's just putting kids on the court without regard for their education. Every kid who's finished here has been academically eligible to play in college. If there could be 50 more programs like ours, I think the system would be so much better off."

Would 50 more Findlay Preps really be good for high school basketball? Given the direction that television and corporate forces are pushing the game, like it or not, we may soon find out.

CORRECTION: Due to a writer's error, a quote in the magazine version of this story (April 13, 2009) was incorrectly attributed to ESPN RISE senior vice-president James Brown. No ESPN representative commented for the story.