At first glance, the inaugural Cactus Classic in May 2006 appeared to be like any other grassroots basketball tournament. There were 32 teams in Tucson, Ariz., for the three-day event. Games were played on the campus of the University of Arizona, split between three courts in the McKale Center and three in the school's intramural gym. Teams were grouped into pools of four and played three games within their pool.
The size, setting and format of the tournament were like any other, but the Cactus Classic was no ordinary grassroots event. It was not staged or sponsored by Nike, Adidas or Reebok, like most big tournaments. The organizer was a 28-year-old Tucson resident who had never held a major basketball tournament before. Also, the tournament was in the middle of an NCAA dead period, meaning no college coaches could attend. All the usual enticements that get teams to a tournament -- allegiance to a sponsor, a connected organizer, a chance to be scouted by college coaches -- were missing, yet the 32 teams were among the best in the country. With the exception of the big shoe-company events in Las Vegas in July, there was not a better assemblage of talent west of the Mississippi that year.
The Cactus Classic was special, and during its three-year run, which ended in 2008, it was the most talked about youth basketball tournament in America -- by college recruiters, AAU coaches, and later, NCAA investigators. Yet few people know the story of how the tournament came to be, how members of the Arizona coaching staff devised a plan to gain an edge in recruiting, and then brazenly toed -- and at times may have crossed -- NCAA boundaries to implement it.
Last week, the Cactus Classic officially went from famous to infamous as Arizona released a letter it sent to the NCAA in which it addressed numerous allegations of violations by its basketball program in connection with the tournament (the school refused further comment until the matter has concluded with the NCAA). The school also imposed sanctions against its basketball program that included the elimination of a scholarship for the 2011-12 season and recruiting restrictions. University officials conceded that they didn't properly monitor the basketball program run by legendary former coach
"The University of Arizona has a long tradition of maintaining the highest standards of integrity in its athletics programs," interim athletic director
That may be true of the basketball program now under first-year coach
Coaches at other universities have long complained about the recruiting edge Gibbons' tournament gave the Tobacco Road schools. It wasn't Gibbons' intent when he began organizing the tournament nearly 17 years ago, but in the parlance of the NCAA, the Tournament of Champions is one large "unofficial" visit involving the top players in the country. With more and more elite prospects verbally committing to schools long before the NCAA allows them to take official recruiting visits (which the schools can pay for), getting a player on campus for an unofficial visit can make all the difference.
In 2006, some of the coaches at Arizona were among those pondering how to increase the number of unofficial visits they received. The staff at the time was made up of Olson and three assistants, among them
Simon and Pastner, now the head coach at Memphis, are among a generation of coaches brought up in the grassroots game. They know how the system works and its many gray areas, and that was reflected in the idea to counter the advantage Gibbons' tournament gave to the North Carolina schools. A large tournament in Tuscon would sap recruits from the Tournament of Champions and give the Arizona coaches exclusive access to them.
The idea was first presented to an AAU coach well known by the coaches, according to a source close to the program, but that coach declined. That led Simon and Pastner to turn to
Storey told SI.com last year that the Cactus Classic was his brainchild. A Memphis spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment from Pastner, and Simon did not respond to a voice mail message seeking comment. The source close to the basketball program said that Storey was approached and later agreed to run the tournament in part because interviews, videos and photographs of players at the Cactus Classic could be posted on goazcats.com.
Storey was born in Korea and adopted by a couple in the United States. A smart and personable guy with spiked hair, he is an idea man and networker, and many of his past plans have involved leveraging his connection to Arizona athletics. He attended the university but left during his senior year to start a Web design company. His first client was Dirtbag's, a well-known bar near campus, and many of the 300 Web sites his company would build were connected directly or indirectly to the school, including the
Storey had so many ties to Arizona athletes and the school's athletic department it was easy to mistake him for a university employee. At a grassroots tournament in Las Vegas in 2006, Storey sat with and chatted with Olson for an entire game. He wore an Arizona basketball T-shirt in a section of the gym reserved for coaches, all of whom wore their school's name or logo on their clothing. Most observers would have mistaken him for an assistant coach.
In an article in the
The title sponsors of the 2006 Cactus Classic were First Magnus Financial Corporation and Hamilton Aerospace Technologies. First Magnus sponsored the backdrop in the Arizona athletic department's media room; the company's logo could be seen every time the basketball and football coaches held press conferences. The company also sponsored the "First Magnus Shootout," part of the Lute Olson All-Star Classic, a weekend of exhibition games and fundraisers featuring former Wildcats athletes. Hamilton Aerospace, like First Magnus, donated money to the athletic department, but it also employed
The tournament's connection to the Arizona athletic department, and specifically its basketball program, didn't end there. Among the tournaments other sponsors were
The dealerships that supplied Arizona coaches with cars, the long-time travel agency for the athletic department, and former Wildcat athletes
There was nothing about the setup that explicitly broke NCAA rules, but the transparency of the arrangement was striking. To run it Arizona coaches chose someone as indebted to the athletic department as you can get without drawing a check directly from the school, and boosters of the basketball program put their money behind it.
Wildcats assistant coaches Simon and Pastner encouraged grassroots coaches to bring their teams to the event, but the most convincing sales pitch came from Storey. For the top 24 teams he included with their $500 entry four hotel rooms and meals for their coaches and players. "Picking up the hotel costs, that was big," said Trigonis, the Belmont Shore coach, who brought his team to Tucson in 2006. "But don't underestimate the food. That's 10 kids whose meals I don't have to pay for. And that's for three days. I saved $2,000 right there." The food was served in the Hall of Champions; while eating recruits could look over the many trophies won by Olson's Wildcats.
That arrangement was what first got the attention of the NCAA, and players who attended the event and later enrolled at Arizona were forced to repay the cost of food as it was considered an improper inducement. The school's letter to the NCAA lists other allegations, including that
The most serious charge deals with a letter generated from Olson's office before the 2008 tournament that was marked "personal and confidential" and sent to the Rebounders Club board of directors. It read: "This tournament brings some of the top players in the country to Tucson and is very critical for our recruiting ... To ensure the future of this tournament, Jim needs support from private donations. The athletic department can't assist in any way. That is why your help is critical."
Olson initially denied sending the letter, which had his electronic signature on it. In its letter to the NCAA, the school said Olson "misled" the school's compliance officer regarding the origin of the letter and that he failed to "promote an atmosphere of compliance." The school then notes that Olson was having health problems at the time that "affected his decision-making abilities."
In its statement, Arizona said it would not comment further on the alleged violations, and Storey has repeatedly declined to discuss his role to the media in Arizona. Last year in an interview with SI.com, he downplayed a connection between the school and the Cactus Classic. "There is an unofficial connection, yes, between the school and the tournament, but if you ask anyone on staff at Arizona they will tell you they have nothing to do with it," he said. "Officially, there is no relationship. Yes, I have a relationship with the staff, but they don't have a relationship with the tournament."
But the school conceded that there was more than an "unofficial" connection between the school and the Cactus Classic, and that the coaches went too far. Among the players listed in the program for the 2006 tournament were
The Cactus Classic might have brought a scandal to Tucson, but it also brought talent, just as it was designed to do.