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 Lute Olson, who was directly involved in at least one alleged violation. The NCAA's Committee on Infractions will review the university's response and choice of penalties in April, and it could accept the findings or impose further penalties.
"The University of Arizona has a long tradition of maintaining the highest standards of integrity in its athletics programs," interim athletic director Kathleen "Rocky" LaRose said in a statement released with the letter to the NCAA. "The University is deeply and profoundly committed to honor not just the letter, but the spirit of the NCAA's efforts to foster fair and ethical competition."
That may be true of the basketball program now under first-year coach Sean Miller, who succeeded Olson, but that wasn't the case in 2006. To understand their actions and how the Cactus Classic came to be, you have to start 3,000 miles east, in North Carolina on Tobacco Road.
Each May,renowned talent evaluator Bob Gibbons holds an elite tournament on the campuses of Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State. Hundreds of kids attend the event, and like the Cactus Classic, the Tournament of Champions falls in a recruiting dead period. The coaches of the Tobacco Road universities cannot host recruits or watch them play, but a little-known exception to NCAA rules allow for a recruit to meet with coaches after his team is eliminated from the tournament, which the North Carolina schools have used to their advantage.
In 2002, DeMarcus Nelson of Fairfield, Calif., traveled to the Tournament of Champions with his grassroots team, Belmont Shore. To that point, Duke had not recruited Nelson, who was a sophomore. Belmont Shore's first game was held at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, and Nelson scored 38 points against a team from Michigan. The game was filmed and Nelson's AAU coach, Dinos Trigonis, would later learn that the Duke coaches watched the tape of the game almost immediately after it was over. When Belmont Shore was knocked out of the tournament a few days later, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski asked Nelson to meet with him in his office. Their conversation lasted three hours, during which time Krzyzewski offered Nelson a scholarship and he accepted. At the time, he was the youngest player to verbally commit to Duke.
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 Miles Simon and Josh Pastner. The assistants were young and aggressive recruiters. Simon, a former Wildcats star, once played for infamous Southern California grassroots coach Pat Barrett, whose dealings with agents have been well-chronicled by SI and others, and for Arizona he worked the ultracompetitive Southern California market. Pastner's father, Hal, was a longtime AAU coach in Houston and staged the Kingwood Classic, one of the spring's most prestigious tournaments.
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 Jim Storey, best known to followers of Wildcats sports as the creator, in 2002, of goazcats.com, which is billed as "The Totally Unofficial UofA Fan Site."
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 Luke Walton & Richard Jefferson Basketball Camp, Miles Simon Productions, and other businesses that sponsored the school's athletic programs. He later founded a company that sold memorabilia signed by Olson and Simon and launched Southwest Sports Management Group, which represented Simon and former Arizona swimmer and Olympic gold medalist Ryk Neethling.
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 Arizona Daily Star before the first Cactus Classic, Storey said of the tournament: "The biggest motivation, which I've experienced [at tournaments] in Las Vegas and Houston, is that it's so exciting to watch the new talent of tomorrow, future NBA guys. I thought this would be fantastic for Tucson, which is such a good basketball town." No bones were made about the advantage it would give the basketball program. "It's like guys getting an unofficial visit to the campus," Olson told the Star. "Although we can't be involved or anything else, they can [look] on their own and it's really important for them to get a feel for the arena and campus."
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 Matt Brase, Olson's grandson. Brase would later be named one of Olson's assistants, but not before filling the role of assistant coordinator of the Cactus Classic.
The tournament's connection to the Arizona athletic department, and specifically its basketball program, didn't end there. Among the tournaments other sponsors were Jim Click, Bill Estes and George Rountree. The Jim Click Hall of Champions is the school's 9,000 square foot display room for its trophies and awards, which is near the Bill Estes Jr. Family Strength and Conditioning Center and the Rountree Mezzanine. Click and Estes were included on the search committee when Arizona went looking for a new football coach in 2003, the supreme sign of a booster's influence.
The dealerships that supplied Arizona coaches with cars, the long-time travel agency for the athletic department, and former Wildcat athletes A.J. Bramlett and Nyal Leslie all sponsored the Cactus Classic, along with others listed as "Cat Backers" on the athletic department Web site. In subsequent years, the connections to the basketball program would become even more obvious. The title sponsors of the 2008 Cactus Classic were former Arizona basketball players Gilbert Arenas and Damon Stoudamire.
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 Russell Pennell and Mike Dunlap attended the 2008 Cactus Classic when they were in the process of being hired as assistant coaches. They were forbidden to attend because the event fell during a recruiting dead period and they were technically university employees.
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 Jamelle Horne, Alex Jacobson, Brendon Lavender and Zane Johnson, all of whom eventually signed with the school. (Another, Brandon Jennings, committed to Arizona but failed to qualify academically and never enrolled.) Horn, Jacobson and Lavender are still on the team and have helped smooth the transition to Miller, the new coach.
The Cactus Classic might have brought a scandal to Tucson, but it also brought talent, just as it was designed to do.