High school never was quite the way you remember it. The French teacher was never that tyrannical, the homecoming queen never that beautiful, the zit never that unsightly. High school basketball, on the other hand, seems almost perfect in retrospect. The long foldout wooden bleachers filling up during the jayvee game. The Pep Club spending its popcorn profits on paint and paper for homemade posters. Clunky yellow buses making the Friday night trek crosstown for the Big Game. Adolescence had its traumas, little things that at the time seemed humongous, but in the fevered sanctuary of the gym, everything was good and right and perfectly to scale.
High school basketball, alas, is no longer as you remember it. The cool kids are leaving the unwashed geeks behind. High school teams have been eclipsed by an elite layer of high school programs, powerhouses that can be found in every corner of the country—even if you can't be sure which corner they'll show up in for their next game.
These high-octane high schools now play national schedules. They appear on national television. They float up and down the Super 25 rankings in USA Today and wear sneakers provided gratis by shoe companies. (How many bags of groceries did you have to deliver to buy your first pair of Chuck Taylors?)
Nor will you find their coaches monitoring the cafeteria. They're in their offices, on the phone—with a tournament director in Hawaii or the parent of some hotshot eighth-grader who lives 20 miles away. The Big Game cross-town? It's for dorks. The scene now is tournaments and the tube, complimentary Nikes and The Nation's Newspaper—be there or be square.
Remember the episode of the old TV series The White Shadow in which coach Reeves takes Carver High to Las Vegas for a high school tournament? (Quick refresher: The guys break curfew, try sneaking into the casinos and are caught. Carver gets hammered in their game the next day, and the moral is told.) Well, 31 teams from across the country traveled to Las Vegas before Christmas for the Holiday Prep Classic, the largest regular-season high school tournament in the country.
A lot of very commendable, very scholastic things occurred during the four-day event. It was the first plane trip for many of the players, most of whom were quartered well away from the predatory Strip. No underage kids were found hanging around roulette wheels at 3 a.m. A perfectly ordinary team representing Pittsburgh's North Catholic High spent a year and a half raising money to make the trip, and thought to bring along its cheerleaders.
But the Holiday Prep Classic, a trail-blazer when it began 13 years ago, is now one of more than 30 such national tournaments that took place in December alone. The competition among them to lure the best teams with the most glamorous players is fierce and sometimes nasty. Scouts from the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., were in Vegas chatting up William Ellerbee, coach of Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High, because the Bulldogs have a 6'8" freshman, Rasheed Wallace, who the Beach Ball figures will be quite a drawing card over the next few seasons. "We already signed another team for next year," says Beach Ball director Eddie Oliver. "The coach said he wanted to commit to us to eliminate the pressure."
Tim Stevens, coordinator of The News and Observer Holiday Festival in Raleigh, N.C., says that on three occasions he has had schools pull out of his tournament for vague reasons. Each time, says Stevens, the team played in the Beach Ball instead.
"Each year it gets more and more cutthroat," says Larry McKay, an assistant principal at Rancho High in Las Vegas and the founder and director of the Holiday Prep Classic. "Some of these coaches want to be wined and dined. I've chased after some guys and been left with a really negative feeling. It's almost a prostitution situation."
Nonetheless, McKay has no intention of scaling back his event, which began with 16 western schools and a budget of $3,500. The budget has since grown to $100,000. This season he happily paid the way for Dunbar High of Washington, D.C., which was ranked No. 2 in USA Today's preseason poll and features a 6'8" blue-chipper, Providence-bound Michael Smith. "If you want to get national attention, it isn't enough to have teams from all over," says McKay. "You have to have the top players."
The top players now have name recognition. Sure, big men like Lew Alcindor and Ralph Sampson had followings in high school. But these days, by the time they choose colleges, even guards like Kenny Anderson (formerly of New York City's Archbishop Molloy and now a freshman at Georgia Tech) and Damon Bailey (a senior at Bedford-North Lawrence High who'll stay instate to play for Indiana next season) are nationally known figures with their own mythology. Part of the interest in the high schools is spillover from the enormous interest college basketball generated during the '80s. Recruiting newsletters now track a kid's every jumper and pronounce 13-year-olds "Division I locks." They also give the early line on what college he'll attend.
Get enough of these name players and you become the pubescent equivalent of the Hoyas and Hoosiers. Consider St. Nicholas of Tolentine of the Bronx, which features two schoolboy All-Americas, Syracuse-bound Adrian Autry and Tar-Heel-to-be Brian Reese. By March the Wildcats will have played in New Haven, Conn.; St. Louis; Kissimmee, Fla.; and Pine Bluff, Ark. Sister Rose Ellen Gorman, the school's principal, actually moved three of Tolentine's 1989-90 vacation days from February to December so the team could compete in last week's Great Florida Shootout without missing class.
Tulsa's Booker T. Washington High is another big-time power. Coach Nate Harris's team has four assistants and gets its Nikes free. The Hornets have two sets of uniforms and two sets of warmups, all with the players' names in script on the back. And cheerleaders alone don't lend sufficient support. Washington showed up in Vegas with a pom-pom squad, too.
"Because a school is nationally ranked, it gets free passage to these tournaments," says Bill Notley, who has coached at Lynwood High, just north of Long Beach, Calif., for 32 years and brought his Knights to Las Vegas only because it's within driving distance. "Then the kids say, 'I want to play at this school because it goes here and here and here.' How can I match that? The major powers say, 'You come to my school, you'll get free shoes and trips here or there—and a college scholarship.' The tournament wants you because you have a great player. And you get a great player by promising to play in a tournament."
In high school, they call that a clique. Coaches now must put in time at junior high games, "baby-sitting" kids in their district in the hope that they'll enroll in the fall, while all around rival coaches from outside the district are evaluating the same youngsters. "Nowadays, by the time a college coach gets involved with a high school player, it's the third time the kid's been recruited," says Long Beach State assistant Seth Greenberg. "The first time is in junior high, when he's recruited by the high school coaches. Then he's recruited by the various summer-league teams that want him. By the time we get to them, they're very experienced. Frankly, it creates in their minds an unrealistic view of their own worth."
If you don't believe Greenberg, listen to the innocent voices of youth. "Personally, I like playing on the road," says H (No, It Doesn't Stand for Anything) Waldman of Las Vegas Clark High, winner of the Holiday Prep Classic. "We get more of a team atmosphere. More of a gel among the players. At home, guys tend to show up a little late."
H, who's taking his J to UNLV, was selected MVP of the tournament, making 16 of 26 three-point attempts in five games. What with summer AAU play, camp visits and his school's sundry tournament appearances, basketball has already taken H to, among other places, Tennessee, Iowa, Indiana, Arizona and "California a lot."
Melvin Simon, a 6'8" senior at Archbishop Shaw High in Marrero, La., may play for a parochial school, but he's hardly a parochial fellow. He has been all over the country, too, and four days in Vegas was a mere stopover. Melvin, who is among the top players in the nation, has chosen the University of New Orleans over LSU, Alabama and USC. The one thing he hasn't done is enroll in a frequent-flyer program. "But I do know that you can pay a dollar and get $100,000 insurance," says Melvin sweetly. "And I pay it every time."
These kids know what they're worth, as do their coaches. Teams blessed with studhorses can wheedle the most advantageous terms out of tournament directors. Two years ago Shaw was just a sleepy football school and Melvin was an unknown. The Eagles had never produced a Division I scholarship basketball player, and had to pay their own way to a tournament in Ocala, Fla. Since then, coach Joey Stiebing has taken Shaw to five out-of-state competitions and this season chose all-expenses-paid trips to Las Vegas and Myrtle Beach from among 10 offers.
The money is plentiful. Las Vegas Events, an athletic board of tourism, and Jostens, the ring company, bankrolled most of the Holiday Prep Classic's $100,000 budget. Save for the odd hurricane, the Beach Ball is the highlight of Myrtle Beach's postsummer calendar, and the King Cotton Holiday Classic in Pine Bluff, Ark., is a totem of civic pride. Thus, those two events also have generous sponsorship and a mandate to put on a good show. "Everybody wants the best teams and the biggest names," says King Cotton executive director Travis Creed. "It could become a free-enterprise system out of control, with coaches who not only want money for their programs, but for their pockets, or with a seven-foot center who has never owned a car suddenly driving one. Before long the same thing that's going on in college could be going on in high school."
That time may already have arrived, judging from these developments:
•Shoe deals. After Tolentine won the 1988 New York State championship, five shoe companies approached John Sarandrea, the Wildcats' coach at the time, with packages, some worth as much as $10,000 in cash and merchandise. He had to turn them down because he already had a deal with Spot-Bilt shoes.
In 1986, DaneSport, a Reebok distributor in the Southeast, offered Don (Duck) Richardson, coach of Macon Southwest, a perennial Georgia power, 88 pairs of shoes, team sweats, a series of paid speaking engagements, and shoes and sweats for Richardson and his family if the Patriots would wear Reeboks. In addition, DaneSport proffered Richardson a "cash allowance" of $5,400 over the three years of the proposed arrangement. A sweet deal—but not so sweet that Richardson didn't reject it to stay with Nike, which was giving him at least 50 to 75 pairs annually.
Nike also provides shoes for Landon Cox, who coaches USA Today's No. 1 team, Martin Luther King High in Chicago, and Detroit Southwestern coach Perry Watson, whose team has played for the Michigan state championship in seven of the last eight years. Both men receive 50 to 75 pairs of sneakers a year. The usual 12-man squad can't possibly go through that many shoes during a season, which raises the question of what happens to the leftovers. Basketball people in Chicago and Detroit have accused Cox and Watson of using the extras to induce junior high kids to come aboard. Cox and Watson both vehemently deny the accusation.
•TV coverage. It used to be that when a youngster bricked a one-and-one chance at the end of the game, he didn't have to give an accounting to anyone but his classmates on Monday morning. Now the global village gets to see him, thanks to Sports Channel America's deal with the National Federation of State High School Associations. A game of the week, featuring the usual high-profile programs, is beamed to a potential audience of 8.5 million subscribers nationwide.
•Summer circuit. The kid who once spent his summers hanging out with Betty Lou down at the malt shop now jets around the country, preening for recruiters at camps and barnstorming with the summer teams. The camps have become more and more important, because most colleges like to wrap up recruiting during the November early-signing period. Indeed, the most powerful college programs can pressure a youngster by saying, "Sign with us now or we'll go sign someone else."
With the early-signing period, which was instituted in 1982, recruiters now must identify the premier youngsters sooner than before. Last season, when 6'11" Rashard Griffith of Chicago's Martin Luther King High (box, page 27) was in eighth grade, Indiana assistant coach Joby Wright looked in on one of his games during a nonevaluation period, when coaches are not allowed to attend high school games. The NCAA threw up its hands, because its rules about scouting only cover grades nine through 12. "I have stacks of letters for my sophomores," says Gene Pingatore, who coached Detroit Piston guard Isiah Thomas at St. Joesph High in suburban Chicago. "Colleges even bug the freshmen and give them an inflated idea of their potential. Shouldn't kids be allowed to enjoy their high school years and concentrate on their educations?"
There are a few redoubts of resistance to the most recent developments in the high school game. Such states as Indiana, Michigan and Illinois have longstanding rules that restrict the distances their teams may travel and don't intend to rescind them. Jack Roberts of the Michigan High School Athletic Association says his group is doing what it can, particularly in limiting trips for summer teams. "It's inevitable that the reach of the big time gets to the lower levels," he says, "but we're trying to slow down the process and shorten that reach. High school basketball is on the verge of excess. Not in 650 of our schools here in Michigan, but in the other 50. The big time isn't necessarily the better time."
But the big time is what's happening, and as any teen will tell you, what's happening is what counts. "The question now is, When will the junior highs start recruiting the elementary school kids?" says Garth Franklin, a Los Angeles-based schoolboy scout and the editor of The Hoop Scoop, a recruiting magazine.
The answer may be becoming clear. Every recruiter knows about Alex Lopez, a 6'9" eighth-grader at Porter Junior High in Granada Hills, Calif. But how many know that in 1988 his mom gave birth to twins who have a good chance of becoming seven-footers?
At least one, rumor has it. "Word is," says Franklin, "there was a recruiter in the maternity ward."