His face clouds over. His tongue turns sharp. It is nearly
midnight, and Lou d'Almeida, the founder of the barnstorming New
York City Gauchos prep basketball team, suddenly seems nothing
like the softhearted multimillionaire philanthropist he claims
to be. He is eating a postgame dinner in a Denny's restaurant
that hugs a freeway in Jacksonville, and as he stabs at his
catfish fillet with his fork, he muses about criticism of his
program. Such as published reports that he jeopardized the NCAA
eligibility of Georgia Tech's star recruit, Stephon Marbury, by
giving him a car earlier this year. "The NCAA is so ridiculous,
it's mind-boggling," D'Almeida fumes. And the other detractors
who claim altruism is the least of his motives? "Lowlifes,"
D'Almeida says. "There was a time when it bothered me. Right,
Gaucho coach Fred Neal, who is seated next to D'Almeida, nods
and says, "People might say we prostitute kids, but the colleges
are doing the same thing. The NCAA knows what's going on. Once
in a while they try to clean up the mess. But when it's
involving millions of dollars that the universities are making
and the NCAA is making, they're really not going to punish
So frontier justice and money rules. Or at least it rules at the
very top of the so-called "summer" basketball tour, a circuit
that actually lasts from April to September. The tour grew in
importance in direct response to some college recruiting rules
changes--the 1982 creation of the November early-signing period,
and recent NCAA rules that limit college coaches' access to
high school players to two scouting visits during the school
year. Before the latter changes, recruiters watched kids play
during the high school season and wooed the players' prep
coaches almost as much as they wooed the kids and their parents.
Now college recruiters do most of their scouting during the
three-week evaluation window permitted each July. The shift in
emphasis has forced college coaches to deal directly with a new
group of power brokers: private-team operators like D'Almeida
who are regulated by no one, work for no one and are seemingly
free to cut deals with prep stars as they please.
Since the players now must play in the summer leagues to be seen
by the largest number of college recruiters, the summer
basketball tour has become big business. Sixty-nine events
clogged the college coaches' 23-day summer evaluation period
this year. The biggest attractions were two tournaments held
simultaneously in Las Vegas during the last week of July: Nike's
National Prep Basketball Championship and Adidas's Big Time
Classic. Those events, at separate gyms not far from the Strip,
drew at least 400 college coaches to watch 259 teams and more
than 2,000 players from 30 states and four foreign countries.
On the way to making his Gauchos the most-renowned traveling
team on the summer tour, D'Almeida has featured a Who's Who of
recent New York City basketball stars: eventual NBA players such
as Albert King, Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson, John Salley, Rod
Strickland, Lloyd Daniels, Kenny Anderson and Jamal Mashburn,
and the top-ranked recruits in the nation the past two
years--Felipe Lopez (now a sophomore at St. John's) and Marbury.
D'Almeida founded the Gaucho organization 28 years ago, and
since then it has grown into what he calls a "recreation and
educational program" providing league play and, in some cases,
tutoring to about 500 boys between the ages of eight and 19 in
New York City. The program is run by a nonprofit corporation
called Teamwork Foundation, Inc., and it has an operating budget
approaching a half-million dollars a year. No player is cut
until he reaches the 13-and-over divisions, tryouts for which
annually draw about 2,000 boys.
D'Almeida says the Gauchos spend about $100,000 a year on
tuition for the 20 to 30 players he sends to various private
schools. He is frank about other handouts he bestows: SAT and
ACT tutoring help; meals, clothing and money for transportation
to practice. He has supplied players with legal help, bailed
them out of jail, paid their families' overdue utility bills. He
has found jobs for players' relatives and helped former players
start businesses. Marbury's mother, Mabel, has traveled with the
Gauchos gratis to the Bahamas and Florida. D'Almeida says he
does all of this out of the goodness of his heart.
"With a lot of these kids, every day is a fight for survival,"
he says. "Maybe the mother's an alcoholic, maybe the father's a
drunk, a dope addict. [The program] means so much to the kids.
At least they belong to something. They are Gauchos. It's a
badge of honor. It's a little shred of hope."
Over time, D'Almeida's extravagances have become legendary. In
1986 he finished building the Gauchos' $2.5 million gym in a
converted warehouse amid the devastation of the South Bronx. He
has taken his teams on trips to Israel, France and Hawaii. Along
the way he has picked up endorsements from a long list of
respected civic and corporate leaders. (As part of a 1986 civil
lawsuit arising out of a real estate dispute, D'Almeida filed a
200-plus page brief that included testimonials to his basketball
program from respected figures such as former New York governor
Yet people still hotly debate whether D'Almeida is a sinner or a
saint. NCAA investigators took a month to say they wouldn't
punish Marbury for accepting the use of a 1987 Acura Legend
belonging to D'Almeida, because D'Almeida had a longstanding
relationship with the player's family. By the time the Gauchos'
stay in Vegas concluded in July, the coach of a rival club,
Brooklyn USA, had run to reporters and falsely accused Gaucho
supporters of "kidnapping" two of his players. Less than two
weeks later, a disgruntled former player and tutor for the
Gauchos smeared D'Almeida in faxes sent to two members of the
Gaucho board of directors, and he later claimed to have enough
dirt on D'Almeida to land a million-dollar book advance.
Wearily, D'Almeida says, "People have no idea what goes into
No, they don't.
Most of the top touring teams, such as the Gauchos, cut
six-figure deals with warring sneaker companies like Nike and
Adidas. Then many of the clubs compete for players by dangling
perks before them, such as travel, free sneakers and gear,
under-the-table cash, jewelry and clothing.
The top clubs frequently raid the rosters of less lavishly
funded programs, treating them as if they were farm teams.
D'Almeida and other team directors also routinely "import"
out-of-state talent for big tournaments, often after casing the
players the competition has brought in. To win this year's
Golden Hoops, the mid-August tournament that is the de facto
club championship of New York City, the Gauchos' starting five
included two players from Florida and one from Texas, plus a
point guard who is a prep star in New Jersey.
The high-profile summer tournaments and camps all woo the same
small cadre of teams and star players by waiving fees and
offering all-expenses-paid trips to their attractive locations:
Vegas, Southern California, Florida. Once there, the players
find gym hallways clotted with agents' bird dogs and street
hustlers who deliver kids to schools for a fee. "A lot of the
time, the recruiting among [summer teams] is just as fierce as
it is among colleges," says Kansas coach Roy Williams.
Nearly every large city now has a touring prep team. The
Gauchos' 70-to-80-game annual schedule might sound daunting, but
the Boston Amateur Basketball Club typically plays more than 100
games a year, roughly the same as a team that makes the NBA
Finals. By the time BABC coach Leo Papile and his boys pulled
into Vegas in July, they had been on the road a month.
If the BABC players are the summer's iron men, the Pump'N'Runs,
a Southern California-based entry in Vegas, could have touted
themselves as the tour's one-stop shopping program. Club
operator David Pump of Northridge managed five youth camps this
year and took two touring teams to Vegas. He has a sponsorship
deal with Adidas, as do the Gauchos. Dana Pump, David's
28-year-old identical-twin brother and business partner, works
as a consultant to sports agent Arn Tellem. "But, uh...if you
could, keep Dana's name out of this high school stuff now," says
David. Right. He works for an agent, and high school players who
consort with agents could lose their college eligibility.
Says former Southern Cal coach George Raveling, "The summertime
is the most-abused part of basketball competition. The new rules
have legitimized a lot of people who don't have the kids' best
interests at heart. Each summer you see more and more potential
for abuse. And the only thing that will bring it to a head is a
Kidnapping would qualify as a scandal, but it's a charge
D'Almeida dismisses as "a complete joke." Tom (Ziggy) Sicignano,
the coach of the Brooklyn USA team, accused the Gauchos of
spiriting away one of his players, Allen Griffin, who
disappeared from the team hotel in Las Vegas one night.
Sicignano took back the charge within days, however. It turned
out that Griffin had wandered across the street to the MGM Grand
hotel and casino, where he ran into an old Brooklyn pal who's
now in Mike Tyson's entourage. The man gave Griffin, an
11th-grader, an MGM room of his own for the night.
The question of where D'Almeida fits into this world elicits a
variety of responses. He moves in New York's old-money,
high-society crowd. Over the years he has counted among his
friends showbiz types like Leonard Bernstein, the late composer
and conductor, and some of the leading CEOs in U.S. industry:
Edgar Bronfman Jr. of Seagram Co. and Jonathan Tisch of Loews
One former Gaucho fondly calls D'Almeida the "Santa Claus of the
Bronx." But critics, including some former players, say that
D'Almeida has a win-at-all-costs mentality; that he is obsessed
with outdoing his crosstown rival, Ernie Lorch of the Riverside
Hawks; and that he commits sundry transgressions, starting with
paying kids to play, a charge he denies. And even in summer
basketball, a milieu glutted with questionable characters,
D'Almeida is distinguished by a little-known episode in his past.
In 1971, D'Almeida pleaded guilty to a charge of criminally
negligent homicide and was sentenced to five years' probation
for the 1969 shooting death of Gerald Gerardo, 20, a former New
York City club champion diver who frequented the same Manhattan
YMCA as D'Almeida. In a plea agreement, assistant district
attorney Gino Gallina had knocked down the charge from
second-degree manslaughter and promised that his office would
recommend probation in exchange for D'Almeida's cooperation in
an ongoing investigation of organized crime. Shortly after that
deal was struck, Gallina went into private practice--as a lawyer
for the mob, according to informant Martin Light's 1986
testimony before the President's Commission on Organized Crime.
In 1977 Gallina was walking down a street in Greenwich Village
when he was gunned down in what police described as a gangland
Over the years D'Almeida has given two different explanations
for what happened the night Gerardo was fatally wounded in a
private parking garage on East 82nd Street in Manhattan.
According to congressional testimony and newspaper reports,
D'Almeida told police that after a "quarrel" with Gerardo,
D'Almeida tried to commit suicide with his unregistered
.45-caliber revolver. Gerardo attempted to wrest away the gun,
D'Almeida said, and it went off, shooting Gerardo once in the
chest. But in an affidavit filed in the '86 civil suit over a
real estate deal, D'Almeida said it was Gerardo who tried to
commit suicide that night.
Asked now about the two different versions, D'Almeida says, "I
tried to prevent this kid from, you know, killing himself....
It's a clearly crushing thing. Since I was the only person who
was a witness, I had to testify. But obviously I wasn't involved."
Glen Whitten, Gerardo's club diving coach for five years,
emphatically disagrees. "No way." Whitten, a retired dentist and
a 1956 U.S. Olympic diver, says Gallina questioned him about
Gerardo and D'Almeida after the shooting, and Whitten himself
kept close tabs on the investigation throughout. He adds, "I
think I know as much about the case as anybody."
When Gerardo was 15 or 16, says Whitten, D'Almeida befriended
him. D'Almeida picked up Gerardo after diving workouts, treated
him to dinners, took him on at least one trip, to Arizona. By
the time Gerardo left for his freshman year at Ball State in
Indiana, according to Whitten, D'Almeida was also trying to
help him launch a modeling career. "I saw the photographs,"
Whitten says. (D'Almeida denies that he was helping to get
Gerardo into the modeling business and says only that he helped
get him a job at NBC.)
The last time Whitten and Gerardo spoke was at a diving workout
two or three nights before the shooting. "Gerry told me he and
Lou had some kind of fight," Whitten says. "I know Gerry had
some things, clothes, over at Lou's house, and he had taken them
out that day, or the day before [he was shot]."
Pressed a second time for an explanation of the discrepancy
between his two versions of the story, D'Almeida repeats, "He
ended up killing himself.... That's what I'm telling you. It
hurts me to talk about it now. It's over. You do go on with your
With D'Almeida, it's always hard to tell if appearances are
quite what they seem. He is Yale-educated and is conversant in
four languages. Now 61 and a lifelong bachelor, he has resided
in the same penthouse apartment on West 57th Street much of his
adult life. He was born in Paris but raised in Buenos Aires
until age 14, when his father, Baron Antonio D'Almeida of
Portugal, died suddenly at age 47 from a cerebral hemorrhage.
D'Almeida's mother promptly moved to New York with Lou and his
two brothers. Within two years she had opened a boutique and
married Paul Felix Warburg, a prominent U.S. diplomat and
Yet gilt-edged as D'Almeida's background is, and as busy as he
is managing his real estate interests, he has never just cut the
checks for the Gauchos. During Gaucho road trips he can always
be found staying in the same modestly priced motels or picking
up the team's dinner bills.
D'Almeida did not play basketball. He says he fell into it by
accident. In 1967 a friend asked D'Almeida to buy T-shirts for a
14-to-15-year-old boys' YMCA team. When the team's coach
abruptly quit, D'Almeida agreed to fill in temporarily. "And I
was hooked," he says.
Clearly, D'Almeida loves running the Gauchos and being part of
the avaricious world of summer basketball: the roster wheeling
and dealing, the Runyonesque dese-and-dose guys he meets on the
tour, the ghetto kids who, he says, are grateful for his
largesse but are "always looking to get over on me. The older
they get, the more demanding they get. Just greedy and hateful."
Nevertheless, D'Almeida denies that his extravagance has a
corrupting influence on kids. Most of his teenage players come
from the ramshackle apartment buildings, projects and welfare
hotels of Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. D'Almeida fancies
himself more than just a rogue or a benign benefactor. He is a
self-styled Robin Hood, helping the poor get some small share of
the world's riches. And to D'Almeida, his is a noble war, one
that can justify rule breaking. The line he keeps repeating
feverishly is, "The need of these kids is so great."
But within seconds D'Almeida gives his detractors ammunition. He
has a strong contempt for "bull---- bureaucracies," his umbrella
term for irritants such as the NCAA and the New York State
agency that suspended the Gauchos' status as a not-for-profit
organization for eight months this year because they had failed
to file financial reports in 1993 and '94.
In conversation he brags of having intimidated a city caseworker
to help an ex-Gaucho whose wages were about to be garnished.
D'Almeida delightedly tells of paying a pal to exempt the
Gauchos' gym from borough parking regulations. ("He said,
'Looie, it's gonna cost ya $5,000, Looie,'" D'Almeida says. "'Do
ya got $5,000?'") He boasts of "conning" a player into a
Connecticut college by making an appointment with "this
pipe-smoking university president" who balked until D'Almeida
told him, "You know, you're going to look like a total ----. I can
get this kid into Yale.
"Which was total bull!" D'Almeida says. "I never talked to
anyone from Yale."
For all the valuable exposure and experience the top touring
teams give their teenage players, there can be a damaging flip
side to the tour, according to the high school and college
coaches to whom the kids return each fall. Often the things that
boys do to enhance their basketball careers actually have the
opposite effect. Many players forsake their schoolwork and
declare "majors" in athletics as early as the eighth
grade--about the same time the street agents first start plying
them with gifts and exaggerated promises. Coach after coach says
summer teams don't teach skills or teamwork, but merely put kids
on display. College coaches such as Michigan's Steve Fisher and
UCLA assistant Lorenzo Romar say high schoolers who have
received handouts don't just ask for payoffs as they head to
college: They feel entitled to them.
As Adidas's director of basketball, Sonny Vaccaro, explains it,
"Somewhere along the line someone gives them the picture: Your
college coach is making a million dollars from shoes, your
school is making $10 million from television, the university got
$30 million in bequeaths--and you've got nothing. You show me one
great college player who's not driving somebody else's car this
summer, and I'll show you one big fool. Or a guy who has no
Already, Marbury mouths the modern player's mantra that
"basketball is definitely a business. They use you. And you use
them." And D'Almeida hardly seems chastened by their shared
brush with the NCAA.
"The NCAA, NCAA, NCAA," D'Almeida bristles. "They came to see
me. Guys with briefcases, short sleeves, ties. These kids have
nothing, and the NCAA is running around trying to plug up every
possible avenue that they have to get anything--Oops! Where'd you
get that $20? Well, you know they're going to get it somewhere.
If one of my guys calls and asks for a humanitarian-type thing,
I'm going to help him. If you knew how much is going on
defensively out here, where we have to say, 'Look, if we don't
do it this way, we'll get a guy in trouble with the NCAA....'
So, you just do everything sub rosa. I mean, you know--cash."
D'Almeida has always helped mediocre players as well as future
superstars. But it's undoubtedly the Gauchos' touring team that
attracts the most flak.
Russell Smith, now 24, says he was part of the team on which
D'Almeida lavished $1,000 rings for winning the 1987 Senior Boys
19-and-under AAU National Championship Tournament in Iowa. The
rings never prompted an NCAA investigation. But D'Almeida was
investigated for having paid Portland Trail Blazer guard Rod
Strickland's tuition to a Virginia boarding school, and he was
accused in published reports of giving former Syracuse star
Dwayne (Pearl) Washington a motorcycle and of paying Lloyd
Daniels to play for the Gauchos in the mid '80s. None of those
charges ever stuck.
Still, most days that D'Almeida is at his gym or at New York
City playgrounds, he flashes a roll of money--usually a few $100
bills wrapped around a thick wad of smaller bills. Players
constantly ask him for handouts. Often D'Almeida will motion a
kid to join him for a walk around the block or a closed-door
meeting in his office on the second floor of the gym. D'Almeida
readily admits to slipping players "$10 or $20 for
transportation or whatever." But he denies longstanding charges
that he pays $50 to $100 finder's fees to boys who deliver other
top players. And he emphatically says, "I've never paid anybody
to play in anything, ever."
Nonetheless, players do seem to end up with D'Almeida's money.
Bob Leckie, the coach at Bishop Loughlin High, says one of his
players asked him in December 1992 to cash a $250 check from
D'Almeida. "I said, 'What the hell did you have to do to get
$250 from D'Almeida?'" Leckie recalls. "The kid said, 'Nothing.
Lou just gave it to me so I could buy my parents Christmas
But such charitable gestures often come with strings attached.
Source after source--players, Gaucho parents, coaches and rival
club operators--say D'Almeida does some good, but he also
doesn't hesitate to call in chits or demand loyalty when it will
help his program. "I want to be the best," D'Almeida admits.
"This isn't babysitting."
No, it's not. Pipette-thin Ernest Brown, a 6'9" sophomore from
St. Raymond's High in the Bronx, injured his shoulder in an
early-round game in Las Vegas, ignored a trainer's advice to
rest the shoulder and separated it the next night--earning
himself a date on the operating table. But Brown barely had time
to ice the injury that night before D'Almeida put out a
long-distance call for Issiah Epps, a 6'9" South Carolinian who
arrived in Vegas the next day.
Several New York City high school coaches, including Leckie and
Gary Decesare of St. Raymond's, say they've had players whose
tuition went unpaid by the Gauchos because the kids failed to
show up at club games or played for other club teams. Decesare
and others, including one former Gaucho tutor, are among those
who challenge D'Almeida's claim that the program improves his
kids' academic performances. "I've gone down there and told the
Gauchos, 'This kid's failing two or three subjects, and he's out
here being made a star when he can't play for his high school,'"
Georgetown coach John Thompson has loudly complained that the
new NCAA rules make it harder for a college coach to establish a
relationship with a kid than it is for a street agent to do so.
Despite its billion-dollar TV contract for college basketball,
the NCAA has an enforcement staff of only 20. Bishop Ford coach
Ray Nash, the current director of the New York State Catholic
High School Athletic Association, says many coaches look at the
NCAA's puny investigative force and at the problems in summer
basketball, and they morosely conclude, "The NCAA doesn't want
to take this on."
In fact, the threat of significant penalties is perceived to be
so weak that even Adidas's Vaccaro--whom scouting service
director Bob Gibbons calls the "master vampire in all this" for
having started the summer madness by tossing around
sneaker-company money until he had "a lot of little vampires
just like him"--chides the NCAA for letting the summer scene get
out of control.
"It's ludicrous to think that the NCAA, in their infinite
wisdom, would allow this to be--where these summer people can
come to Las Vegas with a group, and these kids can just roam the
streets freely," Vaccaro said during his Adidas tournament. "If
you go out on the Strip tonight, I guarantee you, you'll see a
group of players that happen to be someplace where someone is
recruiting them. I know it for a fact. So where do you see the
sanity in this? The rules are ridiculous. They're made by people
who have no idea what they're making, so it's easy to circumvent
them. It's legally easy."
Worse, there is no serious movement for change. Not in the NCAA.
Not in the National Federation of State High School
Associations. And not in the National Association of Basketball
Coaches. Some state high school associations, including New
York's public schools, have passed rules allowing high school
coaches to work with summer teams. But the sad truth is that
there is no single malignancy that, if cut out, would cure the
"The only way to stop it is to shut it down--make the summer
dead," says Gibbons.
"The whole summer issue needs to be addressed," says Georgia
Tech coach Bobby Cremins.
Left alone, summer basketball will only get worse. There are
more touring teams all the time. Good people are leaving the
scene, fed up with what it takes to compete. But that only
creates more room for the power brokers who are bankrolling
kids, and the flesh peddlers who are getting paid to deliver
players to colleges or agents.
With such unscrupulous characters having knowledge of deals that
can cost a college player his eligibility, it does not require a
great leap to imagine a recurrence of the college point-shaving
scandals of the 1950s. "It definitely could happen," says
Vaccaro, whose brother, Jimmy, runs the sports book at the
Mirage in Vegas. "When you are obligated to somebody and they
call the markers in, you better be prepared to do one of two
things: You better be prepared to do what they ask. Or run."
As long as everyone keeps running away from the summer tour's
problems and the Faustian pacts being forged there, little is
likely to improve. Those "vampires" Gibbons mentioned no longer
bother waiting for the cover of night. They're out there sucking
blood from the streets in the naked light of day.
what they seem.