The Young And The Restless

The best prospects frequently arrive on campus—if they ever get there—with an outsized sense of entitlement that too often sets them adrift
February 23, 1998

Last fall JaRon Rush

, a 6'7" senior at Kansas City's Pembroke
Hill School, announced that he intended to go to Kansas. Last
week he said that on second thought, he might not. "Roy
substitutes too much," he explained.

The Roy in question is Jayhawks coach Roy Williams, a man who
either doesn't merit the courtesy of being called Coach or has
gotten to know JaRon so well from recruiting him that the two
are on a first-name basis. JaRon added that he would be
considering other schools where, in his seasoned judgment,
coaches' substitution patterns would better allow "[NBA] scouts
to come see me play."

Two days after JaRon's comments, Williams made an announcement
of his own. Striking a rare note of sanity in the increasingly
surreal intersection between college basketball and the
recruiting demimonde that feeds it, he said that Kansas would be
recruiting JaRon Rush no more. "Up until the last couple of
years I've enjoyed recruiting," Williams said. "I don't enjoy it
in 99.9 percent of the cases now. It's always been hard. Now
it's gotten to be demeaning."

Thanks to Tom Grant, the millionaire health-care executive who
bankrolled the Children's Mercy Hospital 76ers, the Kansas City
AAU team with which JaRon has played and traveled since he was
11 years old, JaRon already drives a $17,000 1995 Geo Tracker
that is leased to Grant. According to Basketball Times, Rush has
traveled the world, including vacation trips to the Cayman
Islands, and been plied with everything from pricey dental work
to clothing, all by Grant. As one of the finest small forward
prospects in the nation, he will be welcomed elsewhere, but it's
far less certain that he will ever amount to anything
commensurate with his extravagant billing. For wherever he goes,
he will likely tote around an outsized sense of entitlement. If
he doesn't like something he's asked to do, JaRon will be
tempted to change the channel, either by lighting out for the
NBA (for which, in all likelihood, he won't be ready) or by
initiating a transfer to another school. "Here's a kid who
hasn't even been to college," says Bob Gibbons, publisher of the
recruiting newsletter All-Star Sports, "and he has already
transferred."

JaRon is as good a poster child as any for basketball's
remote-control generation, a cohort of kids with such short
attention spans that they're here, they're there, and in the end
an alarming number are nowhere (chart). Go down the list of last
year's top 15 prospects and count the number currently playing
college basketball who haven't been scarred by some
trauma--whether academic ineligibility, a disjunctive transfer
or physical, psychological or emotional problems. You'll find
disturbingly few.

The troubles can be traced to a culture that spoils adolescents
through the fawning environment they encounter while attending
select summer camps and playing for so-called traveling teams,
where few of the restrictions enforced by high school teams are
observed. That culture in turn breeds attitudes in a young
prospect, ranging from a belief that he's not subject to the
rules that apply to other students, to an impatience to score
the NBA millions that supertalents Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett
got without bothering to go to college. "Kids come to you these
days with two primary needs," says Iowa State coach Tim Floyd.
"Playing time and winning. In that order." Meanwhile more and
more high school stars are having their standardized test scores
challenged--evidence that their sense of entitlement sometimes
extends to an expectation that if you can't qualify on your own,
someone will do it for you (SI, July 7, 1997).

No matter who's to blame for this environment, college coaches
have accommodated it. "Years ago, if we heard about a kid
wanting to transfer, a red flag went up," says Texas Tech coach
James Dickey. "Something was wrong. Now, a hundred of us are in
line trying to get him." At the same time the top prospects are
subjected to media scrutiny with which they're ill-equipped to
deal--from recruiting services like Gibbons's to SI, which four
years ago anointed Schea Cotton of Lakewood, Calif., as one of
the best players in the land after his freshman year in high
school, and last summer raised questions about the ACT score of
UNLV recruit Lamar Odom, who has been a basketball vagabond ever
since. The media are complicit in the process in a way similar
to what physicists know as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle:
By observing something, you change it.

There are other forces at play, none more deleterious than the
shoe companies' conscription of high schoolers as foot soldiers
in the sneaker wars. Eight years ago Sonny Vaccaro described the
recruiting underworld as "a cesspool, and we start the process."
Vaccaro worked for Nike at the time, spreading shoes and cash in
the hope of locking up the high school players and coaches who
would be the company's next generation of endorsers. Now with
Adidas, Vaccaro vies with Nike consultant George Raveling for
the next Bryants and Garnetts; and the cesspool has become a
huge toxic-waste dump. Few in the game can tell you who JaRon
Rush's high school coach is, but most can name his AAU coach:
Myron Piggie, a Kansas Citian with few credentials other than a
generous cash and merchandise stake from Nike, and a rap sheet
with a felony conviction for conspiracy to sell cocaine.

It used to be that the high school coach was a reliable educator
who could clean up after the bacchanalia of summer camps and
travel, but now he's often also a conduit for the shoe
companies. Oak Hill Academy, the Mouth of Wilson, Va., prep
school that has long been a way station for kids with talent but
dodgy academic credentials, is a Nike-sponsored school that so
far this season has flown its team to Nike-sponsored tournaments
in Oregon and Southern California and has also gone overseas to
play in The Netherlands. DerMarr Johnson, a 6'9" junior who's
believed to be the most likely high schooler to skip college for
the pros, wore Nikes as a freshman at Parkdale High in
Riverdale, Md. Now he's a junior at Newport Prep in nearby
Kensington, and he wears Adidas. Tyson Chandler, a 7-foot
ninth-grader in Southern California, now attends Compton's
Dominguez High, a Nike school that is 60 minutes away from his
home in San Bernardino. To do so, he sometimes stays with his
AAU coach Pat Barrett, a remora who has long attached himself to
high school prospects and currently is on the payroll as a
consultant to Nike. "Chandler has had every perk imaginable,"
says Gibbons. "He's been put up and flown all around the
country. You think he could possibly have a normal adolescence?"

Pepperdine coach Lorenzo Romar calls it the microwave syndrome.
"All kids hear on TV is talk of 'diaper dandies,'" he says.
"Guys envision playing on TV and getting to 'the league' as soon
as possible. And now the recruiting starts in junior high. High
school coaches are telling kids they're going to be 'the man'
and promise them shoes and trips when they're 13 years old.
They've been recruited for four years before college."

Max Good has placed 64 players at Division I schools over the
past eight seasons as the coach at Maine Central Institute in
Pittsfield, a prep school superpower much like Oak Hill Academy.
As he prepared to coach in a postseason high school all-star
game several years ago, he told organizers that he objected to
their providing a police escort for his team bus. His players
would soon be expecting white-gloved chauffeurs, he warned.
"Sure enough, the next time we got on the bus," says Good, "I
heard a voice from the back say, 'Yo, Coach, when are we going
to get a limousine?'"

"For 11 years I've said that kids haven't changed, that the
world around them has," adds Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. "Now
I'd tell you the world around them has changed, and the
recruiting process has changed, and because of that you're
starting to see some of the kids change."

Wake Forest coach Dave Odom is as concerned as Calhoun. Last
month he suspended his 7-foot sophomore center, Loren Woods, for
failing to keep basketball in perspective; while Odom's
explanation may be enigmatic, the penalty he assessed certainly
is not. Jason Collier, Lester Earl and Sam Okey, despite being
substantial contributors at Indiana, LSU and Wisconsin
respectively, have all moved on--to Georgia Tech, Kansas and
Iowa. (Kansas may have refused to act as an enabler to JaRon,
but the Jayhawks had no reservations about accepting Earl, who
was disenchanted at LSU despite reportedly receiving thousands
of dollars in improper payments from a former Tigers assistant
coach as well as a booster.) This season at Fresno State, hardly
a citadel of discipline, the Bulldogs have suspended all but
three of their nine current scholarship players, yet they have
just welcomed a couple of more itinerants with substantial
baggage: guard Courtney Alexander, who had to leave Virginia
after his sophomore season upon being convicted of assault and
battery; and former Georgetown point guard Kenny Brunner, a
freshman, who couldn't cope with a rash of teammates' injuries
and suspensions that left him responsible for the Hoyas'
fortunes. "I tried to live up to that," Brunner said last week.
"But people don't understand how it feels for an 18-year-old to
deal with this."

With the welts only just fading from P.J. Carlesimo's neck, the
NBA can hardly afford to absorb any more emotionally immature
emigres. That's why the league could do both itself and the
college game a huge favor by adopting a rule that has worked for
major league baseball. As a high school senior, a baseball
prospect faces a simple choice: Sign a contract and begin his
pro career, or accept a college scholarship with the proviso
that he can't turn pro until after two years at a junior college
or three years at a four-year school. In the meantime a proposal
by the National Association of Basketball Coaches--an
organization made up mainly of college coaches--designed to
commandeer the summer scene from the Myron Piggies and the shoe
companies would at least return responsibility to people on the
payroll of educational institutions.

Dan Owens, who runs the Derby Festival Classic, a high school
all-star game in Kentucky, tells of a phone call he made in the
spring of 1995 to Maurice Carter, a 6'4" guard from Jackson,
Miss. Carter told Owens that he was sorry, but he wouldn't be
able to play in Owens's game because he had to go to his aunt's
funeral.

It was the middle of March. Owens reminded Carter that the game
was scheduled for the end of April and asked when the funeral
was. "He told me his aunt wasn't dead yet," Owens recalls, "but
he said that she was real sick and that they'd gone ahead and
scheduled the funeral."

Owens doesn't know exactly what was going on. Perhaps a rival
all-star game didn't want Carter participating in Owens's event;
maybe some school wanted to keep an unsigned star from doing
business with anyone in Kentucky in the spring, just in case the
Wildcats had a scholarship left. Whatever, Carter was merely a
pawn in a game involving competing interests. Though he has
survived--Carter is in his junior season at LSU--that tale
serves to remind us of how many teenage ballplayers are regarded
as commodities. And most commodities ultimately get discarded.

The threat to college basketball isn't that its best players are
leaving prematurely for the pros. It's that a lost generation of
high schoolers has learned all the wrong lessons before even
getting to campus. The college game is far from dead. But how
come it feels as though it's time to schedule a funeral?

COLOR PHOTO: VERN VERNA ON HOLD Woods (left) and Collier are just two vaunted class of '96 recruits whose careers have been unhappily interrupted. [Loren Woods in game] COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN D. TIRPAK [See caption above--Jason Collier in game] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON LOOKING TO LAND Odom became a hoops nomad after his ACT score was scrutinized at UNLV. [Lamar Odom in game] COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO UNHAPPY CAMPER Earl was nothing but trouble in his 11-game LSU career, but Kansas took him as a transfer with open arms. [Lester Earl in game]

 

TROUBLE AT THE TOP

Here's what has happened to the top 15 prospects in the high
school class of 1996 (as ranked by Bob Gibbons, publisher of the
All-Star Sports recruiting newsletter): Some went straight to
the NBA, others have transferred between colleges at will and
still others have needed "attitudinal adjustments" of one sort
or another. The number who didn't turn pro and who have
prospered at the school to which they originally committed is a
minority.

Kobe Bryant, None
Went to NBA despite good high school grades and made his first
All-Star team this season

Jermaine O'Neal, None
Went to NBA, in part because of poor academic credentials

Corey Benjamin, Oregon State
Starting guard who leads the Beavers in scoring

Winfred Walton, Syracuse
Transferred to Fresno State after his SAT score was questioned

Tim Thomas, Villanova
One outstanding season in college before jumping to NBA

Jason Collier, Indiana
Transferred to Georgia Tech after 1 1/2 unhappy seasons

Ronnie Fields, DePaul
Poor grades and injuries sustained in a car accident led him to
go directly to CBA

Lester Earl, LSU
Now at Kansas; center of an NCAA investigation of the Tigers

Vasco Evtimov, North Carolina
Returned home to France to fulfill a military obligation, after
one poor year with the Tar Heels

Michael Bibby, Arizona
Arguably the top point guard in the nation

Loren Woods, Wake Forest
Suspended for seven games for unspecified reasons

Charles Hathaway, Tennessee
After so-so freshman year, is sidelined for the season after
having shoulder surgery on Dec. 5

Nate James, Duke
After injury-hampered freshman season, was sidelined for the
year after only six games

Stephen Jackson, Arizona
Didn't qualify academically; now playing overseas after two juco
stints

Mateen Cleaves, Michigan State
Has made the Spartans the surprise of the Big Ten

 

"Kids today look to you for two needs: playing time and
winning," says Floyd. "In that order."

"I used to say the kids hadn't changed, the world had," says
Calhoun. "Now the kids are changing."

 

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