IT WAS,unmistakably, a big-time sporting event. The venue had been sold out inadvance, with a pair of front-row seats going for $451 on eBay. More than 100media credentials had been issued. A convoy of television trucks with theircorkscrewing satellite dishes lined the parking lot. In the days leading up tothe event, Cincinnati's newspapers and sports-radio stations had done theirpart to nourish the hype. The game, though, involved neither the Bengals northe Reds. Not even the Cincinnati Bearcats or the Xavier Musketeers. Instead, asellout crowd of 16,202 crammed into U.S. Bank Arena on Feb. 18 to watch localfavorite North College Hill High play Oak Hill Academy, of Mouth of Wilson,Va., in a showdown between two of the top high school basketball teams in thenation. ¬∂ While many of the principals on the floor are still too young tovote, some are already celebrities in their own right. North College Hill's6'5" junior point guard, O.J. Mayo, has been anointed the next LeBronJames. Oak Hill's best player, 6-foot senior point guard Tywon Lawson, ispenciled in as a starter for North Carolina next season but has already beenprojected as an NBA lottery pick in 2007. Michael Beasley, a 6'9" forwardat Oak Hill, and Bill Walker, a 6'6" swingman at North College Hill, arerated among the top five players in the class of '07, just behind Mayo.
At one time theprospect of playing in this atmosphere would have rattled all but the mostpoised high school kids. No more. North College Hill is used to such nationalattention, and most college stars would be envious of the coverage that's beenafforded Mayo and Walker. As for Oak Hill, like a band on a winter concerttour, the team has been barnstorming the entire season. The week before thegame in Cincinnati, the Warriors were in Trenton, N.J., competing in thePrimeTime Shootout. The following week they were in Boone, N.C. Last Saturdaythey traveled to Washington, D.C., where they lost their first game of theyear, 74-72 to Montrose Christian School of Rockville, Md., ending a 56-gamewinning streak. The News & Record of Greensboro, N.C., calculated that OakHill traveled 13,600 miles this season. For perspective, the paper figured thatRoy Williams's North Carolina Tar Heels covered 9,100 miles. "We want toplay the best, and we'll go anywhere to do it," says Oak Hill coach SteveSmith. "I joke that we're more popular in California than we are inVirginia."
The matchup ofthe two powerhouses lived up to its billing. Despite suffering from a chestcold and a stress fracture in his foot, Mayo was spectacular, scoring 43points, while Walker added 24. But Oak Hill's depth was overwhelming, and thevisitors won 88-74, snapping North College Hill's 40-game winning streak. Theoutcome, however, was not as significant as the game itself, which was thelatest piece of evidence that elite high school basketball has become anational sport.
Surveying thetableau, Jeremy Treatman permitted himself a contented smile. The president ofthe Philadelphia-based Scholastic Play-by-Play Network, Treatman, 40, hadpromoted the game and stood to make a tidy profit. He had taken a few financialbaths this season orchestrating similar high-profile events. But two of the topteams in the country? On a Saturday night? With easily a half-dozen proprospects on the two rosters? It was a promoter's perfect storm."This," he said, "is just an amazing time in high schoolbasketball."
For most of hisadult life Treatman has been immersed in high school hoops. During a 15-yearspan he covered high school sports for The Philadelphia Inquirer, reported fora high school sports show on local television and coached the freshman team atLower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa., where he also served as a media liaison whenKobe Bryant was a senior. Around that time, inspiration struck. As more andmore players were bypassing college and heading directly to the pros, highschool basketball was gaining currency. The Internet was making it easier totrack high school players from around the country, and there was an explosionof sports cable networks, each insatiably hungry for programming. Why notorganize national games involving the most prominent players, hold them inlarge venues and bill them like heavyweight fights?
In 2000 Treatmanpromoted his first high school game, a matchup at Temple University betweenCamden (N.J.) High and Philadelphia's Roman Catholic High--and, more important,their two respective stars, Dajuan Wagner and Eddie Griffin--broadcast on localcable television. Treatman was told to expect 3,000 fans; when 9,400 showed up,Allen Iverson among them, Treatman knew that he had tapped a rich vein. Huskyand radiating nervous energy, Treatman is hardly a slick impresario, but he'sclearly found a niche. The game in Cincinnati was the 55th he's organized. Heestimates that 250,000 fans have seen his games in person, and hundreds ofthousands more have watched on television.
Indeed, not aweekend goes by from November to March without a top team traversing time zonesto meet some other elite unit. "There's no question the trend isaccelerating," says recruiting guru Bob Gibbons, editor and publisher ofAll Star Report. "For a lot of top teams, the days of playing only schoolsin your area are long gone."
When puttingtogether a national game, Treatman and his ilk follow the same straightforwardblueprint:
•Find teams thateither feature a budding star (7-foot center Greg Oden of Indianapolis'sLawrence North High, for instance) or have national name recognition (likeAkron's St. Vincent--St. Mary, James's alma mater, which remains a big draweven without him). "There are 50 teams in high school basketball that canbe in a national game," says Rashid Ghazi, a partner in the Chicago-basedParagon Marketing Group, which recently promoted an ESPN2-televised gamebetween Lawrence North and Dayton's Dunbar High.
•Negotiate a fee,usually around $10,000 for elite programs, plus accommodations, meals andtravel expenses.
•Find a venue ina medium-sized market. While high school basketball may not cultivate muchinterest in New York City or Los Angeles, it likely will in, say, Omaha, wherelast month at the Qwest Center, a crowd of more than 6,000 watched the city'sCentral High lose to Reserve (La.) Christian School, which features Demond(Tweety) Carter, the nation's alltime high school scoring leader.
•Harvest as manycorporate sponsors as possible to help cover the costs of each event.
•Sell thebroadcast rights to ESPN, CSTV or a regional sports network. Says Ghazi,"There is a lot of compelling product out there, and the viewers are that12-to-34 demographic that advertisers want to reach."
Winners abound.The promoters can make as much as $100,000 on a particularly successful game.The networks get programming with surprisingly high ratings, given therelatively low rights fees. (The ESPN networks aired a total of nine games thisseason, up from three in '04-05. The ratings averaged 0.4 both years, whichtranslates into roughly 380,000 households per game.) School athleticdepartments can fatten their coffers through fees and equipment contracts. Aspart of its deal with Reebok, Lawrence North uses a backdrop adorned with thecompany's logo for televised postgame news conferences. Not to be outdone, OakHill allows Nike to sell a Carmelo Anthony Warriors jersey.
It wasn't longago that recruiting gurus and college coaches evaluated talent by watching aprospect play against weak local opposition or in a ragged summer-league game.Now they head to these national games, where elite players not only go upagainst other top prospects but also do so in an atmosphere freighted withpressure. When, for instance, Wayne Ellington, a 6'4" North Carolina--boundshooting guard at The Episcopal Academy in suburban Philadelphia, recoveredfrom an off-night to drill the winning shot against Philly's Neumann-GorettiHigh in a January game at the Palestra that aired on ESPN2, it spoke volumesnot just about his skills but also about his competitive makeup. Even moreimpressive was his teammate, 6'5" Duke-bound swingman Gerald Henderson, whoscored a game-high 26 points. "These events give you a better idea of howgood a player really is," says Clark Francis, editor and publisher of TheHoop Scoop, a national recruiting newsletter.
The players areenamored of these games as well. What teenager--especially when he has designson landing a college scholarship--wouldn't prefer performing in a big-timearena and receiving national exposure? "Two of my kids [several years ago]wound up signing at Ohio," says Jim Gosz, coach of Milwaukee's Rufus KingHigh, who's taken his team to Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Indianapolis; Erie, Pa.; andTrenton this season. "It's giving the kids an opportunity they wouldn'tnormally have."
The stars,meanwhile, earn the kind of recognition that once could have been garnered onlyin college or the NBA. As a senior at Brooklyn's Abraham Lincoln High in2003-04, point guard Sebastian Telfair traveled extensively and receivedinvaluable exposure. "It did a lot for my career," says the 6-footTelfair, who in 2004 became the first high school player under 6'7" to be alottery pick in the NBA draft when the Portland Trail Blazers picked him at No.13. "It created a lot of popularity, and it helped me get a very nice shoecontract [with Adidas]." Nice indeed. It is worth a reported $15 millionover six years.
The trend towardpressure-packed TV games and coast-to-coast travel is not, however, without itscritics, who contend that this is the latest example of the commoditization ofyoung athletes. "I know televising games is the next frontier for making abuck, but that doesn't make it right," says Bruce Svare, director of theNational Institute for Sports Reform. "High school basketball--this lastbastion of amateurism--is going to turn into college basketball, withrecruiting wars and academic fraud and big money."
The possibilityof corruption already lurks. The shoe companies use the games to curry favorwith top players and schools, either organizing their own events--such as theNike Super 6 Invitational at Madison Square Garden--or partnering with apromoter, as Reebok did for the Rise or Fall Challenge, a California event thatfeatured North College Hill. The promoter of that event was Rodney Guillory. In2000 the NCAA determined that Guillory was working as a runner for the LasVegas--based agency Franchise Sports when he paid for airline tickets for JeffTrepagnier of USC and Tito Maddox of Fresno State, resulting in suspensions forboth athletes.
Oak Hill's Smithrecalls recently telling a promoter that he didn't want to schedule a Wednesdaygame because he didn't want his players to miss class. The promoter askedwhether a $5,000 under-the-table payment could persuade him otherwise. "Youhear about coaches taking side money to play in events," says Smith."It goes on."
There has beensome backlash. High school athletic commissions in several states have begun tolimit how far teams under their jurisdiction can travel (box, page 68). But,ultimately, there's little to suggest that this surge in national interestwon't continue. There's talk of a national high school"superconference" as well as a cable network devoted solely to highschool sports. "It's not that far away," predicts Ghazi. Meanwhile,promoters like Treatman are orchestrating must-see-TV matchups for next season,and Oak Hill's Smith claims that, having booked his schedule for next winter,he is already penciling in dates for '07-08.
Dan Dougherty,coach at The Episcopal Academy, admits forlornly that the era of big-time highschool basketball is here to stay. "The stars are identified earlier,"he says. "Thus the promoters want to get them out in front of the generalpublic earlier."
A 70-year-oldmath teacher who has been at Episcopal since the '70s, Dougherty laments howhigh school hoops has "mushroomed." But what are we to expect,Dougherty wonders, when Francis publishes a list of the nation's topfifth-grade talent and the mothers of second-graders are e-mailing him aboutscholarships? Recently Dougherty expressed his unease about his team'sappearing on ESPN2 and ESPNU this season. But when one of his star guards,Henderson, was asked a similar question about playing on television, heshrugged, smiled and said, "You get used to the little red light."
See Dave Krider's boys' and girls' hoops powerrankings every week at at SI.com/highschool.