Where is everyone? Raphael Chillious can't believe his luck. He has arrived this Thursday afternoon at a high school tournament in Nederland, Texas, near the Louisiana border—out of the way, sure, but hardly out of the ordinary for a college basketball recruiter—to watch a player who has been rated by some services as the best ninth-grader in America. Maybe he is, and maybe he isn't, but everyone agrees that this homeschooled 15-year-old, Justin Jackson, will develop into a special talent. It isn't just his athletic ability. It's also his skills, his composure, the head on his shoulders. Yet there isn't another national coach in sight. "A Polaroid moment," Chillious says.
This is an article from the May 16, 2011 issue
The Washington assistant started the week in Seattle. After a Huskies victory on Monday, Dec. 6, he slapped backs in the locker room. In the tunnel he kissed his wife and three-year-old daughter and then headed to the airport. He caught a red-eye to Newark to see a promising power forward on Tuesday, then flew to Houston on Wednesday to scout two more. On Friday he'll be in Dallas. The travel schedule is debilitating, but zeroing in on a player like Justin is why Chillious loves recruiting. "Some schools write letters to all the top 100 kids," he says, "but personality and style are so important. Can a kid play for your type of coach? Can he play your type of game?"
Justin has Washington written all over him. He's still skinny, but he's looong—"the body type we like," Chillious says. Justin moves well. And Chillious knows he's a shooter. Chillious was there two weeks before, in Austin, when Justin scored 20 points in one of his first high school games. Now, from across the gym, Justin's father has spotted Chillious's shaved head and purple UW sweats. The coach's iPhone chirps, and he snatches it up. "We're here," Chillious says. "Washington is here."
The 39-year-old Chillious is one of college basketball's hottest assistants. He established himself as a shrewd judge of talent in stints at two high school basketball powerhouses and as the business manager of Nike's Elite Youth Basketball program. For two seasons he has been working under Lorenzo Romar at Washington, preparing for the day when he'll be in charge of his own college team. Every week Chillious calls or texts dozens of AAU and high school coaches. He's constantly updating a thick notebook that's full of information about players around the country.
The ninth-grader misses his first few shots. "You want to see how he handles adversity," Chillious says. And an off game might scare away some other college recruiter. But then, there is nobody else here today. That doesn't mean other top programs aren't tracking Justin. Schools can see a prospect only seven times per season, so they need to pick their spots. But a kid as good as this, in a tournament just after Thanksgiving, before the schedule has gotten crazy? Chillious can hardly contain himself.
"This is a Polaroid that you shake off, stick on the refrigerator and date," he says. "Because later on, when Justin's a senior, I can talk about it. 'Man, how long ago was it, I saw you play that game in Nederland? Remember? You were in ninth grade. Man, you got so much stronger since then.' And other coaches won't have that memory with him."
Recruiting in college basketball is the equivalent of fund-raising in politics, except the food is worse and the logistics are absurd. It's done in the gaps, the interludes, on off days and travel days and everyone else's vacation days.
An assistant coach is often more valuable on the road than he is on the bench. When Bob Huggins took control of a downtrodden Cincinnati team in 1989, he ordered his top recruiter to rack up the miles. "I can lose by myself with what I have here," Huggins told Larry Harrison, who proceeded to fill the Bearcats' roster with future NBA draft picks Nick Van Exel, Kenyon Martin and Danny Fortson.
During games, assistants decorate the bench in suits and ties, reminding a post player to move his feet or a guard to rotate the ball. When the horn sounds, their real jobs begin. NCAA Division I schools are allowed three assistants, and the four coaches have a combined 130 recruiting days during the high school season. Then come summer tournaments. "You pretty much lose the month of July," says Kansas's Joe Dooley. "And quite a bit of September, because of the in-home visits."
The travel is not just onerous—it's unpredictable. If you're a recruiter, you'll miss your kids' birthdays and Little League games and recitals not because your team is playing a road game, scheduled in advance, but because you're at the mercy of the decision-making process of a high schooler who might have a tough time choosing what to order at Taco Bell, let alone where to spend the next few years of his life. Suddenly it becomes necessary to be in Philly or Dallas or the Upper Peninsula, courting some kid you might never have met.
It doesn't get easier as you climb the ladder, even if you work for one of the few programs that annually expects to make the Final Four. "Just a smaller pool of kids," says Dooley. And the NCAA regulations, though well-intentioned, are a million hoops to jump through—or avoid jumping through—along the way. "I'm the most dangerous guy on campus," Oregon assistant Brian Fish likes to say. "I can bring down the whole program." Have a chat with a player's parent after a game? Violation. Text condolences to a kid who lost a game, or even one of his close relatives? Violation. Tell a reporter that the player you're recruiting from his town could become one of the alltime greats? They'll come down hard on that.
But if a recruiter works his relationships and has a little bit of luck, he might land talent a half-notch better than his school deserves. If that team meshes and ends up in the Final Four, he might get an offer to run a program when the coaching carousel spins again. Because for most of these assistants, that's what this is about. "Everybody wants the chance to see if they can call timeout," says Scott Duncan, who left UCLA after last season to become an assistant at Wyoming. "All those suggestions you made, all those years? You want to see what you'd really do when it's your butt on the line."
Duncan is sitting inside a supermarket in rainy Hillsboro, Ore., on the morning of Dec. 28. If he looks weary, perhaps it's because he watched games all day, then studied tape of UCLA's next opponent. "It's a grind," he acknowledges. "Nothing's going to happen today. Nothing's going to happen a month from today." Perhaps, too, it's that he's been doing this for a while, for eight schools before arriving in L.A. in 2007, and he seems no closer to being the one to call that timeout.
Desperately needing a point guard, UCLA went after five during the early-signing period in November 2010 and lost them all. Duncan has an explanation for each, but 0 for 5 shouldn't happen. It means you've invested time and budget that should've gone somewhere else. "You've worked just as hard as the school that gets him, but you have nothing to show," says Oregon's Fish.
Duncan is in Hillsboro trolling for more point guards. Beyond that, he's looking to attract breakout players of any size. For mid-majors and some of the lesser teams in the big conferences, recruiting is mostly evaluation. Can the kid help us? At UCLA, you know who can help. The challenge is, can you get them?
Shabazz Muhammad of Las Vegas's Bishop Gorman would be a perfect fit. At 6'6" he is one of the top-rated players in the class of 2012. He's heady, dazzlingly athletic, preternaturally mature. North Carolina, Duke, Arizona, Kentucky and UNLV have all been after him. Beyond Muhammad, Duncan will see a selection of top players from his courtside seat, one after another, through the day and into the night. Kevin Durant, the NBA's scoring leader in 2009--10, was at this tournament when he was in high school. So were Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love.
This morning Duncan will be watching Jordan Tebbutt, a 6'5" junior swingman from Tualatin, Ore. Tebbutt plays for tiny Horizon Christian, a school of 130, where he's practically the whole team. Yesterday afternoon he scored 41 points but Horizon lost. That put them in the losers' bracket, which means an early game. Tip-off is at 9 a.m.
Tebbutt is being recruited by every team in the Pac-10, plus Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and Texas. Duncan believes UCLA has the inside track. As he talks about the prospect of landing this muscular baseline player with a shooter's range and touch, his gloom begins to lift. Yeah, he missed out on those point guards, but this is another cycle, a fresh chance. He swallows some coffee and stands up to go.
While Duncan was sipping coffee, Chillious was courtside, in the row of chairs provided for coaches and VIPs. He was there before anyone else, working the iPhone, waiting for warmups. "I was the first person Tebbutt saw this morning," he says. "Other coaches are here for the game, but they weren't here at 8:15. That stuff adds up."
Chillious thinks about recruiting every day. He loves collecting information, even when he's not involved. Sitting with other coaches, he listens more than he talks. "With some guys in this business, all you have to do is sit there," he says. "They want you to know that they're in the know. That's how you learn things." Yesterday afternoon he and Duncan chatted in the lobby outside the gym. Washington and UCLA are rivals, but assistants change jobs so often that nearly all of them stay on cordial terms. These two have ... not a friendship, exactly, but an amiable professional relationship.
Later Chillious sat down beside a Nike friend. "It's amazing," he said. "Duncan really thinks they're going to get Shabazz." Then again, Chillious never heard of a player Duncan was recruiting that he wasn't confident he'd get. "He kept telling me, 'We're getting Quinn Cook,'" Chillious says, "and then Cook signs with Duke. He didn't see that coming? Dude could live next door to me, but if Duke decides they want him, it's tough."
To Chillious, knowing when you have a chance and when you don't is a recruiter's most important skill. "That's where authentic relationships come in," he says. "The family may not be ready to tell you, because they're enjoying the process. But someone on the periphery will: 'He's flattered, he likes you a lot, but the chances of him leaving Texas are slim and none.' And then you know."
Chillious glances down to see that he has missed a call. His face twists into a grimace. It's the father of an underclassman, a guard whom Chillious likes a lot, but he's not allowed to call back. He has to wait until the father calls again or begin the laborious process of getting in touch through the high school coach. He could hit the callback button and nobody would ever know, but he prides himself on adhering to even the most arcane NCAA regulations. It seems counterintuitive, but he believes that gives him a competitive advantage. "I tell kids, 'Anybody who is going to cheat even a little is going to lie to you too,'" he says. "Want to play for someone who lies?" Still, he covets this kid. He takes the phone off the chair beside him and holds it tight. If the father calls back, he won't miss him again.
It's easy to spot the assistants, even when they aren't sitting in a row. They can't talk to recruits, so their goal is to be noticeable from a distance. This makes them walking billboards, their affiliations plastered across their clothing. "I can't do a lot with Jordan Tebbutt at this tournament—just make sure he sees me at the game, wave to his dad and mom, and that's it," Duncan says. "Anybody in a ucla shirt could do it."
By the time Tebbutt's game is ending, the logos are out in force. Oregon State and Oregon are here, and Georgia Tech, Gonzaga and Cal, and plenty of smaller schools. Some are here for Tebbutt, some fantasize about Muhammad, all have a list of possibilities. And every coach has stories of flying in to see one recruit and leaving smitten with another.
Muhammad will be nobody's surprise. Along with the country's top-rated prospect—Andre Drummond, a 6'10" center from St. Thomas More in Oakdale, Conn.—Muhammad is being recruited as hard as anyone else. Bishop Gorman makes the process easier by competing from coast to coast. Soon it becomes clear why everyone is so high on him. The junior hits teammates on the run with passes, scores from inside and out. When he drives the lane, defenders seem to scatter like water bugs. Muhammad's team goes up 27--7, then 43--12, then 53--16. "The real deal," Duncan tells Gonzaga's Ray Giacoletti, who can't even dream about getting a player like that. They're standing against the front wall of the gym, and each time Muhammad runs downcourt, the U-C-L-A across Duncan's blue nylon jacket is like the Hollywood sign, filling up his field of vision.
A week later, on Jan. 5, West Virginia's Larry Harrison arrives at practice at Chattanooga State, a two-year school in Tennessee, and greets an Oklahoma assistant already sprawled on the bleachers. This is the other side of recruiting—less glamorous but equally necessary: finding junior college transfers. West Virginia has a hole at big man, and Harrison needs to fill it with a player who could start right away.
Philip Jurick was heavily recruited out of Chattanooga's East Ridge High and chose Tennessee. The 6'11" center redshirted his freshman year but decided to transfer to Chattanooga State because he was uncertain about his prospects with the Vols. Now he wants another shot at a major-conference school.
Harrison, 55, looks like someone who could wrestle a rebound away from many Big East forwards. He establishes position in recruiting with the same shrewd determination. He was all-Ohio at Muskingum College before transferring to Pitt in 1976, and he has made basketball his life. If Chillious is a text-happy, marketing-savvy product of Internet-age basketball, Harrison is old school, a product of the black neighborhoods of the industrial Northeast. Over three decades he has developed an uncanny sense of when to push, when to back off, when to bring in Huggins (who became the Mountaineers' coach in 2007) to close the deal. He looks at very few players whom he doesn't have a decent chance to get, and he pulls in far more than his share. But just as Chillious needs to persuade recruits to come to the Northwest, Harrison has a constraint of his own: Huggins. The gruff head coach has a deep affection for his players, but it's a tough love, punctuated by sarcasm and blue language at high volume. So Harrison factors that into his recruiting. "We need guys with mental toughness, thick skin," he says. "There's only a certain kind of kid who's going to Morgantown, West Virginia, to play for Bob Huggins. I could call Shabazz, he'd say, 'Oh, yeah, Coach Harrison, West Virginia, Final Four [in 2010]. I'm interested!' We ain't getting Shabazz. He ain't coming to Morgantown."
Jurick is the kind of player who might. He's physical and a reclamation project. For two years he can give Huggins a presence underneath. "He has an edge to him," Harrison says. "He'd fit in."
After practice Harrison and the Oklahoma coach exchange glances. Technically it's a violation to have any contact with Jurick, but no matter how often the rules are explained, many players believe that if you don't at least say hello to them, then you didn't like what you saw and aren't interested. So assistants feel each other out. There's an unspoken rule about how it works, an honor among thieves. You each get a brief hello, maybe 30 seconds. "Any more than that," Harrison says, "and it's, What are you doing, a home visit?" Harrison goes off to make a call on the far side of the gym, and Jurick and the Oklahoma coach huddle briefly. Then it's Harrison's turn. It's just a hello, a courtesy to say thanks for letting us see you, but when you've been around as long as Harrison, a few seconds is all you need. "Since the Final Four we've been the flavor of the month when it comes to recruiting," Harrison says, clearly pleased with the interaction. "Gotta ride it while you can." Then he jumps in the car for the drive to the airport and another flight. In the end Harrison's confidence was misplaced. Jurick signed with Oklahoma State on April 18.
Andre Drummond is a mild-mannered giant with an immense upside. He's from Connecticut, where Harrison grew up and coached, and Harrison has known him since he was in the eighth grade. It's just that kind of relationship that can get a franchise player to pick West Virginia over Georgetown or UConn. But UNC likes Drummond too, and there's talk that Kentucky is involved. "Sometimes we say, 'We recruit; Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, they select,'" Harrison says.
Getting Drummond, even for a year, could have a huge effect on Harrison's own trajectory. As head coach at Hartford, he needed time to separate his own style from that of Huggins, his mentor. By '06 Harrison was hitting his stride. His team went 9--7 in the America East conference, and he was the conference's coach of the year. Still, his overall record was under .500, and he resigned. Now, he says, "I have one more job left in me." His schedule contributed to his failed marriage—"It's quality time over quantity, and a wife gets tired of hearing that"—and wants another chance to finish his career fulfilled. But getting a job isn't easy when you're over 50. A second visit to the Final Four would work wonders for his résumé.
On Martin Luther King Jr. weekend Drummond is making a high-profile appearance with his team at the Hoophall Classic, in Springfield, Mass. A half-dozen more of America's most compelling high schoolers will be there too. But West Virginia has a game against Purdue, a made-for-television lead-in to the NFL that will keep Harrison in Morgantown until Sunday evening. He won't get to Hoophall until Monday, when he'll see another recruit: Jabarie Hinds. The 5'11" point guard from Mount Vernon (N.Y.) High is already committed to West Virginia, but part of a recruiter's task is hand-holding, keeping his signees feeling wanted. "They miss the love and attention they got during the process," says Chillious.
The Springfield College arena is nearly full when Hoophall starts in earnest on Saturday afternoon. Fans make an event of it, camping out in the stands. But no recruiter can see it all. The coaches come and go, passing each other at the security checkpoint inside the arena or in the lobby of the Marriott. By the time Drummond's game starts on Sunday, the big names have arrived. Georgetown is there, and so are Connecticut and North Carolina. And then, shortly before tip-off, heads turn as Kentucky coach John Calipari walks in.
Knowing when to deploy your head coach is part of the strategy of recruiting. If you have someone with the reputation and charisma of Calipari, you use him in precise circumstances: when you're sure you want the kid and you want the kid to know it. Calipari settles in directly under the basket. "At this stage," says Wildcats assistant Orlando Antigua, nodding toward Calipari, "it's less about us seeing the kid than the kid seeing him."
Drummond is dominant only sporadically. He's clearly a project, but his upside is too vast to ignore. Any team—NBA included—would be overjoyed to have him. After one dunk Drummond ends up face-to-face with Calipari, and his eyes widen. He knew Calipari was coming, but that's different from seeing him there. After that he seems to run the floor with even more intensity, and who wouldn't? It hardly matters that it's the noncontact period. A big-time coach such as Calipari can have a huge effect on the process without saying a word.
By the time Harrison gets to his seat the next morning, he has heard all about Calipari's visit. Harrison seems to have a connection to nearly every coach in the building, as well as to the men who run scouting services, write blogs and get carried along in the sport's orbit. He gleans a tidbit from each. "These guys have no rules, they're talking to everybody," Harrison says.
An assistant coach from DeMatha High walks past. On Saturday the Hyattsville, Md., school suffered a humiliating 50-point loss to New Jersey's St. Anthony. DeMatha stayed over and is about to practice in a side gym before departing. Harrison asks if he can poke his head in to greet the head coach. By doing so he'll gain the benefit of being seen by James Robinson, a 6'3" guard he's recruiting. Harrison has a sense that it's time to turn up the volume on Robinson.
On a normal day, visiting practice wouldn't be a problem, but the loss has amped up DeMatha's stress levels. "Come by and we'll see," the school's assistant tells Harrison. When Harrison arrives, the tension on the far side of the curtain dividing the practice courts is palpable, a funereal quiet punctuated only by the bounce of the ball and the squeak of sneakers. Harrison doesn't need to be told that pressing the issue is a bad idea.
Back home Harrison tears up his schedule and targets DeMatha's game against Gonzaga College High on Thursday, Jan. 27. It means a postgame flight home from Louisville the night before and then a five-hour drive to suburban Maryland. After seeing Robinson, he'll have to turn right around and fly out for a game in Cincinnati. Somehow he persuades Huggins that it's necessary, even talks him into coming along. But Wednesday brings the year's biggest snowstorm. Cars are stranded on highways, flights are stalled. Instead of trekking to Maryland, Harrison rides the Mountaineers' bus to Cincinnati on Thursday morning. Robinson eludes him again.
Chillious wakes up that Thursday in a Maryland hotel without electricity. The same storm has battered power lines from Richmond to Baltimore. Snow wiped out the game he was supposed to see Wednesday night, meaning his time, his school's money and an official NCAA recruiting day were wasted. Tonight he plans to scout a Gonzaga kid at the DeMatha game. He and Harrison are friends, and their paths haven't crossed all year. It would be nice to catch up. But not only won't Harrison be there now, but Chillious also suspects the game won't be played. The roads are clear, but classes were canceled. He calls Gonzaga's coach and gets the word: It's off.
He's despondent. Two days on the road without even seeing a player is something that a recruiter can't afford. It's an untimely reminder of the vagaries of his profession, how nothing is guaranteed. With the Huskies' crowded schedule, Chillious is not sure when he'll be able to get back.
He has a hotel booked for tonight, but now there's nothing to stay for. And that, he realizes, is the silver lining. After walking in his front door a day early, he'll sing his daughter to sleep, eat dinner at his kitchen table, be a normal husband for a night. Lose some apples, gain some oranges. He calls the Huskies' travel agent, asks her to cancel his hotel and change his flight, then grabs his bag and drops his key card on the bed. He's heading home.