The Hoopster Superhustle
July's high school meat market fuels November's college teams
Camper No. 191 lunges at an errant pass, sweat trickling down his 6-foot, 1-inch frame in spite of the air conditioning in Cincinnati's Shoemaker Center. The 17-year-old knows his shot at NBA glory begins or ends on this court. Talent will help him catch the eye of college recruiters standing on the sidelines at the Adidas All-American Camp, but he has to be lucky, too. If he doesn't make the steal, he's out of position and the scouts will write him off as just another schoolyard hack. He swipes the ball and scores an easy layup. A few recruiters check their guidebooks, putting the name Travis Young with the number. For Young, it's mission accomplished, until the next make-or-break play.
During a 27-day period every July, tens of thousands of Michael Jordan wannabes ages 13 to 18 gather for similar auditions at basketball camps and tournaments across the country. The payoff comes this month, as college programs choose their first wave of new recruits based mainly on their performances at these off-season casting calls. The stakes are high: Teenagers who impress can win scholarships worth more than $40,000.
Since 1993, when the National Collegiate Athletic Association cut the amount of recruiting college coaches could do during the high school season, the number of summer camps and tournaments has mushroomed from 80 to close to 275. And the rise of such programs has had a profound impact on everyone in the recruitment process, from coaches and players, who have grown dependent on the system, to intermediaries, who profit in a big way from the events' success.
On the floor of Shoemaker Center and other camps, hoop dreams flourish and youthful bodies are inspected and assessed in an atmosphere more meat market than training ground. It's both the good (say defenders) and the bad (say critics) of our national sports obsession. It's also big business, American style: a world where kids are the product, coaches the buyers, and event directors and hangers-on the middlemen who must work the system, know the right people and outhustle their opponents to succeed.
THE EVENT DIRECTOR Bobby Kortsen, the Adidas camp's event director, dresses casually but acts like a buttoned-up salesman. He's holding court on a beat-up sofa in a dorm near his camp's basketball facilities. A college coach drops in to ask about a highly touted California high school player. Is he at the camp? Kortsen says the kid isn't there, then smoothly changes gears, talking up a couple of other kids instead. By the time the coach leaves for the courts, he seems interested in Kortsen's new "products."
As event director, Kortsen is the first person college coaches seek out when they get to a summer event. He has the power to build up or tear down a kid because college coaches are prohibited from talking to players at these events. Says Steve Lavin, interim head basketball coach at the University of California--Los Angeles: "There are certain key people whose judgment you respect. I would ask a director who is good, but I would never sign somebody without seeing him."