The Hoopster Superhustle
July's high school meat market fuels November's college teams
THE COACH When Barnes arrives at Kortsen's camp, he's wearing a shirt embroidered with the University of Minnesota insignia. His choice of attire isn't accidental. Because recruiters are prohibited from talking to players, the only chance he has of attracting a potential star's attention is to stand on the sidelines and hope the player will notice the big M on his chest.
Barnes, who this fall became head coach at Eastern Michigan University, doesn't like the summer season. He must judge a lot of talent in a short time--he attends more than a dozen camps and tournaments and judges 25 to 50 kids at each during the four-week summer season. Also, the freewheeling, no-defense, playground-style basketball displayed at the camps makes it difficult to assess players. "You don't know enough about a kid as a person [from seeing him at a camp]," he says. "You can evaluate athletic ability, but you don't get a sense if a kid is coachable." Still, Barnes, who now heads up a relatively small Division I program, needs the summer events. They are his main way of casting a wide net in his search for serious ballplayers from across the country.
THE OUTSIDER Not everyone at the camps is a coach or player. Joe Eley bills himself as a basketball consultant and boasts of having relationships with coaches at colleges from St. Francis, Pa., to Syracuse University. Eley also says he played with the NBA's New Jersey Nets--but a team spokesman said there was no record of his playing there. Eley and other hangers-on, who either prepare kids for camps or organize summer teams for tournaments, use this circuit as a way to make money or to advance their careers.
Eley, for example, helps high schoolers hone skills like shooting and footwork for $35 to $45 an hour. (He adds $10 per hour if a kid needs special work.) He prides himself on his ability to improve athletes' chances of snagging a scholarship. For some kids, Eley offers his services gratis or finds sponsors to pay for top players to attend camps and tournaments across the country. The players, in turn, enhance his reputation on the circuit.
Critics believe this system gives summer coaches and consultants undue influence over vulnerable teenagers. But Eley argues he just helps kids who don't have the means to get exposure on this nationwide circuit. "I'm always in line with the rules, but the rules can hold some people back," he says. "My job is not just to educate with the basketball but also to teach the whole ball of wax."
Yet in some cases it's not clear who benefits most from such relationships--the kids or the adults. Take Troy Weaver. Recently hired as an assistant at the University of Pittsburgh, his only coaching experience was running a summer team out of Washington, D.C. But it just so happened that one of the players on Weaver's summer team was Attila Cosby, a 6-foot, 9-inch prospect in whom Pitt had a strong interest. Not long after Weaver was hired, Cosby announced his intention to attend the university.
A coincidence? Weaver concedes his relationship with Cosby and other players helped him get his job at the university but insists the main reason he was brought on was his character. For some kids the summer season creates "too much exposure," he says, but when coaches and directors play straight up and "establish a relationship of trust and values," teenagers can avoid heartbreak. Under the current system, players must hope for the right mentors or be prepared for the worst.