VOL. 7 | NO. 50 | Saturday, December 6, 2014
By Don Wade
Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley is in his eighth year in the NBA. But he’s just 27 years old and his 10-year class reunion at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis is still an event in the future.
Yet when Conley talks about the day he and his then-more-famous teammate, Greg Oden, signed with Ohio State, he sounds like a grandfather speaking of a bygone era.
College athletics is big business led by big-name coaches. Recruiting is the name of the game, and it's a situation that has interesting stories following the main characters.
“There was a camera there,” Conley said, noting it wasn’t from the omnipresent all-sports network. “They took pictures of us with our hats – for the local paper or whatever.”
So no big show, no ESPNU coming to the house as the network did a few weeks ago here to capture Skal Labissiere announcing he had chosen the University of Kentucky, coach John Calipari winning the recruiting sweepstakes for a 6-foot-11 center under the micromanagement of legal guardian Gerald Hamilton (more on that later).
“It has changed,” Conley said, well aware of the Skal saga. “It’s gotten Hollywood almost. It’s a circus. Everything’s a big story, a press conference, or something crazy.”
And yet also just business as usual.
From time to time, something happens to rock the college sports world and the academic enclave to which it is at least loosely tethered. Like the “death penalty” that the NCAA gave the SMU football program almost 30 years ago for violations that included paying players.
David Whitford, author of “A Payroll to Meet: A Story of Greed, Corruption and Football at SMU,” has noted that the NCAA believed its death penalty would act as a deterrent to big-time college sports’ worst elements. But it really hasn’t worked out that way.
Consider the “Albert Means Scandal.” Then-Trezevant High School football coach Lynn Lang accepted $150,000 from University of Alabama booster Logan Young to ensure that in 2000 the defensive lineman signed to play for the Crimson Tide. The NCAA’s investigation discovered that Means, who ultimately transferred to the University of Memphis, had been shopped to several programs.
Bill Courtney, whose stint as a volunteer football coach at Manassas High School in North Memphis spawned an Oscar-winning documentary, “Undefeated,” still bristles at the mention of the Albert Means case.
“His high school coaches, who were supposed to be his surrogate fathers and mentors, were basically pimping this kid out for their own pocketbooks,” said Courtney, who is also author of “Against The Grain: A Coach’s Wisdom on Character, Faith, Family, and Love.”
“But I’m not surprised,” Courtney said of the corruption. “How often does that happen? All day, every day. There are also people murdered in Memphis all day, every day. We can agree on that, right? But that is not an incrimination of our citizenry. We have .0003 percent that are committing murder. It’s the same with high school coaches and programs and college coaches and programs. The vast majority are honorable. But stupid stuff is going on all day and every day.”
Recruiting violations, of course, take many forms. Former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl (his coaching life now reincarnated at Auburn after a pleasant purgatory with ESPN while he served out his three-year show-cause penalty) invited recruits over to his home for a barbecue. He then lied about it to NCAA investigators and encouraged the recruits and their families to also lie about attending the cookout. Pearl and his staff also made impermissible recruiting calls.
But in recent college basketball times, the King of Illegal Contacts is former Oklahoma and Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson (now coaching Houston in the American Athletic Conference). Sampson got in trouble at OU for making impermissible phone calls to recruits, and when he again trespassed on those same rules at IU, the NCAA hit him with a five-year show-cause penalty.
For more spectacular excesses, look no further than the football programs at USC and Miami.
USC tailback Reggie Bush became the first Heisman Trophy winner to return the award after it was later learned he and his family had been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by an agent during his collegiate career.
(AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)
Running back Reggie Bush didn’t get to keep his Heisman Trophy from his USC glory days after investigators determined an agent had paid Bush and his family hundreds of thousands of dollars. The notorious Nevin Shapiro, now serving a 20-year prison term for a Ponzi scheme that went north of $900 million, was at the core of Miami’s run-amok athletic program.
Pretty much everyone agrees the NCAA bungled the three-year investigation into Miami – some 20 percent of the NCAA’s case was eliminated because information was obtained improperly – but there was still plenty of smoke and fire. Miami Herald columnist Linda Robertson, who combed through the 102-page report, notes that there were two dozen references to “strip clubs” and Shapiro “gave out cash, loans, airline tickets – even baby clothes, toys and a washer and dryer for the families of players.”
As for Skal Labissiere, his might have been that rare, heartwarming story that could help us forget all the slime for a moment. He survived the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, escaping the rubble that had been his house. Hamilton brought him to the United States through his foundation, Reach Your Dream.
But Hamilton’s handling of Labissiere’s basketball career soon raised questions. Labissiere is spending his senior year at Lausanne Collegiate School after transferring from Evangelical Christian School. The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic School Association ruled Labissiere ineligible.
Previously, Hamilton had moved Labissiere from one summer team to another, including Team Penny AAU, which is run by former NBA star Penny Hardaway. All of that might have been written off to Hamilton just being in over his head, to letting his ego get the better of him as Labissiere suffered the consequences – no senior season, no chance to be Tennessee’s Mr. Basketball, no opportunity to be a McDonald’s All-American.
Skal Labissiere, left, during the 2013 Division II Class A high school championship while playing for Evangelical Christian School. Questions have followed Labissiere's high school career and recruitment.
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Instead, longtime Memphis AAU coach Keith Easterwood told cbssports.com college basketball writer Gary Parrish of a phone call he received about two years ago from Hamilton: “He wanted to talk, and one of the things he asked me was, ‘How can I make money off a basketball player?’”
If that wasn’t damning enough, that same cbssports.com story said several college coaches who had recruited Labissiere believed they would have to help fund Hamilton’s foundation to have a real shot at the player. The story quoted a coach from a “prominent” college basketball staff as saying, “We couldn’t even get in the door.”
Meanwhile, The Commercial Appeal reported that Samuel Jean-Gilles, another Haitian refugee/basketball player Hamilton brought to America and who attended ECS, had been discarded after Hamilton asked ECS coaches if they believed Jean-Gilles had Division I talent in basketball or football and the coaches had said no. Jean-Gilles told the newspaper that Hamilton put him on a 29-hour bus ride to Boston to live with a relative, saying of the Hamilton family, “They don’t want me anymore.”
University of Memphis football coach Justin Fuente doesn’t claim to know all the ins and outs of the Labissiere case, but he’s heard and seen enough to know that it echoes what he believes is wrong with the recruiting process – namely that it is too public and that it can be too easily influenced by the wrong people.
“I don’t know how they could do it, but I really wish (the NCAA) could keep it between the high school coaches, the college coaches, the kid and the family,” Fuente said. “Maybe we wouldn’t have some of the tragic cases we have.”
Said Courtney: “You take a kid from a poverty-stricken area that is a great athlete and has worked hard enough to get his grades eligible … it just takes one (person) to say, ‘You know, your mom would probably like a nice car to go to work instead of riding the bus. And then for a $10,000 used Explorer, now this kid’s going to some school somewhere.
“And on balance, when you’re talking about an $80 million athletic budget, what does a $10,000 investment really matter? Especially when it won’t actually come from the school. It will come from some ridiculous alum donor.”
Cleaning up recruiting’s widespread troubles can seem an unsolvable problem considering that Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who moonlights as Team USA’s coach, even appears to be enjoying an “extra benefit” – to use the NCAA’s own compliance language.
“As much as ever, USA Basketball has been co-opted into a Krzyzewski leverage play for the Duke Blue Devils,” wrote Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, adding, “As one Duke alumnus would tell you: There is a USA Basketball storefront selling patriotism and duty with a backroom reality that peddles the Blue Devils and Nike swooshes.”
Wojnarowski goes on to say that basketball insiders don’t believe Coach K could have landed Jabari Parker without his Team USA platform. The same also may hold true for Jahlil Okafor, who is projected to be one of the first two players taken in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Calipari, whom Wojnarowski notes is often called the “greatest self-promoting coach of his time,” doesn’t have the Team USA advantage. But Calipari has made great use of his cozy relationship with ESPN. People still talk about former Memphis guard Derrick Rose allegedly having someone else take his SAT test, and the fact the Tigers’ run to the 2007-08 NCAA championship game and all 38 victories from that season were vacated by the NCAA; Calipari’s Final Four with UMass also was vacated when Marcus Camby was found to have accepted money from an agent.
But the bigger issue going forward is how Calipari, who has mastered the “one-and-done” recruiting method, makes use of his new scouting combine for NBA evaluators; it was broadcast this fall on ESPNU. It’s a nice – and legal – recruiting tool.
Of course, in some ways, it’s not so different than college football’s pro days after the season. But the timing, holding it before the season starts when Calipari typically brings in so many freshmen intent on staying just a year, is genius.
“Someone said, ‘You’ll make them think about the NBA,’” Calipari told ESPN. “They all do (anyway). Even the walk-ons.”
Labissiere, of course, is anything but a walk-on. The NCAA is believed to already be investigating his recruitment. More than a few observers have speculated that Labissiere might never be allowed to play college basketball and ultimately could end up going overseas before entering the NBA Draft.
To what level Labissiere understands this possibility is unclear. The day after his national TV moment on ESPNU, there was a ceremony at Lausanne, the school for which he never actually got to play high school basketball.
Labissiere, sharing a stage with the Hamilton family, addressed the crowd of well-wishers and made like a point guard distributing thank-yous all around. Several times, he thanked the Hamiltons for all that they had done for him. He even had to pause to compose himself.
Being in Haiti, and being rescued after the earthquake, was real. So is everything that has happened since then, in America, in the world of big-time college recruiting.
“It’s a fine line,” Conley said. “You can take somebody out of a horrible situation and bring them to a much better light … and then at the end of the day whether somebody takes advantage of them on purpose or not, it just seems everybody tries to capitalize on it.”
A while back, before things got quite as crazy, back when a lot of folks believed Labissiere might well choose the University of Memphis, Conley met Skal.
“I ran into him one day,” Conley said, saying that Skal had recognized him and wanted to say hi. “That was pretty cool. I wish him the best, hope he does well.”
And actually gets to play at least one season of college basketball.