Back in the day… a kid would play pickup ball in the sport of their choice around the neighborhood. When they decided they liked a sport enough to pursue it further, they would go play for a local club team (it was the basketball team at the Eastside Boys Club in Tacoma for me, with Lawyer Milloy being a teammate). Uniforms might be paid for by a local sponsor (Spud’s Pizza), but travel and other expenses were handled by the parents. Sometimes we would sell candy bars or do car washes to help fund equipment or for a big tournament.
When high school began, the expectations and stress of playing sports increased. Your high school was your first priority, but you could also pursue club sports in the off-season. For me, being a 5’11” slow white guy meant a transition from basketball and a focus on varsity soccer for my high school in the spring, but club soccer (Tacoma United) in summer and fall. If you were at a level where a college scholarship was a possibility, your best time to shine was during summer camps promoted by former professionals trying to eek out a living after their playing careers had ended. Ultimately though, even the top-level players always put their high school team first.
At that time in the mid-80s and into the early 90’s, cable sports was still relatively new and not nearly as sophiscated. Most games remained on the network channels and local TV stations like KSTW-11 or KCPQ-13 would show Husky games. But, there was absolutely no hype given to recruiting or high school sports outside of the scores in the local paper and an occassional article in the Tacoma News Tribune about an up-and-coming player.
Then came the advent of the internet and digital cable and everything changed. Suddenly everyone was checking on the status of all the possible recruits who might come to their alma mater. Recruiting websites popped up like weeds in a fallow field. Suddenly people were watching high schoolers in “All-Star” games on ESPN hoping this player or that would enroll at their school of choice or be drafted by their favorite professional team. The professionalization of high school sports had begun…In 2006, Auto-dealer magnate Cliff Findlay created Findlay Prep. The plan was simple. Buy a house for $425,000 in his hometown of Henderson, NV. Fill it with 10 of the best high school players in the country (the world even), travel the country playing dozens of games and logging thousands of miles, and get the attention of the national media. His plan succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams!
While prep schools such as South Kent Prep in Connecticut have been known for their quality academics for decades, other “prep schools” and “academies” have been popping up in the post-internet age as money making machines. Findlay Prep is not really a high school, it is simply a basketball team. Not a single player is from Nevada. So much for showing your community pride against the “hicks” from the neighboring community high school.
Until last year, their players attended classes at the for-profit Henderson International School. How many classes they actually attended between their trips to Illinois, Kentucky (twice), Ohio (twice), Florida (twice), Massachusetts, South Dakota, Virginia, Arizona, New Jersey and Texas is not really known.
According to one article: “A typical school day for the Findlay players starts with a morning practice from nine to 11, followed by class from 11 to 12. After a short lunch break, classes resume until three. The day concludes with a weight training session from three to four before the players return home”
As for how they afford the $17,000 tuition and $20,000 room and board? Well, apparently Cliff Findlay takes care of that. Their travel expenses are paid for by Nike. ESPN also helps out by televising these “invitational tournaments” including the much hyped ESPN RISE NHSI and creating an entire show around the team with “The Season”.
Findlay Prep has won two consecutive “national championships” for which I do not ever recall there being such a thing when I was in high school. We were going for the Narrows League title first and then the ultimate prize being the WIAA state title. Our big “road trips” were to Port Orchard and Olympia. When we made the state tournament, it meant a trip to Seattle to play at Key Arena. That was the big time!
We certainly didn’t take trips to Oregon and never would have dreamed about flying across the country to play teams on the East Coast. Of course, things have gotten even more complicated for Findlay to hold up the facade of being a real “high school” since Henderson International School has closed its secondary school the players had been “attending”. While Findlay Prep claims to still be a legitimate academic institution, there isn’t much evidence of what is really going on there right now.
There have been numerous articles written about these basketball factories in recent years, but things have gotten so bad that recently even fake-fake basketball academies are popping up. In West Virginia 20 high schoolers from around the world were discovered holed up in a 3-bedroom apartment without any food or money. The basketball academy they paid $500 up-front to enroll in turned out to be fake after they flew thousands of miles to join it.
All of this is simply the AAU entering high school sports. While most basketball prep academies at least try to pretend they are academic institutions, at least one isn’t even really pretending. Relatively new La Jolla Prep in California says this on their website:
The goal at La Jolla Prep is simple: to develop the best prep basketball players in the country. Our Post Graduate program has one goal, a National Championship. If we do that, scholarship offers will follow. With our staffs track record (33 signed in 4 years) we know how it works.
Now, there will certainly be some folks out there that say “Hey this is America; people have a right to pursue whatever options will best lead to their future career/financial success”. Certainly sports academies independent of academics is the norm in Europe; especially in the premier soccer leagues of England, Spain, Germany, and Italy. No one really questions them over there (I lived in Italy for 4 years). Maybe you actually have to admire La Jolla Prep for being so honest. No one can accuse them of trying to pretend they are something they are not.
And, perhaps the real culprit here is the NCAA. By pretending they exist for the benefit of the student-athlete with their really low minimum academic requirements for getting in and a million loopholes around it anyways, they really are more about the student-athlete. If their goal was to promote the student-part of the student-athletes, then academic requirements would be much closer to that of major universities’ regular admittance standards and they would really aggressively investigate and ban athletes coming from diploma mills. Perhaps if the NCAA did that, the athletes who take sports first and think of school as simply an after-thought would go right into a professional setting after high school; perhaps in minor leagues like the D-league or overseas. But, how on Earth could the NCAA pocket its billions in TV rights if the top players in the country were plying their trade in Italy or in Tulsa, rather than in front of millions of viewers in the NCAA tournament?
For those top-notch can’t miss 5-star players, perhaps it really is in their best interest to spend all their time playing against the best players in the country and developing their basketball skills in anticipation of their eventual move to the NBA. But, for every John Wall and LeBron James, there are thousands of other kids who will never make the NBA or play professionally overseas. Instead, they will pursue their dreams until they come to a bitter end. Then, they will find themselves with few real-life skills, maybe a diploma from a school that might or might not be accredited, and no real job prospects. What will they do then?
Check out the story of Dewayne Walker at Eldon Academy as told by the New York Times:
“Each day at Eldon Academy in Michigan, Dewayne Walker could sleep till 11 a.m., practice basketball for 90 minutes and never spend more than two hours in class. He said that the only other students were his teammates, that his only teacher was also his coach. “I’m not a Harvard-type person,” Walker said, “but I thought it would be a lot more work.””
And for some athletes the prep academy experience really isn’t for them. Recently UW recruit Landen Lucas returned home to Oregon to play his senior year after one season at Findlay Prep. Sometimes kids, even those with phenomenal talent, just want to have the same experiences as everyone else such as spending time with their families and friends and enjoying the high school atmosphere. Sometimes they are just too young to be quasi-professionals.
So, what’s a college coach to do?
Lorenzo Romar’s first job is to win basketball games. All the stuff we fans like to talk about in regards to his building character, holding students accountable in the classroom, graduation rates, are all very important. But, they ultimately mean nothing if the team doesn’t win games. People said the same things about Ty Willingham, but look at how reviled he is by Husky fans, especially after that 0-12 season.
So, in order for Lorenzo Romar to achieve what may be his primary goals of being a mentor, role model, and builder of character for young men, he has to achieve the perhaps secondary goal of winning basketball games. That means finding players good enough to win. Like it or not, today those players are at the prep academies.
The days of college players being discovered at the local high school gyms, perhaps after having a big performance in the league playoffs are over. Today it is all about the AAU circuit, summer camps, and the now year-round prep academies. While it seems almost quaint when players like Tony Wroten and Hikeem Stewart still play for their local neighborhood schools like Garfield or Rainier Beach, more and more of them are going to the route of Clarence Trent or Nick Johnson and foregoing the traditional high school experience for a 24-hour per day basketball academy.
It’s hard to blame the kids for that, they are just pursuing their dreams. The people to blame are the parasitic adults who stand to make money off the backs of these developing youngsters.