Sneaker-camp wars wear thin on travel-weary college coaches
Posted: Friday July 16, 2004 5:06PM; Updated: Friday July 30, 2004 2:30PM
As summer heats up, March Madness is a distant memory.
You'd logically assume every coaching genius, from North Carolina's Roy Williams to UConn's Jim Calhoun, would be hunkered down with a good book, catching rays at the beach or touring the world's finest links. Enjoying the good life, right?
Not a chance. July Mayhem is upon us ... or rather, Sneaker Wars Gone Wild. Head coaches and assistants, recognizable by their school-logo polo shirts, are hustling from gym to gym, eye-balling the latest batch of teenage hoops talent.
July is evaluation time, when kids audition at various camps and tournaments across the country. So coaches are racking up frequent flier miles and burning the rubber, trekking to elaborate camps staged by sneaker companies and tournaments that run through the end of the month.
This year, the summer scene is even more hectic after sneaker kingpin Sonny Vaccaro bolted Adidas for Reebok and took along his New Jersey-based ABCD camp, which was conducted last week. Vaccaro created the athletic-shoe business after joining Nike in the late 1970s. So, indirectly, Vaccaro had a hand in the other two camps last week -- Atlanta (Adidas) and Indianapolis (Nike) -- as well as tournaments yet to be played in Las Vegas (Adidas) and Augusta, Ga. (Nike).
Even though they can't afford not to show their faces, college coaches aren't happy campers. Massaging the itinerary to take in three camps in a week is tough stuff, especially maddening because the NCAA prohibits any direct contact with the kids until September. A third camp further dilutes the talent pool. And what happens if a coach has eyes for a kid who turns out eager to go pro?
"The talent is definitely stretched a little thinner,'' Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "In terms of the concentration of top 100, top 200 players -- it is spread out a little more. You think about going all the way back to Princeton, N.J., where you had the best 200 players in the country. Then, you went to two camps and now we're at three camps. I guess it's not all bad, because now you give more kids an opportunity to be seen. And we tend to lose sight that the game is supposed to be about opportunities for kids to get an education or be seen and do something better with their lives, as opposed to making it sane for college coaches.''
But this scene isn't sane. Not for the coaches, the kids or what poses as amateur sport.
I got clued in to the madness a few years ago while chronicling the early recruitment of then 18-year-old Tracy McGrady, who first made his reputation at the Adidas camp in 1996. Before he signed a pro contract, the shoe company inked McGrady to a $12 million endorsement deal. His high school, Mount Zion Christian Academy, a tiny North Carolina basketball powerhouse, was to be paid $300,000 in cash, not including a separate deal providing travel funds and equipment. And his Mt. Zion coach and an Adidas "consultant'' credited with finding McGrady were to receive upward of $500,000 each from the sneaker company.
That's chump change in light of the deals recently given to LeBron James, Dwight Howard and the over-hyped Sebastian Telfair. The money has gotten richer as the sneaker wars intensify and more and more summer-camp stars head directly to the NBA.
At the Adidas Superstar Camp in suburban Atlanta, coaches armed with thin notebooks and pens shuffled into areas marked "College Coaches Only,'' occasionally moving to catch one of seven games that were going on simultaneously. They came in search of the next Carmelo Anthony -- all the while eyeing kids capable of filling out a college roster for the next four years.
They also caught glimpses of former colleagues like ex-Georgia coach Jim Harrick, who was coaching a team at the Adidas camp, and defrocked North Carolina coach Matt Doherty, who was working the Reebok camp. Coaches also saw plenty of agents at each camp, including Brad Hunt, the recently named head of IMG's basketball division who was a former advisor to Olympic track star Michael Johnson.
The best summer camp prospect, according to observers? Probably junior-to-be Greg Oden, a 7-footer out of Indianapolis, a Nike camper last year who defected to Reebok this summer.
And yeah, coaches even caught a glimpse of foreign talent that they probably can't get their hands on. Adidas, which is also running elite camps in China and Germany this summer, brought in a trio of its best players from the Shanghai camp. Two of them -- Yi Li, a 6-7 guard/forward, and Zhi Luo, a 6-3 point guard -- held their own, while 6-11 Gu Liye went down in the first workout with a badly sprained ankle.
When asked about college aspirations, Yi said a New York University coach had inquired about him, while Zhi identified Duke as his favorite college team. The language barrier makes the chances of either playing college ball slim -- not to mention the difficulty of getting released from a structured provincial team system in China that serves as a feeder for the national team.
The purpose of the 18-year-olds bringing their game to the U.S. is simple. "The U.S. is tops for basketball," Luo said through a translator. "So it is king of basketball. The only purpose is to learn something.''
Suffice it to say, a lot can be learned at the shoe camps.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.