Wearily, D'Almeida says, "People have no idea what goes into this."
No, they don't.
Most of the top touring teams, such as the Gauchos, cut six-figure deals with warring sneaker companies like Nike and Adidas. Then many of the clubs compete for players by dangling perks before them, such as travel, free sneakers and gear, under-the-table cash, jewelry and clothing.
The top clubs frequently raid the rosters of less lavishly funded programs, treating them as if they were farm teams. D'Almeida and other team directors also routinely "import" out-of-state talent for big tournaments, often after casing the players the competition has brought in. To win this year's Golden Hoops, the mid-August tournament that is the de facto club championship of New York City, the Gauchos' starting five included two players from Florida and one from Texas, plus a point guard who is a prep star in New Jersey.
The high-profile summer tournaments and camps all woo the same small cadre of teams and star players by waiving fees and offering all-expenses-paid trips to their attractive locations: Vegas, Southern California, Florida. Once there, the players find gym hallways clotted with agents' bird dogs and street hustlers who deliver kids to schools for a fee. "A lot of the time, the recruiting among [summer teams] is just as fierce as it is among colleges," says Kansas coach Roy Williams.
Nearly every large city now has a touring prep team. The Gauchos' 70-to-80-game annual schedule might sound daunting, but the Boston Amateur Basketball Club typically plays more than 100 games a year, roughly the same as a team that makes the NBA Finals. By the time BABC coach Leo Papile and his boys pulled into Vegas in July, they had been on the road a month.
If the BABC players are the summer's iron men, the Pump'N'Runs, a Southern California-based entry in Vegas, could have touted themselves as the tour's one-stop shopping program. Club operator David Pump of Northridge managed five youth camps this year and took two touring teams to Vegas. He has a sponsorship deal with Adidas, as do the Gauchos. Dana Pump, David's 28-year-old identical-twin brother and business partner, works as a consultant to sports agent Arn Tellem. "But, uh...if you could, keep Dana's name out of this high school stuff now," says David. Right. He works for an agent, and high school players who consort with agents could lose their college eligibility.
Says former Southern Cal coach George Raveling, "The summertime is the most-abused part of basketball competition. The new rules have legitimized a lot of people who don't have the kids' best interests at heart. Each summer you see more and more potential for abuse. And the only thing that will bring it to a head is a major scandal."
Kidnapping would qualify as a scandal, but it's a charge D'Almeida dismisses as "a complete joke." Tom (Ziggy) Sicignano, the coach of the Brooklyn USA team, accused the Gauchos of spiriting away one of his players, Allen Griffin, who disappeared from the team hotel in Las Vegas one night. Sicignano took back the charge within days, however. It turned out that Griffin had wandered across the street to the MGM Grand hotel and casino, where he ran into an old Brooklyn pal who's now in Mike Tyson's entourage. The man gave Griffin, an 11th-grader, an MGM room of his own for the night.
The question of where D'Almeida fits into this world elicits a variety of responses. He moves in New York's old-money, high-society crowd. Over the years he has counted among his friends showbiz types like Leonard Bernstein, the late composer and conductor, and some of the leading CEOs in U.S. industry: Edgar Bronfman Jr. of Seagram Co. and Jonathan Tisch of Loews Hotels.