His face clouds over. His tongue turns sharp. It is nearly midnight, and Lou d'Almeida, the founder of the barnstorming New York City Gauchos prep basketball team, suddenly seems nothing like the softhearted multimillionaire philanthropist he claims to be. He is eating a postgame dinner in a Denny's restaurant that hugs a freeway in Jacksonville, and as he stabs at his catfish fillet with his fork, he muses about criticism of his program. Such as published reports that he jeopardized the NCAA eligibility of Georgia Tech's star recruit, Stephon Marbury, by giving him a car earlier this year. "The NCAA is so ridiculous, it's mind-boggling," D'Almeida fumes. And the other detractors who claim altruism is the least of his motives? "Lowlifes," D'Almeida says. "There was a time when it bothered me. Right, Fred?"
Gaucho coach Fred Neal, who is seated next to D'Almeida, nods and says, "People might say we prostitute kids, but the colleges are doing the same thing. The NCAA knows what's going on. Once in a while they try to clean up the mess. But when it's involving millions of dollars that the universities are making and the NCAA is making, they're really not going to punish anybody."
So frontier justice and money rules. Or at least it rules at the very top of the so-called "summer" basketball tour, a circuit that actually lasts from April to September. The tour grew in importance in direct response to some college recruiting rules changes—the 1982 creation of the November early-signing period, and recent NCAA rules that limit college coaches' access to high school players to two scouting visits during the school year. Before the latter changes, recruiters watched kids play during the high school season and wooed the players' prep coaches almost as much as they wooed the kids and their parents. Now college recruiters do most of their scouting during the three-week evaluation window permitted each July. The shift in emphasis has forced college coaches to deal directly with a new group of power brokers: private-team operators like D'Almeida who are regulated by no one, work for no one and are seemingly free to cut deals with prep stars as they please.
Since the players now must play in the summer leagues to be seen by the largest number of college recruiters, the summer basketball tour has become big business. Sixty-nine events clogged the college coaches' 23-day summer evaluation period this year. The biggest attractions were two tournaments held simultaneously in Las Vegas during the last week of July: Nike's National Prep Basketball Championship and Adidas's Big Time Classic. Those events, at separate gyms not far from the Strip, drew at least 400 college coaches to watch 259 teams and more than 2,000 players from 30 states and four foreign countries.
On the way to making his Gauchos the most-renowned traveling team on the summer tour, D'Almeida has featured a Who's Who of recent New York City basketball stars: eventual NBA players such as Albert King, Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson, John Salley, Rod Strickland, Lloyd Daniels, Kenny Anderson and Jamal Mashburn, and the top-ranked recruits in the nation the past two years—Felipe Lopez (now a sophomore at St. John's) and Marbury.
D'Almeida founded the Gaucho organization 28 years ago, and since then it has grown into what he calls a "recreation and educational program" providing league play and, in some cases, tutoring to about 500 boys between the ages of eight and 19 in New York City. The program is run by a nonprofit corporation called Teamwork Foundation, Inc., and it has an operating budget approaching a half-million dollars a year. No player is cut until he reaches the 13-and-over divisions, tryouts for which annually draw about 2,000 boys.
D'Almeida says the Gauchos spend about $100,000 a year on tuition for the 20 to 30 players he sends to various private schools. He is frank about other handouts he bestows: SAT and ACT tutoring help; meals, clothing and money for transportation to practice. He has supplied players with legal help, bailed them out of jail, paid their families' overdue utility bills. He has found jobs for players' relatives and helped former players start businesses. Marbury's mother, Mabel, has traveled with the Gauchos gratis to the Bahamas and Florida. D'Almeida says he does all of this out of the goodness of his heart.
"With a lot of these kids, every day is a fight for survival," he says. "Maybe the mother's an alcoholic, maybe the father's a drunk, a dope addict. [The program] means so much to the kids. At least they belong to something. They are Gauchos. It's a badge of honor. It's a little shred of hope."
Over time, D'Almeida's extravagances have become legendary. In 1986 he finished building the Gauchos' $2.5 million gym in a converted warehouse amid the devastation of the South Bronx. He has taken his teams on trips to Israel, France and Hawaii. Along the way he has picked up endorsements from a long list of respected civic and corporate leaders. (As part of a 1986 civil lawsuit arising out of a real estate dispute, D'Almeida filed a 200-plus page brief that included testimonials to his basketball program from respected figures such as former New York governor Hugh Carey.)
Yet people still hotly debate whether D'Almeida is a sinner or a saint. NCAA investigators took a month to say they wouldn't punish Marbury for accepting the use of a 1987 Acura Legend belonging to D'Almeida, because D'Almeida had a longstanding relationship with the player's family. By the time the Gauchos' stay in Vegas concluded in July, the coach of a rival club, Brooklyn USA, had run to reporters and falsely accused Gaucho supporters of "kidnapping" two of his players. Less than two weeks later, a disgruntled former player and tutor for the Gauchos smeared D'Almeida in faxes sent to two members of the Gaucho board of directors, and he later claimed to have enough dirt on D'Almeida to land a million-dollar book advance.