Van Coleman was operating on four hours of sleep when he pulled his 1991 Mercury Sable, its odometer already past 150,000 miles, into a parking garage at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. It was the morning of July 9, and Coleman, the associate publisher of the college basketball recruiting publication FutureStars, had spent most of the night driving from Teaneck, N.J., site of the Adidas ABCD high school basketball camp, to Indianapolis, where Nike was holding its All-America camp concurrently. Coleman walked through the front door of the National Institute for Fitness and Sport and was immediately greeted by Ron Briscoe, a fellow recruiting evaluator. "I've got one for you," Briscoe said excitedly. "Kid from Arizona, number 154." A Nike representative handed Coleman a roster listing the 200 players attending the camp, and he dutifully inked a five-pointed star next to number 154.
Inside the gym, where games and drills were simultaneously held on three courts from morning to night, other college coaches sidled up to Arizona State coach Bill Frieder, asking all sorts of questions about the fresh face from Frieder's home state. Florida coach Billy Donovan was overheard lamenting that he didn't have more scholarships to give, "Otherwise, I'd be spending a lot of time in Arizona," he said. Up in the bleachers one Big East assistant was in full gush. "I love his game," he said. "You can see it. He knows how to play."
Richard Jefferson, in uniform number 154, tried to tune out all the attention, but it wasn't easy. July had finally arrived, and for someone like him—an unknown player from a small-time basketball state—there was much at stake. NCAA rules dictate that Division I men's basketball coaches can evaluate high school players as often as they like from July 8 to 31. The rest of the year, however, the coaches' chances to see players in action are severely limited: From Nov. 17 to March 15 they are restricted to five "recruiting opportunities" (evaluations or face-to-face contacts) per prospect and only one visit to a recruit's high school. After the completion of his junior season in February at Phoenix's Moon Valley High, Richard, a 6'8" forward, was named one of the top five players in the state by The Arizona Republic, but because he had played poorly during the '96 summer evaluation period, he had drawn little interest from colleges beyond his home region. This July, he knew, was his last chance to establish a national reputation for himself, and though he was inclined to attend college near home, he still harbored the fantasy that he might be recruited by some of the powerhouse schools in the East. Despite the fact that Richard was playing well, however, he could not afford to let visions of scholarships dance in his head. "If you don't come here with the right mind-set, you'll get crushed," he said soon after his arrival in Indianapolis. "And then nobody will know who you are."
Fortunately for Richard there were ample opportunities for him to make a name for himself. The NCAA has steadily scaled back its Division I recruiting calendar over the last 10 years, and with more and more players looking to take advantage of the November signing period that was established in 1982, the summer amateur basketball circuit has grown astonishingly. This past spring, recruiting maven Bob Gibbons published a list of 96 camps and tournaments nationwide at which Division I prospects would be participating in July—and those were only the ones Gibbons deemed to be "main events." "It's like everything else. It's getting too big," says Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins. "But what can you do? We have to go where the players are."
Because Richard felt he needed as much exposure as possible, he loaded up his schedule for the month. He had to pay his own way to Indianapolis, but from there his Phoenix-based AAU team, the Arizona Stars, paid most of the expenses for the rest of his travel. He went first to Carson, Calif., for an all-star camp run by David Pump, who is a consultant with Adidas. From Carson, Richard returned home to Phoenix for two days of rest, then left for Orlando, where the Stars reached the round of 16 at the 32-team Nike AAU Super Showcase. From Orlando, the Stars flew to Long Beach, Calif., where they played in two separate tournaments, and then to Las Vegas, site of the Grand Finale Tournament.
Though coaches are not permitted to speak face-to-face with recruits during July (once a week they are allowed to call players who have completed their junior year), Richard was well aware of the buzz he was creating at Nike. Recruiting gurus and writers constantly approached him, and he couldn't help but notice the coaches in the bleachers huddling and pointing in his direction. "That's the best thing in the world because you know they're probably saying something good about you," he said.
Richard also enjoyed the approbation he was earning from his fellow campers. As the Nike camp in Indianapolis wore on, Richard saw that players of like ability naturally gravitated toward each other, and he found himself being invited to hang out and trade stories with some of the biggest names in camp. On the final afternoon, as the players were being entertained in an auditorium by the comedian Sinbad, Richard sat next to Korleone Young, a 6'8" man-child from Wichita, Kans., who is one of the best players in the class of '98. In just a couple of days Richard went from being the Kid from Arizona, to Richard, to AZ, in deference to his home state.
By the time Richard returned to his hotel room on the final night of the Nike camp, he clearly had shed the diffidence that had characterized his play last summer. "Most of the guys back home were like, 'Aw, you're not gonna be able to hang with those East Coast guys,' " he said. "I just wanted to prove to them I could compete with the best. I did what I wanted to do. I believe now I'm good enough to play with anybody in the country."
Richard didn't have much of a reputation as a basketball player when he decided to try out for an AAU team, the Arizona Heat, in the summer of 1995. He had been academically ineligible as an eighth-grader at Desert Foot Hills Junior High and had been kicked off the freshman team at Moon Valley for horsing around in practice, though he later moved up to play for the junior varsity as a result. Richard failed to make the Heat's 17-and-under traveling team, but he quickly latched on with the 15-and-under team of the Heat's rival, the Arizona Stars.
At that time the Stars' marquee attraction was Mike Bibby, the precocious point guard from Phoenix who would go on to lead Arizona to the national championship as a freshman in April. Bibby joined the Stars in the summer of '93, two years after the program was founded, and his presence provided the requisite star power it needed to be considered big time. In the fall of '94, Art Dye, the Stars' founder and director, flew to Los Angeles for a meeting with sneaker impresario Sonny Vaccaro, who had been hired by Adidas in 1993 after he had spent 14 years helping Nike establish its hegemony over the summer basketball circuit. Dye was met at the airport by two of Vaccaro's hired hands and driven to a coffee shop for a 30-minute meeting. "It was like going to meet the Godfather," Dye says. Vaccaro offered to have Adidas provide the Stars with shoes and uniforms in return for their participation in Adidas-run summer tournaments and camps.