Last fall JaRon Rush, a 6'7" senior at Kansas City's Pembroke Hill School, announced that he intended to go to Kansas. Last week he said that on second thought, he might not. "Roy substitutes too much," he explained.
The Roy in question is Jayhawks coach Roy Williams, a man who either doesn't merit the courtesy of being called Coach or has gotten to know JaRon so well from recanting him that the two are on a first-name basis. JaRon added that he would be considering other schools where, in his seasoned judgment, coaches' substitution patterns would better allow "[NBA] scouts to come see me play."
Two days after JaRon's comments, Williams made an announcement of his own. Striking a rare note of sanity in the increasingly surreal intersection between college basketball and the recruiting demimonde that feeds it, he said that Kansas would be recruiting JaRon Rush no more. "Up until the last couple of years I've enjoyed recruiting," Williams said. "I don't enjoy it in 99.9 percent of the cases now. It's always been hard. Now it's gotten to be demeaning."
Thanks to Tom Grant, the millionaire health-care executive who bankrolled the Children's Mercy Hospital 76ers, the Kansas City AAU team with which JaRon has played and traveled since he was 11 years old, JaRon already drives a $17,000 1995 Geo Tracker that is leased to Grant. According to Basketball Times, Rush has traveled the world, including vacation trips to the Cayman Islands, and been plied with everything from pricey dental work to doming, all by Grant. As one of the finest small forward prospects in the nation, he will be welcomed elsewhere, but it's far less certain that he will ever amount to anything commensurate with his extravagant billing. For wherever he goes, he will likely tote around an outsized sense of entitlement. If he doesn't like something he's asked to do, JaRon will be tempted to change the channel, either by lighting out for the NBA (for which, in all likelihood, he won't be ready) or by initiating a transfer to another school. "Here's a kid who hasn't even been to college," says Bob Gibbons, publisher of the recruiting newsletter All-Star Sports, "and he has already transferred."
JaRon is as good a poster child as any for basketball's remote-control generation, a cohort of kids with such short attention spans that they're here, they're there, and in the end an alarming number are nowhere (chart). Go down the list of last year's top 15 prospects and count the number currently playing college basketball who haven't been scarred by some trauma—whether academic ineligibility, a disjunctive transfer or physical, psychological or emotional problems. You'll find disturbingly few.
The troubles can be traced to a culture that spoils adolescents through the fawning environment they encounter while attending select summer camps and playing for so-called traveling teams, where few of the restrictions enforced by high school teams are observed. That culture in turn breeds attitudes in a young prospect, ranging from a belief that he's not subject to the rules that apply to other students, to an impatience to score the NBA millions that supertalents Kobe Bryant and Kevin Gannett got without bothering to go to college. "Kids come to you these days with two primary needs," says Iowa State coach Tim Floyd. "Playing time and winning. In that order." Meanwhile more and more high school stars are having their standardized test scores challenged—evidence that their sense of entitlement sometimes extends to an expectation that if you can't qualify on your own, someone will do it for you (SI, July 7, 1997).
No matter who's to blame for this environment, college coaches have accommodated it. "Years ago, if we heard about a kid wanting to transfer, a red flag went up," says Texas Tech coach James Dickey. "Something was wrong. Now, a hundred of us are in line trying to get him." At the same time the top prospects are subjected to media scrutiny with which they're ill-equipped to deal—from recruiting services like Gibbons's to SI, which four years ago anointed Schea Cotton of Lakewood, Calif., as one of the best players in the land after his freshman year in high school, and last summer raised questions about the ACT score of UNLV recruit Lamar Odom, who has been a basketball vagabond ever since. The media are complicit in the process in a way similar to what physicists know as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: By observing something, you change it.
There are other forces at play, none more deleterious than the shoe companies' conscription of high schoolers as foot soldiers in the sneaker wars. Eight years ago Sonny Vaccaro described the recruiting underworld as "a cesspool, and we start the process." Vaccaro worked for Nike at the time, spreading shoes and cash in the hope of locking up the high school players and coaches who would be the company's next generation of endorsers. Now with Adidas, Vaccaro vies with Nike consultant George Raveling for the next Bryants and Garnetts; and the cesspool has become a huge toxic-waste dump. Few in the game can tell you who JaRon Rush's high school coach is, but most can name his AAU coach: Myron Piggie, a Kansas Citian with few credentials other than a generous cash and merchandise stake from Nike, and a rap sheet with a felony conviction for conspiracy to sell cocaine.
It used to be that the high school coach was a reliable educator who could clean up after the bacchanalia of summer camps and travel, but now he's often also a conduit for the shoe companies. Oak Hill Academy, the Mouth of Wilson, Va., prep school that has long been a way station for kids with talent but dodgy academic credentials, is a Nike-sponsored school that so far this season has flown its team to Nike-sponsored tournaments in Oregon and Southern California and has also gone overseas to play in The Netherlands. DerMarr Johnson, a 6'9" junior who's believed to be the most likely high schooler to skip college for the pros, wore Nikes as a freshman at Parkdale High in Riverdale, Md. Now he's a junior at Newport Prep in nearby Kensington, and he wears Adidas. Tyson Chandler, a 7-foot ninth-grader in Southern California, now attends Compton's Dominguez High, a Nike school that is 60 minutes away from his home in San Bernardino. To do so, he sometimes stays with his AAU coach Pat Barrett, a remora who has long attached himself to high school prospects and currently is on the payroll as a consultant to Nike. "Chandler has had every perk imaginable," says Gibbons. "He's been put up and flown all around the country. You think he could possibly have a normal adolescence?"
Pepperdine coach Lorenzo Romar calls it the microwave syndrome. "All kids hear on TV is talk of 'diaper dandies,' " he says. "Guys envision playing on TV and getting to 'the league' as soon as possible. And now the recruiting starts in junior high. High school coaches are telling kids they're going to be 'the man' and promise them shoes and trips when they're 13 years old. They've been recruited for four years before college."