The top players now have name recognition. Sure, big men like Lew Alcindor and Ralph Sampson had followings in high school. But these days, by the time they choose colleges, even guards like Kenny Anderson (formerly of New York City's Archbishop Molloy and now a freshman at Georgia Tech) and Damon Bailey (a senior at Bedford-North Lawrence High who'll stay instate to play for Indiana next season) are nationally known figures with their own mythology. Part of the interest in the high schools is spillover from the enormous interest college basketball generated during the '80s. Recruiting newsletters now track a kid's every jumper and pronounce 13-year-olds "Division I locks." They also give the early line on what college he'll attend.
Get enough of these name players and you become the pubescent equivalent of the Hoyas and Hoosiers. Consider St. Nicholas of Tolentine of the Bronx, which features two schoolboy All-Americas, Syracuse-bound Adrian Autry and Tar-Heel-to-be Brian Reese. By March the Wildcats will have played in New Haven, Conn.; St. Louis; Kissimmee, Fla.; and Pine Bluff, Ark. Sister Rose Ellen Gorman, the school's principal, actually moved three of Tolentine's 1989-90 vacation days from February to December so the team could compete in last week's Great Florida Shootout without missing class.
Tulsa's Booker T. Washington High is another big-time power. Coach Nate Harris's team has four*** assistants and gets its Nikes free. The Hornets have two sets of uniforms and two sets of warmups, all with the players' names in script on the back. And cheerleaders alone don't lend sufficient support. Washington showed up in Vegas with a pom-pom squad, too.
"Because a school is nationally ranked, it gets free passage to these tournaments," says Bill Notley, who has coached at Lynwood High, just north of Long Beach, Calif., for 32 years and brought his Knights to Las Vegas only because it's within driving distance. "Then the kids say, 'I want to play at this school because it goes here and here and here.' How can I match that? The major powers say, 'You come to my school, you'll get free shoes and trips here or there—and a college scholarship.' The tournament wants you because you have a great player. And you get a great player by promising to play in a tournament."
In high school, they call that a clique. Coaches now must put in time at junior high games, "baby-sitting" kids in their district in the hope that they'll enroll in the fall, while all around rival coaches from outside the district are evaluating the same youngsters. "Nowadays, by the time a college coach gets involved with a high school player, it's the third time the kid's been recruited," says Long Beach State assistant Seth Greenberg. "The first time is in junior high, when he's recruited by the high school coaches. Then he's recruited by the various summer-league teams that want him. By the time we get to them, they're very experienced. Frankly, it creates in their minds an unrealistic view of their own worth."
If you don't believe Greenberg, listen to the innocent voices of youth. "Personally, I like playing on the road," says H (No, It Doesn't Stand for Anything) Waldman of Las Vegas Clark High, winner of the Holiday Prep Classic. "We get more of a team atmosphere. More of a gel among the players. At home, guys tend to show up a little late."
H, who's taking his J to UNLV, was selected MVP of the tournament, making 16 of 26 three-point attempts in five games. What with summer AAU play, camp visits and his school's sundry tournament appearances, basketball has already taken H to, among other places, Tennessee, Iowa, Indiana, Arizona and "California a lot."
Melvin Simon, a 6'8" senior at Archbishop Shaw High in Marrero, La., may play for a parochial school, but he's hardly a parochial fellow. He has been all over the country, too, and four days in Vegas was a mere stopover. Melvin, who is among the top players in the nation, has chosen the University of New Orleans over LSU, Alabama and USC. The one thing he hasn't done is enroll in a frequent-flyer program. "But I do know that you can pay a dollar and get $100,000 insurance," says Melvin sweetly. "And I pay it every time."
These kids know what they're worth, as do their coaches. Teams blessed with studhorses can wheedle the most advantageous terms out of tournament directors. Two years ago Shaw was just a sleepy football school and Melvin was an unknown. The Eagles had never produced a Division I scholarship basketball player, and had to pay their own way to a tournament in Ocala, Fla. Since then, coach Joey Stiebing has taken Shaw to five out-of-state competitions and this season chose all-expenses-paid trips to Las Vegas and Myrtle Beach from among 10 offers.
The money is plentiful. Las Vegas Events, an athletic board of tourism, and Jostens, the ring company, bankrolled most of the Holiday Prep Classic's $100,000 budget. Save for the odd hurricane, the Beach Ball is the highlight of Myrtle Beach's postsummer calendar, and the King Cotton Holiday Classic in Pine Bluff, Ark., is a totem of civic pride. Thus, those two events also have generous sponsorship and a mandate to put on a good show. "Everybody wants the best teams and the biggest names," says King Cotton executive director Travis Creed. "It could become a free-enterprise system out of control, with coaches who not only want money for their programs, but for their pockets, or with a seven-foot center who has never owned a car suddenly driving one. Before long the same thing that's going on in college could be going on in high school."