That time may already have arrived, judging from these developments:
•Shoe deals. After Tolentine won the 1988 New York State championship, five shoe companies approached John Sarandrea, the Wildcats' coach at the time, with packages, some worth as much as $10,000 in cash and merchandise. He had to turn them down because he already had a deal with Spot-Bilt shoes.
In 1986, DaneSport, a Reebok distributor in the Southeast, offered Don (Duck) Richardson, coach of Macon Southwest, a perennial Georgia power, 88 pairs of shoes, team sweats, a series of paid speaking engagements, and shoes and sweats for Richardson and his family if the Patriots would wear Reeboks. In addition, DaneSport proffered Richardson a "cash allowance" of $5,400 over the three years of the proposed arrangement. A sweet deal—but not so sweet that Richardson didn't reject it to stay with Nike, which was giving him at least 50 to 75 pairs annually.
Nike also provides shoes for Landon Cox, who coaches USA Today's No. 1 team, Martin Luther King High in Chicago, and Detroit Southwestern coach Perry Watson, whose team has played for the Michigan state championship in seven of the last eight years. Both men receive 50 to 75 pairs of sneakers a year. The usual 12-man squad can't possibly go through that many shoes during a season, which raises the question of what happens to the leftovers. Basketball people in Chicago and Detroit have accused Cox and Watson of using the extras to induce junior high kids to come aboard. Cox and Watson both vehemently deny the accusation.
•TV coverage. It used to be that when a youngster bricked a one-and-one chance at the end of the game, he didn't have to give an accounting to anyone but his classmates on Monday morning. Now the global village gets to see him, thanks to Sports Channel America's deal with the National Federation of State High School Associations. A game of the week, featuring the usual high-profile programs, is beamed to a potential audience of 8.5 million subscribers nationwide.
•Summer circuit. The kid who once spent his summers hanging out with Betty Lou down at the malt shop now jets around the country, preening for recruiters at camps and barnstorming with the summer teams. The camps have become more and more important, because most colleges like to wrap up recruiting during the November early-signing period. Indeed, the most powerful college programs can pressure a youngster by saying, "Sign with us now or we'll go sign someone else."
With the early-signing period, which was instituted in 1982, recruiters now must identify the premier youngsters sooner than before. Last season, when 6'11" Rashard Griffith of Chicago's Martin Luther King High (box, page 27) was in eighth grade, Indiana assistant coach Joby Wright looked in on one of his games during a nonevaluation period, when coaches are not allowed to attend high school games. The NCAA threw up its hands, because its rules about scouting only cover grades nine through 12. "I have stacks of letters for my sophomores," says Gene Pingatore, who coached Detroit Piston guard Isiah Thomas at St. Joesph High in suburban Chicago. "Colleges even bug the freshmen and give them an inflated idea of their potential. Shouldn't kids be allowed to enjoy their high school years and concentrate on their educations?"
There are a few redoubts of resistance to the most recent developments in the high school game. Such states as Indiana, Michigan and Illinois have longstanding rules that restrict the distances their teams may travel and don't intend to rescind them. Jack Roberts of the Michigan High School Athletic Association says his group is doing what it can, particularly in limiting trips for summer teams. "It's inevitable that the reach of the big time gets to the lower levels," he says, "but we're trying to slow down the process and shorten that reach. High school basketball is on the verge of excess. Not in 650 of our schools here in Michigan, but in the other 50. The big time isn't necessarily the better time."
But the big time is what's happening, and as any teen will tell you, what's happening is what counts. "The question now is, When will the junior highs start recruiting the elementary school kids?" says Garth Franklin, a Los Angeles-based schoolboy scout and the editor of The Hoop Scoop, a recruiting magazine.
The answer may be becoming clear. Every recruiter knows about Alex Lopez, a 6'9" eighth-grader at Porter Junior High in Granada Hills, Calif. But how many know that in 1988 his mom gave birth to twins who have a good chance of becoming seven-footers?