High school never was quite the way you remember it. The French teacher was never that tyrannical, the homecoming queen never that beautiful, the zit never that unsightly. High school basketball, on the other hand, seems almost perfect in retrospect. The long foldout wooden bleachers filling up during the jayvee game. The Pep Club spending its popcorn profits on paint and paper for homemade posters. Clunky yellow buses making the Friday night trek crosstown for the Big Game. Adolescence had its traumas, little things that at the time seemed humongous, but in the fevered sanctuary of the gym, everything was good and right and perfectly to scale.
High school basketball, alas, is no longer as you remember it. The cool kids are leaving the unwashed geeks behind. High school teams have been eclipsed by an elite layer of high school programs, powerhouses that can be found in every corner of the country—even if you can't be sure which corner they'll show up in for their next game.
These high-octane high schools now play national schedules. They appear on national television. They float up and down the Super 25 rankings in USA Today and wear sneakers provided gratis by shoe companies. (How many bags of groceries did you have to deliver to buy your first pair of Chuck Taylors?)
Nor will you find their coaches monitoring the cafeteria. They're in their offices, on the phone—with a tournament director in Hawaii or the parent of some hotshot eighth-grader who lives 20 miles away. The Big Game cross-town? It's for dorks. The scene now is tournaments and the tube, complimentary Nikes and The Nation's Newspaper—be there or be square.
Remember the episode of the old TV series The White Shadow in which coach Reeves takes Carver High to Las Vegas for a high school tournament? (Quick refresher: The guys break curfew, try sneaking into the casinos and are caught. Carver gets hammered in their game the next day, and the moral is told.) Well, 31 teams from across the country traveled to Las Vegas before Christmas for the Holiday Prep Classic, the largest regular-season high school tournament in the country.
A lot of very commendable, very scholastic things occurred during the four-day event. It was the first plane trip for many of the players, most of whom were quartered well away from the predatory Strip. No underage kids were found hanging around roulette wheels at 3 a.m. A perfectly ordinary team representing Pittsburgh's North Catholic High spent a year and a half raising money to make the trip, and thought to bring along its cheerleaders.
But the Holiday Prep Classic, a trail-blazer when it began 13 years ago, is now one of more than 30 such national tournaments that took place in December alone. The competition among them to lure the best teams with the most glamorous players is fierce and sometimes nasty. Scouts from the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., were in Vegas chatting up William Ellerbee, coach of Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High, because the Bulldogs have a 6'8" freshman, Rasheed Wallace, who the Beach Ball figures will be quite a drawing card over the next few seasons. "We already signed another team for next year," says Beach Ball director Eddie Oliver. "The coach said he wanted to commit to us to eliminate the pressure."
Tim Stevens, coordinator of The News and Observer Holiday Festival in Raleigh, N.C., says that on three occasions he has had schools pull out of his tournament for vague reasons. Each time, says Stevens, the team played in the Beach Ball instead.
"Each year it gets more and more cutthroat," says Larry McKay, an assistant principal at Rancho High in Las Vegas and the founder and director of the Holiday Prep Classic. "Some of these coaches want to be wined and dined. I've chased after some guys and been left with a really negative feeling. It's almost a prostitution situation."
Nonetheless, McKay has no intention of scaling back his event, which began with 16 western schools and a budget of $3,500. The budget has since grown to $100,000. This season he happily paid the way for Dunbar High of Washington, D.C., which was ranked No. 2 in USA Today's preseason poll and features a 6'8" blue-chipper, Providence-bound Michael Smith. "If you want to get national attention, it isn't enough to have teams from all over," says McKay. "You have to have the top players."