What was a ninth
grader to think?
thrilled," says Washburn. "To receive a personal letter from such a
famous coach was sooooooo exciting."
excitement had only begun. By the end of his ninth-grade year, Washburn, then a
6'9" center (that explains a lot, doesn't it?), had received letters from
Clemson, Duke, Cornell, Wake Forest and several other schools. And he was
barely out of the 10th grade when North Carolina State assistant coach Tom
Abatemarco wrote these words to him: "You are going to be one of the best
players ever to play this game." One of the best players ever. Washburn's
head was spinning. Abatemarco's boss, N.C. State coach Jim Valvano, followed up
a few months later with a letter that concluded, "Chris...if you come to
State you will be an All-American and be a first round draft choice." First
round NBA draft choice! "That letter made me think of money and the
pros," Washburn says. "I said to myself, 'Hmmmmm. I might not go to
college. I'll try to go straight to the pros."
transferred from Hickory High to the Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy for his
junior year, and then to Laurinburg ( N.C.) Institute, a prep school famed for
grooming such future basketball stars as Sam Jones, Charlie Scott, Jimmy Walker
and Mike Evans. As his senior season began last winter, he stood 6'11",
weighed 250 pounds and was the most sought-after high school basketball player
in the Western world, evidenced by the more than 1,000 letters—and at least as
many decals, questionnaires, press guides, Christmas cards, bumper stickers,
game schedules and newspaper clippings—he'd received from more than 150
most of the letters—the personal ones, anyway—and when it came time to sign a
letter of intent, in November 1983, he naturally gave the greatest
consideration to the schools that had written the most letters: Maryland (53),
Virginia Tech (61) and North Carolina State, the champion of all the
correspondents, which besieged him with 278 letters, postcards and Mailgrams.
"Those letters," Washburn says, "showed me how much N.C. State
really cared about me." And all that elbow grease paid off: This week,
freshman center Chris Washburn will be suiting up in Wolfpack red and white.
"State," says Washburn, "just wanted me the most."
There is a lesson
to be learned here: High school basketball prodigies do not merely appreciate
attention, they demand it.
Problem is, under
NCAA rules college coaches and their representatives are limited in the ways
they can express their emotions. They cannot, for example, visit a prospect
more than three times on his home turf and more than three times away from it.
Nor can they provide a player with more than one expenses-paid trip to their
school. Coaches can telephone their objects of desire as often as they wish,
but objects of desire have a habit of not listing their numbers, taking the
phone off the hook or instructing their mothers to tell coaches, "I'm
sorry, but Junior just left the house a minute ago and he won't be back for 20
Which leaves the
U.S. mail. For the price of a stamp, a coach can penetrate a prospect's heart,
come rain, sleet, snow or unlisted number. For decades coaches have been doing
just that, with varying styles and degrees of success. But since 1982, when the
NCAA began allowing high school seniors to sign national letters of intent in
mid-November, rather than wait until April, coaches have been mounting their
letter-writing campaigns earlier than ever.
Three of this
season's top college freshmen permitted SI to peek into their amply stuffed
mailbags. In addition to Washburn, they are John Williams, a 6'9" forward
from Los Angeles' Crenshaw High who's now at LSU, and Danny Manning, a
6'10" center from Lawrence (Kans.) High by way of Page High in Greensboro,
N.C., who's at Kansas. Page by syrupy page, the letters they received offer a
glimpse into the techniques that coaches use in recruiting, and they also
reveal why some coaches—you know who you are—would do well selling Florida
swampland to Yankee hicks.
"My mail was
full of promises, promises and more promises," Washburn says. "That's
why I had to read the letters very carefully. I figured that whatever a coach
would promise me he'd also promise someone else."