Given Findlay's status as a UNLV booster, it's not surprising that there are whispers in recruiting circles that Findlay Prep players are steered toward the Runnin' Rebels. In addition to Massamba and Lopez, junior forward Godwin Okonji is considering signing with UNLV. "We're only a few miles away from the campus, so obviously the UNLV coaching staff gets more of a chance to evaluate our kids," Findlay says. "But there's no one in our program who's in any way pushing players to sign with a particular school."
A college booster providing financial benefits to potential recruits sounds like a blatant NCAA recruiting violation, but the program hasn't run afoul of the college basketball authorities. "We're completely open about what we're doing," says Findlay. "We coordinated everything with the NCAA when we were putting this all together to make sure we were doing everything the right way. We set it up exactly the way they told us to."
The Pilots represent the latest step in the evolution of elite high school basketball: a program that operates completely outside the traditional high school system and makes no pretense about its top priority—to acquire the best talent from all over the world. (Players from Canada, Mexico, Nigeria and Sweden have passed through Findlay Prep.) Not being sanctioned by the national federation means the Pilots have no academic eligibility requirements and no restrictions on travel, transfers or practice time, as conventional high schools do.
Findlay Prep answers to no one, which was evident in its acquisition of Thompson, a long-armed leaper from Toronto, in February. Thompson began the year with St. Benedict's Prep (Newark), which lost to Oak Hill in the NHSI semifinals. He decided to transfer, though, after he was dismissed from the team by coach Dan Hurley because of a verbal altercation with Hurley during a game on Feb. 10. The incident took place on a Tuesday, and by Saturday, Thompson was a member in good standing of Findlay Prep.
It's that freedom from rules that makes critics see Findlay Prep as little more than an AAU team masquerading as a high school program. But the Pilots make no apology for how they operate. "We're really no different from some of the prep schools in the East that bring in very high-level players while helping them acquire a quality education," Peck says. "We're doing the same thing."
But they're doing it in a much glitzier fashion, as befits a program born near the neon of the Vegas strip. Findlay Prep's website makes the team sound like every player's fantasy of a high school program, telling prospective players that they will live in a "near-million dollar home" with "two big-screen [televisions], all new furniture, custom extra long beds ... wireless internet, full cable TV [and] two refrigerators kept full." The sales pitch also promises a laptop for every player and a full complement of gear from Nike, which sponsors the program, including "shoes, sandals, running shoes, socks, warm ups, hoodies, practice gear, loose dry fits, tight dry fits, tights, and even compression shorts." If the fully stocked fridges aren't enough, there's dinner at least once a week at one of the resort buffets on the Strip.
It's no surprise, then, that some coaches from other high school programs question Findlay Prep's approach. "You just wonder if we're heading in the wrong direction," says Hurley's father, Bob, who has coached at St. Anthony's in Jersey City for 37 years. "When you've got a kid from public housing and you're trying to push him to do the right thing even if it means things are tough at times, what do you say to him when he sees an easier way to do it, a way where everything is given to you for free?"
But the Findlay Prep players will tell you it's not quite free, that in exchange for all the perks they have to be serious students and perform their household duties. "The basketball and the travel are fun," says Richardson, "but cleaning the bathrooms isn't."
"We stress discipline in the house, in the classroom and on the court," says Simon. "We don't claim to be like the public school down the street. But we're not a fly-by-night school that's just putting kids on the court without regard for their education. Every kid who's finished here has been academically eligible to play in college. If there could be 50 more programs like ours, I think the system would be so much better off."
Would 50 more Findlay Preps really be good for high school basketball? Given the direction that television and corporate forces are pushing the game, like it or not, we may soon find out.