ONE OF the requirements of playing for Findlay College Prep is a willingness to repeatedly explain an apparent conundrum: How can the Pilots be one of the best high school teams in the nation when Findlay Prep isn't a high school? In the Pilots' unconventional program, the players live together in a suburban Las Vegas house, travel as much as some college teams, dine occasionally on the Vegas strip and... oh, yes, take classes at a nearby private school, Henderson (Nev.) International School. ¶ "It can get confusing for people," says senior Carlos Lopez, the Pilots' 6'11" center from Lajas, Puerto Rico, and a UNLV recruit. "I tell them Findlay Prep is a team, not a school. Then it's like, 'You don't go to school?' Yes, we go to school just like anybody else, but our team is not the same as our school. Like I said, confusing."
It must have been refreshing, then, for the Pilots to spend the weekend at the inaugural ESPN RISE National High School Invitational tournament in North Bethesda, Md., where no one much cared whether a program outsources the school in high school or whether it's ethical for a UNLV booster, Cliff Findlay, to bankroll such a program in his alma mater's backyard. The NHSI, which its organizers, ESPN and Paragon Marketing Group, hope will become an annual national championship tournament, is not an event for typical high school teams, which are made up of players from the neighborhood. It's big business, with programs that recruit globally and attract elite players who want to hone their games for Division I college ball, all sponsored and showcased by corporate entities looking for programming and profit. (Paragon Marketing, for example, bills itself as "the nation's foremost promoter of high school sports today.")
Anyone who wandered into the Hanley Center at Georgetown Prep expecting the innocence of traditional high school hoops would have seen the ESPN cameras and all the sponsorship signs for Nike, Gatorade and the U.S. Marines, and known he was in the wrong place. The eight-team tournament, won by Findlay Prep on Sunday, represented the NCAA tournament sensibility brought to high school, and though the participants certainly considered that a positive development, others aren't so sure.
The National Federation of State High School Associations has a constitutional provision preventing members from competing in national championships, and most state athletic associations endorse that position. One reason for that is to avoid stretching the season interminably and to limit its intrusion on class time. (Findlay Prep's last game, for instance, was more than a month before the start of the NHSI.) "Our perspective is that a national tournament would not fall under our educational mission," says Bob Gardner, the COO of the federation.
Some high school coaches also have concerns about the NHSI, although they hesitate to voice them publicly for fear of alienating powerful forces such as ESPN and Nike. "It's good programming for ESPN, but is it good for high school basketball as a whole?" asked one coach in attendance. "Are you going to be able to convince your best player to stay and try for a state title when he has a chance to transfer to one of these places where they get on TV and play for the ESPN championship or the Nike championship? I don't want to see more of these independent programs popping up to skim off the best talent from the regular high schools."
But that's likely to happen as long as ESPN gives those programs even more cachet by organizing events like the NHSI. It wasn't lost on the players that the tournament rewarded the winners by moving them up the Worldwide Leader's ladder of networks—the first-round games were on ESPNU, the semifinals on ESPN2 and Sunday's championship game on ESPN. Television exposure was the big prize.
The naysayers didn't worry teams such as Findlay Prep, runner-up Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) and Montrose Christian School (Rockville, Md.), which are not members of any state federation, nor ESPN, which seized upon the opportunity to showcase some of the nation's top high school recruits—and ignored any questionable circumstances, describing Findlay Prep as having an enrollment of 775 and never mentioning its unique arrangement with Henderson International during Sunday's broadcast. The field included three McDonald's All-Americans, including Findlay's 6'3" guard Avery Bradley, a Texas signee, and seniors headed to such high-profile programs as Oklahoma, Pitt and Villanova.
THE PILOTS are likely to make regular appearances at the NHSI, since the nature of their program enables them to replenish their talent easily, sometimes even during the season. Just three years old Findlay Prep is 65--1 over the last two seasons under coach Michael Peck, a former UNLV video coordinator. This year's Pilots feature three Division I signees—seniors Bradley and Lopez and guard D.J. Richardson (Illinois)—as well as junior forward Tristan Thompson, who has verbally committed to Texas. That group will lengthen the already long list of Findlay alumni who have earned Division I scholarships, including DeAndre Liggins (Kentucky), Jorge Gutierrez (California) and Brice Massamba (UNLV).
Bradley, a transfer from Bellarmine Prep, in Tacoma, Wash., who was ranked No. 7 on the ESPN RISE list of top seniors, is probably the best player Findlay Prep has produced. It was his brilliance at both ends of the court, with 20 points, eight boards and two steals, that propelled the Pilots (33--0) to the tournament championship, which they earned with a 74--66 victory over Oak Hill (40--1).
The Pilots program is the brainchild of Las Vegas automobile magnate Cliff Findlay, a former UNLV forward and the team's main benefactor. Findlay paid $425,000 for the five-bedroom home that houses the eight Findlay Prep players as well as assistant coach Todd Simon and his wife, Kati, who provide the adult supervision. Along with several other minor investors, Findlay also pays for the team's food and travel (the Pilots logged more than 30,000 air miles and played in eight states this season) and contributes to the fund that pays each player's $16,000 tuition at Henderson International.