UK basketball notebook: Author says NBA-supported club-team model could fix pressure-packed recruiting process

Herald-Leader staff writerJuly 26, 2014 

Kentucky coach John Calipari watched top prospect Malik Monk's impressive play at Nike Peach Jam.

JON LOPEZ/NIKE BASKETBALL

His wife was expecting their second child. With their first-born being a daughter, she asked her husband if he wanted a boy or a girl this time.

George Dohrmann, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, said he wanted another daughter.

"You already have a girl," his wife said. "You don't want a boy?"

No, he did not.

As it turned out, Dohrmann and his wife gave their 3-year-old daughter a brother, who is now a year and a half old.

"I love my son," Dohrmann said last week. "But I know it's quite possible that I'll be forced to enter the world of youth sports. And that scares the hell out of me."

Dohrmann knows youth sports, especially the subculture that is youth basketball. His book on Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball is a must-read for anyone interested in the college game and recruiting. But be forewarned: the book, Play Their Hearts Out, may scare the hell out of you.

In researching the book, which was published in 2010, Dohrmann spent several years embedded in an AAU program based in Southern California. He describes a world in which summer coaches and shoe companies vie for players as young as 8 or 9, and where all-star recruiting camps can seem like livestock auctions.

Underlying it all is a quest for money and prestige.

"It's just sort of a mess," Dohrmann said of the basketball recruiting world, which takes a breather starting this weekend with the completion of the July camps. "It's sort of like everybody has to get dirty."

Dohrmann, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his reporting of academic fraud within the University of Minnesota's basketball program, focused his book on Joe Keller, an AAU coach quivering with ambition, and Demetrius Walker, who at age 9 got pegged as the kind of child prodigy that can enable an AAU coach and program to go big-time.

At 14, Walker was profiled in Sports Illustrated as a budding star, perhaps the next LeBron James (yes, the media is culpable in this cautionary tale). Two years later, Walker is nowhere to be seen as his AAU team warms up for a supposed big game. He's discovered hiding in a bathroom stall.

"Because he was worried that if he goes out there and fails, the perception of him will be he's not any good," Dohrmann said.

By then, Keller knew Walker would not be the transformational player who elevates those around him to fame and fortune. In a heartbreaking anecdote from the book, Keller refers to Walker as a bad investment.

"Keller was just being brutally honest," Dohrmann said in a telephone conversation last week. " ... Of course, there are good AAU coaches. And, of course, there are guys who really care about the kids.

"But, truly, when you get to the really elite level of AAU teams, those coaches are brokers. They're brokering talent. It is an investment."

Dohrmann offered an alternative: the European club-team model. In this scenario, NBA teams would establish, organize and staff club teams. Young players could receive instruction in basketball fundamentals, academic tutoring, social counseling, guidance in nutrition.

"Investing in kids the same way FC Barcelona invested in Lionel Messi," Dohrmann said of how soccer can develop a star player.

In Dohrmann's suggested world, after high school, basketball players could be drafted to play in the NBA or the NBA Development League. Or they could choose to play in college.

Of this model, Dohrmann said, "It's just removing the profiteers."

Meanwhile, here's an update:

■ Walker played for Arizona State as a freshman, transferred to New Mexico and then transferred again to Grand Canyon. Dohrmann said Walker was seeking a master's degree while "halfheartedly" exploring the chance to play overseas.

■ Dohrmann stayed away from AAU basketball after his book was published. But he attended games last weekend to help introduce AAU basketball to people who are interested in turning the book into a television show (think Friday Night Lights, basketball style).

"It's amazing how little has changed," he said. "The same power brokers are still in charge."

■ Dohrmann named his son for Justin Hawkins, who was one of Walker's teammates on the AAU team chronicled in the book. "Noble, smart, introspective," Dohrmann said of Hawkins, who finished up a four-year career at UNLV in 2013. "His mother (Carmen) wisely guided him through that world and kept him out of the worst of it."

Hawkins has been working at a car dealership in the Las Vegas area. He hopes to play somewhere overseas this fall.

Earlier this year, he became a father. He has a daughter.

'Two-way street'

Offensive lineman George Brown announced his football commitment to Florida over Kentucky on Friday. He did so while holding a baby alligator in his right hand.

This bit of theater brought to mind a telephone conversation last winter with Seth Davis, the Sports Illustrated writer and CBS commentator. He cautioned against full acceptance of complaints by prospects or their families that the attention paid to recruiting is excessive and possibly harmful.

"You can't say, on the one hand, I don't want the pressure," Davis said, "and on the other hand, I'm going to hold a huge press conference announcing my decision. You can't have it both ways."

Prospects can like the attention that comes with recruiting and extend the process unnecessarily. But there's a downside, Davis said. Increased scrutiny can bring criticism.

"It's a two-way street," he said.

Controlling the process

Seth Davis said a key to dealing with recruiting is controlling the process.

An example to follow might be Malik Monk, a top-five player in the class of 2016 who has received scholarship offers from Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina and several other schools.

His mother put older brother Marcus Monk in charge of dealing with Malik's recruitment. Marcus, once a standout football player for Arkansas and later a member of the basketball team, knows the recruiting world. But Marcus told the Herald-Leader's Ben Roberts that things have changed in the 12 years since he'd been recruited.

"It's different now, with social media," Marcus said of his younger brother's recruitment. "Any little thing he does is immediately shot out. And just helping him understand how far whatever he does reaches. And how people that he never would imagine know him. And how to act accordingly. He's 16. So he only understands so much. All of these guys are young teenagers, but people don't really see them as that."

All calls go through Marcus for now. Hardly a day goes by without a call or text from a college coach.

"It doesn't bother me," Marcus told Roberts. "I just want to make sure he (Malik) enjoys his time. And that it doesn't get too much for him. That's my main goal."

Inexact science

This offseason, ESPN.com's Marc Stein wrote about the Cleveland Cavaliers offering UK Coach John Calipari a 10-year contract worth nearly $80 million. If he had signed the deal, Calipari would have been coach and team president, Stein wrote.

The Cavs' megaoffer might come as a surprise to those who recall Calipari's turbulent two-plus seasons as New Jersey Nets coach in the late 1990s. A record of 72-112. Famously calling Dan Garcia, a reporter for The (Newark) Star-Ledger, a "Mexican idiot." Suspecting that the front office bugged his phone. Reportedly having a staffer call a New York-based radio show and, posing as " Anthony from Hoboken," tout the coach.

Of course, since being fired by the Nets in 1999 (a pillar in his book Bounce Back, which sought to help readers deal with life's reversals), Calipari has had the benefit of learning from his time in the NBA and from his subsequent coaching experiences: wildly successful programs at Memphis and now Kentucky.

When asked about the Cavs' apparently rabid desire to put the franchise's fortunes in Calipari's hands, sportswriter Terry Pluto noted the inexact nature of coaching hires. There are no sure things, said Pluto, who works for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

It seemed a leap of faith this offseason when the Utah Jazz hired Quin Snyder as coach. Snyder, the former Duke player, has won in previous head coaching jobs: 128-96 in seven seasons for Missouri (1999-2006), 94-56 in three seasons with the Austin (Texas) Toros of the NBA Development League.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert likes star power, of which Calipari has a plentiful supply.

Try, try again

Much was made last season about referees calling more fouls on the perimeter in hopes of reducing contact and increasing scoring. In preseason practices, UK Coach John Calipari emphasized the so-called "new rules," which seemed sure to enhance his signature dribble-drive offense.

By mid-season, to borrow a term from the Baptist church, the referees acknowledged a bit of backsliding. Gradually, uncalled contact on the perimeter returned to familiar levels.

By season's end, Calipari politely noted that the Cats would no longer try to adapt to new rules. The much-discussed late-season "tweak" could be interpreted as a nod to this reality. Instead of driving to draw fouls, Andrew Harrison penetrated defenses with the intent of passing to open teammates on the perimeter.

Jake Bell, the SEC supervisor of officials, said recently that the referees will try, try again next season to reduce contact on the perimeter and thus increase scoring.

"Kind of like driving a car when you're 16," he said. "Next year at 17, you should drive the car better."

Happy birthday

To Jules Camara. He turned 35 on Wednesday. ... To Steve Clevenger. He turns 68 on Tuesday. ... To Jim Harrick. The former Georgia coach turned 76 on Friday. ... To Mike Slive. The SEC commissioner turned 74 on Saturday.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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