Commentary

Feeling pressure to pick a school

Ex-player says A-HOPE relationship ended after picking non-preferred college

Updated: May 26, 2011, 11:12 AM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Fabrice Tafo, a well-traveled basketball talent from Cameroon, is sitting in a downtown restaurant sipping ice water as the lunch crowd filters out. He is casually dressed in black sweatpants and a gray hoodie, the type popularized by a prominent New England pro football coach, only "University of Hartford" is spelled out across the chest in red, No. 21 etched on a sleeve -- leftovers from an earlier college basketball gig.

[+] EnlargeTafo
University of Hartford AthleticsFabrice Tafo says that A-HOPE founder Mark Adams wanted him to commit to Eastern Illinois after his junior year of high school, a claim Adams describes as "total fabrication."

The University of Hartford marked just one of his stops, though the lone stop lasting more than a season.

Tafo, a lanky 6-foot-8-inches, was deemed a prospect out of Africa before ever raising a razor to his tender face. His path led him to Paris and later a private school in St. Thomas, where, as a sophomore, he recalls being labeled the best schoolboy player in the Virgin Islands. Then, it was off to three prep schools in the United States, followed by three undistinguished seasons as a Hartford Hawk and a 2008-09 collegiate finale at West Texas A&M University, a Division II outpost a short drive from Amarillo.

Along the circuitous route, Tafo came in contact with Bloomington, Ind.-based African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education (A-HOPE) foundation, started by Mark Adams as a vehicle to bring tall, promising African basketball players to the States or assist some who, like Tafo, already had found their way there. Even though Tafo was enrolled at a New Hampshire prep school when he met Adams, he is among 22 players listed on the A-HOPE website -- Class of 2005.

Tafo, as some A-HOPE players do, went on to be coached by Adams with Indiana Elite 17-under, one of the country's top summer travel teams. He stayed at Adams' house the summer before his senior year of high school, grateful to this day to have had a roof over his head and three square meals a day. He saw Adams as a father figure. He listened, though later didn't accept his advice when it came to a college choice -- thus cooling the relationship, Tafo says.

He told ESPN.com that Adams wanted him to commit to Eastern Illinois after his junior year of high school, a claim the A-HOPE founder describes as "total fabrication."

Now 25, with a college degree in general studies, Tafo is in a reflective stage, wanting to share the emotional highs and lows of an African teenager chasing a basketball dream. He is writing a book, titled "Leaving to the Unknown." He has cast the story of his personal journey as a primer for young, impressionable basketball souls, many of whom continue to be recruited out of African poverty.

On this afternoon, without prodding, he fires up a small laptop computer and offers a peek into his basketball past. He writes of homesickness and pressures not to disappoint those left behind in Africa, as well as the perks of travel on somebody else's dime. There's mention of the glitzy stops such as Las Vegas playing summer ball, and the tugs and influence of heretofore total strangers -- namely prep and summer coaches.

He devotes a chapter to his summer in Indiana with Adams, writing: "Mark wanted to control some of my recruiting for D1 schools. Mark was a good man, but I never know what the deal was with him. He wanted me to go to Eastern Illinois with his son [Drew]. He had me to go visit that school, but I didn't feel it … Because I didn't commit to EIU, my relationship with Mark wasn't the same."

He refers often to Adams as Coach Mark. Tafo says that soon after his arrival in the U.S., Jason Smith, his coach at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, connected him with Adams, who was coaching the Indiana Elite travel team. Before long, Tafo says, he joined with a handful of other New England prep players being flown to Indiana after the high school season to weekend practices with the adidas-sponsored travel team.

He tells of staying with teammates at Adams' Bloomington home the summer between his junior and senior year of high school. That summer, he says, Adams found a private school in Memphis for him to attend. He left that school without Adams' blessing when, Tafo alleges, the Memphis coach -- concerned that Tafo was already 19 -- wanted to "cut" his age.

Tafo stresses that he was a "knucklehead" back then, not always listening to the authority figures in his life. He claims that Adams distanced himself after two decisions: Tafo's leaving the Memphis prep school Adams had found for him and his not committing to Eastern Illinois. Another Indiana Elite product and current A-HOPE board member, Bil Duany, was then a freshman guard for the Panthers, and Adams' son, Drew, was bound for Eastern Illinois.

Tafo believes that Adams preferred he follow Drew, who was a year ahead of Tafo and would enroll in the fall and stay only a semester at Eastern Illinois. After leaving EIU, the younger Adams played at a Florida junior college and as a walk-on at Iowa, then served a stint as a student-manager at Tennessee before joining the staff at Indiana and earlier this month, New Mexico.

In an email, Adams told ESPN.com that he recalls, in fact, telling Tafo that Bowling Green was the best fit for him, adding: "I sure didn't care if he went to Eastern Ill or not. Drew wasn't even there."

Tafo claims Adams hasn't directly communicated with him since his senior year of high school, noting that he has spoken only with his son. "I couldn't get in touch with him," he says. "I called him. He didn't call me back. I send him message. He wouldn't answer."

Tafo adds: "We had our differences after that. I don't blame him, though. It is just a business. I can't blame anyone. I can't really blame all those coaches. They want to live. The kids want to live, too. They want a better opportunity to help their family back in Africa.

"The sad part is when they get to college, all those coaches, they don't really ask about your family. They don't care. You have to produce on the court. If you don't produce, they are going to let you go. It is that simple.

"Before you get to college, all those coaches -- high school coaches, AAU coaches -- they are taking care of you. But when you get to college, you are on your own now. And sometimes you might call them, but they don't answer their phone because they don't need you anymore."

In his case, Adams says he prefers to stay in the background after his players move on unless an emergency pops up requiring his help. "Once these kids are in college, I don't stay in close contact with them," he told ESPN.com in an email. "I don't have time, and I am not a chatty type person."

Compounding the loss of that support network present through high school and summer ball days, Tafo says, is the guilt and frustration of the African player calling home in search of advice. The lucky ones are reminded that they've been afforded a shot at a better life in America. They have books and schooling and opportunities those left behind only dream of. So nobody wants to hear a teenager whining about having to shuffle from prep school to prep school, or about having to make new friends or deal with new teachers or with adults who can't relate to him.

No one wants to hear about the ridiculous drama of picking between college scholarships.

"Back home, everyone thinks that this is a paradise," Tafo says. "They are like, 'You are in the U.S., you should be this and that. You should provide for your family.' They don't really understand what is going on here.

"Sometimes, it is hard for those kids to tell their parents, 'OK, this is what I am going through.' They want to give an image, 'OK, I got here, and I am fine.' They don't really want to tell the truth or what is happening. I see it in a lot of kids in those situations. They are really scared. It is really tough."

[+] EnlargeFabrice Tafo
WTAMU Athletic Media RelationsTafo finished his collegiate career at West Texas A&M University, a Division II school a short drive from Amarillo.

When he first entered the system, a teenage kid out of Africa, Tafo portrays himself as having been no different. He willfully went along. He didn't always ask questions. He was happy for the opportunity. He was happy to play basketball and to get the chance to go to college.

Only later did he think more deeply about the facilitators and coaches who connect with young African players. Yes, they often are warm, giving people, providing a wonderful service and opportunities. Beyond that, he says, what's in it for them? Is it about rubbing shoulders with the college coaches knocking on their doors? Or playing a strong hand in where a kid goes to college?

To some degree, Tafo believes it is about control and influence.

"I mean all those kids that come from Africa, they don't know the system," he says. "So if you come here and play for me, I will be, 'OK, you got to do what I am telling you to do.' Those guys can't really say no until they open their eyes and say, 'OK, what is really going on here?'"

So, what might Adams or anyone stand to gain by encouraging a particular basketball program?

"That is good question," Tafo says. "I never know exactly. People say this and that, but I don't know what is going on. The thing is if you don't go to those [recommended] schools, you are screwed. You don't know where you are going to go after that. You have no one here to help.

"I'll be honest, if you come here for any type of reason, it is definitely a better opportunity than staying in Africa doing basically nothing. So if [Adams] says that he is bringing kids here to give them an opportunity, it is true. Everyone in Africa dreams to come here. … He is helping a lot of kids, don't get me wrong. But at the end of the day, if you don't listen to what he says, you are on your own. And if you are on your own and don't have family here, it is going to be difficult. It is going to be really hard for you."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.