- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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UCLA head coach Ben Howland and other Division I coaches have been told to stay away from this week's Chicago pre-draft camp by their compliance coordinators.
But some, including those at St. John's and Ohio, will be in attendance beginning Tuesday night, challenging the NCAA's interpretation and risking a possible secondary violation. The reason they're willing to gamble is the directive from an NCAA official doesn't appear very strong.
All Howland was interested in doing while in Chicago was support his former player, Pittsburgh senior Brandin Knight. St. John's assistant Mike Jarvis II wants to do the same for Red Storm senior Marcus Hatten. It's the same reason Ohio's Tim O'Shea will be in Chicago, encouraging outgoing senior Brandon Hunter.
And, seeing college coaches in Chicago is nothing new.
Coaches have attended the NBA pre-draft camp for years, aiding in the draft process by talking to NBA general managers and scouts about their former or present players, answering any questions, and at times, making a case for their players to be drafted. During the Portsmouth Invitational in April, coaches like Marquette's Tom Crean (for Robert Jackson) and Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Bruce Pearl (for Clay Tucker) were in the stands at Churchland High (Va.) to help their players' cause.
But apparently, Chicago could be off limits.
An NCAA official said college coaches can't watch the draft camp if there are any prospective student athletes in attendance (see: high school or junior college players). At first glance, the only two invitees of the 65 who qualify under that definition would be high school senior James Lang and College of Southern Idaho freshman Sani Ibrahim.
But Lang has already signed with an agent, Tony Dutt, according to Dutt's assistant Lindsay Mathias. That immediately makes Lang ineligible to play college basketball. Ibrahim was ineligible the moment he officially declared for the draft. Junior college players fall under a different rule than high school and NCAA college underclassmen who can still attend or return to school if they declare for the draft. Junior college players are ineligible once they declare for the NBA draft.
Stu Jackson, the senior vice president of operations at the NBA, said he hadn't received official word on Lang's status, but didn't discount the possibility that Lang had signed with Dutt. Jackson said the NBA invited four other high school players who declared for the draft -- Ndudi Ebi, Travis Outlaw, Charlie Villanueva and Kendrick Perkins -- but none of them accepted the invitation. Ebi (Arizona), Outlaw (Mississippi State) and Perkins (Memphis) all signed a national letter of intent. Villanueva committed to Connecticut Sunday but is still a recruitable athlete. If Villanueva attended the camp, the NCAA's directive would certainly come into play. But he's not attending.
Monday, the issue continued to fester across the country as coaches decided whether they should keep their reservations for Chicago. Further confusion was created by an email sent out to college compliance directors by the NCAA's Brad Hostetter, who is the associate director of membership services. Hostetter wrote in the email entitled "Hot Topic #9 -- NBA pre-draft camps" that:
"Institutions should note that coaching staff members may not attend any activities in which prospects participate at an NBA Pre-draft camp, in as much as those camps do not occur during an evaluation period. Therefore, if the camp is organized such that there are separate activities during which prospects do not participate, coaches may observe those activities (i.e., only observe currently enrolled four-year college student-athletes in distinctly separate activities from those in which prospects participate). There appears to be confusion about this so please share this information with your basketball coaching staffs.''
Associate Director of Membership Services
National Collegiate Athletic Association
The way the Chicago camp is run, with a game on one court and drills on the other, makes it impossible for college coaches to avoid being in the same building with Lang and/or Ibrahim. But neither one is eligible, making them no longer student-athletes at the Division I level.
The NBA doesn't care about the NCAA's archaic rule. They're not going to bar college coaches from attending. The people who could ultimately get hurt in the process are the outgoing seniors and/or the underclassmen, hoping to see a friendly face at the Chicago Moody Bible Institute (Tuesday-Friday) in their quest to get drafted.
Hostetter said Monday that Lang and Ibrahim could still attend college, making them "prospective student athletes," and thus a violation for college coaches to watch them during a quiet period. (The quiet period is when college coaches cannot evaluate prospective high school or junior college players.) But when pressed that neither Lang nor Ibrahim were eligible, and had given up their amateur status, Hostetter said they still meet the guidelines of being a prospective student-athlete.
But, the fact remains neither is a prospective student athletes because they've violated their amateur status. College coaches cannot recruit either player, so why should they be penalized for being in the same gym while they're watching their own players?
A year ago, high school senior Julian Sensley was at the Chicago pre-draft camp. College coaches were in attendance. Sensley was a recruitable athlete, but no one from the NCAA said a word. Three years ago, junior college players Cory Hightower and Ernest Brown were at the Chicago pre-draft camp. So, too, were college coaches and nobody from the NCAA said a word.
So, why make a fuss now?
"We were asked," Hostetter said.
This same logic was used a year ago when the NCAA started to enforce a rule on its books about playing in the Chicago pre-draft camp. Underclassmen were suddenly informed that if they played games in Chicago, and returned to college, they would have to sit out the same amount of games during the 2002-03 seasonh. This came about a year after underclassmen like Arizona's Jason Gardner and Kentucky's Keith Bogans played in Chicago and returned without a penalty.
The re-enforcement of this rule led to players like Stanford's Casey Jacobsen staying away from Chicago. The one player who was penalized was Memphis' Chris Massie. He went to the pre-draft camp, played two games in Chicago, returned to college, and ultimately sat out two games for playing the same amount in Chicago.
The game-for-game rule was changed this season and underclassmen are not only free to go to Chicago, but can have the expenses paid for by the NBA. High school players can only attend for the first 48 hours free of charge, but must reimburse the NBA for the remainder of the camp if they want to be eligible in college. That's one reason why Ebi, Outlaw, Villanueva and Perkins declined to attend. Lang isn't going to college, so he wasn't concerned about having his expenses paid for by the NBA. Steve Mallonee of the NCAA's membership and legislative services said this rule probably should be changed.
So, too, should Hostetter's interpretation of prospective student-athletes. Lang and Ibrahim no longer fit the definition, and college coaches shouldn't be punished for going to the camp because of the pair's presence. If they are disciplined, even with a minor violation, then the enforcement staff should re-evaluate its time management.
Watching former players and underclassmen compete at the Chicago pre-draft camp shouldn't be a punishable offense.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.