Agents and coaches battle for prospects
As coaches fume, agencies come up with new ways to reach players at a younger age
About to head home to Wilmington, N.C., after playing just 11 games in his freshman season, Wake Forest's Ty Walker was finishing up the spring semester when a message appeared on his Facebook page to add a friend.
The "friend" was an agent.
John Domantay, who is based in the Bay Area and represents struggling journeymen such as Korleone Young and Cory Hightower, was reaching out to a 19-year-old who scored a grand total of 10 points during his freshman season.
"He said that I have the potential to be in the NBA," said Walker, a 7-foot center who had hype coming out of high school but was stuck in a numbers game last season. "As soon as I got it, I gave the contact information to coach [Dino] Gaudio. [Domantay] was trying to get me caught up in a whole situation."
But under NCAA and NBA Players Association rules, Domantay wasn't doing anything illicit. Agents are free to contact players in high school or in college through social networking sites, on the phone or in person. As long as there is no written agreement or money exchanged, an agent or a representative of an agent can form a relationship with a player, his family and/or his handlers.
"It's not breaking the rules," Domantay said. "You're just building a relationship with a potential client down the road."
Welcome to the new normal in amateur basketball.
Agents and runners are accessing and building relationships earlier in a prospect's career because they can and because the agents say they must to ensure they're making a sound investment. And AAU coaches who have access to the elite player are being recruited nearly equally by the college coach and the agent -- and have no problem hearing either pitch.
Domantay's argument for an agent's trying to make inroads in a profession dominated by an elite few is that if he were to wait until a college player's senior year, he becomes just another name on the list.
"It's a good thing to friend someone over the Internet on MySpace or Facebook instead of cold-calling people, which I don't do," Domantay said. "I'm staying in the bounds. I'm not trying to sign them [early]. I'm not paying them. I know nothing can happen until they're eligible to be drafted or done with school. I know a lot of coaches hate it and maybe all the coaches hate it, but you want to get to know the players."
Domantay has the part about the coaches right.
Getting to know amateur players and those close to them, whether the athletes are in high school or in college, has become the norm with the basketball elite. Agents and their representatives have more access to amateur players than do college coaches, who generally tend to resent such change.
"The system is broken," said Gaudio, who lost underclassmen Jeff Teague and James Johnson to the NBA this offseason, saying they didn't always keep him in the loop about their draft intentions and representation. "There are a group of agents who do things the right way -- contacting the coach and then contacting the parents. And then there are those that contact the kids on Facebook. Anybody that I find who goes behind my back to get my kids, I'll do everything in my power to see that they're not involved in the process."
Anybody that I find who goes behind my back to get my kids, I'll do everything in my power to see that they're not involved in the process.” -- Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio
Gaudio was so irate about the subject that he wrote to ACC commissioner John Swofford, NBA commissioner David Stern, NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter and the late Myles Brand, then president of the NCAA.
"If an agent contacts a kid directly, then there should be repercussions," Gaudio added. "Guys get in with kids and prey on the youthfulness and financial backgrounds and offer things to lock them in and set up a potential for blackmail: If I gave you this, then you owe me."
There was a time when agents worked mostly through college coaches. It was no secret that David Falk had a good relationship with Georgetown coach John Thompson and would have access to the Hoyas coming out of college. But the blossoming of grassroots basketball, with the success of high school-to-pro players such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, created an intensity to get the next superstar.
"What happened for the big agents was they saw they needed to get the relatives to cut deals," said a source who has ties throughout all levels of basketball but preferred to remain anonymous. "They weren't recruiting the players as much as they were recruiting the players' families. They were preying on the family members. A star player's brother may cut a deal to get paid, and if he can get a computer, some clothes, why wouldn't you?"
Freezing out the college coach in the process has been a gradual occurrence.
Troy Weaver has just about seen it all. He was an AAU coach with D.C. Assault, a college assistant at Syracuse and New Mexico, and a scout and director of player personnel with the Utah Jazz. Now, he is assistant general manager for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"We've seen the steady decline of access," Weaver said. "If they keep taking the coaches and the NBA people away from the kids -- keep cutting the recruiting periods -- then where is the support going to come from? The AAU coaches spend the time with the kid, and since the shoe money isn't what it once was, the AAU coach or high school coach has to align himself with someone."
Weaver said he didn't talk to agents when he was with D.C. Assault in the mid-1990s, adding that there used to be a joint effort between high school, AAU and college coaches to work together. Now, the only contact seems to be between agents and the AAU/high school coaches.
Like college coaches, NBA personnel have restrictions. NBA personnel can't be in high school gyms and can go only to high school all-star games and summer AAU events.
"If we can't be in the gym, then who is? The agents and the runners," Weaver said. "That's why kids make bad decisions. They don't know who is really telling them the truth. They think the college coach is saying to stay in school to win games and they think the agent is coming in to just make money."
Weaver recruited Carmelo Anthony to Syracuse. Anthony played one season for the Orange and then signed with Bill Duffy after winning the national title in 2003.
"Carmelo didn't formally meet Duffy until the season was over," Weaver said. "[These days] he would have already met him by his junior year of high school. I would have been recruiting the kid and I would have been recruiting the agent."
During the NBA draft combine in Chicago in May, the elite prospects met with decision-makers from across the league. According to Timberwolves assistant GM Rob Babcock, one of the most common questions was, when did the prospect meet his agent? Babcock said a number of the players responded that they had known their agents for years.
Why do the agents feel the need to get to know players so early?
"You've got to know everyone around," said Seattle-based Aaron Goodwin, who represents such stars as Gary Payton and Kevin Durant. "Who's the AAU coach? Who is close to the kid? Ask all the questions. You've got to find out who is involved in the process."
And that's exactly what the college coaches are doing, as well, according to agent Andy Miller. One of the more high-profile agents -- he's had clients like Kevin Garnett at one extreme and Sebastian Telfair at another -- Miller said the majority of the top-20 programs are attached to an agent.
"I think depending on who is being honest, that program is associated with an agent," he said. "There's more interaction and integration than people lead on to."
Miller has friends and foes in the business. Texas coach Rick Barnes said he had no problem with how Miller advised Damion James during last spring's NBA draft process, yet Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt wasn't as thrilled with the way Gani Lawal was handled by Miller. Both players ultimately stayed in college.
Florida has also had experience with Miller. Former Gator Marreese Speights ended up choosing Miller, whom he met while training at Joe Abunassar's Florida workout facility as a high school junior. Miller and plenty of other agents have sent players to work out with Abunassar. Meeting a prospective player at a workout facility, even a high school player, is perfectly fair game.
Miller said he doesn't make it a habit to talk to players in high school, but the AAU coach is admittedly a key.
"I can't relate to an 11th-grade kid about the business of basketball," he said. "What happens with an AAU coach is he gives you access to the program and you can develop trust. He might not be able to guarantee the player, but there can be a strong recommendation.
"We have the responsibility to use our time and money and resources to evaluate the talent," Miller added. "It's a long-term marriage. Everyone wants to make the agent out to be a bad guy, but why would some of the bigger agents like myself want to make a mistake?"
Being skeptical of agents as advisors is natural. Duffy, like many of his colleagues, has a long history of advising prospects. Some will leave early for the NBA. Some will not.
"Baseball players can have advisors, golf players can have advisors, yet football and basketball players are off-limits?" Duffy said of the fact that agents can rarely advise without being perceived as less than honest.
Getting to the advisory level, though, doesn't start cold. The agent has to get to know those around the player.
"AAU coaches and family members do play a prominent role," Duffy said. "But the college coaches are still dealing with the AAU coach more than we are. We inherit those relationships."
No one disputes that some coaches or family members ultimately want a "piece of the action," a phrase echoed by a number of agents. In recent years, Duffy and other agents have hired former AAU coaches. It has become a natural progression in the field. Duffy hired Calvin Andrews, who was a former AAU coach in the Bay Area.
Meanwhile, there is an ongoing NCAA investigation as to whether Duffy paid Rodney Guillory, former USC player O.J. Mayo's handler, money that filtered down to Mayo.
Yet, not long after Duffy was vilified publicly for the USC mess, he had 10 draft picks in 2009, including six first-rounders.
"You don't get 10 draft picks by accident," Duffy said. "We had four or five situations where we didn't even recruit the kid. There isn't a whole lot of mobility in our industry. The top agents end up with the players anyway."
In recent years, that usually means Duffy, Miller and Arn Tellem.
Still, there are plenty of agents who say they aren't in favor of diverting from the traditional route.
Jeff Schwartz, who is Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun's agent, said he went through Oklahoma to get Blake Griffin, North Carolina to get Tyler Hansbrough and UConn to nab A.J. Price. He said the charge that he's a proxy for Calhoun is false and pointed out that he doesn't have a number of UConn players, like Duffy clients Hasheem Thabeet and Marcus Williams.
"I don't think much has changed," Schwartz said. "I still want the coach's input."
Yet the opinion on the state of how the agents deal with the players is mixed, even from within their own profession.
"It's bad," said Seattle-based agent John Greig, whose most recognizable client might be Pops Mensah-Bonsu of the Houston Rockets. "I do think the vast majority of agents are involved with AAU or high school coaches. When you go to these McDonald's or Jordan games, they'll say that this player is already going with this guy or that guy. Money is always used as the controlling part."
"The top guys know they're going to get taken care of," an NBA assistant general manager said. "But it's not all the time. Nobody was taking care of Blake Griffin's family because the family wouldn't allow it. The same thing was true of James Harden.
"The college coaches have to recruit the runners, too, sometimes."
Who are the runners?
"He's a guy who has the ability to get information," said Darren Matsubara, a long-time grassroots basketball coach who is now the global general manager of the adidas Nations project. "The runner can be a disposable person once his services are rendered."
New York Panthers AAU coach Gary Charles said the runner tends to be a young man, in his early 20s, who can talk and relate to kids.
"You don't necessarily see an agent at a game," Charles said. "The runner is the one who forms the relationship. It could be anyone who befriends the player."
What the runner is attempting to do for the agent is gain access and ultimately control.
"The player becomes like a stock bond, a product, and whoever can control the produce will ultimately cash out," Matsubara said. "As a whole, the business has become younger and younger."
The player becomes like a stock bond, a product, and whoever can control the produce will ultimately cash out.” -- Darren Matsubara, Global GM of adidas Nations Project
That doesn't just apply to runners. Matsubara points out that more and more college coaches are attempting to get high school sophomores to commit without seeing the campus.
"It's all about control," said Matsubara, whose Elite Basketball Organization (EBO) has produced a number of NBA players, such as Carlos Boozer, DeShawn Stevenson and Brook and Robin Lopez. "Whoever can control the kid can control the revenue stream -- [maybe] it's a kid going to college benefiting the college coach and leading to a better job. The player dictates the revenue. Everybody is trying to get in sooner and sooner however they can."
Charles said everyone is trying to find an edge, trying to make money. Charles has countless relationships with college coaches like Calhoun, Hewitt and Villanova's Jay Wright, but said he's also friendly with agents, too.
"When the games are over, the college coaches come shake your hand or wave at you," Charles said. "The agent comes over, shakes your hand and waves at you. It's the same thing. There's no difference."
Curtis Malone, who heads D.C. Assault, has strong ties to agent and friend Joel Bell. That's why it was no surprise that former D.C. Assault coach Dalonte Hill was tied to Assault alumnus Michael Beasley, who originally committed to Charlotte when Hill went to the 49ers to be an assistant and then to Kansas State when Hill went to KSU to be an assistant. When Beasley declared for the NBA draft two years ago, he signed with Bell.
"It's like anything in life, people get hired based on who they know," Malone said. "It's all about establishing relationships. You have to put yourself in position to get the players when the time comes. Agents have relationships with college coaches, too. It's about whoever has the influence. It's about who has the power, as long as nothing is done illegal or crosses the line to get kids in trouble."
Malone said this is a new era in the sport, meaning there was a time when only schools like North Carolina and Duke were landing big-time talent. Those kinds of schools still get the elite players, but now a big-time player can also end up at Kansas State.
"Guys like us [AAU coaches] get bad pub and we get thrown under the bus," Malone said. "It's no different than college coaches bringing in five agents. A lot of the players' families understand this when they're picking an agent. They don't have to use their college coach. Some kids might go to college and already have an agent because the family knows him."
And that's the sticking point for a lot of college coaches.
"The reality is that agents are around a lot of kids," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "But I've always believed in recruiting that you've got to keep good relationships with people, anybody. I don't want an agent saying don't go to Florida.
"The thing that is difficult is that agents aren't living under any of the rules as it relates to contacts. We have rules for contacting a player, but an agent can do it as much as he wants and can go over to his house. We can't do those things."
Donovan said the agent has the kind of offseason contact that is not allowed for college coaches. That may change in 2010 if a new NCAA rule is passed that allows college coaches to work with their players as long as they're in summer school for a required amount of hours.
"[Agents] don't have time to watch a guy and build a relationship when he gets in college," said Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, who deals with NBA draft issues nearly every year, it seems. "They've got to get started at an earlier age since they may only be in college for one year. They have unlimited phone calls and unlimited contacts. They have a much better advantage than we do in building relationships."
The us-against-them mentality that some college coaches foster doesn't fly with Sonny Vaccaro, the original grassroots basketball founder who worked in conjunction with Nike, adidas and Reebok prior to his retirement from the business.
"What's the difference with an agent using a runner and a college coach using an assistant coach?" Vaccaro said. "I don't see a difference. The agent and the runner are despicable to the media, but not the college coaches. One of them is scandalous and the other is given a free pass. A number of coaches or assistants have a friend who is an agent that supplies him with players."
Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose UMass 1996 Final Four was vacated because of an agent issue with star center Marcus Camby, said, "To say [agents] are involved, I would say they are. They may have known this person for a long time, but that doesn't mean they're representing them. It could be they have a relationship, but not an agent-player relationship, and nothing has changed hands."
Calipari's solution is to take away summer recruiting and ensure that the college coaches are involved much more during the high school years. He also believes in allowing high school seniors to go directly to the NBA.
Kansas coach Bill Self, who like Calipari recruits the elite players who will be agent fodder prior to (and during) college, said that while "no one will admit it publicly, numerous agents have developed relationships with kids and maybe they're not doing anything wrong, but they've known them before the process of recruiting has even started. I don't think it's unusual for a high-profile guy to have an idea or pick an agent soon after he declares, because for the most part he's known that person longer than the coaching staff."
While Self said there is more player/agent contact than most of the public is aware of, Georgetown coach John Thompson III isn't so sure there's a problem. He acknowledges that players probably have more relationships with agents than in the past, but says "it's only a reality for a small segment of players."
For example, Thompson said the well-publicized recruitment of sophomore center Greg Monroe involved only Monroe and his mother. Ultimately, Thompson said, a coach has to make the decision about whether to recruit a player who already has a relationship with an agent.
"A very minute portion of the players fall into that category," he said.
And that is true. Plenty of players, like Notre Dame senior Luke Harangody, emerge as NBA-level players during their college careers, not while in high school.
Harangody said there were no agents seeking him out when he made the decision to attend Notre Dame out of Schererville, Ind. But what about now?
"During the season, it was easy for me because I made it clear I wasn't talking to them," Harangody said. "They were calling my phone a lot and that's why I don't do Facebook or MySpace."
During Eric Gordon's freshman year at Indiana, agents pursued him because it was clear he was out after one season. When IU played Michigan State at Assembly Hall, Miller was at the game scouting Gordon, who ultimately signed with Rob Pelinka.
"I didn't meet with any agents until after I declared," said Gordon, now entering his second season with the L.A. Clippers. "I didn't know any agents in high school or college. I didn't have a clue. I know there were agents who might talk to the coach, but I never paid attention to that. I was focused on different things."
The rumors of a player/agent relationship never die. West Virginia sophomore Devin Ebanks was rumored to be locked with Miller. Both vehemently deny there is any relationship.
"I've heard of him, but never met him," Ebanks said. "I know runners work for agents and an agency and they're trying to get kids to make an early commitment to sign with an agent. But I haven't seen it firsthand."
"It's an urban myth," Miller said. "I've never met Devin Ebanks. I don't have an advisory role and never advised him about West Virginia. That's an urban legend. There's no reality to it."
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins denied the rumor, as well, and added that he has never been tied to one agent. He said he has never had the need to use an agent to recruit.
So what role does the NCAA play in all this?
NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn said there is nothing "categorically bad about sports agents when the relationship is between a student-athlete whose eligibility has expired or has made a commitment to participate in professional sports." She added that if a student-athlete is interested in playing professional sports, agents can play a role toward that goal. That's the advising role.
The NCAA doesn't have its head buried here. NCAA officials know the contact is going on and there is essentially nothing they can do about it.
"The bottom line is that elite athletes are being contacted by agents long before their collegiate eligibility starts or expires," Osburn said. "NCAA rules allow conversations between agents and student-athletes, but agreements are not allowed."
To monitor this, there must be cooperation from the student, the NCAA, the NBA Players Association and the agents and laws governing agents in some states. The NCAA is banking on education leading to better understanding of the rules. That means checking comp ticket lists to ensure that no agents are included and closing all practice sessions so that agents cannot gain easy access to student-athletes.
Osburn also cited an SEC policy that prevents agents from having sideline passes during games. Encouraging "agent days" on campus to engage with them and conduct mock interviews is another helpful aid, she said.
"The NCAA has concerns about the growing practice of agents' using new technologies to reach student-athletes," Osburn said. "We know that agents and runners are using social networking technology to contact kids, and the NCAA has processed several cases where that was the introduction point for the relations."
The NCAA doesn't have jurisdiction over agents and runners, but there are some states that do -- and Osburn said her organization would like a Uniform Athlete Agents Act (UAAA) to be adopted in every state. According to an NCAA statement, the thesis of the act is that there can be "significant damage resulting from the impermissible and often times illegal practices of some athlete agents. Violations of NCAA agent legislation impact the eligibility of student-athletes for further participation in NCAA competition."
The UAAA has been passed in 38 states, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. One state (New Jersey) has it in its legislative chamber; three states (California, Michigan and Ohio) have non-UAAA laws designed to regulate athlete agents; and nine states and one territory (Alaska, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Puerto Rico, Vermont and Virginia) have no existing law regulating athlete agents.
Hewitt said the agent issue isn't one for the NCAA or college basketball coaches to deal with, but rather "it's an issue for the NBA Players Association. They're ultimately the only ones that can sanction and censure agents."
NBA spokesperson Tim Frank said this wasn't a matter for the league to comment on, but the NBA Players Association did offer an answer. Communications director Dan Wasserman said that rules clearly state that agents are not allowed to offer anything of value to anybody -- not the player, not the best friend, not the family.
"It's one thing to say all of this is going on, and when someone has a specific allegation of an agent providing value, then we investigate," Wasserman said. "We have and we are. The usual complaint is that agents are on campus or runners are on campus, but we can't ban them. We don't have ankle bracelets on agents. If someone doesn't want them on their campus, they should kick them out."
Wasserman said the players' association does its part during its high school All-American camp, which was held on the campus of the University of Virginia this summer. He said the players' association realizes the problem of access to elite players and won't allow campers to bring in their AAU coaches. Wasserman said agents or runners aren't allowed at the camp, either.
"We know there are a lot of bad influences out there," Wasserman said. "We kick runners out all the time. We have escorts that take the players back to the dorm at the end of the day. We don't allow an entourage. We have security staying in the dorms. We know the sphere of influence has changed."
For years, college coaches were the gatekeepers for players before the jump to the NBA. But the influence has changed and, for many agents, getting access to those who control the player -- be it a family member, an AAU or high school coach, a friend, or someone who may even pose as a relative -- is the charge. The competition to get to the person with the most influence is now on, and the college coaches are in direct competition with agents and runners to get access.
And as long as there is no money exchanging hands, that competition is perfectly legal according to NCAA rules and the laws of many states.
Does it ultimately matter, though?
"I think agents are pretty pointless because they can't change your draft status since the money salaries are set," Wake Forest's Walker said. "I'm going to be at Wake Forest for four years, and then I'll pursue my career in the NBA. I'm going about this the right way, and agents contacting me and building relationships with me is not in my vocabulary."
To be fair, Walker isn't the primary target of the big-time agents. He has barely played in college. But his experience proves that potential is all a player needs to be the target of an agent or runner seeking to gain influence over a possible NBA prospect.
The pool of talent, with leagues all over the globe to fill and money to be made, means that anyone with potential is in play to be courted, and so too are their families, their friends, and their AAU and high school coaches.
That's the new reality for college coaches.
And there's no reason to think it will ever change back.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.