Exhibition season over ... for good?
Editor's Note: Andy Katz and Tom Farrey report on the brewing controversy over Division I teams playing preseason exhibitions against AAU programs connected to high-level prep recruits.
HARTFORD, Conn. -- One of the first things you notice, when looking closely, is their socks don't match. One guy is in black socks, another in stripes. A few guys in high socks and a few guys in short socks: new socks and old socks, in various shades of white. It's a minor detail, but the lack of uniformity to the uniform is a dead giveaway: This isn't really a team.
Rather, the Beltway Ballers are a ragtag collection of former college and JC players from the Baltimore area. They don't know each other very well; they play together only on occasion, mostly in local scrimmages and pro-am tournaments. And they have never met an NCAA team in an exhibition game.
But on Nov. 13, they faced college basketball's No. 1-ranked team, one whose fit, young bucks towered over the slow, frumpy Ballers.
The game wasn't pretty. Connecticut won, 102-44.
On Sept. 22, according to a copy of the contract obtained by ESPN.com, the University of Connecticut agreed to pay $22,000 to the Ballers -- a team that belongs to the Cecil Kirk Athletic Council, a group that also sponsors the AAU team that features one of the nation's top-10 prep recruits, Rudy Gay of Capitol Heights, Md. And, during the early signing period in November, Gay announced his intention to sign with the Huskies over Maryland.
You bet, said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun.
"If that's how we got a kid, that's a sad commentary," Calhoun said, when asked after the game about the paid guarantee. "We got Rudy Gay because we recruited him for two years."
It was only an exhibition -- one of hundreds that Division I teams throughout the country played once again this November. But as the regular season begins, the Ballers' visit to Hartford, Conn., is still creating headlines not only on the East Coast, but nationally via the Internet and radio. It's also created a potential rift between two potential Hall of Fame coaches who have won two of the past five national championships -- Calhoun and Maryland's Gary Williams.
If (playing the Ballers) is how we got a kid, that's a sad commentary. We got Rudy Gay because we recruited him for two years. ”
|— Jim Calhoun, Connecticut head coach|
Connecticut called the Beltway Ballers to play the game. Maryland chose not to this season. But Williams' comment to the Baltimore Sun following a loss to an NBDL team has set off a war of words.
Williams' quote -- "We could have scheduled an AAU team and given them $25,000 like some schools I know" -- didn't directly mention UConn, but Calhoun certainly took it as a shot at his choice of exhibition foe. Williams referenced "schools." But Calhoun's response deemed irresponsible any assumption that the exhibition was indirectly connected to Gay's decision. Calhoun said the Huskies simply out-recruited the competition to get Gay.
Connecticut cited its working relationship with Kirk's program long before it scheduled this year's exhibition game. UConn freshman forward Josh Boone came from the same program.
"We try to find every angle we can get to get a player," Connecticut assistant coach Tom Moore said. "We were sweating that (Gay) would still go to Maryland down to the end, regardless of that game. We're doing everything within the rules. No one will lose sleep at UConn if these games are taken away. We'll still get players."
The Hartford Civic Center, the downtown arena 45 minutes from campus where the top-ranked Connecticut Huskies play some of their games, is brimming with college ritual as the game gets under way. The band brass is swaying to and fro. Bright-faced cheerleaders practice their lifts along the baseline. During introductions, as always, the students yell "SUCKS!" at the mention of starters on the opposing team.
One of the starters, No. 22, isn't among the eight players listed on the Ballers' media sheet.
"Who's that?" someone asks one of the seated Ballers. The player shrugs, chirps down the row to his teammates. "Yo, what's 22's name?"
Playing these type of exhibitions against AAU-sponsored teams with post-college-aged players is within the NCAA rules. But that is likely going to change at the next NCAA legislative session.
The Big Ten has sponsored legislation to get rid of any exhibition that isn't against a collegiate team. Under the legislation, if passed at the January convention, NCAA Division I teams would only be allowed to play non-Division I collegiate teams, either domestic or foreign. Schools would still likely be able to play scrimmages against other Division I schools, but those games would be closed to the public.
The legislation would end not only the days of games against teams like the Ballers, but also familiar foes such as the EA Sports All-Stars, which is sponsored by Dana and David Pump of California; Athletes in Action; Nike Elite; Marathon Oil; the NBDL teams; and the Harlem Globetrotters. Games against foreign club teams touring America would also be off limits. Many of these games are now played as a payback for Division I teams that have taken a previous foreign trip.
"Our game ought to be against other collegiate institutions, period," said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. "The best thing for us is to play collegiate teams, so that we know who sponsors them and the eligibility of the players. Our students should play against students, not the CBA, FIBA or Goodrich AAU."
The National Association of Basketball Coaches is also endorsing this potential rule change. The NABC's current president, Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson, has played an Oklahoma-based AAU program called Athletes First. But he is still in favor of changing the rule to avoid coaches being held hostage by any coach trying to demand a game in exchange for the recruitment of a player -- again, something that Calhoun said never occurred with UConn's recruiting of Gay.
"A lot of times, we're put in a position where there are ethical dilemmas," said Sampson, speaking for coaches who are concerned that talking about AAU programs in a negative light could spark a recruiting backlash. "We've got to eliminate these games. Oklahoma, Tulsa, Oral Roberts and Oklahoma State have all played Athletes First, and they're a legit local team. We pay them $7,500, but we still need to change this rule. That's fine if we just play a Division II, Division III, or an NAIA (team)."
But for now, the exhibitions go on as scheduled. And the reasons behind the games are sometimes blurred.
Calhoun said he scheduled the Ballers because he wants to help poor kids in inner-city Baltimore get off the streets. Having spoken to groups in the Cecil Kirk program 15 times during his career as a college basketball coach, Calhoun has seen the good work program director Anthony Lewis, who signed the contract with UConn, has done over the years in the program's recreational program.
"The beneficiaries (of the money) are the kids," Calhoun said.
Yet Calhoun concedes that just a year ago UConn scheduled the Louisiana Futures, a program he is less familiar with, as a tool to recruit elite prospect Brandon Bass, who ultimately signed with LSU anyway. Just one month before the game was held at Gampel Pavilion, UConn, which won in a 132-74 blowout, agreed to pay the Futures $25,000.
"We said, 'Fine, we're recruiting one of their kids,' " Calhoun said. "It was a consideration, sure. But it wasn't a consideration with the Beltway Ballers."
LSU coach John Brady scoffed at Connecticut playing that game a year ago, since he knew that the Louisiana Futures weren't much of a team.
"We survived that,'' Brady said. "Brandon is still at LSU."
But Brady plays these games too, choosing to play the Southeastern All Stars, an AAU team sponsored by Wallace Prather. Prather is the Atlanta-based coach of one of the most successful AAU programs in the country -- the Atlanta Celtics. This past summer's squad features three possible first-round picks -- Dwight Howard (the likely No. 1 pick in 2004), Josh Smith (signed with Indiana) and unsigned Randolph Morris.
"We don't have any of Wallace's players, but we play him because he's a friend of ours," Brady said. "I'm not going to get a player because of one game. But they'll pass this legislation. It puts us all on the edge. But you've got to play teams that are legit, not just teams that play one game."
Bill Shults, Connecticut's associate athletic director who is in charge of the school's compliance, said his staff worked on checking out the Ballers game more than any other scheduled in the 2003-04 season. It looked at whether the club was legitimate, whether it had any recruiting prospects on the roster, and made sure there were no rules being broken in regard to Gay's recruitment. Shults said Connecticut had to do its "due diligence."
(When Connecticut, or any other Division I school, secures a contract with another school for a regular-season game, all that occurs between the two schools is a contract being drawn up, signed by the visiting school, and returned back per the conditions regarding tickets, guarantees and the like. There are no compliance issues.)
And, not every exhibition team has the pick-up quality of the Ballers, who showed up in Hartford with reversible back-and-white practice jerseys. Over the past seven years, the most successful exhibition team has been the one run by the Pump brothers. Once called the California All Stars, the Pump brothers are now sponsored by EA Sports, the same company that also sponsors the Maui Invitational.
|A sampling of fees paid by colleges to AAU-connected grassroots basketball programs for exhibition games, according to copies of contracts acquired by ESPN.com.|
|Houston||Texas Blue Chips||$7,000|
The Pump brothers said they had five teams playing a total of 74 exhibitions, which brought in an average of $7,000 to $8,000 a game. It's these type of teams that Division I schools have traditionally scheduled.
But plenty of other AAU programs have sponsored teams playing exhibitions. And, as a result, colleges that have scheduled games against AAU programs have ended up signing players connected with them. Chris Grier, who leads the Midwest All Stars, played Florida in 2002-03. The Gators signed Anthony Roberson from Grier's program. Grier also played Arkansas, which has Olu Famutimi on its roster out of Grier's program. But playing these exhibitions goes back to the relationship angle Brady talks about. Coaches at Florida and Arkansas have strong relationships with Grier that predate the recruitment of their current players.
All a number of coaches care about is good competition. Team Nike, the other exhibition opponent for UConn, was paid $12,000 and only lost to the Huskies 96-78, giving them a much better game than the Ballers.
"That game (against the Ballers) didn't get us ready going into Yale," Moore said.
"I'm in favor of creating the best competitive environment," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "If we don't allow us to play those games, we need something that is more competitive. I've been playing the Pumps since I've been at Florida, and the only exhibition game we lost was to them. I play them because they give us good competition. We don't recruit California where the Pumps are. But they give us great games."
Five minutes into the game, the score is 20-3. The Ballers are vastly outmatched, with no player over 6-9 on the team. Kevin Norris, once a University of Miami guard, now a chubby junior high teacher, is the biggest name on the roster, but he offers up little more than a series of lazy passes and lousy shots. And he isn't coming out of the game, because he's director of the Ballers, too. He'll play the entire first half as his coach, a man with long Rastafarian hair and an untucked red T-shirt, paces courtside in cultural juxtaposition to Calhoun, his preppy counterpart in a blue blazer and brown loafers.
At a timeout, the Ballers coach says, astutely, "It's like a track meet out there! This isn't basketball!"
Still, 15,517 fans are paying $27 a seat. They have to, if they're season-ticket holders.
Bill Self inherited a non-Division I game against Pittsburgh State (Kan.) when he arrived at Kansas. And when he was at Illinois, he played exhibition games against Chicago-area AAU programs.
"I've done it, but it would be better to eliminate it," Self said. "I don't know what the answer is. Maybe we should limit what you pay the teams."
Such a limit isn't likely because of legal issues. The NCAA is still licking its wounds over losing the restricted earnings lawsuit after it was ruled that the NCAA couldn't set a maximum for salaries for assistant coaches.
"But if you get rid of the games, that's a whole bunch of money for people who put the games on their season-ticket schedule," said Bruce Weber, who succeeded Self at Illinois. "I would love to just play scrimmages, but it goes to the revenue issue for us and for many others. We would have to play a D-II or D-II, or add more (regular-season) games."
If we're going to pay money, pay it to a school. That money should go to colleges within your state or in the area. Pick schools that don't have to travel far so the expenses aren't that high. It would take a lot of the pressures away if they just did away with (exhibitions). ”
|— Bo Ryan,
Wisconsin head coach
Saint Joseph's stopped playing these games a few years ago. The reason? Hawks coach Phil Martelli couldn't handle it when one of the opposing team's coaches arrived asking for him to provide players.
"This guy comes in and says, 'Do I know of any former alums to play,' and if so could I call them," Martelli said. "Since then, we've done all scrimmages. We're going on five years now of just scrimmages. Playing these games makes us all look greedy.
"This should be about the greater good, and the greater good would be to play Division II or III teams and give them the exposure and the money."
That's why Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan is right behind Delany in sponsoring the legislation. Ryan said when he was a coach at Wisconsin-Platteville, his teams would have given the Division I teams better games than these AAU teams.
"Because you're playing systems, established programs with no influences," Ryan said. "If we're going to pay money, pay it to a school. That money should go to colleges within your state or in the area. Pick schools that don't have to travel far so the expenses aren't that high. It would take a lot of the pressures away if they just did away with games and just played Division II or III teams for exhibitions.''
Mercifully, the final buzzer sounds. UConn wins by 58, a margin that could have been even more lopsided if Calhoun didn't empty his bench. He shakes hands with the Ballers coach, and then, 15 minutes later in the media room before two dozen reporters, notes the fine game played by Boone, who had nine boards, eight points and three blocks in just 13 minutes. He wishes his players showed more energy, but understands why they seemed bored.
Down the hallway under the arena, outside the Ballers locker room, a mustachioed cop asks his partner, "No press conference tonight, right?"
Partner shakes his head. No reporters, no press conference.
"That's going to be a long ride home," he says.
Despite the money provided by UConn, the weary, humiliated Ballers aren't staying the night. They file onto the bus for the six-hour drive, the same six-hour drive they made up from Baltimore earlier in the day. That's 12 hours of traveling -- for one paycheck.
Calhoun passes the Ballers locker room on his way out of the arena, and stops for reporters. If the blowout has changed his opinion about scheduling AAU-connected programs, he isn't letting on.
"Sometimes, like tonight," he said, "you just wish you had better competition."
Andy Katz and Tom Farrey are senior writers at ESPN.com.
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