The Most Manipulative Figures in College Basketball
College basketball should be one of the more innocent arenas in sports.
The players are not paid, they can choose to stay in school for up to four years and, for the most part, they play out their entire careers with the same teammates and coach.
But college basketball is not as blameless and tame as it is made out to be.
Under the surface, there are countless individuals and institutions scheming to get that one edge.
Recruiting players is no easy task. Coaches are engaged in a fierce battle for the commitment of that one special kid who could turn a team’s fate around for the better.
It makes sense, then, that these coaches and their schools would stop at nothing to win the acceptance of their favorite players.
But the underbelly of college basketball goes well beyond just coaches. There are companies, kids and outside influences who all conspire to find “the next big thing.”
So who is the worst of the worst? Read on to find out.
The Godfather of Grassroots basketball. The evildoer who is singlehandedly to blame for everything that is wrong with basketball. The man who is responsible for virtually every NBA All-Star.
The question who is Sonny Vaccaro? cannot be answered easily.
The facts are this: Vaccaro began by working with Nike. He found fame when he signed a young kid by the name of Michael Jordan to a shoe deal, making both Jordan and the shoe company millions of dollars.
After breaking up with Nike, Vaccaro shifted his allegiance to Adidas and promptly signed a high school player named Kobe Bryant who was ready to jump straight to the NBA.
Vaccaro’s last stop was Reebok, where he kept his tradition going, making the company a sought-after brand name and supporting one of the premier basketball camps in the country.
So why all the negativity?
Soon after Vaccaro began his empire, the illegal recruitment began.
Naïve high school students, all incredibly gifted basketball players, started to receive packages—shoes, clothes, basketballs...you name it.
Vaccaro turned prep basketball into a recruiting ring, handing underprivileged kids hundreds of dollars of merchandise in exchange for their appearance at his camps.
Colleges, too, boast shoe companies among their sponsors. Some kids may be likely to choose schools based on the organization that has given them the most swag over the years.
Recruiting players to Nike or Adidas schools also gives that company an early edge in making the mega-millions that stars like Derrick Rose and Bryant generate every year.
Some AAU basketball programs are famous for shaping raw players and recruiting some of the best talent in the country.
Others are more well known for the shady dealings of their coaches.
Because some basketball players can spend all of their middle school and high school years under the tutelage of the same coach, strong bonds are likely to form.
There is a reason that AAU coaches are often asked to comment on former players, the assumption being that kids’ mentors in their early years still know them best.
But some coaches take advantage of their relationships with future stars and lure their players to specific colleges.
Michael Beasley, now a star with the Minnesota Timberwolves, was just one of many high-profile kids involved in such a scandal.
Beasley was one of the most sought-after recruits in the country when he was a senior in high school. He spent most of his free time playing basketball with the DC Assault, one of the premier AAU teams in the country.
And when it came time for Beasley to pick a college, his mentors from DC Assault were right there with him.
Bob Huggins, then-coach of the Kansas State Wildcats, hired Dalonte Hill as his assistant. Hill just so happened to be a coach of DC Assault.
Unsurprisingly, Beasley followed Hill to Kansas State and led the Wildcats to one of the best seasons in school history.
Many AAU coaches take advantage of their close ties with players in order to make themselves famous and advance their career.
Shady? Most definitely.
The book Play Their Hearts Out, by Pulitzer Prize-winning Sports Illustrated writer George Dohrmann (a must-read for any basketball fan), chronicles the heartbreaking story of Demetrius Walker.
Walker was a Sports Illustrated cover boy, dubbed the next big thing and better than LeBron James before he hit puberty.
And yet, has anyone heard of him?
Walker is currently averaging just over six points per game for the New Mexico Lobos, a far cry from the mind-boggling stats that were expected of him.
The reason Walker failed to live up to the hype? His AAU coach and supposed mentor, Joe Keller.
Keller’s work was described in brutal detail by Dohrmann. The coach did nothing to mold his star player, but instead berated him, scared him and, ultimately, abandoned him when Walker needed him most.
Keller, like far too many AAU coaches, was more interested in money and fame than actually coaching his players.
An all-too-common theme in prep basketball—which Keller became a shining example of—is coaches who create a product, not a basketball player.
Walker went to college without fundamental skills, no sense of team-oriented basketball and thinking that he was invincible on the basketball court.
All of this combined to doom Walker’s once-bright future. But Keller was barely even around to notice.
If the plot of the movie He Got Game were a true story, it would be one of the craziest recruiting scandals in college basketball. The problem is, it very well could have happened.
Jake Shuttlesworth was serving a life sentence in prison when he was approached by the state’s governor who had a task for him: convince his star son to play college basketball at the governor's alma mater and Shuttlesworth’s sentence would be reduced.
The movie chronicles Shuttlesworth’s attempts to convince his son, Jesus (played by Ray Allen), to attend Big State University.
Shuttlesworth makes no secret about his motivations and, while he does want his son to succeed, it seems that the choice of school would benefit only Shuttlesworth, Senior.
Jesus first begins to lean towards the school after a recruiting visit in which he is given the royal treatment—taken to huge parties, fawned over by girls and treated like a star.
He is not told about the school's academics, its graduation rate or how well professors prepare their students for the real world.
There are many reasons that families make decisions regarding colleges. Unfortunately, many are driven by things other than academics.
He Got Game hopefully showed an extreme side of parental recruitment, but it undoubtedly follows a script that has played out time and time again.
No, Michael Jordan’s son does not qualify as one of the most manipulative figures in college basketball. But he is a symptom of how scandal-ridden the system is.
Marcus Jordan signed to play basketball with the Central Florida Knights. He was expected to contribute to the team right away and hopefully make UCF a nationally-known team.
The one problem? Jordan’s sneakers.
Jordan’s father, of course, is the infamous Michael Jordan, he of Air Jordan lore. So, naturally, Marcus spent his entire life (and basketball career) wearing his father’s patented shoes.
Marcus claimed that UCF said they would allow him to wear his Air Jordans. But UCF had an exclusive contract with Adidas.
Basketball shoe companies are so selective and so elite that something had to give.
Marcus, undoubtedly thinking of his lineage, refused to budge and wore his white Air Jordans to the team’s first game of the season.
And the Knights subsequently lost three million dollars from their deal with Adidas.
The fact that shoe companies have so much control over individuals and institutions is ridiculous.
If Marcus had known that he would stir up so much controversy over his choice of footwear, isn’t there a chance he would have just signed with a Nike-sponsored school?
If UCF had known Marcus would have been so resistant to wearing their trademark Adidas sneakers, might they have recruited another player? Maybe Tracy McGrady’s son?
Will we get to a point where players choose colleges or schools recruit players based on the shoes they wear? Or are we already there?
City College of New York, Manhattan College, New York University, Long Island University, Bradley University, University of Toledo and the University of Kentucky.
Know anything about these schools’ current basketball programs, other than Kentucky?
I’ll give you a minute.
No? Didn’t think so.
All seven were involved in a point-shaving scandal in the 1950-51 basketball season. And almost none have been relevant since.
The incident involved 33 players, including numerous All-Americans, and even spread into the world of organized crime.
What is more corrupting to the world of college basketball—where players don’t get paid and are still allowed to be kids—than fixing games to get a few quick bucks from the mob?
That was the reality that faced college basketball in 1951. While it still remains the most well-known and far-reaching point-shaving scandal in the college world, there is always the fear that another could crop up at any time.
The Tim Donaghy scandal rocked the NBA, mostly because it came out of nowhere, just like in the 1950s.
Who’s to say it cant happen again?
In the 2008-09 basketball season, Kevin Broadus was one of the feel-good stories of college basketball.
He was in the process of guiding his school, the Binghamton Bearcats, to a school record-tying 23 wins, the school’s first conference tournament title and an NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament berth.
Now? He is blacklisted by almost every basketball program in America. He's more famous for what he didn’t do than what he did.
Before Broadus’ tenure, Binghamton was the strongest academic institution in the SUNY consortium. Afterwards, let’s just say it relinquished its title.
Broadus was famous for recruiting players who were forced to transfer from previous schools due to academic problems. Once at Binghamton, the students did not improve, but rather, they fell further off track.
One of Broadus’ players, Malik Alvin, was arrested for stealing. When fleeing from the police, he ran over a 66-year-old woman and gave her a concussion.
Broadus was a classic example of a coach who was concerned with winning above all else. Instead of taking smart, capable players and molding them into success stories, Broadus took the easy route, snatching players that no one else wanted.
Then he'd let them run wild as long as the team was winning games.
Broadus did not just manipulate players, he conned an entire university. He forced Binghamton to lower their academic standards to accept basketball players, made teachers change grades and somehow influenced those in power to look the other way when his players got in trouble with the law.
Lil’ Romeo is most famous for being Master P’s son and for his one hit single “My Baby,” released when he was 12 years old.
But Romeo, also known as Percy Miller, also garnered attention for his basketball career with the Southern California Trojans.
In his senior year of high school, Miller averaged 8.6 points per game. Not exactly the makings of a future pro.
But what Miller had that no one else did was a very important friendship. Miller and coveted recruit Demar DeRozan had been friends since childhood. It was widely assumed that the two would go to college together.
DeRozan was on every top college’s wish list. He rated as one of the best prospects in the country and thought to have the potential to lead a team to the Final Four.
Southern Cal coach Tim Floyd figured out how to get the edge in recruiting DeRozan: sign his best friend.
So Miller, the son of a multi-millionaire who had also made his fair share of money, was offered a full academic scholarship to USC.
And DeRozan followed.
Miller ended up playing just 19 minutes in his entire career with the Trojans. He left college after his sophomore season, one year after DeRozan bolted for the NBA.
Yet, Miller was still paid almost 90,000 dollars by USC, simply for sitting on the bench and convincing DeRozan to become a Trojan as well.
What is the job description of a booster? I have no idea. I would wager that it is just as shady as what these boosters do behind closed doors.
Boosters are responsible for raising money for schools. But it is what happens to all this money after the fact that is troubling.
College boosters are one of the main sources of the money and swag that is given out to college recruits and their families. Gifts from boosters are harder to trace back to schools and invite fewer questions.
Promoters like Rodney Guillory, the man responsible for the NCAA sanctions leveled on the Southern California Trojans basketball team, work behind the scenes, doing all of the things coaches wish they could, but are not allowed to.
Guillory was one of the principle figures behind O.J. Mayo’s recruitment by USC. Mayo played for the Trojans for one year, disappeared for the NBA and left the program in tatters.
Coach Tim Floyd was fired for allegedly giving cash to Guillory to give to Mayo. The school vacated all wins from Mayo’s lone season and was banned from postseason play for one year.
Boosters are dangerous because they often cannot be legally tied to a specific organization. While a relationship may be implied, it can be hard to trace the illegal actions from one party to the next.