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Moore Hoops: Why Nike Had a Hand in Antonio Blakeney's Louisville Decommitment

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterSeptember 17, 2014

AP Images

When the swoosh calls, high school basketball players listen.

That's what we found out this week when news broke that Antonio Blakeney was taking back his verbal commitment from Louisville and reopening his recruitment—first reported by ESPN.com. Shortly afterward, 247Sports.com recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer tweeted out the reason why it happened.

Jerry Meyer @jerrymeyer247

I don't play up shoe company angle in basketball recruiting but decommitment of Antonio Blakeney from Louisville is shoe company related.

Meyer had already known it was going to go down before the news broke. And get this, someone inside of Nike told him.

It was quite simple. Blakeney plays for a Nike grassroots team, Each 1 Teach 1 (E1T1), and Nike was not happy that he had decided to go to an Adidas school. That was relayed to Blakeney, and Nike has enough pull with him or the people around him that he chose to listen. 

To someone like Meyer, this was like the general public figuring out that lobbyists influence government. 

"I guess I just take it for granted that it's highly shoe company driven," Meyer told Bleacher Report. "With the elite guys, it's agents/shoe company drive. I guess I just take that for granted. I didn't think my tweets were any big deal."

If you pay attention to recruiting, it's not. Players who play for Nike programs usually end up at Nike schools. Players who play for Adidas programs usually end up at Adidas schools. It doesn't always happen that way, but more times than not it does. 

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 12:  The  'Swoosh' logo is seen on a Nike factory store on December 12, 2009 in Orlando, Florida. Tiger Woods announced that he will take an indefinite break from professional golf to concentrate on repairing family relations after
Getty Images/Getty Images

"It's not just Nike," Meyer said. "Nike is just bigger and better."

If you have a hard time buying what Meyer is selling, simply look at E1T1 and where its players have ended up. 

On the team's site, there are 31 players who have signed with Division I schools since 2010, and 28 of them signed with Nike schools. Out of the six players in the 2015 class who have verbally committed, five plan to sign with Nike schools. 

Blakeney is one of seven 5-star players, according to Rivals.com's ratings, to go through the E1T1 program. Assuming Ben Simmons does not break his commitment to LSU, the other six all ended up at Nike schools. 

No matter the high-profile Nike-sponsored team, these numbers are all going to be similar, and there's a good explanation for it: loyalty. 

This summer I attended Nike's Peach Jam, and next to the vending machines on my hotel floor were empty Nike shoe boxes to the ceiling. Nike gives these kids free gear left and right, and it's totally legal. 

There was a guy who floated around at Peach Jam, schmoozing with the players and coaches. He worked for Nike. I asked someone, "What's he do?"

"He gets things done," I was told. 

Nike has so many who feel connected to the brand that line between who is working for the company and who isn't is blurred. 

"What is Nike? That's the other funny thing. The tentacles of Nike are enormous," Meyer said. "Does a person have to be paid by Nike to be part of Nike? Do they have to work for Nike? Nike gave my dad (legendary coach Don Meyer) before he died thousands of dollars a year for a wardrobe. That was like my Christmas present. Am I part of Nike? Is my dad a part of Nike? We didn't work for Nike."

Nike cannot pay the players with cash—just gear—but their money can go in other pockets. 

"It's the people around the kids," Meyer said. 

The easiest target is the grassroots coaches. They serve as mentors and advisers to these players, and at the top of their unwritten job responsibilities is to make sure Nike is taken care of down the road. That means getting kids to Nike schools, and if that player turns into a pro, the idea is that he'll realize Nike played a big part in getting him where he is and that brand loyalty will convince him to sign with Nike when he gets to the NBA. 

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 28:  Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals shouts to his team against the Kentucky Wildcats during the regional semifinal of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 28, 2014 in Indianap
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Today, Rick Pitino is probably irked that he may not get a really good player because of a shoe company. He's given in, and according to The Courier-Journal in Louisville, he's no longer recruiting Blakeney. But if this was a problem that was toxic for the game, college coaches would have raised a stink about it a long time ago. 

The truth is that the shoe companies scratch their backs too. Every big-time coach has an endorsement deal. And the tournaments that the shoe companies put on make it easier for the coaches to see quality prospects play in one place during the summer. 

That's not to say players like Blakeney would not develop or get discovered without Nike. Otto Porter's father never allowed his son to play grassroots basketball. Porter trained on his own in the summer. He's the type who you would think needed grassroots basketball, because he lived in a tiny Missouri community. But schools like Georgetown and Kansas still came knocking at his door.

Elite talents don't need Nike or Adidas or Under Armour. But it sure is sweet to travel the country on Nike's dime and get to play against other great players in front of big-time college coaches and NBA scouts. 

And when decision day comes, the people with their pockets full and their sneakers on make sure those experiences and who provided them are not forgotten. 


EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 19: Anthony Davis of the USA Basketball Men's National Team talks with University of Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari during practice at the PNY Center on August 19, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. NOTE TO USER: User exp
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

It's not like John Calipari needs help recruiting, but an NBA scout told Bleacher Report this week that attending Kentucky's two-day combine in October "feels like you're helping Kentucky, which is weird."

That's the point I tried to make last week. Calipari will sell the idea of the combine as great for his players, but the ultimate motivation is to make the program look even more desirable to recruits. 

"It's a proactive way to cut off negative recruiting," the scout said. 

Essentially, the only way to recruit against Kentucky right now is to convince recruits that Kentucky is too deep, and you aren't going to get as much playing time if you go there. Cal is willing to recruit over you. 

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 07: Dakari Johnson #44 of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts against the Connecticut Huskies during the NCAA Men's Final Four Championship at AT&T Stadium on April 7, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

But let's say sophomore center Dakari Johnson ends up not playing a lot of minutes this year—a plausible scenario—yet he still is a high draft pick because of his performance at the combine. At that combine, Johnson will be playing NBA-caliber big men, which is a rarity in actual games. Calipari will be able to tell prospects you'll get exposure here no matter what. 

As for the setup for NBA teams, the scout was torn whether he likes the idea or not. 

"It's good to watch in setting where they know everyone is going to be there to watch them," he said. 

But...

"It's better to show up on a day they don't know you're coming." 

Scouts like the ability to come and go as they please. Reportedly, Calipari is cutting off their access after the combine, although the scout was skeptical whether he would not allow scouts in during the season. At Kentucky's practices in the past, he said, scouts have been allowed to sit right up front, and Calipari is one of the coaches who seems to enjoy interacting with them. 

Whether Cal decides to let the scouts back in or not, the combine idea is a really smart recruiting move for that particular weekend. Recruits will show up to a gym full of NBA personnel. Each NBA team is allowed to bring three representatives. 

Other coaches can brag that scouts and general managers show up at their practices too, but not 90 of them at the same time.


Speaking of NBA scouts, let's take a look at what should be their top five destination schools this year outside of Kentucky, which is the obvious No. 1. 

1. Kansas: Bill Self has three freshmen who could eventually be lottery picks—Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk—and scouts will want to see what sophomore guard Wayne Selden is capable of now that he's healthy. Selden battled a knee issue his freshman year. Junior power forward Perry Ellis, who would likely be an NBA 3, is another intriguing prospect. 

2. Arizona: By the end of the season, I believe freshman Stanley Johnson will be in the conversation for the No. 1 pick. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has lottery-pick potential and stretch-4 Brandon Ashley and center Kaleb Tarczewski are two bigs worth scouting. 

3. Duke: Jahlil Okafor is the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, and both Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones could also be one-and-done prospects. (I have a hard time seeing Jones as that, but multiple draft sites predict it.) 

4. Texas: I talked to a lot of people this summer who are torn on incoming big man Myles Turner. Some think he's going to be a stud. Some think he's overrated. NBA teams will want to see as much of Turner as possible to decide for themselves. Texas also has a point guard (Isaiah Taylor) and two other bigs to keep an eye on in Cameron Ridley and project Prince Ibeh. 

5. North Carolina: The Tar Heels are another team full of guys who could end up all over the board, including Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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