HAMPTON, Va. — Two burly security guards at the Boo Williams Sportsplex stood between Keith Stevens and two referees who were the targets of a dictionary’s worth of curse words. Stevens had been ejected from the worst loss he had suffered as chief executive of his AAU basketball program, Team Takeover. But nobody could get him to leave the court.
“The first word I’d use is crazy. He’s crazy. Just watch him coach,” Franklin Howard, a top prospect from Paul VI who is committed to Syracuse, said with a laugh. “Every time someone’s getting ready to throw him out, he’ll call somebody and he’ll still be coaching. He’ll have three or four [technicals] and still be on the sidelines. That’s how I can tell how influential he is.”
Howard then paused.
“But I really owe him for expanding my game. He’s one of the few coaches I know that will really push you.”
Stevens’s explosive temper is often the first impression strangers get of the 5-foot-6 ball of energy. But his sideline antics at AAU tournaments are only a cursory glance into the man who has become the biggest power broker in the chaotic world of college basketball recruiting in the talent-rich Washington-Baltimore corridor.
Stevens, 40, has earned a spot on speed dial for coaches nationwide, and the rosters at Maryland, Georgetown, Virginia, George Washington and George Mason are littered with his players. In just eight years of existence, Team Takeover has produced NBA draft picks including Victor Oladipo, Erick Green and Jerami Grant. At least eight of the program’s players have signed Division I scholarships every year since 2007. Stevens will be one of the most prominent figures at this week’s Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., considered the biggest AAU tournament during the NCAA’s July evaluation period, when college coaches are allowed to watch recruits in person.
“He might be the godfather of AAU hoops around the country right now,” one former ACC coach said last week.
The basketball court has long been a second home for Stevens. The youngest of seven children living in a single-parent, two-bedroom apartment in Suitland, he watched his mother work long days and multiple jobs to support the family. He played point guard on Forestville High teams that won consecutive state championships in 1991 and 1992.
He also fathered a child at age 16. He was granted custody, and it became the impetus for Team Takeover.
“I gained a lot of maturity from having to raise him,” Stevens said of the oldest of his three children, also named Keith . “It’s not a sob story. It’s real. My mistakes made me want to do things to help these other kids. I want them to have the opportunities and take advantage of the things that I didn’t have.”
Stevens got his coaching start as an assistant at the now-defunct Newport School in Silver Spring, volunteering at camps around the area in his spare time and installing sprinkler systems to pick up extra money. He soon caught the eye of D.C. Assault co-founder Curtis Malone, at the time the preeminent figure in the Washington area AAU scene. His relationship with Malone led to a position with the D.C. Blue Devils AAU program, where he mentored future NBA point guard Ty Lawson. Stevens then started his own AAU organization, Triple Threat.
With no sponsorship money to pay his own coaches or free gear to lure players, Stevens instead gave his assistants a voice in how the program would be run and fostered relationships with area high school coaches. Stevens also installed college-level offensive and defensive sets and emphasized chemistry and development over wins and losses. Using his own evaluation system — “I always try to find out how big the Mom is” — Stevens recruited middle schoolers who, while not necessarily the top prospects in their age group, would remain loyal over the long haul.
“He doesn’t just roll the ball out. The guy can flat-out coach and can flat-out teach,” Paul VI Coach Glenn Farrello said. “If parents asked what AAU organization do I recommend, he was easy because his practices are as tough as mine.”
In 2008, Nike came calling. The influx of new sponsor money allowed Stevens to rebrand his program Team Takeover.
Featuring future stars such as James Robinson (Pittsburgh), Jerian Grant (Notre Dame), Jerami Grant (Syracuse), Mikael Hopkins (Georgetown) and Oladipo (Indiana) — Team Takeover won the inaugural Nike Elite Youth Basketball League in 2010 and then started 2011 by winning 17 consecutive EYBL games.
“Coaches sort of knew about Keith before,” assistant program director Stanley Childs said. “But Takeover, it opened a lot more avenues.”
Team Takeover now features 31 teams, including a girls’ program that has stockpiled a bevy of Division I prospects since it began play last year.
Stevens coaches only an under-17 boys’ team that competes in the EYBL. But he remains as hands-on as ever, booking travel arrangements for the entire program while working his two cellphones with an ever-present ear bud. He attends basketball games at least six days a week .
But Stevens and his burgeoning empire have largely remained above the fray of new AAU programs trying to fill the void left by his mentor. Malone is serving a 100-month federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to distributing large amounts of cocaine and heroin, and his D.C. Assault powerhouse has fallen apart.
Stevens, who speaks regularly with Malone, is aware that the good deeds Malone did for at-risk families are now largely forgotten.
“Keith learned a lot from Curtis,” Childs said. “He tries to stay in the background more than him.”
Still, Stevens’s influence reaches well beyond his organization.
He convinced Nike to sponsor the Toronto-based AAU program CIA Bounce, which has since produced consecutive No. 1 NBA draft picks in Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins. He started the National High School Hoops Festival, a tournament that draws some of the country’s top high school teams to the Washington area every December.
Last week, Stevens held the inaugural Ty Lawson/Victor Oladipo All-American camp at DeMatha High. Head coaches from every major conference attended, shelling out $325 to get in the building.
College coaches are eager to build a pipeline to Stevens’s organization. This offseason, former Team Takeover coach Kenny Johnson became the most sought-after assistant coach in the country, eschewing Maryland and Indiana to sign a contract with Louisville worth more than $400,000 annually.
Stevens himself could be on the verge of a big payday. He is considering a lucrative sponsorship deal from Under Armour. Two Team Takeover coaches familiar with the situation indicated the Baltimore-based apparel company has offered Stevens more than $500,000 and the resources to create two full-time staff positions within his nonprofit organization.
Team Takeover Coach Doug Martin thinks Stevens would eventually like to follow the path of Troy Weaver, the co-founder of D.C. Assault with Malone who is now the assistant general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder and recently launched D.C. Thunder, an Adidas-backed AAU program.
“He wants to set himself up for the rest of his life,” Martin said.
Stevens said he has yet to seriously consider such advances.
“I play a larger role helping at this level,” he said. “As passionate as I am about the game, where these kids end up is more important.”