Overseas Recruiting a Completely Different Game

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005

Stu Vetter, head coach of the boys' basketball team at Montrose Christian, has for more than a decade looked overseas for teenage prospects. Back in August 2002, he had his sights fixed on three boys from Nigeria who, international scouts told him, were locks for spots on the acclaimed basketball team at the Rockville private school.

But something was different that August. Try as he might, Vetter could not get the State Department to approve student visas for the three boys. The reason was the tightened visa restrictions imposed by the U.S. government following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Vetter flew to Lagos to appeal directly to the U.S. Embassy. Told initially to come back in six months, Vetter and his assistant, David Adkins, returned to the embassy the following day instead and joined a line of hundreds of Nigerians seeking U.S. visas. As they waited, Vetter began talking to an armed security guard, who, as it turned out, was not only an American but also just happened to be from Rockville and knew where Montrose Christian was located on Randolph Road.

"The guy grew up on Rockville Pike," Vetter recounted. "He walked us into the embassy, right to the front of the line, and got us all three visas. If I would have walked in there, that would have never happened. If it hadn't have happened, they would have never gotten out of the country."

The three Nigerian boys, Uche Echefu, Tunji Soroye and Collins Okafor, were the lucky ones. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the ability of elite high school programs such as Montrose Christian to recruit -- and land -- top international players has grown far more difficult. Schools have had to reconcile the desire to recruit top overseas talents with tighter immigration scrutiny from the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, and a much more thorough visa process.

International enrollment at U.S. high schools and colleges dropped by 39 percent after Sept. 11, according to the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, a private nonprofit organization based in Alexandria that focuses on international student exchange. Last year's 0.9 percent increase was the first reversal since 2001.

While the council does not maintain records for the number of student-athletes affected, it says the tightened visa restrictions are affecting recruiting by elite high school basketball teams. "The issue of athletic participation is a very hot issue right now," said John Hishmeh, the council's executive director. "It seems to be more of an issue at secondary schools."

International recruitment of athletes has become a staple at many high-profile basketball programs at private U.S. high schools over the past decade. Coaches typically learn about the players through international scouts or big-time U.S. college programs, which hope to see the players steered back to them after they graduate from high school.

At the end of this regular season, NBA rosters included 10 players who were born abroad, came to the United States for high school before going on to college and then the NBA, or directly to the NBA. Five of those players -- Chicago's Luol Deng, Cleveland's DeSagana Diop and Jerome Moiso, Golden State's Adonal Foyle, and Minnesota's Ndudi Ebi -- were first-round draft picks.

Now, Vetter and other coaches say, getting student-athletes like them into the United States is becoming problematic.

"You would have seen more international players in the [Washington Catholic Athletic Conference] this year if it weren't for" Sept. 11, said Gonzaga Coach Steve Turner. "I get at least one call a week from a college coach, agent or parent [regarding an international player]. I tell them, 'Send me the paperwork.' They never do."

Said Vetter, "It's fair to say that it is tougher to get a kid out of Africa at this point" compared to before Sept. 11. The continent, long considered a hotbed of basketball talent, is also considered a "high-fraud" area by the State Department.

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