Prep Basketball Academy Weighed

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 16, 2006

Officials from the country's leading basketball governing bodies have discussed in detail the creation of a national academy for elite high school players that could drastically alter the landscape of amateur basketball.

The talks represent the first time most of the nation's most powerful basketball entities -- the NBA, the NCAA, USA Basketball and shoe companies -- have together talked about a concept to reform the sport at a grass-roots level.

The intent of the academy would be to create a structured system in which talented high school players would get a sound academic and basketball education. During the NBA Finals in June, Commissioner David Stern said dialogue had begun regarding whether the NBA should support such an academy. And last month, NCAA President Myles Brand said that perhaps it was time for all of the nation's basketball entities to work together to help improve the "pre-college environment."

However, the most specific details of such a plan have been proposed in recent dialogues initiated by Sonny Vaccaro, Reebok's director of grass-roots basketball. Vaccaro outlined his concept for an academy to NCAA representatives in a conference call earlier this week and discussed details of the proposal at length in a telephone interview. Vaccaro said he has discussed his proposal with Stern; Jerry Colangelo, managing director of USA Basketball; NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver; and Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president for membership services.

"We can broker a peace here," said Vaccaro, who over the past 30 years has become one of the most influential and controversial figures in basketball through his work at various shoe companies. "I've watched all the name-calling all these years. We're the only sport that occupies a teenager's life that fights with each other and calls each other names. I was the designated piƱata. Of all the things I have done, this will be the best thing I have ever done in my life. If I get them all on the same page, I will be the happiest man walking. The one entity we have to protect is the kid."

While it's unclear how seriously Vaccaro's specific plan is being considered, the idea of an academy has gained momentum in a year in which the United States finished a disappointing third in the world championship in Japan and revelations about questionable academic practices at several high schools caught the attention of both NCAA and NBA officials.

"There is definitely something in the air," R.C. Buford, general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, said of the momentum gathering behind the idea. "Our overall development structure for basketball needs to be addressed and provided with a systematic structure. We have seen the success of systematic structures in other areas" of the world.

NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson confirmed that a conference call initiated by Vaccaro took place and that Lennon was among those who participated.

"The academic preparation and success of our student-athletes is in the forefront of our minds as we consider these issues," Christianson said.

In Vaccaro's plan, a high-class training facility would house several dozen players who would sleep, eat and train there. Each morning, buses would transport the teenagers to one or more high schools, which would be located in the relative vicinity of the training academy. The high schools where the teenagers would complete course work would be "highly recognized academically," Vaccaro said, and not "diploma mills" such as those that came under scrutiny following a series of articles in The Washington Post and New York Times.

Under Vaccaro's plan, the academy would consist of teenagers from ninth through 12th grade, with the intention that players would spend a few years at the academy. Vaccaro has not specifically identified a site for the academy, only the need for good area schools and top-notch training facilities. The Los Angeles area is one possibility.

No postgraduates would participate in the program, which means those who graduate would still have a year to play in college or overseas before they would be eligible to enter the NBA draft. A selection committee each year would invite players, who then would complete applications. A player could only lose his scholarship because he did not perform well academically, not because he failed to meet athletic expectations.

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