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 piñata. 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.
"If it could happen, it would be a very positive thing," Kansas Coach Bill Self said of Vaccaro's idea. "From the NCAA standpoint, they talk all the time about student-athlete welfare. Would this be good for a potential student-athlete? Based on the way you explained it to me, how could it not be if in fact academics are a key component."
The academy would field two teams that would play a national schedule throughout the traditional basketball season, with many of the games on television. Funding for the tuition and the academy's expenses during the school year would come from individuals and corporate sponsors, said Vaccaro, who expects high-profile, younger NBA players to contribute as well.
"It's an interesting concept," Villanova Coach Jay Wright said. "Sonny has always been at the forefront of that type of thinking. What makes USA basketball different is that we are concerned with kids' academics. We don't look at kids that age, from ninth to 12th grade, as just basketball players. That's not enough for anybody. This [idea] addresses both issues."
During the summers, Vaccaro's plan is for the academy's players to take part in a two-month-long camp in Colorado Springs under the auspices of USA Basketball, where international basketball rules would be in place at least most of the time.
Under that plan, many elite players would not participate in the shoe company-sponsored camps and tournaments that have long dominated the summer scene. Vaccaro hopes for the Colorado Springs event to be one in which college coaches would be permitted to scout players.
"I think that would be something that would be positive," Self said. "No matter what is done, there are still hundreds of potential scholarship players out there that need to be seen. But it doesn't seem like to me that Nike camps or ABCD camps would be quite as important if you don't have the best players there."
Self added that such a structured system would take some control out of the hands of summer league coaches. Over the past decade, the influence summer league coaches has had over players has increased to such an extent that the role of the high school coach has been marginalized. Renardo Sidney, a highly regarded sophomore who lives in California, has gained national acclaim only from playing summer league basketball. Sidney said he does not feel he needs high school basketball to make the NBA.
"What needs to be done is that [young players] are put in a system where there is more high-level coaches working with these kids, more mentors at a young age," said Chris Wallace, general manager of the Boston Celtics. "Those type of individuals have influence with those kids on a day-to-day basis, not just the guy down the street that's got his eyes on attracting the player to an agent or a traveling coach."
One summer league coach acknowledged the creation of an academy could hurt Amateur Athletic Union basketball, but said that he would have no hesitation recommending that a player attend the academy if Vaccaro felt it was the best move.
"A lot of moms and dads may not want their son to go away, but some moms and dads may want to send their son because it's a sure shot at a big payday later," said the coach, who requested anonymity because he did not wish to affect any of his current relationships. "There would be a lot of people who would want to get their hands in on [the academy]. There would be an Adidas Academy and a Nike Academy."
Vaccaro addressed that concern in part by saying he would step away from his employment with Reebok by the time the academy would open, possibly as soon as September 2008.
"I'm not looking for a job," he said. "I want to end it this way. I would walk away. This is the end."
He also said shoe companies "all want to be a part of it, so you rotate it. Maybe this year they wear Nike, the next they wear Adidas, the next they wear Converse. You can't put it under one umbrella."
The academy, in some respects, would be similar to the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which has molded such champions as Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena.
"It seems like the seeds for this type of project are being germinated right now," said Wallace, who has not been privy to discussions about the academy. "I would not be at all surprised that in the next two to four years what is now being talked about becomes reality. I've long felt that there needed to be some mechanism in place where the truly gifted players are identified and then nurtured. I'm sure this is done in music, done in the sciences, done in other sports. So why not basketball?"