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A Whole New Ballgame That Williams Won't Play

By Eric Prisbell and Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 13, 2009

When Gary Williams considered Rudy Gay in 2003, the Maryland men's basketball coach saw his chance to win a second national title in a long and athletic forward who could help keep the Terrapins at an elite level after reaching back-to-back Final Fours.

When Gay considered Maryland, the emerging star at Archbishop Spalding High saw a group of players he had grown up rooting for, a new arena in which he could excel and a rabid fan base that might one day view him as an icon.

But when it came time to select a college after a fierce recruiting battle, Gay chose Connecticut, ignoring the dozens of signs posted at his high school urging him to sign with Maryland.

It was merely one player, one recruiting battle lost by Williams amid hundreds that coaches routinely lose throughout their careers. But those closely familiar with the veteran coach's recruiting say Gay's decision was a turning point. Gay's recruitment, so scrutinized that it appeared to be the impetus for an NCAA rule change in its aftermath, cemented Williams's belief that signing the most sought-after recruits in the current climate often depends on practices he is unwilling to undertake. As a result of that experience, they say Williams has steadfastly avoided pursuing relationships with many of the most influential power brokers in the recruiting world.

If he needs validation for such a stance, Williams can point to a display case on a concourse at Comcast Center that holds the 2002 national championship trophy. After all, it was won by Williams with a cast of players who mostly were unheralded out of high school.

"If [Gay] wanted to come here, and we recruited him, and we offered him a scholarship, why didn't he come here?" Williams said during an hour-long interview last week. "It had to be for another reason, right?"

Williams's detractors argue that it's still possible to follow NCAA rules and recruit successfully. They say his stance is one reason Maryland has regressed faster than any national champion in the past 18 years, according to NCAA records.

Said Curtis Malone, whose talent-rich D.C. Assault summer league basketball program garners national attention, "A guy like Gary, he is not a big AAU guy, and everyone knows that."

The AAU's Growing Influence

The recruiting scene has changed markedly since Williams began the second half of his 20-year tenure at his alma mater. Like today, shoe company-sponsored summer camps and tournaments were part of the landscape, but the ability to woo parents with promises of diplomas and strong education still mattered. As the money involved in basketball increased exponentially -- in 1999, CBS paid $6 billion for the rights to broadcast the NCAA tournament through the 2013 season, and shoe company endorsement deals can extend into the tens of millions -- the search for the next LeBron James has intensified the recruiting game, as parents and coaches aim to put players on a fast track for stardom. Recruiting analysts now rank 10-year-olds, and organizers conduct national tournaments for 8-year-olds, some of them so short their shorts reach their socks.

Long ago, summer basketball was under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Union, and even today, many people use the term "AAU" to refer to competition by independent travel teams that are sponsored by major shoe companies. In reality, it has been well documented that the teams face no oversight from any national governing body and are free to behave almost any way they see fit. Many of the top teams are set up as nonprofits, whose financial disclosure rules are rarely policed, making it very difficult to uncover violations of NCAA rules on improper inducements to players.

In recent years, attempts by the NCAA to control the summer league teams have largely failed, and their power has only increased. In recruiting, the independent travel team coaches are now viewed as being more influential than most high school coaches. Without strong AAU ties, recruiting at an elite level becomes difficult, if not impossible, according to college assistant coaches.

"The last five or six years, I would say that was the dramatic change," Williams said. "With the change in the AAU has come incredible influence over the player, even the players with parents there. The AAU in the last five years has gained a phenomenal foothold with a lot of families in terms of directing their kid where he winds up going to school."

Tony Squire, who coached Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in AAU, said the state of North Carolina has become "infested with street agents," adding that "there is no question it has changed. What is happening now, the kids are changing and people are running around now offering kids stuff. Nowadays, if somebody comes in with some money, 'You come play with us and you don't have to worry about anything coming from your pocket.' "

Three years ago, Renardo Sidney, then a top-rated high school freshman who still sucked his thumb, said he did not need to play high school basketball because the summer league circuit provided all the exposure he needed to gain national acclaim. Sidney, in fact, does play for a high school: Fairfax High in Los Angeles, far from his Mississippi home.

What's more, the NCAA rules restricting contact between AAU coaches and college coaches during summer events are routinely flouted. At a camp in Philadelphia, one AAU coach said he received a text message from an assistant of a recent Final Four team that simply read, "What can I do to get him?"

For years, college coaches have hired AAU coaches as assistants in attempts to attract players from that AAU program. Plus, AAU coaches have been paid to speak at camps affiliated with the college coaches. But in recent years, a few dozen elite AAU coaches have engaged in a variety of more creative practices to make money in exchange for access to their players, according to several prominent college and AAU coaches across the country.

The funneling of cash recruiting inducements between colleges and AAU or high school coaches, in the form of tax-deductible donations usually made by college athletic boosters at the behest of the coach, has become common, according to several prominent college and AAU coaches. Some summer league coaches also charge college coaches -- sometimes hundreds of dollars -- for copies of "scouting reports" that are often little more than lists of players' names. What's more, one elite AAU coach has suggested that he will create a 1-900 telephone number so he can make money when college coaches call him about recruits.

In recent years, Williams has displayed a "total unwillingness to engage third-party aspects in recruiting, and that eliminates so many kids from consideration," said a recruiting source intimately involved in the AAU scene who considers Williams one of the nation's best coaches. "If the situation looks anything less than high school coach, kid and parent, Gary doesn't even mess with it. It is so commonly known that he doesn't like AAU guys. It is almost impossible to think he can invite one into his office, have a meaningful conversation and repair the relationship."

It is easy to identify people who are in a recruit's inner circle, Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said, but it is difficult to decide if you want to "deal with that person, if you don't know the person, if that person has different loyalties. It is the same with high school coaches."

Williams believes he lost at least two local players because of cheating and cited three other cases in which cheating took place. Williams declined to detail his allegations because he would be "run out of town."

"Nobody has ever accused me of cheating in recruiting in my career," Williams said. "That is a good thing, supposedly. But people turn that around and say, 'He won't play the game.' You do it [my] way, and you are criticized for not cheating."

Other coaches who have negotiated the AAU scene with more success acknowledge the importance of establishing relationships but maintaining boundaries with those who have influence over recruits.

"It depends on the situation," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. "It varies for each player. Some summer coaches we have had a great deal of contact with, and others we don't do as much with. My first concern is the families. Then it depends on who is important to the kid. I try to determine who will have an influence, have a vocal time with a player."

The difficulty for Gary Williams is to maintain the high moral ground while not falling out of touch with the modern recruiting world.

Craig Boothe, an AAU coach in Virginia with more limited influence, said he has a good relationship with Maryland because he has known Terrapins assistant coach Chuck Driesell for years. When it comes to head coaches, Boothe said he is on a first-name basis with Georgetown Coach John Thompson III, George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga and American Coach Jeff Jones, and that he regularly gets e-mails from several schools.

"Nothing from Maryland," said Boothe, adding that he has not had a conversation with Williams in 10 years.

"They have to work a little harder to develop relationships," Boothe said. "Coach [Karl] Hobbs at George Washington, Coach Thompson at Georgetown, they will invite us down to clinics. You see them coach and how they do things, how they run the programs. It helps us endorse the programs. They take the extra step in formulating the friendship. They know the AAU coaches, what they are doing and how they are doing it. It is something Maryland is missing out on."

Williams said he did not know who Boothe was.

Said Jeff Bowden, a Baltimore AAU coach: "I have never been formally introduced [to Williams]. And you can quote me on that. Whatever people perceive from that, it is what it is. But I have never met the man in 12 years."

Shunning a Local Pipeline

The most prominent area summer league team is D.C. Assault, which has garnered national attention with talent-rich teams comprising players from 8 to 17 years old. Its list of standouts in recent years includes Michael Beasley, the No. 2 pick in the 2008 NBA draft, and Austin Freeman and Chris Wright, both of whom play for Georgetown.

The king of the D.C. Assault empire is Curtis Malone, a former Parkdale High point guard who co-founded D.C. Assault in 1993. Since then, he has helped send more than 60 players to Division I schools.

Malone said he has talked with Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski more than 10 times in the past 18 months, and Georgetown's Thompson more than 30 times in that span.

"I have probably talked to Gary Williams two times in my life," Malone said. "Our relationship is fine. We just don't have one."

Malone said he has never told a recruit not to go to Maryland but said if he knew Williams a little better, "if a parent or family asked, I probably could say more or better things."

Regarding Malone, Williams said: "Don't tell me Curtis Malone has the right to say whether Gary Williams is a good recruiter or not. I don't want to hear about Curtis Malone. I know what he is," a reference to Malone's criminal record.

In 1991, Malone pleaded guilty to one count of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He was sentenced to five months in jail, with all but three months suspended. In 1994, Malone pleaded guilty to reckless driving and attempting to elude a police officer. He was sentenced to six months of unsupervised probation.

That many AAU coaches possess significant power and influence despite sometimes questionable coaching credentials is a source of consternation for some college coaches, but they are reluctant to speak out against them because it might hurt their ability to sign players. A friendship with an elite player and a shoe sponsorship, usually in that order, is enough to make one a power broker. Three years ago, multiple coaches grumbled about a former sanitation worker with no college degree who had become a somewhat influential figure in recruiting because of his ties with players.

As for Malone, who began his coaching career at the Columbia Park Recreation Center in Hyattsville two decades ago, he said he would not criticize Williams because he believes he should "respect my elders," adding that he considers Williams one of the best coaches in the country.

"If these are the things Gary is telling you about me, there is no telling what he is telling his assistants," Malone said. "I can bet you there are 50 other coaches who wouldn't say that about Curtis Malone. I'm going down to Duke; Coach K loves Curtis Malone. I went up to Villanova; me and [Coach] Jay Wright have a great relationship."

Damon Handon, the general manager of D.C. Assault, said he is not aware of any friction between Williams and D.C. Assault but said Williams "is not the most personable guy. He is not as comfortable as [Florida Coach] Billy Donovan" or Georgetown's Thompson.

Handon said Maryland's assistants might have watched some of his team's games this season, but he did not recall Williams watching even one.

"I found that a little strange," Handon said. "I look at [Purdue Coach] Matt Painter and [Ohio State Coach] Thad Matta and when I see them on the circuit, they are very, very aggressive and they also put a lot of time into watching the younger kids play so they can get involved at a younger age. That is not what I see from Gary. He is a Hall of Fame coach, but his recruiting leaves a lot to be desired."

Williams called Handon's comments "a lie," and said he watched at least one D.C. Assault game this summer and that he attended events on all the days it was allowed under NCAA rules. A Washington Post reporter saw Williams at several multi-team summer events.

When asked to characterize his relationship with D.C. Assault, Williams said: "Whatever. We like to get really good players, without a doubt. I would like to get players from D.C. Assault. . . . D.C. Assault is a nationally known program. People from all over the country don't go to high school, they go to D.C. Assault to recruit players."

It appears Williams could have established a recruiting pipeline to D.C. Assault in the spring of 2005. Williams had a coaching opening, and a former player and coach for D.C. Assault, Dalonte Hill, then an assistant at Charlotte, was looking for a new job.

Hill maintained a strong relationship with Malone and D.C. Assault's players, most notably Michael Beasley, a top-rated high school sophomore whom Hill had known for years.

Hill was very interested in Maryland's opening, and a former associate talked to Williams about the possibility. But Williams hired Michael Adams, who had played under him at Boston College. Hill was never interviewed; Williams said he could not afford him.

A year later, Hill was hired at Kansas State, reportedly for $420,000 a year, to work under Coach Bob Huggins, who acknowledged later that he knew Beasley would follow Hill. Beasley signed with Kansas State, led the nation in rebounding and was third in scoring, and was picked second overall in the 2008 NBA draft.

Asked whether Beasley would have followed him to Maryland, Hill said: "There was a great chance. I was involved with a lot of kids at the time and I know they had a lot of interest in Maryland. I just don't understand why they didn't go. . . . It astonishes me."

Williams said Maryland could not pay an assistant coach a salary in that range. "To bring Beasley, it cost $450,000, for sure," he said. "We know that. We didn't have $450,000. So we are not going to get Beasley."

Maryland also didn't get two other D.C. Assault recruits -- forwards Rodney McGruder and Wally Judge -- who have signed with Kansas State for next season.

Malone said Hill was making only $60,000 in Charlotte at the time he was interested in Maryland and suggested it would not have taken nearly a half-million dollars to hire him.

"You have to get stuff done in your area," Malone said. "Villanova is getting the Philly guys. Syracuse is getting the New York guys. You have to get those guys. There are enough guys in this area that Maryland and Georgetown and Virginia, there are enough for everyone to damn near get."

'The Ignition Point'

Rudy Gay's recruitment was an unusual case, because his recruitment featured a veteran summer league coach, Anthony Lewis, and a high school coach, Mike Glick of Spalding, who both were heavily involved.

No rules violations have ever been found in Gay's recruitment, but it became clouded by the perception of impropriety when Connecticut scheduled an exhibition game in Hartford, Conn., against a loosely organized team called the Beltway Ballers.

The school reportedly paid $22,000 to the Ballers, a team comprising players who once played for Lewis.

The incident prompted Williams to say after one of his exhibition games that fall, "We could have scheduled an AAU team and given them $25,000 like some schools I know."

Shortly after Gay's commitment, the NCAA passed legislation banning college teams from scheduling exhibition opponents linked to independent traveling teams.

Lewis declined to answer questions about the game, telling two Post reporters to ask Williams about what happened.

Gay, who now plays for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, said last week that Maryland recruited him as intensely as U-Conn., and that the final decision was difficult. He said he chose the Huskies because "I always watched people like Caron Butler, Ray Allen, Donyell Marshall and Rip Hamilton, all playing my position [at U-Conn.]. Seeing all of them in the NBA, it made me want to go there. It worked out well for me."

When asked recently about why he believed he lost Gay, Williams said he was unwilling to take actions he saw as improper to secure Gay's commitment. While Williams has never spoken publicly about his specific basis for those beliefs, he clearly remains bitter about the experience.

Glick said Williams recruited Gay aggressively, but "Connecticut did the best job recruiting him. They had shown the most interest." Glick also said that he was not aware of any animosity between him and Williams because Williams had written him a letter of recommendation three years ago for the job he currently has at Gwynn Park High.

Losing Gay frustrated Maryland fans, many of whom booed Gay when he played in an all-star game at Comcast Center.

"He went through hell his senior year," Glick said. "Imagine if everywhere you went people booed and cursed you because you didn't go to a school. He was like, 'Why can't they be happy for me?' "

Williams said losing Gay bothered him more than other recruiting setbacks because Gay had seemed perfect for his style of play. Hard feelings have lingered, several recruiting sources said, and Williams has recoiled from some elements of the AAU world ever since.

Said one source who requested anonymity because he has a sensitive relationship with Williams, "That definitely was the ignition point."

Even with his team in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years, and questions about his job security growing louder, Williams remains adamant that he won't change.

"Third-party recruiting -- in other words, making sure somebody gets taken care of [financially] -- I am not going to do it," Williams said. "Period. There is no argument there. If that makes me a bad recruiter, then I am a bad recruiter."

Staff writers Josh Barr, Zach Berman and Camille Powell and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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