By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 2009
Eddie Bonine, the chief of high school athletics in Nevada, was taken aback recently when he opened the letter from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The longtime Democratic senator from the Silver State congratulated Bonine for his "positive and unrelenting support of one of our state's newest premier athletic programs, Findlay College Prep."
Bonine was more than a little mystified. Findlay College Prep, with an enrollment of eight students -- all of whom play on the basketball team -- is the only high school entity in the state that is not a member of the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association, of which Bonine is executive director. As part of a deal brokered when the program was formed three years ago to be an elite basketball power while its players attended a small private school in suburban Las Vegas, organizers agreed to never enlist any player from the state. Further, Findlay is permitted to play only a limited number of games against teams from Nevada.
"I was kind of shocked when I got [the letter] to be honest," Bonine said. "As far as I'm concerned, they are not a traditional team in a high school setting. But I'm an old-school guy."
The old school and new school are colliding once again in the debate about the future of high school athletics, and this weekend's ESPN-sponsored National High School Invitational basketball tournament at Georgetown Prep serves as the latest flashpoint.
The eight-team boys' field offers plenty of insight into the discussion. Findlay, Oak Hill Academy of Mouth of Wilson, Va., and Montrose Christian, which finished No. 1 in The Post's final high school rankings, are among those vying for what some, like Montrose Christian Coach Stu Vetter, are calling a high school national championship. All three teams are independents, unaffiliated with any conference or league, free to recruit from nearly all over the globe and play as many games as they choose, wherever they choose.
"I truly believe this is the start of what people will look forward to each spring, just like March Madness," Vetter said. "This could be a mini-March Madness."
Not in the field are any public schools or, for that matter, any schools from the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, considered one of the most talent-rich high school leagues in the country and home to two schools -- DeMatha and Gonzaga -- ranked in ESPN's national top 10. WCAC principals overruled the league's coaches and banned its members from participating -- despite being asked twice by tournament promoters.
"The reaction of the principals, and it was a pretty uniform reaction, was that high school sports is the last pure amateur sport," WCAC Commissioner Jim Leary said. "The move to have a high school national championship, however you rank it, is a move away from keeping that pure amateur sport level. We just did not want to encourage this and participate."
Public schools are unable to participate in the event because of National Federation of State High School Associations guidelines, which are against national tournaments. Also, most state high school associations declare that the playing season ends with the state championship game and that schools may not participate in events that are not sponsored by an educational entity.
"I understand both sides of the issue, as someone who cares about sports and loves sports," DeMatha Principal Dan McMahon said. "But seasons need to come to an end. I don't think there is any need to find a national high school champion. We're not a college. We don't give scholarships. I don't see a need for us to go in that direction."
While coaches and players from DeMatha and Gonzaga will either have to buy a ticket or watch on television (every game will air live on one of the ESPN networks), Vetter is looking forward to "representing this area."
"It's just the product of our times . . . it's going to be exciting," said Vetter, whose team's top players include a center from the Republic of Benin in West Africa and a shooting guard who transferred before this school year from Portland, Ore. "High school basketball over the years has gotten bigger and bigger."
Murray Sperber, a visiting professor of education at the University of California-Berkeley and a longtime critic of big-time college athletics, said giving young athletes this type of exposure will have consequences.
"At that age, I don't think you're ready for those kind of pressures; I think you should be allowed to grow up," Sperber said. "It's hard enough being an adolescent. And to put this much stress on athletics seems very misplaced. So few of them will make the pros. You can make any kind of argument, but it doesn't change things."
A handful of private schools have long hosted elite basketball teams, such as Maine Central Institute and Winchendon (Mass.) School. But what is different now, according to some observers, is the growing number of start-up programs and the media attention paid to them.
Consider Mountain State Academy of Beckley, W.Va., which will also be in the field this weekend. It was formed six years ago as an alternative to public school education in southern West Virginia. Two years ago, the school, with an enrollment of 102 in grades 9 to 12, dropped out of the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission because it limited the school's ability to recruit new students, according to Coach Rob Fulford, who believes his team is widely disliked throughout its home state.
"There is a fear from local coaches that we're going to go in and take their best player," Fulford said. "But if we're going to compete in ESPN events and compete with the top teams in the country, we're going to have to get players from outside West Virginia."
There are no such worries in Nevada regarding Findlay Prep. When Findlay was created three years ago, it wanted to compete as an independent but needed to secure some sort of recognition from the NIAA so that it would be able to play members of other state high school athletic associations.
The NIAA agreed to provide that level of sanctioning, provided Findlay -- funded by former Nevada-Las Vegas basketball player turned mega-car dealer Cliff Findlay -- agreed to never take any local players. After including post-graduate and other reclassified players on its first two teams, Findlay Coach Michael Peck -- a former college assistant coach whose previous stop was as the video coordinator at UNLV -- decided this season's team would include only high school players.
"It's a lot easier in terms of scheduling games and it gave us a better Nike sponsorship," Peck said.
That doesn't necessarily mean the Pilots are a traditional team. Two Los Angeles natives left the team during the season, but Peck gave his roster a major boost last month when 6-foot-9 junior forward Tristan Thompson -- an Ontario native already committed to Texas -- enrolled at Findlay after being kicked off the team at St. Benedict's of Newark, N.J., reportedly for insubordination. (St. Benedict's also is in the NHSI field.)
But while some might scoff at what seems to be a late-season free agent acquisition, Peck insisted his school operates above-board and should not be lumped in with some other start-up basketball programs that came to be regarded as basketball factories with little educational component. Peck said all players receive a scholarship for books, tuition and room and board, which includes living in a house that has two big-screen televisions, extra-long beds and two stocked refrigerators, according to the school's Web site. An assistant coach and his wife live in the house to supervise the players, Peck says.
"It's not as easy as just putting together a basketball team. That's the easiest part of all," Peck said. "It's the living, the schooling and everything else that is more complex.
"We are basically providing a need."