By Steve Yanda and Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
In wooing high school prospects to join their programs, college basketball coaches seek to convince players that they can provide the best place to continue their athletic and academic development. Doing so requires building relationships and trust with players, their parents and often a high school or summer league coach.
Increasingly over the past two decades, however, college coaches have lamented the proliferation of additional participants in the recruiting process. These third parties -- who collectively fall under such labels as "handlers," "middlemen" or "advisers" -- latch on to prospects at young ages and then attempt to broker access to the players in exchange for benefits from college coaches or their schools.
Previously a factor for only the most elite high school prospects, third-party recruiting is becoming much more widespread. LuAnn Humphrey, the NCAA's associate director of enforcement who oversees the organization's basketball focus group, said one of her sector's biggest concerns is that the presence of third-party handlers is trickling down to less-heralded recruits.
Several prominent figures in the summer basketball circuit noted a rise in the population of small-time handlers in recent years.
"Players at all levels now have guys who are influencing which college they choose," said Bob Gibbons, a national recruiting analyst for 30 years. "That's not in the best interest of the sport and, in many instances, not in the best interest of the young man. More and more people are trying to share in this and get a piece of the action. It's not just the high-level prospects, which it previously was, it has gone down now to the mid-level players. . . .
"These kids are being bought. They don't always get the proper guidance. It is not so much where they want to go as it is where they are influenced to go by people they trust. It has gotten to the point where I think it is out of hand."
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Mychal Parker, a 6-foot-6 swingman out of Washington, N.C., possesses considerable, yet not elite basketball talent. Scouting services rate Parker between No. 48 and No. 70 among the nation's high school seniors. Several colleges, including Maryland and Virginia, are vying for his services, but he is not the kind of incandescent star to whom college coaches would expect to have obstacles gaining access.
Yet over the past five months, college coaches, AAU team directors and even shoe company representatives came to understand that if they wanted to deal with Parker, they also had to deal with Joe Davis. Davis, a 22-year-old also from Parker's home town, accompanied Parker to nearly all of his camps and tournaments this summer.
Under an agreement made with Mychal Parker's father, Omar, Davis was supposed to transport and watch over Parker as he traveled across the country to showcase his talents. But Davis, who has known the Parkers for more than 10 years, since he and Mychal played on the same AAU team, at times went further, blurring the line between caretaker and power broker.
Davis runs Scoutsfocus.com, a fledgling basketball recruiting Web site. His designation as a recruiting analyst enabled him to obtain media credentials to various summer basketball events. His designation as "Parker's guy" enabled him to establish relationships with the college coaches pursuing the player's commitment to their respective programs.
Sources close to six other Division I programs that either are or were recruiting Parker, including Clemson, Miami and UCLA, said Davis contacted members of the schools' coaching staffs seeking benefits of some sort in return for access to Parker. Many sources contacted for this story requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of a recruit's amateur status and, in some cases, because of NCAA rules prohibiting them from speaking about unsigned recruits. In some cases, sources said, Davis wanted the programs to subscribe to Scoutsfocus.com; in other cases, he wanted to serve as a paid instructor at the programs' elite camps.
Davis, who agreed to answer questions about his involvement in Parker's recruitment only through e-mail, wrote, "I have never asked schools to subscribe to gain access to Mychal."
Parker also attended two elite camps this summer, at Virginia and Maryland. Davis transported Parker to both camps and worked as an instructor at Maryland's. Davis, who had no previous coaching experience at any level, "was helping [assistant coach Chuck] Driesell with the shooting drills," Parker said.
According to a source familiar with Parker's recruitment, Davis called Virginia Tech assistant James Johnson in June and said he would have Parker attend the Hokies' elite camp if Virginia Tech paid Davis $500 to be a camp instructor. Virginia Tech declined and is no longer recruiting Parker, who did not attend the school's elite camp.
Davis denied ever asking college coaches to hire him as an instructor at their elite summer camps in exchange for bringing Mychal to those camps. "Virginia Tech made this claim because Mike did not go to their elite camp," Davis wrote.
Davis also wrote: "Maryland and Virginia would not be his top two schools if there were the desire to receive monetary benefits for his basketball talents. There are several schools out there, and you know who they are, that would pay good money for a player of Mychal's caliber -- yet none of them are on Mychal's list."
A source with knowledge of Nike's summer basketball event operations said Davis contacted shoe company representatives in the days leading up to the Paul Pierce Skills Academy in June and requested "added benefits" in return for Parker's attendance. Nike declined. Parker did not participate in any Nike events this summer.
Davis acknowledged requesting that Nike pay to fly him to the Paul Pierce Academy. "I didn't know it was a violation until they told me and then I backed off," Davis wrote.
More broadly, Davis wrote: "I try to do everything the right way. Maybe I've unknowingly made a mistake, only to be corrected later, but everything with Mychal's recruitment has been clean."
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One reason commonly cited for the proliferation of third-party recruiting is the way the NCAA limits contact between college coaches and recruits. On the first Monday of July, the walls throughout Cincinnati's Fifth Third Arena were adorned with signs explicitly stating that college coaches could have no contact with any player, any player's AAU coach or anyone affiliated with a player. NCAA bylaws designate July as an evaluation period for college coaches, who may observe but not interact with prospective recruits. The NCAA dispatched enforcement officials to many AAU events this summer, in part to monitor coaches' actions.
Yet while Parker and his AAU team, the Ohio Basketball Club, played their first game of the Adidas-sponsored It Takes Five Classic, Joe Davis sat courtside among a row of folding chairs reserved for college coaches and media members. College coaches also converged on Court 6 to watch Parker.
Virginia assistant Ron Sanchez conversed with Davis throughout the second half. Maryland Coach Gary Williams and assistant Rob Ehsan chatted with Davis after the game finished.
Before OBC's second contest a few hours later, Davis spoke separately with Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua and Virginia Tech assistant Bill Courtney.
Davis then took a seat in the third row of chairs. Dangling from his neck was a media credential he received thanks to his designation as a recruiting analyst.
Subscriptions to services such as Davis's are not uncommon expenses for college programs. In the past year, Virginia Tech purchased a subscription to a scouting service produced by the Squires Boys Basketball Foundation, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The Squires Foundation funds the Richmond Squires AAU teams, for which Parker played for three seasons before switching to OBC. FOIA documents also showed North Carolina State subscribes to a scouting service produced by Gary Charles Inc. Gary Charles is the director of the New York Panthers AAU program.
Such ancillary opportunities are reasons why Humphrey, the NCAA compliance official, sees third parties attaching themselves to players who don't necessarily have can't-miss NBA potential.
"Guys are seeing the opportunity to make money, whether it's a significant amount of money because they've latched on to a kid and they see a pro contract" in the player's future, said Humphrey, who could not speak about specific cases. "Versus some of these guys, these scouting service guys, have figured out that even our mid-major [programs] may be willing to pay for a scouting service, so they're not necessarily linked to a direct prospect, but [the coaches] don't want their recruiting efforts to be hampered in the future."
Gibbons said the practice of hiring handlers to work at colleges' elite camps "has become very prevalent. It is to the point where, if you are going to get the kids you really want as a college coach, you've got to deal with that. You have no alternative, or you are not going to get the players you want to attend your camp."
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Adding to the complexity of most third-party recruiting cases is the fact that the middlemen can gain their influence only with the implicit consent of the players or their parents. Speaking inside the run-down, one-story commercial building he owns in Washington, N.C., in late July, Omar Parker became louder and more agitated. His words reverberated off barren walls.
Mychal Parker's father said he had grown tired of hearing from college coaches who wondered exactly who Joe Davis was and how much influence Davis carried in Mychal's recruitment.
"That's a lie! That's a flat-out lie! He has no say-so over nothing!" Omar Parker said. "Joe has no bearings or nothing to do with me or Mychal!"
However, Omar Parker arranged at the beginning of the summer for Davis to serve as a means of transportation for his son to various camps and tournaments, and even once those calls from college coaches began to flow in, Parker allowed Davis's de facto guardianship of Mychal to continue. Omar Parker explained that he recently had hip surgery that prevented him from traveling with the youngest of his eight children; several sources said Omar did not typically travel to Mychal's games out of the area even before the surgery.
Mychal himself lent little clarity to the nature of his relationship with Davis.
When a reporter approached Mychal and asked to speak with him after OBC's third game of the Super 64 tournament in Las Vegas last month, Davis stepped in between and grabbed the reporter's right arm. He attempted to pull the reporter away from Parker, stating that Parker was off-limits.
Again wearing a media credential, Davis did not leave Parker's side as the player walked toward the gym door. Davis commanded Parker to head out to the parking lot, but Parker said they had to wait for his coach. "No, we don't," Davis said. "Let's go."
As he waited by the door, Parker was asked why Davis didn't want him to talk.
"That's the people in charge of me," Parker said. "They don't want me to talk."
When asked if he was referring to Davis, Parker said, "Yeah, he's in charge."
Davis then ushered Parker out the door. Minutes later, Davis got into a van with Parker and other OBC players. The van drove back to the Hooters Casino Hotel, where Davis, Parker and the rest of OBC was staying.
A day later, inside OBC director Mike Duncan's hotel room, Parker characterized the relationship differently.
"He ain't nothing but a ride to me," Parker said when confronted with the extent of Davis's actions in recent months.
According to Duncan, Davis asked that OBC pay for his flight to Las Vegas. When Duncan declined, Davis purchased his own ticket.
A college coach called Duncan while OBC was in Las Vegas asking about Davis's level of influence on Parker. The coach had seen other coaches conversing with Davis about Parker and wondered whether he should be doing the same. Duncan referred the coach to Omar.
Duncan said he later approached Davis and asked him about the stir he was creating. Duncan said Davis admitted to asking certain coaches to work their elite camps.
Following the Las Vegas tournament, Mychal and Omar made attempts to separate themselves from Davis. Mychal recently played in the Best of Summer tournament in Los Angeles, and for the first time all summer, Davis was not in the stands.
Davis "was out there thinking he could make some money off the kid," said one college coach who dealt with Davis and requested anonymity because he cannot comment on the recruitment of unsigned players. "Everybody wants to be some big-time street agent, but it doesn't work like that. Not every kid is gonna get you paid."