No one asked questions in 1995 when Curtis Malone paid a $12 membership fee and signed up to coach a summer basketball team sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union, a nonprofit organization that serves more than 400,000 athletes nationwide.
The AAU, which asks that coaches "set an example of the highest moral and ethical conduct," didn't know Malone was barely off probation when he started his team, D.C. Assault. He hadn't told the group about his 1991 felony conviction in Prince George's County for dealing crack cocaine or about a 1993 guilty plea to reckless driving and eluding police after a midnight car chase. He wasn't required to disclose this information.
But now, Malone's summer team--funded to the tune of $50,000 annually by the shoe giant adidas--has become one of the nation's most prominent. And sports officials are reexamining the procedures surrounding the largely unregulated phenomenon known as summer basketball.
Today, major college presidents and athletic administrators plan to debate at the National Collegiate Athletic Association convention in San Diego rules changes that would limit the contact between summer coaches and college scouts. The move is an attempt to curb what an NCAA committee described after a yearlong study as the "corrupting influences" of the volunteer coaches and sneakers companies that subsidize summer basketball.
Over the last decade, concerns have grown about the backgrounds and motives of summer coaches, who wield enormous year-round influence over the young athletes in their care. The explosion of youth basketball leagues, the lack of serious supervision by the AAU and the infusion of big money from sneaker company sponsors have fostered a caliber of coach quite different from the high school or college role model, many youth administrators and college officials say.
The AAU already has changed its rules to require disclosure of criminal records. If Malone applies again this year to coach D.C. Assault, a review board will be looking at his history for the first time.
Malone, who says he regrets the mistakes of his "last life," illustrates the changes that have occurred in summer coaching. A part-time adidas salesman whose dreams of basketball stardom never materialized, he has become deeply involved in his players' lives. He has steered athletes to favored private high schools--encouraging them to leave public schools--and negotiated on their behalf with eager college recruiters. To stay close to star players, he even has brought two young athletes to live in his home.
Critics say that coaches such as Malone, 31, introduce concepts of cutthroat competition and commercialism to impressionable youths. Instead of demanding academic excellence, the critics say, some of the coaches emphasize winning records and push their athletes through a grueling March-through-September "summer" schedule.
Complaints abound that some summer coaches bend or break the rules to win. In one local tournament, birth certificates of child players were falsified so they could flex their muscle on younger age-group teams.
"Parents walk into these activities anticipating that because someone's a coach, this is the kind of person you want to turn your child over to," said David Berst, chief of staff of the NCAA's Division I, or major college, athletic programs. "But where there's no accountability and ability to measure what kind of person that is, you might as well just drive your child to another city and drop him off."
AAU President Bobby Dodd said the organization does not have the resources to enforce the rules or check the backgrounds of more than 40,000 volunteers.
"People have become much more sensitive to making sure young people are in the safest possible environment," Dodd said. Since the rules were changed this year to require disclosure of criminal records, he said, about 20 coaches from all sports have revealed felony convictions for offenses that included sex and narcotics crimes. Twelve have been denied membership.
Dodd said if Malone wants to participate in AAU events this year, a review board will "look very hard, very harshly" at his background.
But some parents defend Malone and say that although they were unaware of his criminal record, they believe he is a positive influence.
"Curtis is like family now," said Sharon Powell, mother of DerMarr Johnson, who lived with Malone off and on until this fall, when he became a regular player on the nationally ranked University of Cincinnati team. "Curtis kept D.J. out of trouble. He kept him focused. Curtis looks at D.J. more like his son."
Powell said Malone guided her son's high school choices (he attended four in five years) and his college recruitment.
"Whenever a recruiter would call me," Powell said, "I needed Curtis."
Following the Money
It is no small irony that the AAU should find itself embroiled in a conflagration over the purity of its athletic intent. Under the motto "sports for all, forever," the organization promotes old-fashioned sports values--a throwback to the days when athletes competed for the pure joy of it.
Today, though, the AAU is big business. Its national office annually spends upward of $10 million and collects almost $4 million in dues. The AAU is based at Walt Disney World, sponsored by Nike Inc. and marketed by SFX Enterprises, one of the world's largest sports conglomerates.
But AAU's national office relies largely on local review boards to monitor coaches' behavior and take appropriate disciplinary action.
In its yearlong review, the NCAA committee criticized the general lack of oversight in summer basketball, charging that coaches "operate in a structure devoid of any accountability."
The committee also criticized the influential role of sneakers company sponsors. Sponsorship money is one way of courting favor with young stars before they turn pro and choose which sneakers company they want to endorse.
Adidas's backing for D.C. Assault includes $35,000 in travel expenses, 60 pairs of sneakers and a full range of attire, according to Sonny Vaccaro, who heads adidas's youth sponsorships. Malone earns commissions selling adidas merchandise to Washington area high schools.
Summer basketball is clearly divided into teams that have lucrative sponsorships and teams that do not. David West, who coaches 12-year-olds in suburban Maryland, is troubled by the disparity and show-me-the-money mentality.
At one recent tournament, he said he was disgusted by D.C. Assault's haughty display.
"They came into the gym with their brand-new shoes in the new shoe boxes under their shoulders," said West, a Washington patent lawyer. "They beat the team really bad. I mean, just embarrassed the other team. Then when the game was over, they put the shoes back in the box and were walking around the gym, like, 'Yeah, we're bad with these boxes!' "
For the sneakers companies, winning is important, but image is everything. In 1998, Nike removed two summer coaches and began requiring more extensive background disclosures after embarrassing publicity. Federal investigators in Kansas City are examining charges that a former Nike-backed summer coach, Myron Piggie, made improper payments to two college players, brothers Kareem Rush (Missouri) and JaRon Rush (UCLA). Both have been suspended from their teams.
Adidas recently began requiring criminal disclosures. Vaccaro said in an interview at his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif., that he was unaware of Malone's prior record but said it did not shake his confidence in the coach, who has won about 80 percent of his games.
"I'm hurt that Curtis never confided in me," he said. "I knew there were problems because, you know, he never had a stable job."
Still, Vaccaro said, "to cut somebody from going forward with their life would be the biggest mistake."
Malone's team for older boys has been so successful that he started a junior team for boys 16 and under and brought in Trevor Brown, a high school building engineer, to help him coach.
"Curtis kept seeing that I was real successful with younger kids and he kept asking me: 'Hey, Why don't you come over?' " Brown said.
Brown joined Malone after a controversial tenure as a youth coach in Alexandria. He was called before a hearing last year of the Potomac Valley AAU, the local association, to answer complaints that he was improperly recruiting players.
The local board also questioned Brown about complaints that he had played a role in coaching a 1996 11-and-under boys team that was disqualified from a local AAU tournament amid allegations that its entire starting lineup was overage. A board inquiry established that in at least one case, a false birth certificate had been filed to qualify an overage player.
Brown, whose name was not listed on the team's roster, denied the allegations, and no action was taken.
Brown's recruiting efforts for D.C. Assault also have brought grumbling from rival coaches. Six-foot-9, 260-pound Robert Little, for example, was a 10th-grader with a straight-A average at Phoebus High in Hampton, Va., when Brown approached him to play for D.C. Assault.
Brown offered to place him on the junior team and in adidas' summer camp.
"Trevor basically told me what he would do for me," Little said. "You know, all the tournaments they play in. All the places they travel."
Brown arranged for Little to attend Paul VI Catholic High in Fairfax, where several athletes already played for D.C. Assault. Today, Little, 16, lives in the basement of Brown's house in Springfield, 170 miles from Hampton.
"Trevor, he buys me food . . . and if I need some spending change on the weekend he might give me a couple of dollars," Little said.
Little's former high school coach, David Blizzard, isn't happy. "For an AAU coach to take a kid that far from home, he's not really considering the child's best interests. Public schools just can't compete with these AAU teams that have a lot of money to throw at the kids."
Malone also relies on help from Mike Brown (no relation to Trevor), whose comments after a game this fall illustrate the show-me-the-money thinking that dominates summer basketball.
Brown said he hoped Johnson, a Cincinnati freshman, would sign a lucrative "signature" shoe contract when he turns pro. "We can get all these high schools in this area [to wear Johnson's shoe] and rack up--sell apparel, shoes, everything. . . . That's where we can make our money," he said.
Mike Brown's activities in 1995 and 1996 generated concern among some summer coaches because he appeared to be violating an AAU rule forbidding coaches and team officials from working as sports agents.
Mike Brown was a "runner" for an agent, Len Elmore, a basketball star at the University of Maryland in the early 1970s. Brown gathered information on players for Elmore.
But Brown had not applied for AAU membership, according to Dodd, so his conduct could not be governed by the organization. Dodd said it was up to D.C. Assault officials to make Brown follow the rules.
Elmore, now a New York attorney and ESPN college basketball analyst, said he "made sure there was always a distance" between himself and the summer players. "I never spoke to any of the high school players about professional stuff," Elmore said.
Mike Brown said he no longer is involved with an agent. But after a September game, he nodded toward several Assault players and said, "When some of these kids [become professionals] and it's time to make that decision [to select an agent], hey, I may put my coat back on. . . . I may get back into the business."
Under the Influence Malone says his own basketball dreams were ruined by the appeal of the "fast life." After high school, he drifted over six years to one university and three junior colleges, playing basketball for a season at Potomac State College in Morgantown, W. Va.
Malone said he never earned a degree because he was "immature."
In a June 1990 police search of his home, officers found 17 grams of crack cocaine, a .38 caliber revolver and ammunition. Malone pleaded guilty to cocaine possession with intent to distribute and was sentenced to five years in the Prince George's detention center, reduced to three months with three years' supervised probation. He spent the summer of 1991 in the detention center.
In 1993, Malone pleaded guilty to reckless driving and eluding police in a chase near his parents' home in Landover. A friend in the car fled from police and, later that day, died in a fall. Malone received six months' unsupervised probation.
Malone did not disclose his police record in the fall of 1994 when he took a part-time junior varsity coaching job at the District's Dunbar High School, according to Dunbar's head coach at the time.
The next spring, Malone and childhood friend Troy Weaver started their summer basketball program. Today, Malone said he is president and coach of D.C. Assault, Inc., which he said is registered as a "non-profit corporation so that donations and stuff will be made." But the Internal Revenue Service has no record of it.
Malone concedes that he has made enemies during his coaching tenure, but mostly considers them rivals who are upset that he has stolen their players' affections. "I'm like this bad guy in town," he said.
He sees one such enemy in Morgan Wootten, the nation's all-time winningest high school basketball coach and a harsh critic of Malone and other influential summer coaches. Wootten said some of these coaches are responsible for pushing academically deficient athletes to skip summer school for basketball games.
Wootten said he objected when his top two athletes last season--Keith Bogans (now at Kentucky) and Joe Forte (North Carolina)--each missed a day or two in school to play in summer basketball camps. Bogans was a member of D.C. Assault, Forte of the Jabbo Kenner summer team.
"If these coaches have these kids' interest at heart, they never would have influenced them to leave summer school," said Wootten, now in his 44th season at DeMatha High in Hyattsville.
Malone said he never has encouraged any athlete to miss even a day of summer school.
He has angered some public school coaches for steering star athletes to private schools. Malone said he does so only if a parent asks for help and the athlete is struggling. "Don't get mad at me because I want to get the kids straight academically," he said.
On a recent afternoon, Malone, outfitted in adidas garb, was looking ahead to March and his sixth season as a summer coach. "I'm concerned about my kids," he said. "I mean, if I don't help these kids, who's gonna help them?"
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Curtis Malone, center, says his primary interest in coaching AAU basketball is helping the kids; his critics question his motives.
CAPTION: Robert Little, left, said he'd play for Trevor Brown's AAU team after Brown, center, "told me what he would do for me."