Players say they're more important than their high school seasons. The NCAA says they might be the most concerning events on the calendar. Many coaches think they've grown out of control, but virtually all say they can't afford to ignore them.
Teenage basketball players have flown around the country each July for years, playing in sneaker company-sponsored events that draw criticism from those who feel summer-league coaches possess too much influence. But this month, with Reebok raising a new challenge to Adidas and Nike for summer basketball supremacy, excess has become the norm, and competition among the competing shoe companies has raged hotter than the triple-digit heat here.
The three shoe companies each spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on summer-league teams, in hope of signing the next NBA superstar or, as current pro standout Baron Davis said, simply "building the brand." While the increased interest has created additional opportunities for high school players, it has also made getting a handle on the summer camps even more untenable for the NCAA.
Over the past week here, some 700 summer-league teams competed in three simultaneous tournaments. Earlier this month, more than 600 of the nation's best high school players competed in summer camps in Atlanta, New Jersey and Indianapolis.
"There is a culture in the South: There was a gas station on every corner and a church on every corner," said Bobby Dodd, the president and CEO of the Amateur Athletic Union. "Now we have a summer basketball camp on every corner."
Dodd wants all of summer basketball to have the same restrictions and accountability as AAU, which stages close to 300 national championships per year. Events sponsored by shoe companies, which are not run under the auspices of AAU, have come under increased scrutiny from the NCAA, which has attempted to restrict contact between unregulated summer-league coaches and college coaches during sanctioned events.
Signs detailing rules for coaches -- "No contact with players" -- are present here, and NCAA representatives roam gymnasiums. Nevertheless, interaction can occur.
"I talked to some coaches today," one summer-league coach said. "We're not supposed to talk to them, but there are ways around it." At one camp headquarters hotel, a college coach with Final Four experience worked the lobby for 30 minutes. One summer-league coach said he told an NCAA representative, "I don't work for you."
As early as April, Thomas Yeager, chairman of the NCAA infractions committee, said the NCAA needs to further examine the "perceived immunity" some summer-league coaches feel they have.
"The NCAA's ability to reach these folks is limited," Yeager said in April, following the ruling on Auburn's case, which centered on a summer-league coach. "For one, they are not employees of NCAA member institutions. They operate outside the high school ranks. It's kind of indicative of what the problem is. They are in between the cracks on some governing organizations."
Often called the godfather of grass-roots basketball, Reebok power broker Sonny Vaccaro played a pivotal role in Nike's emergence as an industry powerhouse in the 1980s behind the signing of Michael Jordan. Vaccaro did the same for Adidas in the early 1990s, showcasing future stars such as Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James through his ABCD camp in July. Nike's George Raveling ran, and still runs, an equally high-profile camp for roughly 200 players at the same time.
Vaccaro left Adidas for Reebok last year because he said he was upset Adidas did not make a satisfactory bid to sign James -- the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft -- to a shoe contract. James eventually signed with Nike for a reported $90 million.
"That was one of the greatest thrills of my life -- the chase for LeBron," said Vaccaro, calling James the prize of this generation. "That's why [Adidas] won't win. They have no [guts]."
Vaccaro retained the ABCD trademark to his summer camp and was motivated to court a young foundation of future stars for his now-Reebok-sponsored events. His first phone call: Indianapolis, where Vaccaro signed 16-year-old Greg Oden's summer-league team. Soon after, Reebok signed an Ohio-based summer-league team that featured O.J. Mayo, who, along with Oden, is considered among the most talented and marketed high school players nationally.
"They go after pros," said Daren Kalish, Adidas's sports marketing manager. "That has to do, I think, with representation. This [Adidas] is about the brand I work for and exposure. We want to be relevant to the baller [high school player], the consumer."
Adidas not only retained a number of the most influential summer-league coaches but extended their contracts, said Kalish, who believes the power of many can be greater than that of one, namely Vaccaro.
"What Nike went through 10 years ago, that's what we're going through," Kalish said. "Eventually people will say it's not the man."
Because Adidas staged its own July camp outside Atlanta as well as a 100-team Las Vegas tournament, more players competed and were scouted this summer. That presented a challenge to college coaches visiting Las Vegas, where game sites at times were an hour apart at local high schools. The University of Nevada staff, for example, spent more than six hours mapping out the logistics of hop-scotching around the area to see targeted recruits.
Proponents, though, cite increased participation as a positive. "Two hundred more kids get to go to camp who wouldn't have," said Memphis Coach John Calipari, who attended all three early July camps. "Anything for inclusion, that gets more kids involved, I'm for. Yeah, the top 100 guys might not play against one another as much; yeah, it might cause us to travel more; but 200 kids get an opportunity."
Former Duke guard Bobby Hurley, now a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, remembered when he was in high school playing in a camp in Princeton, N.J., because there was no other. Hurley believes scouts' attendance at the camps "sends the wrong message to the kids," but scouts need to attend because failing to do so would put them at a competitive disadvantage.
The camps are vital to players' success, as well. Former Nevada standout Kirk Snyder is an exception, someone who made the NBA without competing in a major camp. Snyder said he was invited to Nike's camp but did not attend because his mother needed him to stay home and care for his sister. Partially as a result, Snyder received far less attention than his peers, many of whom were hyped since middle school. Only after leading Nevada to a surprising run in this past spring's NCAA tournament did Snyder begin to emerge from obscurity. The Utah Jazz made him the 16th overall pick in June's NBA draft.
Josh Smith, who was drafted straight from high school by the Atlanta Hawks in June, said camps are more important than the high school season because of who gets to see you play, namely college coaches and pro scouts.
But George Karl, the former NBA coach who addressed the players at Adidas camp, said he has trouble accurately evaluating talent in such a setting. "I'm not sure I understand" the camps, he said as his eyes bounced between two courts. "The games are [not good]. It's guard-dominated."
Several incidents also illustrated just how far beyond the NCAA's reach the camps exist.
At Adidas, one guest speaker was Jim Harrick, the former UCLA and Georgia coach who was dismissed in 2003 amid an academic fraud scandal in which he was not implicated. An Adidas staff member introduced Harrick to the players as a man of "character and integrity." He received a standing ovation.
Harrick also coached a team in the camp. At Reebok, one all-star team was coached by Bill Bayno, the former UNLV coach who was fired after the school was placed on probation because of recruiting violations.
All players at Adidas camp watched an NCAA-mandated video, hosted by analyst Dick Vitale, that spoke about the "purity" of the college game and addressed issues such as drugs, betting, agents and recruiting rules.
One segment detailed when coaches are permitted to call recruits. For example, the video explained, coaches may call only a certain number of times during certain months. "Tell them that then," one player hollered, prompting laughter from others. "For real, they don't stop calling."
Players are recruited by summer camps as well as colleges and at times are caught in the crossfire of a sneaker rivalry. Bitter feelings exist on both sides of the Adidas-Reebok grass-roots competition, only intensifying the courtship of some players. Said Vaccaro, "It's personal."
Some players plan to attend one camp only to wind up at another. Kalish calls this being "zim-zammed."
Adidas expected Eric Wallace, a sophomore standout from Winston-Salem, N.C., to attend its Atlanta camp. But Kalish said Reebok cultivated a relationship with Wallace and those close to the player at a mini-Reebok event the week before. As the Atlanta camp approached, Kalish lost contact with Wallace's people. Eventually, Kalish said, Wallace's summer-league coach simply drove the player north to Reebok's New Jersey camp instead of south to Adidas's.
Also consider Louisiana's Tasmin Mitchell, who played at Reebok camp despite other members of his Adidas-sponsored summer-league team competing at Adidas camp. Mitchell cited his relationship with Vaccaro as key in his decision.
"Do they think they own kids?" Reebok's Chris Rivers said of Adidas. "Tasmin had the right to defend his MVP [earned in 2003]. . . . We build good relationships."
Tennessee's Tyler Smith had played on a Reebok-sponsored Alabama summer-league team, but earlier this year, Kalish said, Adidas began sponsoring the Tennessee Elite, a start-up summer-league team coached by Smith's father. Smith attended Adidas's July camp, irking some at Reebok.
"One camp may have the best players," Adidas representative David Pump said, "but at the end of the day, who's selling the most shoes?"
That would be Nike, considered by many as the most consistently secure brand, which did not appear to squabble over players for its camp this summer as Adidas and Reebok did. Nonetheless, longtime summer basketball organizer Hal Pastner, who has run a variety of Nike-sponsored events, staged a 300-team Las Vegas tournament called the Main Event, competing head-on with Adidas and Reebok Las Vegas events.
"This is not a Nike tournament," Pastner said. "This is a Hal Pastner tournament. I do not work for Nike."
A Swoosh, however, appeared on the front of the media packet. The event's Web site boasted that each participating player receives a Nike-designed tournament T-shirt. And a Nike banner hung beneath the scoreboard at Durango High, the tournament's headquarters. (Pastner said the school is sponsored by Nike.)
One sneaker company was a step, or at least a few hours, ahead of the others. This past Thursday, nearly 100 college coaches attended the first ever Midnight Madness at 12:01 a.m., the start of the latest period in which coaches can evaluate prospects. The event was sponsored by Pangos, a company that was staging its first event before producing its first shoe.
Dinos Trigonis, the event's director, said the motivation behind his midnight event was to give players a stage of their own before the three other tournaments kicked off. "The calm before the storm," Trigonis said.
The event was not entirely calming. A team from New Jersey didn't finish its game until nearly 5 a.m. EDT, after some players had arrived in Las Vegas the same day.
"I've stayed up 24 hours straight," said weary player Matt Honrychs. Asked how long he plans to sleep, the 14-year-old said, "Uh, 'til we have another game."
Said the team's coach, Robert DePersia: "Is it ridiculous? Yes. Is it an opportunity that is priceless, to play in front of these coaches? Absolutely."
That night, after more than an hour of scouting, North Carolina Coach Roy Williams yawned before exiting a gymnasium to a dimly lit parking lot. Williams wasn't bored. It was 1:11 a.m.
"I thought I had seen it all," said Williams, walking briskly to avoid a minor ruckus that ensued among some fans. "I thought we had gone to the limit. It appears that this passes the limit. . . . This was unusual."