As a sports agent in the late 1990s, Len Elmore routinely found that he was late to the party. While visiting the homes of college basketball players who had just finished their seasons, he would learn that other agents had already built relationships by offering tens of thousands of dollars to the players. Before he was tempted to do something that would tarnish his reputation, the former Maryland basketball star knew what he had to do: get out of the business.
Fourteen years later, amateur basketball has grown more cutthroat as more individuals than ever attempt to gain influence over top prospects at younger ages. But now Elmore is on the other side as chief executive of iHoops, a joint venture by the NCAA and NBA whose goal is to improve youth basketball. By all accounts, Elmore, a 10-year NBA and ABA veteran with a Harvard law degree, is considered the right man for a herculean task: Give teenagers and their parents a clear road map through the murky landscape of grass-roots basketball.
As thousands of high school-age basketball players crisscross the country this summer to play in high-profile camps and tournaments, iHoops is staging clinics at more than 40 sites nationwide and continuing to expand its reach. With more than 210,000 fans, iHoops’s Facebook page is already the most popular social media community among all major youth sports leagues. And the Web site — iHoops.com — gets 4 million page views a month.
Elmore, who has served as the iHoops CEO since May 2010, said the organization’s overall aim is education, to provide caregivers with enough information that “they can’t play dumb. When they hear the nonsense spoken about the kids and to the kids, they can step in and clarify.”
During a lengthy interview in New York earlier this year, Elmore addressed the numerous issues facing what some view as a broken amateur system, including the influence of renegade summer-league coaches and street agents, as well as the sense of entitlement that children sometimes adopt when they are hailed as stars as early as elementary school.
All it takes is a quick glance at the recruiting Web site Hoop Scoop to see that Chase Adams of Park Forest, Ill., is the nation’s top-ranked player in his age group. Chase is 4 feet 7 and just completed the fifth grade, yet he has his own eight-minute online highlight package. In this age group, competition can be fierce — among parents. At the first 8-and-under national AAU tournament in 2004, several parents boasted about their sons being the nation’s best, saying they were destined for an NBA career. A heated confrontation among parents erupted in the hallway as children looked on, some in tears.
When told the story, Elmore said, “Unbelievable, vicarious living is part of that, but it’s also that Holy Grail: Everyone thinks that their 8-year-old will ultimately be an NBA player.”
The quality of summer basketball is another issue that college coaches often gripe about, and one iHoops hopes to fix. Tom Izzo, the longtime Michigan State coach, said high school players feel obligated to take part in the whirlwind shoe company-sponsored summer tour of cities and gymnasiums. The emphasis on winning is diminished, Izzo said, because “if you win, you play the next game at 6. You lose, you play at 4. Who cares? By the time you get to the semifinals, kids are so tired, they don’t even know they are playing.”
After watching one prospect play 13 games in eight days in three cities last month, Georgia Coach Mark Fox said, “Not even the NBA does that.”
In an attempt to swing the emphasis back to instruction rather than promotion of the players, the iHoops Coaching Education Program will launch this month. It is expected that the AAU will make completion of the program — designed to help coaches provide stronger instruction and mentoring to players — mandatory for championship game coaches.
Last summer, Elmore attended some high-profile events to speak with coaches and event organizers, among others. He came away impressed with how well some events, such as the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., are run logistically. But Elmore was taken aback by some of what he saw at other tournaments, such as the ones in Las Vegas. While perusing the Strip around 11 p.m., he saw kids unsupervised, some walking through casinos. A few years ago, one prominent summer-league coach put his entire team up at the Bellagio for the entire week.
“I had conversations with some summer-league coaches that really shocked me,” Elmore said. “You hear some of these guys say, ‘What’s in it for us?’ You kind of smile: ‘What’s in it for you? Isn’t your role to be a developer of people as well as players? Didn’t you do this to help and not enrich yourselves?’
“They turn around and say: ‘We fix them, we turn them into players and then the college coaches come and take them and they make money because the kids are successful. Then the kids go to the pros and don’t give back.’ ”
Without a solution to stop agents, or other third-party influences interested more in profit, from bankrolling some summer-league basketball teams, Elmore again pointed to information as a way to mitigate some of the damage for families. “As long as the general public understands that this team is being subsidized by an agent, and ultimately the kid knows, now you go in with an educated mind,” he said. “It is not a surprise when some guy rolls up on you and says, ‘This is my team, this is what I do.’ ”
But perhaps the biggest problem is when the intentions of parents have been compromised. In the past year, allegations that the father of Cam Newton, the future Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn, had shopped around his son rocked the college sports world. When parents look to cash in on their child’s talents, education by an organization like iHoops can fall on deaf ears.
Elmore and iHoops are doing what they can. The iHoops First Team, a mentoring program, places an emphasis on providing parents with advice about the recruiting process. Representatives from iHoops speak with parent groups at elite summer camps, including the NBPA Top 100 Camp in Charlottesville. Brandon Knight and Kyrie Irving, two first-round NBA draft picks, were First Team alums.
“Loving parents, if they knew that trying to turn their kid into an ATM machine would not only hurt their eligibility, but also diminish their stature, their reputation, they might not do it,” Elmore said. “But there’s really nothing you can do if that occurs.”