The Adidas Gauntlet tournament in Manhattan is one of many youth basketball events sponsored by apparel companies. (Anthony Geathers/The Washington Post)

As Armaan Franklin pondered the question — would he rather play at a basketball event sponsored by the NCAA or Nike? — he smiled, shook his head and broke into laughter.

The 18-year-old from Indianapolis was playing in his last Peach Jam, the wildly popular finale to Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League that drew more than 20,000 people — including dozens of top college coaches and NBA stars Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook — to North Augusta, S.C., last weekend.

Franklin wore a white jersey for his Chicago-based team, MeanStreets, bearing the Nike swoosh and a pair of Nike shoes, and he stood in front of a backdrop featuring the apparel giant’s logo. Thanks to Nike — which, like Adidas and Under Armour, sponsors leagues that compete to attract America’s best teenage basketball players — Franklin, rated the 140th-best player in the Class of 2019 by Rivals, also had played in front of raucous crowds this year at events in Atlanta and Dallas.

When Franklin finished laughing, he answered, simply: “It would definitely be Nike. I’ve really enjoyed the experience so far.”

Nearly three months ago, a commission led by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice recommended, as part of its response to alleged corruption in college basketball uncovered by the FBI, that the NCAA launch its own basketball camps during the crucial July recruiting period and prohibit college coaches from attending other events, including those sponsored by apparel companies.

These new NCAA camps, Rice said in a news conference in late April, should be the showcase events for a new youth basketball program that, with the assistance of the NBA and USA Basketball, teaches teenage basketball players not just fundamentals of the game but also “academic and life skills, health and collegiate eligibility.”

Skepticism abounds

In college basketball circles, the Rice commission’s recommendations were met with widespread praise. But in shoe company-sponsored youth leagues, according to interviews with more than a dozen coaches, officials and players at Nike and Adidas events last week, the idea that the NCAA somehow will shoulder its way into the hypercompetitive youth basketball market — and potentially box out shoe companies in the process — has been met with a mixture of skepticism, defiance and mockery.

“It makes absolutely no sense to me,” said Andy Borman, team director for Nike-sponsored NY Renaissance and a former athletic department staffer at San Jose State and California Berkeley.

“What’s happening right now, flat-out, is a media stunt. It’s a PR move by the NCAA. . . . It’s a joke,” said Borman, who played for Duke’s 2001 national championship team and is a nephew of Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

About 800 miles to the northeast of Peach Jam, in a waterfront gym in Manhattan draped in Adidas banners, Kevin Howard, coach of the Little Rock-based Joe Johnson Hawks, expressed similar doubts.

“Unless the NCAA is going to pay for their travel and give these kids gear from Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, kids are still going to play in these leagues,” said Howard, whose team competed last week at the Adidas Gauntlet Finale in New York. “It’s going to be hard for the NCAA to compete.”

Retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of USA Basketball who served on the Rice commission, pushed back at the suggestion that Rice and colleagues were prodding the NCAA to try to launch a youth program to compete with the so-called grass-roots leagues run by Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.

“We don’t want the NCAA to try to take over grass roots. . . . What we’re looking for is a more inclusive environment in the summer, with the three big stakeholders — the NCAA, the NBA and USA Basketball — all having a bigger voice,” Dempsey said in a phone interview.

”Unless the NCAA is going to pay for their travel and give these kids gear from Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, kids are still going to play in these leagues,” said Kevin Howard, coach of an Adidas-sponsored team. (Anthony Geathers/The Washington Post)

Nike, Adidas and Under Armour declined to comment. In interviews, grass-roots coaches and officials said regardless of what Rice commission members say, by directing the NCAA to create its own youth camps in July and then bar college coaches from attending other events, the commission essentially was asking the NCAA to try to compete with shoe company events.

And, in a competition between shoe companies and the NCAA for the allegiance of thousands of teenagers — coaches, officials and players said — an NCAA-run basketball camp will face significant challenges relating to what marketing professionals call “brand image.”

'An evil empire'

“The NCAA is looked at as an evil empire by the really talented young players,” said Seth Greenberg, the former Virginia Tech coach and ESPN analyst who works part time for Adidas, running several camps. “There is a growing mind-set among the parents and the players who feel that the elite players are being exploited, that the TV contracts [for college basketball] are so crazy that everyone’s making money but the kids. Shoe companies aren’t going anywhere. Grass-roots basketball isn’t going anywhere.”

The NCAA declined to comment for this story, as did the National Association of College Basketball Coaches, which is working with the NCAA on implementing Rice’s proposals.

The presence of top college coaches gives shoe company events significant cachet, coaches and officials said, and the NCAA barring coaches from attending July events probably would have an impact, potentially reducing turnout of some players and fans.

But youth league officials doubt the absence of college coaches would scare away teenagers who entertain dreams of playing in the NBA and signing endorsement deals with one of the shoe companies. Some of the older grass-roots teams have deep roots in urban centers and several alumni in the NBA — perhaps, most notably, Nike’s Oakland Soldiers and Adidas’s Atlanta Celtics — and are viewed by star teenagers in those cities as the best way to showcase their talents for pro scouts and agents.

The criticism of Rice’s proposals in these communities underscores the reality that, unlike NCAA President Mark Emmert and other top college sports officials, many grass-roots league officials don’t view the five- and six-figure payments allegedly arranged by an Adidas executive for the families of top recruits with outrage or revulsion.

“I just think the worst thing in the world comes every March, when [the NCAA tournament] will make billions and billions of dollars and those kids will get peanuts,” said Karl McCray, founder of the Atlanta Celtics, whose alumni include Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Joe Johnson.

To crack down on other potential under-the-table payments, the Rice commission also called for “financial transparency” from grass-roots leagues and coaches, including allowing the NCAA to review tax returns and compelling shoe company team coaches and directors to disclose any outside investors or donors.

Adidas-branded backpacks line a bench in New York. (Anthony Geathers/The Washington Post)
The grass-roots edge

Many grass-roots teams are run as nonprofits, and among NCAA officials, it long has been suspected that agents and college boosters gain the inside track on top recruits by making undisclosed donations to their youth teams, gaining favor with the grass-roots coaches and officials.

Grass-roots coaches and team directors interviewed for this story said they have not been contacted by the NCAA about their team finances. However, one longtime independent basketball camp operator said he has, and he expressed indignation at the NCAA’s questions.

Based in Long Beach, Calif., Dinos Trigonis runs tournaments and camps along the West Coast that often attract top high school players, college coaches and scouts. The independent camp model harks back to the 1990s, before Nike and Adidas started investing in their own leagues, and Trigonis has maintained a sometimes uneasy relationship with shoe companies over the years as they have encroached on territory he and other independent event operators formerly dominated.

“I’m kind of like Switzerland in this whole mess,” Trigonis said. “I try to play nice with everyone.”

On July 3, Trigonis received an email from an NCAA staffer, wishing him a happy Fourth of July and informing him that the NCAA had selected him “as part of a focus group to assist us in developing a financial transparency survey.” The email linked to a survey that asked Trigonis to disclose how much money he made in 2017 and how much he expected to make this year and to identify his top three sponsors and how much money each gave him.

Trigonis was not thrilled with the request.

“They can’t get rid of us legally, for antitrust reasons, so they want to make it so difficult, harassing us, hoping that we’ll just leave the marketplace,” Trigonis said in a phone interview.

Like several grass-roots coaches, Trigonis said he felt the Rice commission’s proposals will do little to diminish the influence in college recruiting of shoe companies, which sign multimillion endorsement deals with college programs and have a financial interest in seeing those same programs succeed, generating more exposure for their brands.

An NCAA working group tasked with acting upon Rice’s proposals relating to youth basketball, Trigonis noted, is chaired by Dan Guerrero, athletic director at UCLA, the recent beneficiary of one of the largest college endorsement deals in history: a 15-year, $280 million deal with Under Armour.

Guerrero was unavailable for an interview this week, a UCLA spokesman said, because he was traveling internationally.

“These people are taking millions from shoe companies; they let them into the college sports business, and now they want to corral them,” Trigonis said. “Maybe they should just give the money back.”