The near-empty gym was quiet aside from the squeaking of 18 pairs of shoes, scattered courtside chatter and the sound made when a rim is pulled down, bends at the front and then snaps back into place. 

Close to 50 of the Washington area’s best high school basketball players were at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., for the Metro Challenge on Saturday. No college coaches were there, because they are not allowed to watch potential recruits until the second-to-last weekend of April. This was an event for talent evaluators — from ESPN, Rivals and so on — to check out the top players in one of the country’s basketball hotbeds, then distribute their thoughts before the spring AAU season kicks off the most intense window of the college recruiting calendar. 

The man who stood at midcourt, peering at the teenagers as they sprung into the air for warmup dunks, is one of these evaluators. He doesn’t really look like one, even if he has been doing this since the mid-1980s. He doesn’t wear bright basketball shoes, a monochromatic jumpsuit or anything bearing his company’s name, but instead loose-fit tan khakis, a blue fleece and New Balance sneakers that were once white. He doesn’t punch tweet after tweet into his iPhone as shots pour through the net. He has never owned a cellphone in his life.

Norm Eavenson simply blends in, even if basketball’s modern recruiting landscape seems to favor self-promoters who are evaluators, and not the other way around. And he has a respected eye for talent, particularly for players who land with the type of small-conference schools that captivate college basketball fans during the NCAA tournament — teams such as giant-slaying Maryland Baltimore County, which subscribes to Eavenson’s recruiting service and this month became the first No. 16 seed to upset a No. 1 seed when it shocked Virginia; and Loyola Chicago, which will join three powerhouse programs (Kansas, Michigan and Villanova) in this weekend’s Final Four. 

“Time to go to work,” Eavenson said as the pregame clock expired at DeMatha, and then he sank into a blue camping chair, opened a thick red binder on his lap and stared at a list of players through his oval-shaped glasses. 

Eavenson, a 70-year-old retired teacher from West Chester, Pa., pitches himself like this: If he is in the gym, so are 65 Division I college basketball programs that might be interested in a player on the court. They all pay for his Middle Atlantic Recruiting Service, which provides player breakdowns and long lists of prospects from the region, split up by position and graduating class, multiple times a year. His clients are mostly schools from the middle and lower levels of Division I in the Mid-Atlantic. 

Recruiting services have been a fixture for decades, but the evaluation process has been muddied by the youth basketball hype machine. Manicured highlight tapes try to make marginal Division I players look like future lottery picks. Adults rank players from the second grade to senior year. Twitter has given everyone the license to be a talent scout, and it allows trainers and coaches and “handlers” to pose as such in an effort to boost their players’ reputations.

It has given college coaches endless noise to sift through and made trusted evaluators such as Eavenson an even more valuable part of the recruiting process. 

“I really just want to be a worthy second opinion for coaches seeking a lot of information on a kid,” Eavenson said. “And maybe I can help cut through the noise. There’s the social media noise, maybe noise from an AAU coach, maybe noise from an uncle. I think I can be a filter for that.”

An 'unbiased eye for talent'

The gyms weren’t so crowded when Eavenson started evaluating high school players.

He first watched high-level high school ball at the University of Pennsylvania’s Palestra in the late 1950s, and he hasn’t stopped going to games since.

He came around enough for some of the pioneering talent evaluators to start noticing him, and in the 1980s, Hoop Scoop founder Clark Francis asked him if he wanted to make some side money scouting Adidas’s ABCD Camp in the summer. 

In the 1990s, Eavenson started working for Bob Gibbons, the evaluator credited with first noticing a skinny North Carolina high schooler named Michael Jordan. 

“It was a lot simpler back then, as you can imagine,” Eavenson said. “There were some guys competing with you, but the numbers were much smaller. Coaches couldn’t get tape of any kid they wanted. There weren’t all these social media accounts pointing out players. You had to be in the gym, or you just wouldn’t know what was going on.”

That has all changed, with the emergence of Hudl as a tool to watch a player’s game action, and social media as an unreliable barometer of talent and potential. But Eavenson’s approach has remained the same: He lists players on loose-leaf paper, marks notes across the page throughout a game and later types his findings into gridded reports for college coaches to use as a way of identifying prospects they should check out.

He watches every player on the court, never knowing when an unknown, unrated teenager will surprise him.

Multiple Division I coaches who subscribe to Eavenson’s service said they use it as a spring and summer travel guide of sorts; they will pick out players Eavenson mentions and make them a priority on the recruiting trail.

Highlight reels and game tapes usually leave out moments that could raise questions about a prospect; some high school coaches would admit to doctoring the video they send to interested colleges. Eavenson’s reports will sometimes note poor body language or whether a player stays engaged when on the bench.

“You’re looking for all of that when recruiting,” said George Mason assistant coach Duane Simpkins, whose team subscribes to Eavenson’s service. “That’s where the evaluators can be a really useful resource.”

There is no limit to the number of recruiting services a college program can subscribe to, but mid- and low-major teams are more likely to use them than power-conference schools. Bigger programs — the Dukes, Kentuckys and even Marylands of the world — often recruit players already overexposed by national rankings and social media attention.

Eavenson rates players by talent level, marking them as High Major-Plus (typed as HM+ on his report), High Major, High Major-Minus, Mid Major-Plus (MM+), Mid Major and so on. Eavenson does not do reports for Division II or III schools, although he will list players as Division II- or III-level talents in the gridded PDFs he emails to clients. 

“A guy like Norm, he has so much experience that you can trust his evaluation and use it as one piece of the recruiting puzzle,” said Mount St. Mary’s Coach Jamion Christian, whose Emmitsburg, Md., program subscribes to Eavenson’s service. “He’s a genuine, unbiased eye for talent, and that’s what you want. You don’t want someone who has an agenda one way or the other, because then that can get complicated.”

Those agendas are wide-ranging. Some evaluators are affiliated with shoe companies, such as Nike or Under Armour or Adidas, that also have a network of AAU programs around the country. Some might want to catapult themselves to bigger websites and might focus on four- and five-star prospects as a result. Others might crave the affirmation of retweets and shares and stick to the high-profile players who deliver them. 

Eavenson never tried to make this a full-time career. He keeps going to high school gyms, sometimes four times a week during the season, to keep his mind and body active. He made a Twitter account — which has fewer than 2,300 followers — so his service stayed visible, not for artificial fame. He only cares about giving an honest evaluation to the colleges that pay for his reports.

“It’s impossible to tell who is actually a scout or really legitimate these days with all the stuff that’s put out there,” said Brendan O’Connell, the head coach at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, Md. “It makes the guys who know what they are doing that much more important.”

'Those are the kids I look for'

In the last game of the Metro Challenge, DeMatha junior Carsten Kogelnik found space on the left wing and swished his third three-pointer of the first half. Eavenson, a slight smile on his face and his glasses sliding onto the bridge of his nose, looked into his binder and put another “3” with a slash through it next to Kogelnik’s name. 

The event was brimming with high-level talent, and Eavenson plans to send a “special report” on it to his 65 colleges in the coming weeks. But the top players, who already have offers from Villanova and Virginia and Maryland and Louisville, are not the ones Eavenson keys on. It is players such as Kogelnik, who was the fifth option on a loaded DeMatha team this season and has a single offer from Division II West Virginia Wesleyan, toward whom Eavenson thinks his service is geared.

They are also the players who could swing an NCAA tournament upset one day — and kick-start a Cinderella run.

“Those are the kids I look for,” Eavenson said. “I am watching everyone, but the ones who may be on the edge of Division I, or the edge of mid-major or low-major, I think including them in my reports can really put them on some teams’ radars and get their recruitment going.”

After the last buzzer sounded Saturday, and the gym quickly cleared out, Eavenson got the final stats from the scorer’s table, chatted with a few AAU coaches, then packed up his chair and headed for the parking lot. There were crab cakes to eat at By The Docks in Middle River, Md., before a 90-minute trip home in his 2005 Mustang. There was a report to type up. And soon there will be more gyms to drive to and more players to see and more evaluations to craft.

By this time next month, an upset-filled NCAA tournament will have been carved into college basketball history, and coaches will zigzag across the country, looking for the next game-changing prospect. Eavenson will be there, too, watching all 10 players on the court, seeking out the ones few others are looking for.

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