Earlier Tuesday, Prep Rally wrote about disturbing developments in West Virginia, where a phony basketball academy drew top hoops prospects from around the world only to have them live in squalor without food until the teens were discovered by local authorities. Now one of the players who was part of the West Virginia Prep Academy fraud is speaking up about the fake school and its fraudulent purveyor, Daniel Hicks.
In the first interview with a West Virginia Prep Academy player since the alleged school's massive fraud was uncovered by the Charleston Gazette and other West Virginia media sources, Baltimore guard Corey Saunders, pictured above, spoke with Prep Rally and detailed the full extent of the deplorable conditions in which players who signed up to play for West Virginia Prep Academy were living in.
"We had no idea what was going on," Saunders told Prep Rally in a telephone interview. "Everyone started figuring out [that West Virginia Prep was a fraudulent enterprise] as we were going along. It was like 'Why is [Hicks] leaving us here?' It was like he was stalling us out for time. We would bunch up in cars to get to public gyms because we never got the 16-passenger vans we were promised.
"The hardest part about it was barely eating. … Waking up, not knowing what you were going to eat the next day. [Hicks] wasn't taking care of us right, that was hard."
According to Saunders, the 20 teens who shared a three-bedroom apartment had to scramble to find all their own food after the first day they arrived in West Virginia. A Baltimore native who spent his senior year at Upper Marlboro (Md.) Frederick Douglass High, Saunders said that the only time food was provided to the players was when the mother of another player from Georgia drove up to the players' apartment after becoming worried about her son's health. Shocked that they hadn't eaten, she went out to the store and bought groceries for the players that lasted a little more than a day.
By that point, Hick's elaborate scam was beginning to unravel, though Saunders provided information that shines new light into precisely how the former New Mexico State basketball player was able to convince players from across the country -- not to mention France, the U.K. and Sudan -- that West Virginia Prep was the best chance they had to gain major exposure on the U.S. basketball recruiting circuit. If there was any question that Hicks was incredibly persuasive, just consider one of the top names he landed at West Virginia Prep: Highly touted point guard Jaylen Beckham, from Lexington, Kent.
Saunders was among a small handful of students who was drawn to Hicks' enterprise directly. When he was looking for a school at which to spend a post-graduate year, Saunders was attracted by the early season schedule published on West Virginia Prep's website. After contacting Hicks, Saunders briefly visited his offices in South Charleston and was shown a prospective 2010-11 season schedule that included the most powerful teams in the country, Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, Findlay Prep (Nev.) Academy and Brewster (N.H.) Academy among them.
That, combined with Hicks' persuasive ability to convince players that they would receive significant playing time in the national limelight, convinced Saunders that West Virginia Prep was his best opportunity. The guard also convinced his former Frederick Douglass teammate Dwayne Brewer to join him in South Charleston.
While some players found West Virginia Prep because of the school's inflated potential schedule, Saunders said that others were drawn in by three national caliber coaches whom Hicks had also convinced to jump on board with fraudulent promises. While Saunders didn't know precisely who those coaches were (because the school's teams -- West Virginia Prep officially planned to have both a traditional and post-grad team for boys and girls -- had yet to undergo any official practices), further investigation by another Prep Rally source revealed that one was Antoine Smith, a Columbus, Ohio-based community college and AAU coach.
While the full roster of 20 players at the school may never be divulged, Saunders did provide Prep Rally with the following list of five notable U.S. players who were scheduled to attend the hoops academy with him:
• Jaylen Beckham, the Lexington, Ky.-based three-star point guard.
• Shaun Crayton, an Indianapolis-based power forward with interest from a handful of midmajor schools.
• Novian Cherry, a San Diego, Calif., native who emerged as an impressive small forward on the 2011 AAU summer circuit.
• Dwayne Brewer, Saunders' teammate from Upper Marlboro (Md.) Frederick Douglass.
• Stephen Knox, a point guard who starred for Mountain Pointe (Ariz.) High in 2010-11.
• Daquon Miller, a guard who starred for Charleston (W. Va.) Capital High in 2010-11 and was the only native of the state at West Virginia Prep.
Additionally, it's clear that Hicks saw his fake academy as a long con to get a steady stream of income from potential players. Saunders said that the West Virginia Prep "headmaster" only charged the $500 enrollment fee to those players he knew could afford to pay it, allowing others to initially arrive and stay in the school's South Charleston apartment for free. That information directly conflicts a statement Hicks provided to the Charleston Gazette when the academy's apartment was first discovered.
Perhaps more troubling still, Hicks clearly never had any intention of educating the players he enrolled at his school. Saunders said that all players who were to attend the school were instructed to sign up for online courses at Mountain State University, a community college which has three West Virginia campuses among its eight locations and offers many of its courses in online form.
"[The players at West Virginia Prep] were taking out financial aid from Mountain State University," Saunders told Prep Rally. "That can get counted against us, too, because we had to take out loans and sign promissory notes and things. Now I'm going to have to pay that back.
"I was going to make the monthly payments [$300 a month paid to Hicks for living expenses], but then it unravelled."
Now Saunders, who arrived back in Maryland on a bus on Sunday evening, will have to wade through untangling those financial issues himself, all while searching for a new school at which to spend a post-graduate year. The guard told Prep Rally that he has been in touch with Mount Zion (N.C.) Academy and Pacers Prep (Va.) Academy, but has yet to receive a firm offer or decide where he will play.
Still, the teen is relieved to be done with a trying situation in which he and a handful of other top recruits somehow found themselves struggling to survive without any guidance whatsoever. In a testament to Saunders' spirit, the teenager refused to believe that the entire experience was solely a negative one, either.
"Outside of basketball and outside the whole situation, it didn't feel as bad because I did have some great guys there to ride it out with, getting to bond with players from all over," Saunders told Prep Rally. "That gave me an outlook on how good I can be, because I played well against them in the gym."
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