Flo Webb dreaded weekends more than workdays this year.
At 7 a.m. every Saturday from early April until late July, she and her 17-year-old son Xavier climbed into the family car and drove 5 1/2 hours from Riverton, Wyo., to Salt Lake City, Utah. Xavier spent about 90 minutes practicing with his teammates on one of Utah's best AAU basketball teams before returning to the passenger seat of his mom's car for the 5 1/2-hour drive home.
"Those were very brutal days," Flo Webb said. "It seemed like we'd get down there, I'd blink and then we were back on the road. The part that really bothered me was we were going down there for an hour-and-a-half practice, but we knew we had to do it. Xavier had to practice to have a chance to play. And he had to play so college coaches could see him."
That many families in Wyoming have similar horror stories illustrates why earning a Division I basketball scholarship may be more difficult for players from that state than from any other. Kids in Wyoming who dream of playing college basketball have to sacrifice more than their peers elsewhere to get the competition and exposure needed to pursue their goal.
Unlike elite prospects from other states who often focus exclusively on basketball year-round, top players from Wyoming typically play three sports because their high schools are too small to field viable teams otherwise. That causes them to develop more slowly than kids elsewhere, as does the weaker competition they usually face during the high school season.
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The elite players good enough to overcome those obstacles still can only get on the college radar via the AAU circuit since Wyoming only has one Division I university and talent is too scarce and far-flung to attract out-of-state coaches. Alas, Wyoming is the only state in the Lower 48 without a viable AAU program, which means kids hoping to play in front of college coaches at high-profile spring and summer tournaments must join travel teams in neighboring states.
Rich Millay, a teacher and basketball coach in Glenrock, Wyo., teeters on the verge of debt every July as a result of spending up to $13,000 a year on gas, hotel rooms and flights so his sons can play for the Denver-based Colorado Chaos. Six-foot-8, 260-pound Taylor still landed at a junior college this fall despite his dad's efforts, but Millay will continue to make the 256-mile drive to Denver for practices and games in hopes that Jordan, a 6-foot-5 rising sophomore, may yet play Division I basketball.
"It's a time commitment, it's a lifestyle commitment and it's a huge financial commitment too," said Millay, a former basketball player at Idaho State. "It seems like every summer I put myself in debt through the school year, then pay it off just to start all over again. That's something I'll definitely keep doing, though, if it helps Jordan achieve his goal."
If families didn't have to sacrifice their weekends and savings for their sons to play for a travel team, perhaps Wyoming would produce more Division I talent.
Those in Wyoming basketball circles can only identify four scholarship Division I players from the state for the 2012-13 season, UC Santa Barbara wing Taran Brown, Montana 7-footer Andy Martin, Pacific big man Tim Thomas and Wyoming guard Jason McManamen. Considering there are well over 4,000 Division I basketball players on scholarship next season, that's a very small group even for the least populous of all 50 states.
"I definitely think it's harder for kids in Wyoming," said UC Santa Barbara assistant coach Matt Stock, a native of Cheyenne. "Wyoming kids need to take advantage of the summer more when it's a live recruiting period and college coaches can be out watching. Even if it takes some sacrifice, they need to get on an AAU team and get to as many events in April and July as possible. There are a lot of good players in Wyoming, but they need coaches to see them."
Proof that Stock's advice is sound can be found in the backgrounds of some of Wyoming's recent Division I standouts.
Ex-Wake Forest star James Johnson, the lone Wyoming product currently in the NBA, only gained national notoriety the summer before his senior year while playing AAU ball with the Colorado Chaos. Forward Kyle Bullinger, a four-year starter at Weber State who graduated last June, also played for the Chaos even though his hometown of Mountain View, Wyo., is 425 miles from Denver. And McManamen, Wyoming's reigning state player of the year, validated his high school accomplishments enough for Wyoming to sign him last year by starring on the AAU circuit for Colorado-based Elite Basketball Academy.
If UC Santa Barbara redshirt freshman Taran Brown had grown up in California instead of Gillette, Wyo., the Gauchos staff is doubtful he would have remained sufficiently under-the-radar for them to land him. Stock heard about Brown from an AAU coach who faced him, scouted him at the Double Pump Elite camp in Los Angeles the summer before his senior year of high school and talked UC Santa Barbara head coach Bob Williams into offering a scholarship soon afterward.
"A lot of Division I coaches don't even take the time to go to Wyoming because there isn't enough talent, so you've got to do something to get your name out there," Brown said. "That's what I did going to the Double Pump camp and making the all-star team. If you really want to play college basketball, it's worth it. The sacrifice is worth it."
Tyler Olsen, a rising sophomore at Glenrock High School, believes the sacrifice will one day pay off for him, too. He and his dad spent 14 straight weekends away from home this spring and summer, practicing or playing with the Colorado Chaos, often arriving back in Glenrock at well past midnight on Sunday nights.
Playing for the Chaos gave Olsen motivation to keep improving he might not otherwise have had. Even though he started on varsity as a freshman for his high school team and emerged as one of the better young players in Wyoming, Olsen quickly learned there are dozens of kids his age superior to him in other states.
"In Denver, I saw players who are 6-3, 6-4 point guards that play the same position I do and are a lot quicker than me, a lot stronger than me and a lot more skilled than me," Olsen said. "It opened my eyes to where maybe I'm not the best player around. If I'm going to get a D-I scholarship like I want to, then I have a lot of improving to do."
It seems unlikely Xavier Webb is going to land a Division I scholarship despite the 11-hour round-trip drives he and his mom made this spring and summer between Riverton and Salt Lake City. A Wyoming junior college coach told Webb he has Division I potential, but so far only a couple of Division II schools from neighboring states have shown any interest in the 6-foot-1 senior.
Part of the problem, Webb and his mom believe, is they waited too long to try to get him exposure.
Webb had never played on the AAU circuit prior to this spring, so out-of-state coaches had no way of knowing who he was. It also didn't help that Webb played on Salt Lake Metro's secondary 17-U team, which meant playing in tournaments more sparsely attended by Division I coaches than the ones that featured the primary team.
Flo Webb has considered various ways of getting her son further exposure, from sending YouTube highlights to coaches throughout the West to having him live with his aunt in Las Vegas so he can attend basketball power Bishop Gorman High as a senior. Ultimately, even though the weekly drives to and from Salt Lake City wrecked her weekends and the hotel rooms and flights sapped the family's savings, Flo Webb regrets not having her son play three years of AAU instead of just one.
"We were really naive," Webb said. "We didn't think we could afford three years of AAU, so we thought if we could get him one season, he would still be seen by all these coaches. We thought that would be plenty."
Not for a Division I hopeful from Wyoming. For them, there's always another sacrifice to be made in pursuit of a dream.
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