Fake hoops school drew teens from abroad, stranded them

Cameron Smith
Prep Rally

Despite rising unemployment and skyrocketing credit card debt for many Americans, the "American dream" is still alive and well. While the faith in possible upward mobility among those in this country may occasionally waver, the prospect of being richly rewarded for hard work continues to strike a powerful chord with hopeful emigrants, particularly those who harbor dreams of a future in professional sports.

West Virginia Prep Academy organizer Daniel Hicks
West Virginia Prep Academy organizer Daniel Hicks

Unfortunately, a handful of foreign prospects and some from closer to home were served a sordid slice of American pie by a South Charleston, W.Va., academy which purported to be a landing pad of top basketball talent. Many officials are now claiming that the West Virginia Prep Academy, which was scheduled to open on Tuesday after permits had been filed by former college basketball player Daniel Hicks, who is pictured at right, was nothing more than a fraudulent enterprise aimed at generating quick cash for Hicks himself.

Read more about the disturbing conditions in which the teenagers were forced to live in a Prep Rally interview with one of the players here.

As first investigated by the Charleston Gazette, the purported school, West Virginia Prep Academy, received $500 enrollment fees from just seven students, but 20 were found to be living together in a tiny, three-bedroom apartment in South Charleston when officials discovered them. At the time, South Charleston Mayor Frank Mullens said that the students were living in cramped conditions without mattresses and hadn't been fed in at least two days.

"When I got there we had to stay in a three-room apartment, but we were promised to get beds, get fed three times a day, have our clothes washed," Baltimore teenager Corey Saunders, the first player at the school to speak publicly, told Prep Rally. "None of that happened. We were left at the gym three hours a day, had to get food for ourselves.

"A lot of players there didn't have a lot of money. We had to spend our own money for food. It was just bad. Once we got there we were finding out more things about his background. He had gone to jail for fraud, drugs. He had brought in coaches that he thought could land big players, but was telling them things on fraud."

After the teenagers were found in the apartment, the teens were put up at the nearby Ramada hotel you see below after city officials reached out to the hotel's owner and explained the predicament the basketball players were in.

South Charleston Ramada hotel
South Charleston Ramada hotel

"We're out now trying to take care of these kids who are here, even from overseas -- France and Africa -- that are under the impression they're going to a prep academy to get an education and play basketball," Mullens told the Gazette.

While all 20 teens who were affiliated with the program have now left South Charleston, the investigation into the West Virginia Prep Academy is just beginning. The Gazette and the Associated Press reported that local police forces and the FBI were in the process of opening up investigations into Hicks.

"This is very complex and we're just breaking the iceberg on a lot of it," South Charleston Police Chief Brad Rinehart told the Gazette. "We've spoken with the on-duty prosecutor. This could be a federal issue, or a state issue, and that's something we're trying to determine.

"They're good kids. I put about seven of them on the bus last night and a couple of them hugged me goodbye. They felt cheated, like they got scammed and let down -- they put their trust in [Hicks]."

For his part, Hicks continues to insist that his goal was always to bring a new, positive academic and basketball setting to South Charleston. Rather, the new school's leader claimed most of the students in the apartment had not paid his academy's enrollment fee and were simply brought by a coach from Oklahoma who had planned to coach one of the school's forthcoming basketball teams.

"Some of those kids are 20 years old, with no birth certificates," said Hicks, who played college basketball at New Mexico State and Concord. "How could I put them in my school?"

Regardless of where the students in the apartment came from, it's clear that Hicks had yet to follow through on the kind of planning that is needed for any new high school basketball team, let alone an entire school. Matthew Moyer, who coordinates events for Lexington, Ky.-based Bleid Sports, told a Prep Rally source that Hicks had reached out to him with interest of placing four teams from his school in Bleid-run tournaments during the 2010-11 school year.

"‪He called me and asked me to put his four teams [three mens, one womens] in as many games as possible," Moyer told the Prep Rally source via Facebook. "We worked out a deal for 20 games in our showcases. He told me he had a church that supported his team and he would have a cashiers check sent to me. Never heard from him again. I imagine he used our schedule to promote false games for recruiting.‬

‪"He called me through our website and dropped a few former U.K. players' names to me. He asked me to stop through a team practice on my way back from Durham, N.C. I stopped into the gym at the time he requested and there was Zumba going on. The gym administrator laughed when I asked where the practice was going on. That was the last time I even tried to touch base with him."‬

It's clear that federal officials will want to talk with Hicks at length now, as will the parents of the 20 teens he duped into traveling to West Virginia to be part of a basketball academy that never was, and never would be.

"They didn't have just your average basketball players," South Charleston City Manager Carlton Lee told the Gazette. "I watched them play and the kids from France and Africa are NBA material.

"[The mother of the player from France is] torn up, because she had to make a decision whether to send her son on with the coach from Oklahoma or fly them back to France."

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