Loophole puts coaches in defensive position

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

The game was farce, a 40-minute layup drill for Baylor, which routed the anonymous "Houston Superstars" 128-55 in an exhibition game last November. Six days later it wasn't much different when the "Texas Bluechips" fell 101-83 to the Bears.

This is how college basketball's preseason operates, though, schools bringing in vagabond barnstorming teams made up of former college players to get a quick tune-up before the start of the real season. Few people pay any attention.

Except maybe they should.

Baylor paid both teams at least $15,000, according to sources, to play the game. To whom the checks were cut is problematic.

The "owner" of the Houston Superstars is John Eurey, who also runs a nationally prominent AAU-type high school all-star team by the same name. He annually coaches some of the nation's top recruits such as ex-Texas guard T.J. Ford and current Duke guard Daniel Ewing.

Texas Bluechips is run by Mitch Malone, who also coaches a summer team that has produced scores of Division I players including stars Chris Bosh and Ike Diogu.

Which means Baylor paid two summer coaches good money to bring noncompetitive exhibition teams to Waco.

Just another NCAA rule violation by former Baylor coach Dave Bliss?

Hardly. What Baylor did is allowed under NCAA statutes, and is done by nearly every major college program in the country. From Duke to UCLA, schools routinely drop five-figure checks to exhibition team owners who double as powerful traveling team coaches and recruiting middlemen the rest of the year.

In the bizarre reasoning of college basketball, nothing is wrong with that setup.

Which serves as just one example of the immense challenge the sport faces in an effort to clean up its image.

Wednesday in Chicago, the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) will hold an emergency ethics summit to discuss how to get the game back on track.

Exhibition game payouts to the same people who can influence the recruiting process aren't the game's greatest sin. But they are one of myriad of conflicts, ethical quandaries and loopholes that soil the sport's reputation.

"So many things put coaches in compromising positions," says Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson, the president of the NABC. "A college coach should not have to make tough decisions or feel threatened or feel caught in a bad situation."

Whether any other school gains recruiting favors from paying off summer coaches is difficult to prove. But just the perception is damaging.

Quid pro quo?
Baylor's internal investigation into the Bliss regime found the former coach encouraged boosters to support the Superstars, a not-for-profit organization that fields teams of Houston-area players ages 12 to 18. According to the Associated Press, Baylor boosters donated as much as $10,000 to the Superstars over the past few years, possibly an NCAA violation.

The straight payout of about $15,000 each year, however, wasn't.

Superstars coach John Eurey says he's never steered one of his high school players to any college, let alone Baylor. He insists playing his exhibition team doesn't give any school a recruiting advantage.

The facts tend to back him up. Two of Eurey's former players attended the Big 12 school – lightly recruited Kenny Taylor and John Lucas, Jr., the son of former NBA star and coach John Lucas, Sr.

"John Lucas knows more about basketball than maybe anybody in the business and I am supposedly going to tell him to send his son to Baylor?" Eurey says. "Because of an exhibition game? That's ludicrous. And nobody [else] was recruiting Kenny.

"I never played Texas [Ford] or Duke [Ewing]. Three of my guys have gone to TCU; I didn't get no game from TCU.

"John Eurey hasn't sent one player to one college because of exhibition games. I can guarantee you that. And no coach in the country can tell you that I told them they couldn't recruit one of John Eurey's players."

But plenty of coaches say they have heard that threat from other summer coaches shopping exhibition games.

"There are certain AAU programs holding up [college] programs, saying 'If you don't play our exhibition team, you won't be able to recruit our kids," Sampson says.

"Is this opinion? No, that's reality – it's not fair."

The Houston Superstars are a small-time operation, usually playing just two exhibition games (Baylor and UT-Arlington).

Compare that with the EA Sports/California All-Stars, operated by Los Angeles area businessmen Dana and David Pump, who have ties to a summer high school all-star team and Adidas grassroots basketball all while operating a ticket service business.

The twin brothers field as many as five teams each November and play about 90 exhibition games. The going rate that high-major programs pay for touring teams to come play is between $7,500 and $25,000.

The schools still tend to turn a profit at the gate. But so do the exhibition team owners. With so many games, the Pumps bring in an estimated $1 million in annual gross revenue.

And, like Eurey, they downplay their role in recruiting.

"I've told coaches, Dana and I have never sat in on a home visit," David Pump says. "If you play us, it won't help you because we have no influence on [recruits]."

Old game, new twist
Exhibition games are nothing new to college basketball. The proliferation of traveling exhibition teams decidedly is.

For decades the lucrative business was the domain of just a few organizations, the most famous being Athletes in Action, which used the game to promote Christianity, and Marathon Basketball, which once was sponsored by the oil company of the same name and now is run by now 74-year-old Glenn Sargent of Joliet, Ill.

Throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s, the two teams crisscrossed the country offering up strong competition while never being accused of steering players to schools because they had no ties to high school talent.

"The thing about [Marathon] is they can play any way you want," Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien says. "They always had some good talent and if you asked they could slow it down or play up tempo. And it was not uncommon for them to beat us. Which I thought was good."

Sargent still runs his team, although the competition gets tougher and tougher each year. Back in the 1980s, he fielded as many as four teams and played up to 50 games each November. This fall, due to the flood of teams that offer what Sargent can't or won't, Marathon will have two teams and just 13 games.

"The coaches tell me what's going on" when they cancel, Sargent says. "They say, 'Sarge, I'm sorry, but this AAU coach says if you don't play me I can hurt you in recruiting.' I've heard it many times the past five or six years. I can't say I blame them for doing it. You have to have players."

Many coaches complain, privately, that the new teams aren't even competitive. Where Marathon used to win roughly 40 percent of its games, many new teams are hastily assembled, poorly coached and boast weak talent.

Baylor's 73-point beating of the Houston Superstars might have been the low point, if not for the game two years prior when the Texas Superstars came to Waco with just six players. When two of them inevitably fouled out, referees had to ignore the rulebook and allow unlimited personal fouls so the game could be completed.

Sometimes the teams aren't even that organized.

In November, 2002, a Baton Rouge, La. man named Titus Randle hastily put together a team called the Louisiana Futures. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Futures had never before played a college exhibition game when Randle was offered $20,000 to bring the team to Connecticut.

Not surprisingly, UConn whipped them by 58 points.

Perhaps also not surprising was Randle's close relationship with Baton Rouge prep star Brandon Bass, whom the Huskies were intensely recruiting at the time. Bass wound up signing with LSU. The Futures have yet to play another game.

But that's the trend and it's happening everywhere.

Just about every college program plays at least one of these games. Even Duke, Texas Tech, Stanford – programs with impeccable reputations – have played the EA Sports/California All-Stars.

A solution
Sampson, who is helping to run Wednesday's historic meeting, is not naive to the challenges of his business. He knows there has always been some level of corruption in college athletics.

But as head of the NABC he is determined to at least try to make things better. The exhibition game issue is just one of many he plans to raise on Wednesday.

"I don't like the rub of it," Sampson says. "Exhibition games are not meant to be in the recruiting arena. As a coach, I don't want to be in a position where to recruit a kid I have to play a certain exhibition team."

The NCAA nearly passed legislation in the spring of 2001 that would have required all exhibition games to be played against Division II or III squads, but the NCAA board of directors voted against it.

Sampson supports a similar bill currently sponsored by the Big Ten Conference because it keeps the revenue within the NCAA and eliminates the suspicion of wrongdoing.

Ironically, Sargent supports that bill too, even though it will put him out of business. What was once an innocent part of the game has been corrupted to the core, he says.

"Playing the Division II and Division III teams, that's fine," Sargent says. "I don't know a better mouse trap than that. It's what they should do.

"It's gotten too corrupt. It's all been ruined by the AAU guys."

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