On a cold Saturday afternoon in early January, two Duke basketball recruits played in Cameron Indoor Stadium--the arena they will call home during their college years--for the first time. Luol Deng buried shots from all over and played stingy defense, but he did not wear Duke's uniform. His lanky body was covered in a dark blue jersey with the words "Blair Academy" across the front in white letters.
Later that night, Kris Humphries battled for rebounds and hit a three pointer in a jersey that looked a lot like Duke's, but had the name "Hopkins" across the chest.
Both players' high schools were competing in an event called the Challenge Series, in which four nationally prominent high school teams traveled from all over the country to play two local schools in Cameron.
For Hopkins High School, the public school in Minnetonka, Minn., the trip to Duke was the second interstate event of the season. Earlier, the team had traveled to Lewes, Del., for an even bigger tournament called Slam Dunk to the Beach. Deng's Blair Academy, which is a private boarding school nestled in the hills of northwest New Jersey, plays in seven named events this year, including six out of state.
"We play a national schedule," Blair head coach Joe Mantegna says outside the visiting locker room in Cameron after his team dispatched Raleigh's Millbrook High School 77-60. "We're the No. 1 ranked prep school team in the country right now. We've played in various venues all over the country."
He adds with a playful smile, "We don't hide from anyone. We'll play anybody from sea to shining sea."
Not hiding has entailed opening the season with a trip to Milford, Del., for the War at the Shore, playing two games at the New York City Boy's Club Tournament, winning another three at the Glaxo-Welcome Classic in Raleigh, traveling to Duke, playing two one-game events in Pennsylvania (The Lehigh Valley Hoopfest and the Philadelphia Play by Play Classic) and finally competing in the Prime Time Shootout in Trenton, N.J.
"This year is the toughest it's ever been," Deng says, sitting in Cameron's nearly deserted bleachers during the first game of the triple-header. "The traveling, it's just more than we've ever done before."
Associate Director of Athletics Christopher Kennedy, who runs Duke's academic support programs for athletes, worries about the impact of big time high school basketball.
"These kids are traveling all over the country," he muses. "How much school are they missing, and how distracting is it for them?"
Deng, a native of Sudan who grew up in Egypt and England, takes pains to stress that he's not missing much class time. This Saturday morning he missed his first class of the year for basketball.
"We do most of our traveling in the breaks," he says in a voice that is not as much accented as it is incredibly deep. "During Christmas we had a break [and played in Raleigh]. During Winter Long Weekend we're playing a tournament. Blair's a tough school academically, but we're not missing that much class."
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For Blair, which not only sells out its home games, but has started charging admission for the first time, the crowd of 1,638 was not particularly exceptional. The turnout was downright disappointing for the Hoop Group, which was barely able to break even on the event. But viewed in a different light, it is altogether amazing that so many people paid $12 each to watch three high school basketball games while the NFL playoffs were going on and a day before the top-ranked Duke men's basketball team hosted Wake Forest, the only two undefeated teams in the country. That high school basketball could draw so well despite the formidable competition is noteworthy.
"It started with the attention being ratcheted way up on college basketball, and the lifeblood of college basketball is recruiting, so it was inevitable that more and more attention would be focused on high school basketball simply as a way to anticipate who's going where and what's that going to mean for my school's program," Kennedy says. "Twenty years ago, you could walk up and down the quad at Duke and point a gun at people's head, and you wouldn't be able to find anybody who could tell you who was the top high school recruit in the country. Now, a lot of people still don't know, but a lot more people know now than did then."
LeBron James is the top high school recruit in the country, and anybody who does not know must not have seen ESPN, Sports Illustrated or even CNN in the past year. This winter has been the season of LeBron.
His high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary of Akron, Ohio, is the top-ranked high school team in the country and has been televised on ESPN2 twice this season. Many of the team's other games have been broadcast on pay-per-view. His team has not played in a high school gym all year. It plays home games in the University of Akron's nearly 6,000-seat James A. Rhodes Arena. It has traveled to play in the Cleveland Convocation Center, Ohio State's French Field House, the Palestra in Philadelphia and the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton. When James played in Pauley Pavilion, UCLA's home court, he sold out the 15,000-seat facility for the first time all season.
On Jan. 20, the circus swept into Greensboro's 20,000-seat coliseum. St. Vincent-St. Mary was just one of 10 high school teams competing that day, but the event was called the "Scholastic Fantastic Hoops Tour featuring LeBron James" on the Greensboro Coliseum website, where tickets were being sold for $7 and $25.
"It's a LeBron James victory tour," says Bob Hurley, the legendary high school coach, whose St. Anthony (N.J.) team had just defeated Hopkins in the late game of the Challenge Series. "I'm sure he's a nice young man. I'm sure his coach is trying to do the right thing, but if you look at it, you wonder how much time his high school team is spending away from home right now."
Hurley, the father of Duke basketball hero Bobby Hurley, has coached St. Anthony for more than 30 years and built the tiny Catholic school in poverty-stricken Jersey City into a perennial national power, winning 20 state parochial titles and two national titles. With deep-set, forceful eyes in a tan face topped with close-cropped silver hair, he has an air of prominence and excellence and resembles a heavy-set version of his fellow North Jerseyan Frank Sinatra.
Recently, St. Anthony has struggled with funding issues that Hurley says are resolved at least for the short term. His teams only travel to major events that pay expenses. They usually play one tournament during Christmas holiday break--this year it was a free trip to San Diego. The Challenge Series, which was largely funded by a sponsorship from Bank of America, is an exceptional case for Hurley, who says the school is not spending a dollar on the trip.
"When this opportunity was given to us [to play in Cameron], we couldn't say no," Hurley says. "I think this is literally, for the kids in the locker room there, a once in a lifetime opportunity.
"As much as this was a great experience, I know when everybody comes home, they're going to want to run home to tell their families about this experience. If you're on the road again, you have to call them from the next stop, like a guy in the NBA or the CBA."
This difference is part of a larger difference Hurley sees between his team and the Challenge Series event and St. Vincent-St. Mary and the Scholastic Fantastic Tour. In addition to the teams' time on the road, Hurley worries about the emphasis on a single player that the tournament makes. His teams play ferocious team defense and it was with precisely that type of play that his team humiliated a much bigger and more talented Hopkins team.
"We definitely are more interested in the team aspect than anything else, which is why we wanted St. Anthony playing in the last game," says Bob Lavoie, who directed the Challenge Series at Duke for the Hoop Group, a company that organizes camps and tournaments for amateur basketball players. "The LeBron James situation--from where we stand, that's what we try to avoid. Just the name of the event itself, the Scholastic Fantastic Tour, it has more of a carnival atmosphere about it, whereas we try to make things just about basketball."
But fans line up all over the country to see James, and the ratings on his first televised game were so good that ESPN decided to televise another.
Sports Illustrated college basketball writer Seth Davis, Trinity '92, says that the only problem with the James situation is that the player was not able to enter the NBA draft prior to last season, and that everyone but James is profiting from the 17-year-old's talent. Davis says the publicity tournaments that James plays in are beneficial for the high school game and the other players who are then scouted.
"I think the exposure is filtering down," Davis says. "I don't see any negative effects on the players."
When pressed on whether he really thinks all the travel and hype are good for high school players and the game of basketball, he pauses.
"It is kind of hard to call it a good thing...," he says slowly, putting heavy emphasis on "is." But he gains momentum and continues. "I wish the schools weren't so greedy, but again everybody else is being greedy, so why shouldn't they be...? As long as this is all being driven by economic interests, as long as there is interest in seeing a high school kid play basketball, this is what's going to happen."
Lavoie wonders if the hype that has surrounded James can carry over to high school basketball in general. So far, he has noticed no significant increase in attendance or interest in his company's events. But he believes that the hype surrounding LeBron James will mark a beginning of a trend.
"Maybe down the road, the next player who is No. 1 in his class.... If somebody wants to do the same Scholastic Fantastic Tour with [top-ranked junior] Sebastian Telfair next year, that might be something that you might see happen," Lavoie says.
Davis thinks the exposure and hype surrounding James is similar to the buzz surrounding the entries of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson into the NBA, which led to more widespread interest in the league in general.
"LeBron is a very unique talent, so I think it'll be some time before we see another high school player garner this much interest," Davis says. "But, I think LeBron has also exposed the potential interest in these types of events, and I think it remains to be seen what the effects are down the line."
In the meantime, critics, administrators and athletes continue to wrestle over the impact of big time high school basketball on both the players and the game.
"If you're going to miss one day of class, that doesn't bother me," Kennedy says. "But if you're going to play in Las Vegas one weekend, and you're in Greensboro and you're God knows where.... If you make four of these trips in a season, it strikes me that that can't be beneficial."
Davis is quick to stress that the high school season is nothing compared to the July recruiting period when top prospects are likely to travel non-stop for a month to compete in sneaker company-run camps and Amateur Athletic Union travel team tournaments. Furthermore, a number of AAU coaches have unsavory reputations and connections to street agents. The high school season, however, involves more players and takes place when the kids are responsible for fulfilling both roles of a student-athlete.
For Patrick Davidson, a post-graduate guard for Blair whose good grades and talent have led him to be recruited by a number of Ivy and Patriot League teams, playing big time high school basketball is worth it.
"I really enjoy the schedule," he says. "It's been a dream of mine to [play in Cameron Indoor Stadium]...everybody who plays basketball can imagine playing in Cameron Indoor; it's the ultimate thing. It's hard on you--you get tired, but you have to catch up on schoolwork when you get back. I'll have a lot of homework when I get back on Sunday, but it makes up for it that you get to play a big time schedule and big time teams and in places like Cameron and [North Carolina State University]. So it all evens out."
But as the hype surrounding James continues, schools that put basketball second to academics, like St. Anthony and Blair, are becoming a shrinking minority and basketball factories like St. Vincent-St. Mary and Oak Hill Academy (Va.) that travel around the country and charge appearance fees for games are becoming more and more common.