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Is it all in the shoes?

Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski must contend with a recruiting landscape in which sponsors are prominent factor, Gieryn writes.
Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski must contend with a recruiting landscape in which sponsors are prominent factor, Gieryn writes.

Basketball is a diverse sport, with players of all shapes, sizes and nationalities, but they all have one thing in common—they wear shoes. And in the world of college basketball recruiting, the companies that make those shoes are exerting an ever-greater influence on recruits and their college decisions.

Last year, despite efforts that included a last-minute trip to Shabazz Muhammad’s hometown of Las Vegas, Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski watched with the rest of the world as Muhammad, the No. 2 recruit in the class of 2012 according to ESPN, committed to UCLA. On the surface, it was an astounding decision. Muhammad’s other two finalists were Duke, where he could play for arguably the best coach in the world at arguably the most storied program in the nation, and Kentucky, where John Calipari has recently displayed unmatched success in developing top recruits into NBA first-round picks.

He opted for a UCLA program in complete disarray. The team finished just 19-14 in a weak Pac-12 conference, and as March Madness began—without the Bruins—Sports Illustrated ran a hugely embarrassing piece about discipline and substance use issues in the basketball program.

But the explanation for Muhammad’s decision is simple. Adidas sponsored Muhammad’s AAU team, and after what is almost certain to be just one season in the college ranks, Muhammad will be a top pick in the NBA draft and sign a lucrative endorsement deal with the shoe giant. Although he cannot technically receive any personal benefits while in college, his team is sponsored by—you guessed it—Adidas, who is the exclusive apparel supplier of UCLA athletics.

Muhammad is not a unique case. Today, phenom twin brothers Andrew and Aaron Harrison, who both rank in the top four of ESPN’s class of 2013 recruiting rankings, will make a decision between NCAA basketball powerhouse Kentucky and Maryland, which has not reached the Sweet Sixteen since 2003.

The twins’ father, Aaron Harrison, Sr., has kept his sons’ recruitment under tight control. USA Today’s Eric Prisbell reported Wednesday that just one person in the recruiting process actually has direct access to the twins’ cell phone numbers. That privileged person is Chris Hightower, the head of basketball marketing for Under Armour, which just happens to be a Baltimore-based company founded by a Maryland alum.

Oh, and Under Armour also just happens to be the sponsor of the Harrisons’ AAU team and of Maryland athletics.

The sneaker war is just one arena in which big money and bigger egos are wreaking havoc with the integrity of college basketball. Top recruits, coddled and hyped from the time they hit puberty, have developed prima donna complexes of Terrell Owens proportions. Even once they get to college, they rely on their handlers and agents more than on their coaches and teammates.

And all this makes me wonder how the future of Duke basketball will look given that its coach has long been known as one of the most principled and respected men in sports. I don’t for a second believe that NCAA legend and Olympic champion Krzyzewski has lost even an ounce of his respect and gravitas. In fact, it has probably only increased among recruits given the rave reviews he’s gotten from the likes of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who most of these prep basketball stars have grown up idolizing.

But whereas no other school could previously offer anything comparable to the experience of playing for Krzyzewski, now new carrots can be dangled in the form of future shoe contracts, and in some cases, even more nefarious incentives. Muhammad, for example, is still technically ineligible to play as the NCAA investigates his recruitment and the recruitments of two other UCLA recruits for improper benefits.

How will Krzyzewski balance honor and winning in a climate that increasingly makes it impossible to foster both? As the climate has changed over the years, Krzyzewski has shown some willingness to make minor changes without compromising the overall integrity of his program.

For example, Krzyzewski had a long-standing rule that none of his players could wear No. 1. The team, after all, was number one, not any individual player. But when Kyrie Irving, a hotly contested top recruit between several elite programs, arrived on campus two years ago, it was announced that the Duke head coach had backed off his demands and Irving became the first player under Krzyzewski to don the No. 1 jersey.

It will be fascinating to watch one of the most brilliant leaders in the sporting world continues to adapt to a changing environment. Despite No. 3 recruit Julius Randle unexpectedly cutting Duke from his list yesterday, Duke still has good chances with two of the top recruits in the class, and the decisions of Jabari Parker and Austin Nichols could be a strong indication of how well the adaptation is going.

If there is any man who can navigate the new college basketball world while keeping his hands clean, I believe it’s Mike Krzyzewski. But as the stories get more and more sordid by the day, do the good guys stand a chance?

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