Coaches finding it hard to look after players

High school basketball coaches consider it their mission to be something of a year-round mentor to young children, their job extending far beyond the gymnasium.

“Being a good coach at the high school level,” said Woodbridge’s Will Robinson, “it’s about nurturing, caring, discipline, prioritizing, teaching. You really have to care about a kid.”

But in an ever-changing amateur boys basketball environment, it seems that the better a prospect is, the harder it becomes for a high school coach to help guide him along.

Elite players are often identified at an early age. Opportunities arise for the best players that aren’t available for the average ones, including traveling with an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team or leaving public school for a private or prep school.

Robinson and Potomac’s Kendall Hayes have each been high school head coaches for more than 15 years and have piled up more than 300 victories. Gar-Field’s Andy Gray earned his 150th career victory this season, his ninth as a head coach.

All three were careful not to paint all AAU coaches and private school programs with the same brush. Not everyone is on the take, they said, but there are some hard-to-ignore problems out there.

Options beyond high school ball open the door for hardwood success stories, but some coaches say they also provide an avenue for adults looking out for their own interests rather than a teenager’s.

“Sometimes there are a lot of people clinging on to a young prodigy,” said Gray, speaking generally about the basketball environment he’s familiar with and not about any player in particular.

“It’s amazing how people can manipulate this game and kids for their own personal gain,” Robinson said. “But that’s what happens. The kids are the ones that end up losing more times than not.”

Gray and Robinson say the problem lies in the fact that few players make it as professionals. The rest of the players may get chewed up and spit out in the process, leaving them without a future in basketball or anywhere else.

That’s part of the reason why helping young players earn college scholarships remains a large part of the high school coach’s goal.

“In most cases, the local public high school coach is in it for the kids,” Gray said. “He’s not making a lot of money, he’s not getting any kickbacks … He invests a whole lot of time in it without a [big payoff].”

Not everybody is in it to help children grow into reponsible adults, the coaches say.

Gray and Robinson each brought up the book “Sole Influence” by Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger. The book contends, among other things, that the competition between shoe companies mainly Nike and adidas trying to find their next endorsement superstar is corrupting the sport. It contends that Tracy McGrady’s shoe contract, which he signed upon becoming an NBA lottery pick and following the season he played at Mt. Zion Christian Academy under Joel Hopkins, changed the way young prospects are pursued.

The book, billed as an expose, is also very uncomplimentary of AAU programs.


High school coaches contend they are best suited for the role of mentor because of their status as academians. Coaches either teach, or work somewhere in the school environment.

Robinson said part of his job as a coach is to help student-athletes round out their character and become productive citizens.

“Education is the reason parents send their kids to school,” Robinson said. “Coaches have to reinforce that.”

Influences beyond parents and high school coaches sometimes make basketball, rather than academics, the top priority, both Robinson and Gray said.

“Most AAU programs have no idea how academics work,” Robinson said.

Hayes, who has coached AAU himself, said an AAU coach took one of his former players to a tournament on a day when he had an exam to take. Another AAU coach took a player to the adidas ABCD camp in New Jersey when the player had just two days of summer school left to complete.

The theory is that those making basketball the top priority for impressionable youngsters glaze over the fact that few basketball players play beyond college. If a player earns a scholarship and doesn’t take advantage, he could be missing out on his real meal ticket: the college degree.

“Often times what you get,” said Gray, “is that the people who are advising have no concept of the academic environment. College is not basketball camp. It’s tests, exams, papers, research. All [the advisers] see is that fat shoe contract.”


“Sole Influence” describes Alvis Smith as a talent scout for adidas and an associate of Hopkins. He is credited with linking the shoe company with Tracy McGrady, something that eventually paid off with a clause in the Orlando Magic guard’s contract that pays Smith and Hopkins each a reported $150,000 a year.

A common practice of Nike and adidas is to outfit high school, college and AAU teams with their gear, from sneakers to bags. McGrady’s early allegiance to adidas, according to the book, played a part in his signing with them over Nike when he got to the NBA.

Robinson recalls Smith flying into town to discuss outfitting the Vikings.

“For me at that time, I had no idea who Alvis was. I had no idea what the hidden agenda was,” said the well-connected Robinson, who has coached elite players like Lamar Odom, Darius Miles and Brendan Haywood in all-star games and at the NBA Players Association camp.

Woodbridge wore the free adidas for a season, but Robinson said the players hated the shoes, so they switched back to buying Nikes.

“The kids still talk about how bad those [adidas] were,” he laughs.

Boarding school

Private and prep schools have opened their doors to select basketball prospects over the past two decades. Some deride the schools as basketball factories. Others say they provide an environment in which the players can focus more closely on academics.

Cliff Hawkins left Potomac for Oak Hill in Mouth of Wilson in 1998 following his sophomore season under Hayes.

Hawkins played two seasons at Oak Hill, and has played two seasons at the University of Kentucky, a college basketball powerhouse, but is academically ineligible for 2002-03.

Hayes says Oak Hill, a private school, is not quite like other basketball-friendly private schools like Mt. Zion or National Christian Academy, nor does it compare to prep schools like Fork Union or Hargrave Military. Oak Hill, he says, plays by the same Virginia High School League rules as Potomac does.

Going away to school can allow a player to focus solely on basketball and school work. Sometimes getting away from the social temptations at home is good for the player.

“I think it can benefit if the kid is caught in a particular situation,” Robinson said.

“If you’ve got a kid that can get an opportunity that perhaps you can’t provide,” said Hayes, “I don’t think you can tell him not to do it.”

But the interest of private schools in public school players makes it seem like the public high schools aren’t good enough. At least, that’s what it sounds like to a public school coach.

If an elite basketball school wanted a player to transfer from Woodbridge?

“I would take offense to it,” Robinson said. “I would like to know what it is you can do better.”

Gray, Hayes and Robinson each said that public schools don’t get much better than those in Prince William County. The schools are academically respected and have a wealth of resources for students. The high school basketball teams get plenty of exposure, ensuring that talented players will be discovered by scholarship-bearing college coaches.

“I have no doubt that we can accomplish anything a kid needs academically,” Hayes said.

“I don’t think it’s necessary for kids to go off to private or prep schools to make it,” says Gray. “In 99 cases out of 100 kids who’ve left public schools, the kid could have made it anyway. I don’t think the situation rescued them.”

Gray said that Hawkins and Rolan Roberts, both from Potomac, were the top players to come out of Prince William in the past decade. Unlike Hawkins, Roberts stayed at Potomac for four years. He played at Virginia Tech and Southern Illinois, and is now playing in the NBA’s summer league.


Robinson said he could count on his hands the number of area kids that have gone on to play major college basketball in the 15 years he’s been at Woodbridge.

“If we’re fortunate, we have a kid now and then that can play major college sports,” Robinson said. “Most of our [athletes] in all sports are mid-major Division I players.”

Even getting to college doesn’t guarantee athletic success.

“If he has skill,” said Robinson, “he [still] has to bring something to the table better than the next kid.”

Only talented players make it to college. Those with the best work ethic and leadership abilities often rise to the top of the heap.

Getting a college scholarship does open the door for a young player to broaden his horizons and prepare for a career after basketball. This is what brings the focus back to academics. AAU basketball and certain private schools do not focus on it.

“You don’t hear enough about the kids that don’t make it,” Robinson said.

Whether a kid “makes it” or not is not always attributable to his high school coach, Hayes said.

“A lot of it is what’s coming from the kid,” he said. “Whether he’s lazy or has a willingness to excel on the court or in the classroom… I don’t want to give a coach too much credit, and I don’t want to give a coach too much blame.”

But it is a high school coach’s mission to help youngsters make it. There are also a lot of other folks who want to assume that responsibility.

Hayes said that the best solution is for the parents to fully research any situation the kids might be going into, especially if the student is changing schools.

“As with everything, you’ve got your good and you’ve got your bad,” he said. “You have to have your eyes wide open when you get into these things.”

But there aren’t a whole lot of suggestions about how to dull the influence of shoe companies and the AAU teams they sponsor, in effect keeping teenagers amateurs. The NCAA is considering going in two directions: regulating the summer basketball scene by forbidding its coaches from recruiting there or changing its definition of amateurism.

No one quite knows how to fix the game.

“What can be done? I don’t know,” Robinson said. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

“We’ve got kids dreaming of the pros at age 15,” he said. “There’s only one LeBron James walking around out there.” (For the record, says Robinson, the rising high school senior from Ohio is the real deal).

“I don’t want to steal kids’ dreams,” Robinson said. “Just make sure that while they’re dreaming, there’s some prioritizing going on.”

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