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Post & Courier (Charleston, SC)
The crowd arrived early, lining up more than two hours before tipoff. When the doors finally opened, they stormed their way into an oversold Las Vegas exhibit hall to see Spartanburg's Zion Williamson face LaMelo Ball in the marquee matchup of the Adidas Summer Championships game.
According to reports from that day in July, nearly 4,000 people crammed in to get a glimpse of two of the top high school basketball recruits in the country. More than 1,000 lined up outside the facility, still hoping to get in to see the game. Police set up a barricade because of safety concerns. At one point, event organizers considered calling off the game. NBA superstar LeBron James showed up but decided not to attend when he heard about the chaotic scene inside.
The game was featured on ESPN's SportsCenter. College coaches, who have seen thousands of games just like it over the years, were in awe of the crowd and the atmosphere surrounding a game that was little more than an exhibition.
"Unreal," Kansas coach Bill Self told ESPN. "Never seen anything like it."
It's this kind of frenzied excitement that has drawn sports apparel companies to the summer travel basketball circuit for the past three decades. It's a major reason why Nike, Under Armour and Adidas pour millions of dollars each year into elite traveling basketball teams consisting of high school players. It's also why the revelations from this week's FBI bribery probe shook the sport to its core, possibly triggering major changes in the way top high school players are showcased and recruited in the future.
Lamont Evans, a former assistant basketball coach at South Carolina, and nine other men, including former Clemson standout Merl Code, were charged this week in a widespread investigation into corruption in college basketball by the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York. Prosecutors allege assistant coaches took money to steer players to certain advisers and representatives of a sneaker maker, reportedly Adidas, and funnelled $100,000 to $150,000 to high school players so they would attend certain colleges. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino was placed on unpaid leave as a result of the investigation.
'They want total control'
Not all travel basketball teams have ties to the big apparel companies and their unlimited resources. One such travel team is TMP Basketball, which was started in 1996 by Charleston businessman Richard Davis along with Porter-Gaud head coach John Pearson and Antoine Saunders, the former head coach at St. John's High School and now an assistant coach at First Baptist.
For years, apparel companies have approached TMP about possible sponsorships. Davis has shunned all such advances.
"It's not like the apparel companies just write you a check and let you do what you want," Davis said. "They want total control over your program. They want to call all the shots when you get into bed with them. They'll tell you who can coach your team and what players can play. That's just not the way we do business. We think we do it the right way.
"It's got more to do with control, but what happened this week shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that's been around the circuit."
Davis said he got into the business to help bring exposure to local high school basketball players. He modeled his venture after the Diamond Devils, a Lowcountry travel baseball team founded by John Rhodes. TMP Basketball alumni include Milwaukee Bucks star Khris Middleton and former USC player Bruce Ellington. Aaron Nesmith, who committed to Vanderbilt, and Jake Lanford, who committed to Yale, were members of the team this past summer.
Davis has proven that teams without financial ties to apparel companies can be successful. The dozen or so players on this summer's team received more than 100 college scholarship offers combined, he said. Nesmith, who picked Vanderbilt over Florida, South Carolina and a couple of Ivy League schools, had 40 by himself.
"We go to the tournaments that will have the most college coaches there," Davis said. "That's been our approach from the beginning."
That wasn't as easy as it sounds. Getting invitations to the top summer tournaments was a challenge for teams not connected to the apparel companies.
"The shoe companies control a lot of what happens on the summer circuit," Saunders said.
"If you don't have a sponsorship, it can be difficult to get invited to some of the tournaments. We've built a reputation of having good players over the years, so now that isn't as big a deal as it used to be."
Fielding a team isn't cheap, either. The travel basketball season generally goes from April through July. The teams cover all travels expenses for players, and tournament entry fees run between $500 to $1,000 per event. Davis said he spends about $100,000 per season. The apparel companies spend more than double that, approaching $250,000 per team.
"The Adidas and Nike teams have players from all over the country playing for their teams," Davis said. "They've got to fly them in, and then the hotel rooms and all the meals. Each team has a private bus that takes them from the hotel to the venue. And they provide all their shoes and jerseys and gear."
Saunders and Pearson said they would be open to the idea of getting an apparel sponsorship if the situation was right. To get one of those sponsorships, an independent team would need to have at least eight Division I prospects on its roster, or at least one player ranked in the top-50 by the major recruiting services.
This past summer, the top TMP team made it to the finals of the prestigious AAU National Championship tournament in July.
"We've kind of prided ourselves on being a local organization with local players and local coaches," Saunders said. "When you get the shoe companies involved, that changes everything. You might get to pick four or five players of your own and they'll tell you the other eight or nine kids you can have on the teams. That's not why we started this thing."
The apparel teams are also notorious for trying to poach players from independent teams.
"A couple of the big apparel teams came after Aaron (Nesmith) this summer," Saunders said.
Why would Nike, Adidas or Under Armour spend millions of dollars on summer travel basketball?
Saunders said it's an investment at the entry level for potential future NBA stars.
Take Golden State's Stephen Curry, who recently signed an extension with Under Armour through 2024. Sales of Curry One, Under Armour's signature shoe, rose 40 percent during the last quarter of 2015, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal. In three months, Curry One sold more than $153 million in shoes.
Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank told investors that its footwear business, which made up 14 percent of its $3 billion in sales last year, would account for an estimated 22 percent of its projected $7.5 billion in sales in 2017.
"Think about how much money Michael Jordan made for Nike or Steph Curry makes for Under Armour right now," Saunders said. "The shoe companies figure they can get in on the ground floor with some of these kids and eventually it'll pay off for them in the future."
To get a player like LeMelo Ball or Zion Williamson to wear a specific brand when they are in high school could mean hundreds of millions of dollars down the road. It's no wonder apparel companies and college coaches would risk jail time to make such deals at this level.
"When the news came out, I was shocked, shocked but also sad and disappointed," said College of Charleston coach Earl Grant. "The majority of AAU coaches and players are in it for the right reasons. I think when something like this happens everyone gets painted with a broad brush and it hurts everyone."
The summer travel basketball circuit is vital for mid-major programs like College of Charleston. The summer tournaments allow college coaches with limited resources and budgets to see many high school players in one location.
"You get all the kids in one place at one time," Grant said. "You get to see them play against a pretty high level of competition. It's vital for recruiting."
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