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Everyone who needs grassroots basketball is afraid the NCAA is leaving them behind

“[The NCAA] is taking scholarship opportunities away from kids by reducing the number of kids able to participate.”

It’s a Wednesday in July and a man sashays across a wide gym in the woods of New Jersey, at Stockton University, a line of sweat sparkling from his bald head as he moves. A dwindling crowd is still captivated by the displays of teenage basketball on a center court. The man’s stroll accelerates to a hustle, then a light jog before he sits down near a sideline. Two teams are jawing more than usual. Bodies have already taken hard spills.

“I had to come watch this,” says Rob Engemann, co-director of Live in AC, an independent grassroots tournament unaffiliated with the Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour amateur tournaments that grab July headlines. “Make sure there’s no fucking fights.”

Skirmishes can be a reality of grassroots basketball every summer, as kids leave high school to rendezvous with their summer squads in the hopes of battling for college scholarship dollars. But these types of fights are typically limited to ones for looks as boys aim to one-up each other in front of coaches. Delight or disaster lurks at every turn while talent tap-dances the hardwoods.

But this showcase — one of many considered crucial to the pipeline of recruiting future college talent — is at the risk of disappearing.

In September 2017, an unexpected FBI investigation into how agents, coaches, and shoe companies were conspiring to sign athletes at these events catalyzed the NCAA to consider hurried modifications to summer hoops. The NCAA tasked former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to lead a commission that in April ultimately suggested the NCAA sponsor summer camps and events while limiting coaches’ recruitment chances unless under NCAA eyes.

A NCAA non-scholastic working group made up of current players, coaches, and personnel went further, suggesting event operators make finances transparent to the NCAA, and include more rigorous certifications. On Aug. 8, the NCAA confirmed those changes, as well as drastically shrinking the July recruiting period from three weekends to one weekend for sanctioned events. Cumulatively, this would not only erase Adidas and Under Armour tournaments, but hamper these smaller independent events, like Live In AC, that include a wider range of talent.

The proposal, effective April 2019, crushes a free market surrounding the prep talent pipeline. Talent evaluation, tournaments, and scholarships would mostly be done under the NCAA umbrella in an effort to rid basketball of any alleged murkiness surrounding brokers and shoe companies.

Unsurprisingly, within the grassroots world there’s a near-unanimous consensus that kids — not the elite players, but the fringe guys who rely on these camps for exposure — will suffer because the NCAA and its coaches will scout thousands of fewer athletes per summer.

Because while the NCAA can deliver a narrative to outsiders that influencers can no longer harm basketball from the shadows, players, coaches, and parents alike have to wonder: Is this really in the best interest of the kids?

LIVE IN AC, situated for years in Galloway, New Jersey behind a sea of trees at a hideaway college, is a three-day contest that is considered a hotbed for sleepers to impress during the July recruiting period’s final weekend. Unlike the corporate world of tournaments that’ve overtaken the grassroots scene, Live in AC isn’t bound by a swoosh or three stripes.

Engemann’s brand, Elevate Hoops, is a main sponsor while maintaining status as a premier basketball-tournament operator. Recruits see yearly results. Skinny kids transform from unknown hoopers to the occasional millionaire: Six first-round picks in the 2018 NBA Draft played at an Elevate Hoops event, with Lonnie Walker (San Antonio Spurs) and Mikal Bridges (Phoenix Suns) specifically playing at Live in AC.

The summer hoops scene is a complex ecosystem consisting of parents, players, team coaches, college coaches, recruiters, and apparel brand. It contains two core realities: money and talent. Engemann can balance both in his hands. The talent is his penchant for glad-handing, as he daps coaches on baselines and chats up prospects. The money is what one owes him for access, whether that be to kids, facilities, or opportunities on the courts he commands. Engemann is the bridge between each blue chipper and the proxy that alters their future.

Engemann admits the changes in the sport pace his mind as he’s running another tournament. His world can be upended. He walks outside the gym frustrated as the moon dances across the sky. It’s past midnight and the humidity won’t drop. He shouts expletives while packing boxes into his tiny Land Rover.

“Everyone we talk to thinks this is gonna lead to more problems,” Engemann says. “It’s gonna become the Wild Wild West. At the end of the day, these coaches see it as their livelihood. They need these kids. You have to get good people and know if they can play or that’s your ass. If you are eliminating a way to evaluate them, well ...”

He ponders his next words. Independent event operators like Engemann face a crisis. A business model that creates tournaments and opportunities for kids to be noticed by college coaches will effectively be liquidated by a NCAA monopoly on the operation. Engemann frequently reiterates that this level of basketball is doomed. “Kids are out here playing for deals, for money,” he continues. “Those guys are fucked.”

Coaches evaluate young players from the sidelines of an Elevate Hoops event.
Courtesy of Wayne Gethers

Away from the action, Engemann cruises down an Atlantic City expressway under the flickering lights of casinos from yesteryear. The Golden Nugget’s illustrious sheen fights through the fog of the marsh surrounding the nearby city. Engemann lays out the impossibility for these kids, the heinous options lining up. Lives can derail further if the NCAA tightens its death grip on the complicated system, and kids that are just trying to get noticed, rather than the established stars, will be hit the hardest by it all.

The cars stop zooming as Engemann whips toward an exit and parks in a lot. It’s the first bit of calm on the ride.

“No matter what the fuck happens, there will always be this black market.”

He sighs as the car is encased in silence again.

“We are here to get guys exposure, get them money. This is their life,” Engemann says, the bark in his voice receding. “Kids that aren’t well off, they aren’t about to have a lawsuit with the NCAA. They just have to sit there.”

BEFORE STORM CLOUDS orbited amateur basketball last autumn, Dennis Gregory, the second co-director for Live in AC, received a message. A friend “very high up in law enforcement” warned him about the impending upheaval. The government was on the door of unraveling what they believed to be the source of corruption hurting the game — a string of agents and dealers cutting back-door bribes to shift basketball from an assumed venture of meritocracy to a den befitting thieves.

What ensued was chaos. The FBI charged coaches and sneaker honchos with providing kickbacks to players and parents. They snatched NBA agents’ computers. Big-name programs provided ticket refunds to their fans. Coaches lambasted colleagues. Institutions suspended recruits. Colleges gutted their staffs. Anyone clinging to the college basketball world or its model was shook.

“They felt so much heat they had to show the public they had to do something,” says Gregory. He pauses to chew a Wawa Italian hoagie, thinking. “Flipping the entire market, or even the NCAA’s thing of making the Rice Commission and putting that together, it became reactionary. And it was almost a little bit useless.”

Gregory says every side is represented in this new future, except the labor and the people willing to get them paid. Kids will fall through cracks in the system. Independent tournaments and their operators lose the appeal of their assets. Coaches shift tendencies to keep their rosters filled. The vulnerable, broke athletes do not change. And it all comes back to a simple concern: What happens to the kids?

“How many college rosters can you go through and see who didn’t have the traditional approach and how successful they are?” Gregory asks. “What if a Damian Lillard, one of the 10 best NBA players over the last half-dozen seasons, what if these rules were in place when he was 16 years old? Well, he ain’t Damian Lillard today. That’s one story, and you can keep going. There could be a story like that on every NBA team, every single college. Oh, my God, right?”

It is not a singular fear plaguing Gregory and Engemann. Several college coaches and show runners on the Nike and Adidas circuits expressed similar apprehensions about a new system.

“For my kids, they’re definitely gonna be affected,” says a coach on the Adidas circuit. “We’ve played in front of 200-300 coaches since April. To not have that would be tough.”

A player drives to the basket under the watchful eyes of coaches.
Courtesy of Wayne Gethers

Particularly, many coaches at Live in AC saw the pains black players would be forced to face with changes to the current system. Poor kids will continue to play in poor conditions, on bad teams, with uninspired coaches if they’re never given the chance to play on center court in showcase games. Late bloomers will become overlooked oddities. Under this revised system, if a family is leaning on a scholarship to change a fragment of their lives, that likelihood dwindles.

“They are opening themselves up to a major cultural issue, a societal issue of race,” said one Big East coach about the NCAA. “The bottom line is: The majority of the kids that I come across and I have to foster relationships with are kids that need this to work. They need this basketball thing to work. They don’t know what life looks like. They might go back to the streets and they don’t know what the streets offer them. It’s career-ending.”

A coach on the Nike circuit agrees: “I’ve recruited a ton of guys where basketball was their path to college. That’s why they were even able to go there. [The NCAA] is taking scholarship opportunities away from kids by reducing the number of kids able to participate.”

Engemann and Gregory have discussed cursory terms of retaliation. If they don’t consider the aftermath, their future appears desolate. Many other operators mirror their concerns. It is a last brigade to save their business and the free marketplace while creating an open space for coaches to find unseen gems, promising scholarships and a different world.

It’s brewing outside of just their corner of the world, too. Mike Flynn, a prominent event operator with successful litigation battles with the NCAA, sent an email memo to nearly 50 national event operators last month.

“As event operators, we will potentially seek legal remedy to this attempt to blame and crush the non-scholastic basketball marketplace for their collective benefit, the NCAA and the NABC [National Association of Basketball Coaches]. The day of reckoning is now here for non-scholastic youth basketball.”

Gregory, nearing the final whistles of the day at the tournament, reiterates Flynn’s assertion of the NCAA’s shortsightedness.

“[The NCAA] is being so reactionary. They’re so worried about who is getting paid or what agent is manipulating a kid to get a one-and-done,” Gregory says, then pauses. “I see a thing a of beauty downstairs. I see a thing of beauty at any other Rob Engemann tournament or anybody else who runs tournaments because kids are getting together and using their time productively.

“Think about all these kids, if this goes away, what are they doing? What’s their outlet now?”

IT’S JUST BEFORE noon on the final day of Live in AC, and parents from Long Island are chirping at an Adidas team on center court. Teenagers watching the parents become fixated on the brewing skirmish. Other parents try to quiet the family from Long Island, but to no avail. The tension that is brewing in the auditorium is palpable.

Naseem Roberson, a point guard situated on the bench, has been listening to the gaggle berating him for minutes. He finally snaps.

“Why don’t you shut up, yo,” Roberson says to the family, whipping around.

These are outlandish effects of the grassroots world — a mixture of the tribalism naturally evoked from athletics and the concern of parents hellbent on securing the best for their kids. The end goal is always the same: a yearning for their sons to earn a scholarship.

A team huddles between the action at an Elevate Hoops event.
Courtesy of Wayne Gethers

Parents in the gym note the specter of an unjust system gaining increased power for next summer’s proposed changes. The worry circles around a lack of opportunities for their boys and a feeling of inequitable standards set by talent dubbed “elite” from early on, compared to their developing children.

“It’s a financial game for the NCAA,” says Carla Sterling, a black mother from Burlington, New Jersey, as the fracas unfolds. “When I come out and I see [tournaments], it’s like the cheese danglin’ in front of that mouse. You know? Trying to get a scholarship. Why limit it?”

Sterling is emblematic of the fear parents express over the span of the tournament. She’s had two sons enter the system, and her youngest is playing this week. Sterling is startled by how the basketball world changed. She and her husband never paid for club ball years ago, and now, it’s a fortune.

With the NCAA’s financial game booming and the changes threatening families and sons like hers, she tries to hold back tears thinking about their reality.

“I gotta tell you, my biggest fear, especially for my son at this age, is that the opportunity just won’t be there. I’m going to wind up spending $50,000 a year on a four-year education and it’s only because of the rules they are making,” she says. “For them to allow the NCAA to come in and cut that down even more? Black kids are in trouble.”

Her concerns are deeply rooted in the very nature of a system stripping talent of its share, and profiting from the labor’s likeness. Nearly 45 percent of Division I basketball is black, and that figure jumps to nearly 75 percent at the NBA level. Collegiate black talent is treated as property, meant to delight audiences in arenas until gatekeepers allow a select few to ascend.

“A lot of NCAA rules were changed specifically because of black people,” Sterling says. “It’s disadvantageous to us. It’s a plantation system. You’ve got thousands of kids in here trying to get 30 scholarships. And then when they go to college, don’t even get me started at that. Yeah, you get a scholarship. But you can’t do or become who you want to. The stipends they get are horrible. And if you don’t give your kid money? They don’t eat. The way they’re doing it now, it’s next to nothing considering this is a billion-dollar industry.”

The last day begins to wrap as a dazzling display of basketball takes place. James Bishop, a four-star guard from Baltimore whose stock has risen astonishingly this summer, drops 30 points for Will Barton’s “Team Thrill” in an overtime special. Bishop is arguably the best player here, and coaches from every corner of the country gawk at his potential.

Bishop undresses in a hallway behind the court after the game. Walking with him through the halls of Stockton, he changes from a steely top recruit to an approachable boy with covetous hair. The assumption is he’d speak only of his recruitment and play on the court, as candor regarding topics such as the metamorphosis in his sport are often thought of as punishable. Surprisingly, Bishop says, without hesitation, that the NCAA is going to regret its hasty decision-making.

“Everyone’s not fortunate enough to have parents that can pay their way through college,” Bishop says. “Basketball is a tool to do that. [Otherwise], it’s gonna be a lot of talent that’s missing at the college level and the higher levels.”

Each piece of this basketball underworld is bound to be set ablaze. Men like Engemann and Gregory need solutions or they will crumble. Mothers like Sterling require assurances so she can tell her son basketball is still a viable option. Recruits like Bishop want to still believe in their long-held dreams of athletic glory. And if changes continue to be made solely for the sake of change, then the black market the NCAA wants to destroy will always find vitality.

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