Names and places have been changed to protect anyone who thinks this might hit too close to home…but these examples are based on true events from the past few years. These are, obviously, not the real names of these coaches, players or schools.
If you haven’t read part 1 of this series click here to start at the beginning
Part 2: Rubbing Elbows
Assistant Coach Steve McKite arrives at Full Court Elite Academy at 9 am on a Thursday morning, wearing his new Eastbury College polo shirt and color coordinated Nike shoes.
Calling it an ‘Academy’ is generous. Steve found the address of the school online and drove there after finally getting it into his GPS, but where it took him was a tiny building with a small sign on it and locked doors. Calling the coach, he was the directed to drive a couple of miles away to an old high school gym which looked like it was built just after gargoyles went out of fashion. Finally walking into the gym, he sees seven folding chairs set up beside the court and a short, stocky man is setting up two more.
It looks like McKite won’t be the only college coach in the gym today.
Three players walk into the gym from a door on the far side and one of them is 6’8″ Luka Felix, who already looks like a college power forward, with big shoulders and and a lanky build. Looking like a prototypical European style big man (and much closer to 6’10”), he drops in a couple of layups before moving out to the perimeter and drains a three. His release is effortless and near perfect – at least while he’s not being guarded, in an empty gym.
The man setting up folding chairs sidles over to McKite and introduces himself as Darius Hager, the head coach and the man who Steve talked to in order to set up this visit.
“Nice, huh?” asks Hager, waving his hand in a broad sweep, indicating Felix, who drains another three, barely touching the net.
“He passes the look test, that’s for sure,” replies McKite.
One of the other players looks like an African center, about 6’8″, but he’s not shooting threes – he seems to be tying and untying his shoes continuously, trying to get some perfect configuration.
Rebounding for Felix is a wing player who looks to be about 6’5″ and also has the build of a college player. McKite knows the deal Hager is trying – get coaches to come see Felix, and add in the other two players hoping to get interest.
‘Well‘, thinks McKite, ‘I do need players.‘
Two more coaches walk into the gym, one from conference rival Delhurst University, and another from Halverson College. McKite knows the Halverson coach and introduces himself to the Delhurst assistant. They make some small talk, laughing a bit about shared experiences across the country. The Delhurst coach tells McKite he used to coach at Eastbury, too, about ten years ago.
“You gotta try the little rib joint on Seventh Street, if it’s still there,” he tells Steve, “that was my spot, after every game.”
Steve is about to thank him when his heart sinks a little; another coach walks in, and this time it’s trouble.
Alexander Lambrau, an assistant coach at Smoak University, has arrived. Wearing a dark blue T-Shirt emblazoned with ‘Smoak U’ and a much smaller ‘Final Four’ logo underneath, he’s smiling widely, stretches his hand out and meets Hager in a handshake mid-stride, like he’s meeting an old drinking buddy from his college days.
“Am I too late, coach?” Lambrau asks loudly, his voice ringing off the walls of the tiny gym.
Smoak is by all definitions a high major college. They just ended their season in the Final Four this year, and two of their starters left early to the NBA in the draft only a few weeks ago. It’s no secret their boosters have deep pockets; if Smoak thinks Felix is the right guy for their team, there’s no chance McKite is going to be able to get him. He already knows Hagar wants a payoff; if it comes to that, Smoak is going to write a check and make it happen. The only thing that could stop them is another high major swooping in and starting some type of undercover bidding war.
Of course, that’s all dependent on whether Felix is really worth their time. Smoak can get most players without dropping a dime; they would only slide money for players who were really worth it. Most aren’t.
Lambrau shakes everyone’s hands, cracks jokes with ease and drops himself into a folding chair. Suddenly the morning events have gone from a quiet workout to the Smoak University show, where the players are going to try to impress one of the biggest schools in the country.
The workout gets under way, and with only three players it’s a mixture of drills, twenty-one and limited open run. Felix runs the floor well and has great hands, but the African player – Ufuoma Amadi – doesn’t have great hands, but he is a beast in the paint. He fumbles passes, loses the ball when attempting a two-handed dunk, but he is a powerfully built athlete. The wing player runs like a college wing but really just feeds the ball to the other two on drills.
As they finish up, McKite waits patiently as Lambrau talks with Felix and then moves to a corner to talk with Hagar. McKite takes the opportunity to get in a word.
“Hey, Luka, I’m Coach McKite, from Eastbury College. Do you remember talking with me last week?”
“Um, yeah” replies Felix, nonchalantly glancing around the gym.
“I like your game a lot…I know you can play. But I’m going to ask, is Smoak actively recruiting you?”
“Don’t know,” Felix mutters, “they never came before. Coach said I have a good jump shot.”
“I guess you saw them in the NCAAs this year, right?”
“Well,” says McKite, “I’m not going to jump in here but if Smoak decides they want to slow play you, we wouldn’t do that. Just letting you know. I’m asking you to just keep us in mind.”
“Okay,” replies Felix, and McKite shakes his hand and walks over to the other two players and introduces himself. The wing player is named Jeremy Hoyle.
“Hold up,” says McKite, “didn’t I see you play some AAU last week? In Maryland, I think? I tried to call your phone but your aunt said you weren’t home.”
“Ohhh” says Hoyle, “yeah, she said some coach called but she didn’t know who it was. I thought it was Coach Hagar.” Hoyle explains that he doesn’t play for Hagar but he might this year. McKite gets his mobile number so he can text him later. Then he remembers he forgot to get Felix’s mobile number, but now Felix is talking with the other coaches. He turns to Amadi.
“So what about you?” he asks, “big man like you must have a couple of colleges who have reached out? Anyone?”
“No, coach,” replies Amadi, but then, his stoic face suddenly breaks into a huge grin, “except you, coach!”
McKite laughes. “Yeah, well, yeah, I guess so! We’re talking right now!”
McKite thinks for a second, then asks “what do you think you need to work on to play the post in college?”
Amadi turns the quesition over in his mind for a beat, then responds, “I need to be able to score better. I can defend my man but my scoring is not there yet.”
“Okay. Good, good. Yeah, you need to work on your hands – you should be able to catch the ball, and once you have it in the post, never let anyone get it out of your hands.”
There is a slight pause and McKite can hear the other coaches approaching, having finished talking with Felix. “Okay. Do you have a mobile number? I want to talk to you some more, too, if you’re interested.”
Amadi gives coach a number and then McKite tries to catch back up with Felix, but Hagar is back. Lambrau is nowhere to be seen.
“Let’s talk, coach,” says Hagar.
They walk over into an alcove and Hagar leans against the wall. “What do you think? Are you guys going to offer Luka? He’d be a big time add to your program. Turn things around in a hurry.”
“Do we even have a chance?” asks McKite, “Smoak is going to get him if they want him.”
“Not if I tell him to go with you,” replies Hagar.
“Okay, what would convince him to go with us?”
Hagar glances around the corner to make sure the other coaches are still out of earshot.
“What?!? 20 grand?” McKite snaps, “he’s not worth that kind of money, even if we had it.”
“Smoak thinks he is.”
“Don’t bullshit me, coach. If Smoak had already offered you that money we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Hagar steps away from the wall and holds up both hands in mock defeat. “Look, I’m just saying there’s a way to get him, and someone is going to get him. You guys want to win, you can get him.”
McKite suddenly has a wild thought dash through his mind: what if Smoak isn’t interested in Felix at all, and Hagar is using their presence to demand money from the lower colleges? It’s too stupid to work that way, he thinks. Why would Lambrau even bother? Would they split the money? No, it seems too stupid. Surely Smoak knows his school doesn’t have money to pay for players. Nothing about this conversation makes McKite feel very good.
“Look, coach,” he tells Hagar, “we are interested in Luka. We would offer him right now. We would take him. But we can’t pay for players. We just don’t have the money.”
Hagar looks at McKite like there’s no chance that McKite is telling the truth. “Well, let’s just say this. It’s out there. You have my info. He’s not committed. He’s available. You guys tell me what you can do for his school.”
‘You mean you and your school‘, thinks McKite.
Back in his car, navigating back through corn fields and rural back roads, McKite calls Lonnie Maxwell, his head coach.
“What did you think?” asks Maxwell.
“He’s a legit big man. Probably too good for us. I would want to see him play against some elite bigs. I need to see him in AAU or during the high school season. But my thoughts are we wouldn’t be able to get him. He’s too good.”
“Did you want to offer?”
“I want to offer. But his coach wants money.”
“Damn it. Of course he does.”
“I know. And Smoak was there looking at him. I don’t think we can get in. But there is another kid there – an African kid – he’s a project but I think he’s might be a Division I big man. Maybe not right away, though.”
“Smoak…?” Maxwell trails off. “How much did coach want?”
“Oh, no freaking way. No way in Hell…none. I just wanted to know…I wish I hadn’t asked. If I ask that again, don’t tell me.”
McKite hangs up and looks back out onto the road. He’s about 15 minutes from the highway, where he needs to try and make it to the next state in an attempt to catch some AAU games, including watching Marquise Davids, a guard who he’s spoken to and watched but still isn’t their priority player.
As he turns onto the road to merge into the highway, he sees a sign which reads “Thanks for visiting Ardorville! Come back soon!”.
‘How does a tiny made up school in a town with a single Taco Bell as their only restaurant have three college level players on their team, anyway?‘ he wonders.
TO BE CONTINUED