Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEPTUNE, N.J. — A little while back, a Division 1 coach from an East Coast school received a telephone call that caused him to perk up just a little bit more than usual.
“I received a call asking if I was interested in a player and the call did not come from his high school coach or AAU coach, but rather from an agent,” the coach recalled.
The coach says he ultimately turned the player down, but the call reveals an inside glimpse into how college basketball really works.
More and more, elite high school prospects, or those who are especially tall, are “handled” not by high school or AAU coaches, but by NBA agents or “runners,” people who work for agents in return for something else.
If a high school or college student-athlete has a written or verbal agreement with an NBA agent, they automatically lose their eligibility. An agent can serve as a prospect’s “advisor,” but the advisors can’t speak on their behalf to other professional entities.
Yet how prevalent is this?
This same coach said he spoke to another former coach of a prominent national program — one that has won multiple NCAA championships — who said “he has to deal with agents more than AAU coaches when he has to talk to the people close to top recruits.”
The coach we spoke to added: “I don’t think this is happening with most Division 1 recruits. I don’t think it’s happening with people who are underneath the elite level, but I think with a truly elite recruit who is probably going to end up in the NBA, they definitely have agents talking to them at an early age and advising them. Then a college coach has to talk with anyone who’s advising a player. They’re part of the process, and it’s a natural evolution.”
The coach added: “They gain influence [with the recruit]. Once they gain influence, they have to be spoken to.”
Why does this type of thing go on?
“I think it’s part of the one-and-done rule,” the first coach said. “Kids that are highly likely to be NBA players clearly stand out. Agents understand this. I think they often recruit them earlier than college coaches do, and because they don’t necessarily have restricted access they can get close relationships very early on.
“Also clearly the less fortunate a family is, the more receptive they probably would be to someone who wants to help them.”
How exactly does it work?
“It’s more [the agent saying], ‘You’re going to sign with me [when you go pro]. Let me get you through the next year because I know your family’s having a hard time and I’ll help advise you on choosing the right school,” the coach said.
This doesn’t happen with every elite recruit. By all accounts, Lance Stephenson’s recruitment was handled strictly by his father, and Xavier Henry’s recruitment was handled by his family.
But John Wall’s recruitment was handled in part by Brian Clifton, a former licensed sports agent. Some expect Clifton to re-up as an agent and serve as Wall’s agent should he enter the 2010 NBA Draft.
Clifton told Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com last year that he stopped being an agent to focus on his AAU program D-One Sports.
“Absolutely, I was a licensed agent,” Clifton said. “But what I started and what I had given my life to was this [D-One Sports] program, and I was about to watch it fall apart. Obviously, I couldn’t let that happen. So at that time — after having not signed any clients — I figured that [the D-One Sports] program was the most important thing for me. … And that was the end of the agent thing.”
In a separate but related development, several coaches said it’s also not uncommon for agents to “funnel money” to specific AAU programs in return for influence with those players down the line when they become eligible to play professionally.
“Just the way shoe companies sponsor AAU programs hoping that someday they’ll wear those shoes,” one coach said. “It’s possible that an agent could sponsor an AAU program hoping that their players will choose them.”Baylor head coach Scott Drew did hire Dwon Clifton, Brian’s brother, to his staff and many expected that Wall would ultimately follow Clifton there.Of course, Wall ended up at Kentucky but the tactic Drew used is perfectly legal. Many college programs have hired people with influence over a prospect. Kansas hired Mario Chalmers’ father. Kansas State hired Michael Beasley’s AAU coach. Memphis hired Dajuan Wagner’s father and Arizona State hired James Harden’s high school coach.
One common conception is that some college coaches are running around with bags of money paying off players.
And while former USC coach Tim Floyd is alleged to have paid $1,000 in cash to Rodney Guillory, an alleged runner for NBA agent Bill Duffy, in order to land former USC and current NBA guard O.J. Mayo, the coach we spoke with said it’s rare for college coaches to pay for players.
“No, I don’t think college coaches are paying,” he said. “That’s the thing. I think things have shifted with elite athletes where I don’t think colleges are cheating to get elite players. I think that in some cases agents are paying the players and taking that part of the recruiting process out.”
And, in fact, that is exactly what the NCAA is investigating in the Mayo case. Guillory is alleged to have provided Mayo with improper benefits via Duffy. Mayo then initially signed with Duffy, but switched allegiances after the story became public.
Also, here’s a good story by Pete Thamel about how Ed O’Bannon is suing the NCAA on behalf of athletes seeking compensation for the use of their images and likenessess in TV ads, video games and apparel. Sonny Vaccaro approached O’Bannon about leading the suit.
Follow Adam Zagoria on Twitter.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.