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Friday / May 24.
  • Coach of Kentucky Commit Opposed to Players Signing National Letters of Intent

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    In his 17 years as the basketball coach at St. Raymond’s High School in The Bronx, Gary DeCesare estimates that 20 of his 35 players who committed to Division 1 schools never signed a National Letter of Intent.

    Instead, DeCesare advised them to sign scholarship papers only because he is staunchly opposed to the NLI.

    “I’ve never encouraged kids to sign a National Letter of Intent because what a lot of parents don’t know is that there’s two pieces of paper,” DeCesare, who now coaches at St. Rita’s in Chicago, told SNY.tv. “One is the National Letter and one is the scholarship papers, and the National Letter binds you to the school, the scholarship papers binds the school to you.”

    DeCesare, like many others in the basketball world, thinks it’s unfair for a player to be bound to a school by an NLI. What happens if the coach gets fired? What if the coach takes a job at another school? What if the coach lands two other recruits at the player’s position?

    “There are 100 horror stories about kids that have signed the NLI and something changed,” said Andy Borman, a former Duke player who now runs the New York Rens AAU program. “A family member got sick. A coach left. Something in their life changed and they’re married because they signed that document, whereas there’s nothing that marries that school to the kid. So it’s a one-sided deal.”

    Bob Hurley, the Naismith Hall of Fame coach at St. Anthony in Jersey City, couldn’t agree more.

    “I think it’s silly to hold a minor to a legal document that the coach and the University can walk away from,” Hurley told SNY.tv. “If the coach decides to go someplace else, the kid is committed to it.”

    DeCesare currently coaches Charles Matthews, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard who is committed to Kentucky. The coach says he hasn’t yet discussed with Matthews whether or not the player should sign an NLI, but that in the case of Kentucky he probably wouldn’t have an issue with it.

    “I haven’t discussed that with him yet, all I can do is advise,” DeCesare said of Matthews, Kentucky’s lone 2015 commit at this point. “I think Charles going to Kentucky is a different deal because it’s Kentucky. Cal [coach John Calipari] turned down $62 million dollars [to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers], so I think he’s going to finish his career there, but who knows? You just don’t know anymore.” (Some reports said Calipari turned down an $80-million offer to be coach and President of the Cavs.)

    That line of thinking is exactly why Stephen Zimmerman, a 7-footer from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman, doesn’t plan to sign an NLI when he commits this spring.

    “It doesn’t protect the student-athlete, only the University,” Lori Zimmerman, the player’s mother, told SNY.tv.

    One high-major Division 1 assistant coach involved in Zimmerman’s recruitment said he completely agreed with their decision, saying, “Who does it really protect? That rule [the NLI] is for the schools.”

    The Zimmermans approach hasn’t seemed to scare off any suitors.

    Zimmerman is being recruited by Kentucky, UNLV, Arizona, North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA and Indiana, and Calipari recently paid him a visit to reiterate his interest.

    Whether Zimmerman’s tactic will inspire other elite prospects to follow suit remains to be seen.

    The mentor for at least one high-level 2015 recruit declined to comment for this story because he believed it might make the player appear to be difficult in the eyes of coaches if he said he wouldn’t sign an NLI.

    But opposition to the NLI is nothing new.

    Some of the former St. Raymond’s players, including Brian Laing (Seton Hall) and Gavin Grant (N.C. State), signed scholarship papers in the fall but did not sign NLIs until the spring because there was initial concern about the fate of the coaches at those schools: Louis Orr at Seton Hall and Herb Sendek at N.C. State.

    “Those kids, whether they knew it or not, they didn’t sign an NLI until May,” a source close to the situation said.

    If more players didn’t sign NLIs, one Division 1 assistant coach said, it would decrease the number of transfers, which currently sits at 675 for 2014, up from 250 five years ago, according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

    “If every kid really did that then you wouldn’t have any problems with kids leaving because a coach left,” one Division 1 assistant coach told SNY.tv. “Imagine if Isaac Hamilton had done that?”

    Hamilton initially signed an NLI to UTEP but but coach Tim Floyd wouldn’t let him leave even after he said he wanted to return home to California to be close to his ill grandmother.

    After a wave of bad press directed at Floyd and UTEP, Hamilton was eventually released and ended up signing scholarship papers to UCLA.

    When it came time for his younger brother, Daniel Hamilton, to sign with UConn last fall, he only signed scholarship papers.

    Is there a downside to not signing an NLI?

    Sure, one possibility is that players would move more frequently and chaos could ensue.

    “They can change their mind on where they’re going the day before school starts if they want to,” a second high-major Division 1 coach said.

    “It will set a bad trend of kids bailing out last-minute and going somewhere else because the NLI stops the recruiting process of schools on a kid who signed. The financial aid agreement doesn’t. And I think the shady assistant coaches will be the ones using that to bargain higher-paying or better jobs.”

    But there is a grey area there, too.

    Sometimes a player will sign an NLI with a school in the fall, only to watch as that program brings back several other players at his position in the spring — after the deadline for deciding on the NBA passes.

    Several people have suggested that Karl-Anthony Towns might not have signed with Kentucky last fall had he known that Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson — who play basically the same position — were going to return to Kentucky.

    “Exactly, and he signed early,” the first D-1 assistant said. “Imagine if he said, ‘I’m going there. I don’t want anyone else to recruit me but I am going there [but I’m not signing an NLI]. I signed the scholarship papers but hey, those guys didn’t leave.’

    “What it does is it puts the pressure on the coach to continue recruiting. You think Karl Towns wants to go? I don’t care what John Calipari tells him. And I like Cal.

    “The same thing at Duke. Do you think Tyus Jones would still go to Duke if Quinn Cook is there, or Rasheed Sulaimon? I don’t care how good you are, those guys are juniors or seniors.”

    But if Towns and Jones — and everyone else — had opted late to go elsewhere after initially committing to one school, would that be a good thing, or would it just open the floodgates?

    Hurley, for one, believes the NLI process should be changed to at least allow for movement after coaches are fired or leave.

    “I understand that if you open this up, the NCAA loses some of the control of rosters because the kids won’t necessarily still be playing at those places,” Hurley said. “So there’d be too much fluidity. So they’re just never going to do what would be right for the kids, that they’re convinced by a coach to go someplace and then he leaves, and they should be immediately released to look at other options.

    “But [the NCAA] will never do it. I can scream and yell and do whatever I want, it’s just not going to change.”

    Photo: ESPNChicago

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    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.

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