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Prep Basketball's Gold Ring : Top High School Cagers Reach for Scholarships on Summer Merry-Go-Round

August 15, 1985|SEYMOUR BEUBIS and PAUL McLEOD | Times Staff Writers

Sean Higgins, the touted 6-8 junior-to-be at Fairfax High School, estimates he will have played more than 60 basketball games in six weeks this summer.

That's more than twice the number he will play for Fairfax in almost three months next season.

His summer odyssey of basketball has taken him to Princeton, N. J., for the Athletes for Better Education basketball camp, to Superstars Camp in Santa Barbara, to a national prep basketball tournament in Las Vegas, to several local tournaments with his Fairfax team, not to mention participation in the summer Slam 'n' Jam and American Roundball Corp. leagues.

But Higgins shrugs off talk of basketball burnout.

'Can't Get Enough'

"I can't get enough," he said. "I love the game too much. If my body can take it, why not (play)?"

But it is more than love driving Higgins and hundreds of other Southern California high school players on a nonstop summer merry-go-round of basketball.

National reputations and scholarships to super basketball schools are at stake.

Many now perceive their performance in summer all-star games and camps against high-caliber players as the best way to achieve both.

"I've seen players leaving in the middle of a summer league game with their high school team to go to a game in an all-star league," said Don Mead, who runs a basketball scouting advisory service.

'Not a Good Trend'

"It's not a good trend, but it is what is happening. The high school coach should be the one to have the influence with the player, but that influence has shifted to the all-star coach."

This has not gone over well with many high school coaches, who feel authority slipping away. They don't mind a player missing a game now and then or even going to a good camp for a week, but argue that his first and foremost loyalty should be to his school.

It used to be that way.

But that was before the Collegiate Commissioners Assn. in 1983 established an early NCAA signing period of one week in November, designed to take the recruiting pressure off the athlete during the senior year and help college coaches cut recruiting time.

The early signing period has been popular with the players, so much so that a majority of the nation's elite now sign letters of intent before playing their first high school basketball game as a senior.

Easterners Signed Early

A spokesman for Eastern Basketball magazine noted that 68 of its top 100 high school prospects on the East Coast signed early rather than on the regular signing date in April.

To the dismay of many Southern California high school coaches, most top players are now being judged not on what they do for their schools but on how they perform in summer all-star leagues like Issy Washington's Slam 'n' Jam and Rich Goldberg's American Roundball Corp, where college coaches congregate like flies at a picnic.

Last month four teams each from Goldberg's and Washington's leagues participated in a national prep tournament in Las Vegas. It was played before more than a hundred major college coaches, including John Thompson of Georgetown, Lute Olsen of Arizona, Gene Bartow of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and Stan Morrison of USC.

Before the early signing date, the tournament drew fewer and less prominent coaches.

Easier Recruiting

By contrast, there are seldom more than one or two, if any, college recruiters at a regular high school summer league game.

"What's happening is that these (off-season) leagues are tools for the major colleges because it's a lot easier for college recruiters to see better kids all at once," said Paul Muff, coach of Crespi High in Encino.

Said Mead: "They (the NCAA) wanted to take the recruiting pressure off the players during the school year, but what they have done is make the pressure to perform well in the summer ungodly."

With the growth of the the all-star programs, spurred by the early signing period, have come problems for coaches and players.

Which Way to Go?

For instance:

Should the player listen to his all-star coach or his high school coach, especially if each is telling him something different? Who can do more for him? Is it in his best interest to play 60 games in the summer? Does he have to participate in all-star ball to receive that cherished scholarship?

These are perplexing problems for a 17-year-old.

But there are equally perplexing problems for many high school coaches.

Should they prohibit, or curtail, a player's participation in a camp or all-star league and run the risk of his rebelling and leaving the school? Should they coach in the all-star leagues to make sure their players don't receive what they consider sometimes to be poor advice and coaching? Should they get caught up in the summer basketball whirlwind, even if they feel it does more harm than good?

There are coaches who believe that the more a player competes the better he will become, and that the more skilled players he competes against the more skilled he will be. They see no harm in a player performing in all-star leagues, with the extra exposure it brings.

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