Like a lot of people caught up in the home-computer craze a few years ago, Don Mead bought a system.
But it just sits there virtually unused in his Irvine apartment. He doesn't have much time to fool with it. In fact, Mead has little time for anything but his all-consuming passion--basketball.
No one in Southern California spends more time in gyms--pursuing, gathering and recording information for what is both Mead's hobby and his business, the influential Western Basketball Prospect Scouting Service.
College coaches subscribe to any number of national scouting services and newsletters to keep track of the players worthy of their attention when it comes time to offer scholarships. Mead's service, which gives reports on players in seven Western states, is the only regional service of its kind on the West Coast. His subscribers include more than 170 college coaches at all levels, who pay from $100 to $250 annually for the information.
A retired manufacturer's representative for an aerospace firm, Mead, 64, has been running his service for 25 years--the first 15 as a hobby and the last 10 as a business. He estimates that he travels 30,000 miles a year in his car to see high school and junior college players in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho and Utah.
"Don is something that we coaches in the West needed for a long time," said Pepperdine Coach Jim Harrick. "He fulfilled that need by providing an information service. But as a coach, you have to remember what a scouting report really is. It's a gauge, not a compass. You read a gauge. You follow a compass."
Mead played football and semi-pro baseball while growing up in Massachusetts but never played competitive basketball. He thinks his inexperience as a player is an advantage because it allows him to be objective.
"Some of the worst evaluators in the world are former players because they only see things from the perspective of how they did things themselves," Mead said. "I learned my craft by going out and doing it. I talk to coaches, go to clinics and watch what's going on. Some of the best basketball coaches in the country weren't the greatest players, and it's the same in football and baseball."
Mead's reports typically list a player's height, weight, position, and grade-point average. The grade information is based on information provided by the player or his high school coach. The reports also include symbols that indicate the player's strengths in certain areas of the game. Finally, Mead rates the players on a scale of 1 to 10.
He says the best players he has seen are Bill Walton, who played at Helix High in La Mesa, Crenshaw's Marques Johnson and Verbum Dei's Raymond Lewis and Roy Hamilton.
The last player to earn a 10 rating was Charlie Sitton, who went to high school in Oregon and played at Oregon State.
"I very, very rarely see a 10--maybe once every five years," Mead said. "He has to be a lead-pipe cinch to be one of the top three to five prospects in the country. We come close every year."
Players who rate 9s must be among the top 25 to 30 prospects in the country. Eights are just a step below 9s, players worthy of being recruited by any top Division I school in the country.
Sevens are still major college prospects, 6s have lower Division I ability, 5s are Division II caliber and 4s are ticketed for Division III and NAIA schools.
"There are very few sleepers anymore, but people are always looking for them," Mead said. "There's a lot of wishful thinking in this business. Coaches want to be able to say they made a player."
The information business is popular in college sports. Coaches want to know what players are out there and where they can be found. Ten college basketball coaches were surveyed by The Times and every one said they subscribed to at least two scouting services. Some subscribe to as many as 15.
Coaches like Mead's service because Mead himself is so accessible. It is not uncommon for Mead's telephone to ring at 7 a.m. More often than not, a coach from the East Coast is on the other end of the line, calling to discuss a particular player's strengths and weaknesses.
Another point in Mead's favor is that he personally sees the vast majority of the players that make his lists--a claim that cannot be made by most national services.
Opinions vary, however, on the usefulness of the evaluations given by Mead and other services.
"Don has a good reading on the West Coast kids," UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard said. "Since we're really concentrating our efforts here in the West, he's a valuable source of information. We've had a difference of opinion on players but not many. As far as we're concerned, he's always given us accurate information."
Said Kansas Coach Larry Brown: "The best thing Don does is bring out if the player is major-college potential. If a kid can't play Division I, Don indicates what level he's suitable for."