Looking as though he were sorting a pile of junk mail, Ryan Hickman sifted through the large stack of invitations to summer basketball camps he received in recent weeks.
"All of them said I had been selected as one of the top players in the country and they would be honored to have me," said Hickman, a 6-foot-6 forward who will be a senior at Fairfax High this fall.
Hickman chose to play in two of those camps, Superstar in Santa Barbara and West Coast All-Star in Pomona, but that will represent only a small portion of his endless summer of basketball. He will also participate for Fairfax in various leagues and all-star tournaments.
From late June until July 30th, Hickman--and hundreds of players like him--will compete in approximately 60 games--twice as many as they will play during the regular three-month high school season.
They know the growing importance of summertime basketball. A good showing will likely mean a scholarship to a prestigious basketball power. A poor showing could cost them one.
Considered to be a touch slow by some college scouts, Hickman, a returning All-City player who averaged 15 points and 14 rebounds last season, wants to use this summer to remove any doubt about his speed.
"Believe me, I know the stakes are high," he said. "It makes me a little nervous to think about it."
Prior to the 1980s, there was little nerve-wracking about summer basketball. It was generally a low-key affair--a time reserved for prep coaches to condition their teams and set rosters for the upcoming season. There were summer league games, scrimmages and an occasional tournament.
But in 1983, when the NCAA adopted the early-signing period, things changed dramatically. High school seniors were permitted to sign letters of intent with colleges during a one-week period in November instead of the traditional April signing period.
Since an estimated 80% of Division I prospects sign early, there is a frenzy for scouts to try and be everywhere and see everyone. College coaches are allowed to observe and evaluate high school players starting today through July 31, a period crammed with camps and tournaments.
"During that time, my two assistant coaches and I won't be home one night," Pepperdine Coach Tom Asbury said. "We'll spend every second of the day watching kids play all over the country. We basically size up our whole recruiting class during this short amount of time, so we've got to try and be as thorough as possible. It's not easy, especially because we want to see our favorites two or three times.
"The big problem with the whole system is that you have to evaluate how a player will fit into your system almost a whole year after you see him. You have to base a lot of what you see on potential. If a good player has a bad summer, he may not get looked at again. I'm not saying it's a fair system, but for right now that's the way it is."
Pepperdine signed all of its players early this year, including Dana Jones of North Hollywood. Jones turned in a solid performance at the Las Vegas Invitational last summer and impressed Asbury. When he was offered a scholarship, he quickly signed. He went on to have a banner season with the Huskies, guiding them to the City Section 3-A Division championship. If he had held out, he probably could have signed with a bigger school.
Such stories give Hickman and other borderline Division I prospects hope that if they don't knock 'em dead in the summer, they can come back and play well in the spring and still land a scholarship.
The April signing period has turned out to be mostly a time for the top prospects to decide where to go to school. This year, All-American forwards Shon Tarver of Santa Clara and Ed O'Bannon of Artesia signed late, opting for Nevada Las Vegas. College coaches normally will hold a scholarship until the spring if a big-name player is interested.
The trend of signing early bothers many high school coaches who have watched their players pick up bad habits over the summer while showing off for the scouts.
"We don't encourage our kids to attend a lot of camps," St. Monica Coach Leo Klemm said. "I think our program is visible enough that the college coaches will come watch us play in high school tournaments. When you let a good player go to an all-star camp, the people who run them often take credit if the kid does well. But the high school coach is the one who has been spending years developing him."
Klemm maintains tight control over his players during the summer. The Mariners practice once a week and play twice a week in high school summer leagues. They also will participate in five different local tournaments. If a player wants to attend a camp, he must clear it with Klemm.
North Hollywood Coach Steve Miller is less demanding of his players, having them play together only once a week. He encourages them to take needed time off to pursue other interests.