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Coaches Wish Upon a Two Stars : Recruiting: Charles O'Bannon and Avondre Jones will soon decide where they'll attend college. They've endured a barrage of letters, calls and bizarre promises by those who seek their services on the basketball court.


SOUTHEAST AREA — The recruiting insanity will soon be over. The letters will finally stop arriving, the phone will finally stop ringing. And when Charles O'Bannon and Avondre Jones--two of the most sought-after basketball players in the nation--at last choose the colleges they will attend, the households of their families can return to normal.

The Artesia High seniors say they will decide sometime after their prep careers end in an all-star game April 18 in Detroit. The announcements will end the hectic ritual "blue-chip" players endure: visits by college coaches, coast-to-coast recruiting trips and bizarre, unlikely promises.

More than 100 universities have sought the services of O'Bannon and Jones, who led Artesia to two state titles. One coach even told Jones, a rap music fan, that he knew people who could get him a job working for singer Michael Jackson, said Jones' mother, Vivian Ruffin.

The O'Bannon family had been through recruiting before when former Artesia star Ed O'Bannon, who just completed his sophomore season at UCLA, was pursued by practically every major college in the country.

The second time around has been easier, said Ed O'Bannon Sr., who added, "I think the coaches realized we had been through this, and they knew they weren't going to get anything past us."

But for Jones and his parents, the experience has been new and astounding.

"It's like selling you a car," Ruffin said. "Coaches tell you everything and anything you want to hear. They make promises, promises. Some promise things that are so unreal, you know they won't follow through."

Last summer, the two players narrowed their choices to a handful of schools--all with big-time programs.

O'Bannon--who has had to deal with the additional pressure of a family that wants him to fulfill their dream of seeing him reunited with his brother at UCLA--may be leaning toward the University of Kentucky. A serious student who says he wants to be academically challenged, he is also considering Michigan and USC.

"Charles is very independent and mature," said his mother, Madeline O'Bannon. "It's very possible he'll go away because he wants to experience different things."

Jones lists Michigan, USC, Arizona and UCLA as his favorites, although lately he has become enamored of Louisiana State and Iowa.

"I have to pick the right one," Jones said, "but there really isn't a wrong one. All the institutions I visited were good."

O'Bannon, a first-team Parade Magazine All-American, is the more highly regarded of the two players, but both are considered among the best in the country by scouts.

Don Mead, who runs a scouting service in Irvine that charts high school and community college players for college coaches, said: "O'Bannon is probably the best player (on the West Coast). He's a shooter, good ballhandler and an intelligent kid. Jones is big and mobile and getting better all the time."

O'Bannon, a 6-foot-7 forward, averaged 23 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots a game this season. Jones, a 6-11 center, averaged 21 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots.

The recruiting rush intensified when the two players, as juniors, both scored more than 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the minimum required by the NCAA for freshman eligibility. Mail for O'Bannon and Jones from college coaches and boosters arrived at Artesia in a constant flow. They each wrote more than 90 rejection letters to colleges.

"I had a drawer that filled up with letters pretty much weekly," Artesia Coach Wayne Merino said. "I'd give it to them once a week and they'd have a big pile in their bags (to take home)."

In one letter that O'Bannon received, a hand-drawn poster depicts a slumbering UCLA Coach Jim Harrick dreaming about Charles in a blue-and-gold UCLA uniform.

"Why is he sleeping so soundly?" the caption asks of Harrick, who was criticized by boosters for not signing O'Bannon last November.

And then there have been the endless phone calls.

"The crazy part," said Merino, "was getting calls at home at 6 in the morning from coaches who just wanted to make sure that when they called Jones and O'Bannon that they would say hello or be interested in talking to them."

College coaches, restricted by NCAA rules to one phone call per recruit per week, were informed by O'Bannon's parents of the times and days of the week that either they or their son would accept calls. Vivian Ruffin, on the advice of the O'Bannons, installed an answering machine to screen Jones' calls.

In the past year it has seemed to O'Bannon and Jones that every time they have turned around they have seen a college coach.

During the NCAA's open recruiting periods, particularly in the spring and summer, coaches hang out in gyms and at off-season camps and tournaments, hoping to land a good catch.

Last summer, coaches "followed us everywhere" during an open period, said O'Bannon--"every practice, every game they were there."

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