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Chance to Be a Comet Perks Everybody Up

Prep basketball: Free shoes are only part of the story when Nike sponsors a team such as Westchester. There are trips and exposure to major colleges as well.

April 10, 2002|MIKE BRESNAHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The ice sculpture was beginning to lose its luster, dripping into an increasingly large puddle at the bottom of a large glass platter. But its shape, a trademark quickly recognized throughout the world, was still easily identifiable.

A three-foot-long swoosh.

The host of the Nike Academy Invitational, a high school basketball tournament featuring some of the best boys' teams in the nation, was throwing a party in the penthouse of a swank hotel in a Houston suburb.

Like the tournament, which ran from Dec. 27-29, the party was invitation-only. College coaches and NBA scouts, their affiliations sewn into signatures on the chest of their neatly pressed polo shirts, nibbled the cheese and sipped the wine as they mingled with high school coaches and, most importantly, the parents of players.

The conversation, not surprisingly, was dominated by basketball. While one group talked about what a fine fit Westchester High guard Hassan Adams should be in the lineup for the University of Arizona next season, another across the room was eagerly anticipating the marquee matchup of the tournament: a championship game pitting undefeated and No. 1-in-the-nation Westchester and undefeated and No. 2-in-the-nation Oak Hill Academy of Virginia, which would have a 56-game winning streak if it reached the title game.

Four floors below, members of Westchester's team, some still wearing their $200 Nike warmups and $160 Nike game shoes, cruised the hallways of the 12th floor, swaggering as if they owned the place.

Certainly they were being treated like royalty.

In a hotel banquet room, with silver place settings and linen over the tables, they had been fed fresh omelets for breakfast, given their choice from a pasta bar for lunch, and served steak for dinner. Their food, hotel rooms and airfare had been paid for. They were also using complimentary rental vans and had the attention of an ever-present local host.

Although the accommodations in their four-star hotel were three to a room, some of the players surmised that professional players couldn't be treated much better.

"It was a good experience for us to go to Houston and get love like that," Adams said. "Other teams don't have what we do, getting all that stuff."

Most of his high school basketball-playing peers would certainly agree. The vast majority of high school athletes never experience out-of-state competition during their scholastic careers.

For even top teams, one trip is a treat.

Westchester's jet-setting squad is an exception because the Comets this last season were fueled by the corporate might of Nike, the world's No. 1 sports retailer.

The team's travel itinerary--which took it to tournaments in Fort Myers, Fla., Houston and Erie, Pa., as well as a one-game stop-over in Trenton, N.J.--was only one example of the perks afforded players who are talented enough to make the roster of one of the nation's premier prep teams.

George Raveling, once a well-known coach at Washington State and USC, is now the local face of Nike. He's a consultant for the sneaker giant that has endorsement deals with many of the winningest athletic programs in the nation. Every once in a while, he stopped by a Westchester practice or game to sneak a peek at the Comets, one of the brightest jewels in Nike's display case.

Raveling declined to be interviewed about Nike's relationship with Westchester, but he didn't hesitate to chat up Comet players and lobby Coach Ed Azzam's help in coaxing a couple of the team's top performers--most notably Adams--to participate in Nike-sponsored postseason events.

Raveling never stayed long, but Nike's influence was ever-present.

As they emerged from the Westchester locker room for their Dec. 5 season opener, passing under a three-foot by five-foot Nike banner, white swoosh perfectly centered on a black background, each of the Comets wore a pair of Nike Air Flightposite IIIs, white with red trim. At the time, the shoes were being featured on the company's web site. Retail cost for holiday shoppers: $160.

For the Comets, they were free--the first of five pair Nike would give each Westchester player over the course of the season, along with warmups, practice jersey, game uniforms, sweats and equipment bag.

In return for its investment, Nike received as much exposure as it could have dreamed. Westchester performed before several standing room-only crowds, both on the road and at home, where their legion of followers often included Clippers Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson, along with prominent college coaches such as Arizona's Lute Olson and Kansas' Roy Williams.

The Comets were also the focus of the ESPN cable production "Sidelines: L.A. Hoops," their words and expressions captured on boom mikes and cameras.

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