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BILL DWYRE

Len Elmore's iHoops job is no layup

As the head of iHoops, an NBA and NCAA joint venture, the former pro player is aiming to clean up youth basketball and its unscrupulous characters.

October 11, 2010|Bill Dwyre
(Baltimore Sun )

Let's begin by bowing our heads in silent prayer for Len Elmore. He has a new job and will need all the help he can get.

You remember Elmore, the 6-foot-9 former NBA player, who does intelligent commentary for network television on college basketball. A three-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference player at Maryland, he was the 13th pick in the 1974 NBA draft, going to the Washington Bullets. He played eight seasons in the NBA, two more in the old ABA.

In May, Elmore was appointed chief executive of an online support program for youth basketball called iHoops. That is now his day job.

It is also a job that might be likened to digging a 50-foot well with a soupspoon.

This is currently more pertinent because of the book just released, and written about in this space recently, titled "Play Their Hearts Out." It is the story of an eight-year saga taken on by author George Dohrmann and built around San Bernardino-area basketball player Demetrius Walker and his youth coach, Joe Keller. Dohrmann was allowed to go along for the ride, as Walker was used and maybe even coached a bit by Keller, who recruited many for his team before they reached age 10.

The overriding message in Dohrmann's book is that much of youth basketball — grass roots, as they call it — is an immoral, unethical exploitation of children for the ego and financial enhancement of the exploiters. The end of the book mentions a program, established in June 2009, under the joint auspices of the NBA and NCAA, to combat this very thing.

That would be iHoops.com, and it bring us back to Elmore.

If nothing else, Elmore's resume gives iHoops high credibility. Besides his basketball and broadcasting success, Elmore, 58, has a Harvard law degree and worked for several years as an assistant district attorney, prosecuting cases in Brooklyn. He has also been a visiting professor at Columbia and a former player agent who left that world because "the environment was becoming toxic to my ethics and scruples."

Because of who Elmore is, he has a chance to achieve some cleanup of the cesspool.

Elmore says iHoops was created so there would be a place to go for parents, coaches, officials and even event organizers. It provides information, as well as somebody to talk to when there is a perceived abuse of the system.

"We want to be the Leviathan [feared monster]," Elmore says. "We want to be the go-to source for youth basketball. We want to get kids and parents to shun the Joe Kellers of the world. We will get this thing done."

This isn't just a Southern California thing, although the smell from this area has been especially strong for years. Elmore's office is in Indianapolis, and he has seven additional paid staffers, with expectations of hiring more. A cynical view is that the Russian army wouldn't be enough.

The NBA, via David Stern, wants this done because it wants better citizens wearing its uniforms. The NCAA, following the legacy of the late Myles Brand, wants this done because its mission is for its student-athletes to actually have a chance to be students when they arrive. The recognition by both groups, and willingness to fund this program, is both logical and sincere.

But there still is trouble in River City.

Among the major sponsors of iHoops.com are the shoe companies, Nike and Adidas. They, of course, were the driving forces for the Joe Kellers and Pat Barretts of the youth basketball world, who were rewarded with rich consulting deals on the backs of pre-teenage boys who could shoot and dribble.

Having shoe companies as part of the reform program is like having foxes guard the henhouse.

Elmore calls the involvement of shoe companies in iHoops "their mea culpa."

"They recognize the movement afoot," he says. "I think they want to be part of the solution to end the problem. It's one thing to say you're sorry, and another to do something."

Elmore says he would be surprised if the shoe companies' practice of supplying products to certain high schools with the best players and programs, to the exclusion of others, is still going on. He might pick up the phone and call Los Angeles Fairfax or Santa Ana Mater Dei.

Shoe companies exist to sell shoes. They will continue to look for the next Michael Jordan, in whatever way, and at whatever level they think he might exist. Their job is profit, not ethics or morals.

iHoops.com is a good concept. If enough parents and honorable coaches find it, use it and help it weed out those who have something other than the best interest of 10-year-olds at heart, then hats off to the NBA, NCAA and Len Elmore.

We will check in with Elmore after some time passes. We pray we don't find him in a rocking chair in a dark corner somewhere, mumbling to himself.

Times staffer Eric Sondheimer contributed to this column.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

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