This story originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of ESPNHS magazine.
Unless you've been living under a rock for, oh, I don't know, forever, you know that the recruiting process, particularly for Division I football and basketball, has issues. In October, an NCAA panel made sweeping changes to its scholarship rules and made schools more accountable academically. But some of the factors said to plague recruiting went unaddressed. From Reggie Bush to Cam Newton, we're left with a picture of shady "runners," coaches or family members looking for an early return (i.e., payout) on a teenager's talents.
The problems are hardly confined to football. UConn freshman basketball player Ryan Boatright was suspended at the start of this season for accepting improper benefits -- reportedly a plane ticket. His coach, Jim Calhoun, was suspended for three games over a different recruiting violation. Baylor missed out on March Madness last season in part because star big man Perry Jones III was suspended after the NCAA determined that his mother had accepted short-term loans from his AAU coach while he was in high school.
Some of these violations seemed trivial, frankly. Ticky-tack fouls instead of flagrants. This is not to be an apologist for rulebreakers; to whom much is given, much is expected, after all. But what if all the scandals have made elite recruits more conscientious, or at least more cautious? What if the NCAA's outreach programs and rules changes have, if not cleaned up the recruiting game, at least made the coaches and parents of elite recruits more aware of the potential eligibility pitfalls?
It's not an easy or a popular case to make, but in talking to four of the nation's top hoop recruits (one from each high school class), their parents and their coaches, it sure seems they are being extra mindful of the rules.
Rodney Purvis is a 6-foot-4 combo guard at Upper Room Christian (Raleigh, N.C.). Rated the nation's No. 16 senior in the ESPNU 100, he has signed with NC State. Julius Randle is a 6-9 forward for Prestonwood Christian (Plano, Texas) who's rated the No. 3 junior in the ESPNU 60. Theo Pinson is the No. 2 sophomore in the ESPNU 25, a 6-5 shooting guard for Wesleyan Christian (High Point, N.C.). And Mickey Mitchell, a 6-7 small forward who attends Prestonwood with Randle, is one of the nation's top players in the Class of 2015.
They play different positions and come from different backgrounds, but as one of them said, "All of us are going through the same thing."
He's a super-athletic guard from North Carolina, so it was probably inevitable that Purvis would be dubbed the next John Wall. Imagine the pressure and expectations that come with that title.
For Purvis, the recruiting process has been a mixed bag. He initially committed to Louisville only to decide that he'd rather stay in state. He says the most important considerations were style and impact; he wanted to go where he'd get the most playing time in a system that best fit his game and wasn't overloaded at his position. After backing off his Louisville pledge, he had to get it right. "You only get to decommit once before people start to question who you are and your character and all that," says his mother, Shanda McNair.
"I just felt that NC State was the best fit for me," he says.
The opportunity to play in front of legions of friends and family members was too good to pass up.
"My grandma has 14 kids, so it's a lot," he says.
While his extended family is big, his immediate family is small. It's just Rodney and Shanda. His father died in 1993, before Purvis was born, and McNair has managed every aspect of her son's life, particularly when it comes to basketball. She knows everything from NCAA Clearinghouse requirements to Purvis' body-fat percentage.
"I've been doing this for 11 years, and I've never seen a parent like Shanda who's so involved and also so knowledgeable," says Purvis' AAU coach, Tony Edwards. "She knows it all."
One of the criticisms of the NCAA is that its rulebook is interminably long, making it impossible to know all of the guidelines -- which benefits are proper, which ones are prohibited. That was certainly McNair's experience.
"There's a whole lot of confusion," she says. "I had to experience that once myself. I think I wore the NCAA out. This is your child's education you're talking about. I don't want to do anything that's going to jeopardize that."
Randle, who is good friends with Purvis, is also the beneficiary of a strong, involved single mother. He's letting the recruiting process come to him.
"It really hasn't been stressful for me," he says. "I knew from the start I really wasn't going to make the decision until my senior year."
In the meantime, the life of a top recruit isn't so bad. In addition to being high school teammates at Prestonwood, Randle and Mitchell play together on the Texas Titans, one of the top AAU programs in the country. The team was put together by billionaire Kenny Troutt a few years ago, and Troutt has earned a reputation, for better and for worse, for his generosity when it comes to the team. He has a lawyer who is constantly in contact with the NCAA to ensure that the benefits he provides are proper.
One of those benefits came last year, when Randle and Mitchell attended a Dallas Mavericks game with some of their coaches and teammates. The players took turns going from Troutt's luxury box to four floor seats, where they sat next to Jay-Z and Beyoncé. They tried to keep their cool but weren't very successful.
"I'm 15 years old, and I'm about to sit next to Jay-Z and Beyoncé," Randle says. "How am I not supposed to be going crazy?"
When they got back up to the box, Titans coach Scott Pospichal asked Mitchell if he'd spoken to Beyoncé.
"'No, Coach, I didn't know what to say. I just kept looking at her,'" Pospichal recalls Mitchell saying. "'Coach, she smelled so good. She smelled like strawberries.' We laughed so hard."
For some, this is a cute story. For others, it's an example of what's wrong with AAU ball. Why should these kids, who already lead charmed lives in many respects, also get the star treatment on the dime of a billionaire?
Pospichal says that reaction is misguided.
"We're not Julius' street agent," he says. "We're not Mickey's handler. We're their coaches. We're their family."
For their parts, Randle and Mitchell say they wouldn't trade it for the world.
"That was probably one of the best experiences I've ever had in my life," Randle says.
Another came at the Boost Mobile Elite 24, a summer showcase that features two dozen of the nation's top players regardless of class. There, Randle, along with Purvis, showcased his talents, but he was also able to relax, meet athletes and celebrities such as Jamie Foxx, and spend time with other ballers he has a lot in common with -- whether it's the countless hours they spend trying to improve their games or the relentless attention they get from college fan bases.
"We all live in different states and have different sets of friends, but when it comes down to it, all of us are going through the same thing," Randle says.
That's true now more than ever. Jeff Webster, Randle's trainer and mentor, was a McDonald's All-American in 1989 before starring at Oklahoma. He says the recruiting game is a whole different world these days.
"Today, you have to be careful what you say, what you do, how you handle yourself," Webster says. "If you do something, it's online in a matter of minutes. One of the toughest things I've always told him is, 'You're different.' When you're different, you have to do different things. [Try telling] that to a 16-year-old."
Pinson remembers the first letter he ever received from a college.
"I was in eighth grade," he says. "It was from USC. I was really happy. I thought it was going to be an offer, but it was just an information letter. It was a happy moment in my life, but I thought, 'I'm going to have to really step it up.'"
Pinson was already receiving plenty of attention. At the first national event he attended, an adidas camp in Ohio when he was in the fifth grade, he was considered the top camper. His dad was proud but also concerned.
"That was the first time I told him that I kind of never really wanted to see him bragging or out in public about that No. 1 thing," says Theo Pinson Sr. "In the house we can joke or whatever, but I never want to see him bragging."
Pinson says the attention has "picked up a lot since my freshman year," but like Purvis and Randle, he advises patience and caution when it comes to the recruiting process.
"Don't get overexcited," he says. "Just listen to what they're talking about. You don't want to rush into anything. You want to be smart about the choice."
While he doesn't plan on making a decision until his senior year, he understands why some guys commit much earlier than that.
"If you know what school you've been wanting to go to your whole life and you get that offer, you don't even think about it, especially if it's [in] your own state," he says.
When Mitchell left Orlando, Fla., for Plano the summer before his eighth-grade year, he was leaving one sports-crazed state for another.
Like his older brother Matt, Mickey stars in both football and basketball for Prestonwood, which could eventually complicate the recruiting process. His father, Ken, says college coaches have said playing both sports at the next level is a possibility, but the elder Mitchell recognizes it would be very difficult.
For his part, Mickey says he hopes he doesn't have to choose between playing football and basketball in college. Either way, he doesn't plan on deciding until his senior year. But if he had to pick
"Right now, since it's basketball season, I'd probably choose basketball," he says.
That's a pretty savvy answer from a high school freshman. But in today's world, top recruits have to grow up fast.
"It started early with Mick," Ken says. "We knew something was real special real early. We kind of protected him a little bit. It gets a little wild."
At AAU tournaments, players are required to watch a short video from the NCAA going over do's and don'ts. October's panel didn't shrink the rulebook, but that's one of the next priorities.
"I think the NCAA has been more proactive, and the media has also brought more awareness as to what is going on and what could happen to you," says Edwards, who coaches Purvis in AAU. "That's a plus. You hear about so much stuff about different programs on probation and a lot of that stuff goes back to when they were in high school.
"It's easy to make the AAU coach the bad guy."
Like the Texas Titans, Edwards says, his AAU program offers assistance to players trying to navigate the recruiting process without influencing them. He makes it a point to stay up on the NCAA rule changes, as difficult as that can sometimes be.
The rules can be vague, so he tries to keep it as simple as possible.
"Don't even let anyone buy you a soda," Edwards says. "Buy your own soda."
No one is pretending there won't be offers much more tempting than a soda.
"Here's what you hope," says Pospichal, the Titans coach. "That because of the environment they have been put in and how they have been raised, that when those challenges -- some people might view them as opportunities -- come up, we're hoping that they do the right thing.
"Are they going to be perfect? No. But I sure like their chances of doing what's right."