Commentary

New national club team sparks Nike's ire

Originally Published: April 2, 2008
By Glenn Nelson and Chris Hansen | ESPN HoopGurlz

Kelsey Bone and Skylar DigginsGlenn Nelson Mike Flynn courted Kelsey Bone and Skylar Diggins for his Blue Star Select National Team -- and away from Nike.
A longtime recruiting service and operator of NCAA exposure events is assembling a club team with players from around the country, and the effort has caused friction within a major sneaker-sponsorship group.

Mike Flynn's formation of the Blue Star Select National Team, named for his Bensalem, Pa.-based company, has put him at odds with Nike, with which he has had a long association. There is no record of a girls' national club team formed to play in the United States.

At the crux of the power struggle has been Flynn's recruitment of prominent players -- such as Kelsey Bone and Skylar Diggins, two of the top players in the 2009 class -- who have previously appeared on the rosters of Nike-sponsored teams. Going after players from adidas teams may not have caused a stir, but taking away Bone and Diggins from the Nike family of teams would make it hard to gain the company's support. Bone apparently remains committed to the Blue Star team, but Diggins is not.

Flynn responded in an e-mail, "Really -- I didn't know that any travel team 'owned' any player, ever."

Nike sponsors 24 girls' traveling basketball teams. Nike's sponsorship contracts outline general geographical boundaries for each team and, with some exceptions, essentially prevent recruiting players across the boundaries occupied by a sponsored team. Those involved in the grassroots program know, according to Nike spokesman Rodney Knox, that should a coach want to inquire about a player in another coach's area, there must be a discussion between both head coaches to address individual player situations. But several coaches and program directors of Nike-sponsored teams complain that Flynn circumvents such regulations by sponsoring his own team through Blue Star.

Flynn's U.S. Junior Nationals tournament receives branded gear from Nike. Flynn's team, the Philadelphia Belles, also receives financial support from Nike as part of its grassroots program. Flynn also is an unpaid consultant for Nike Global Basketball, which is headed by George Raveling. The Belles will remain the same despite the formation of the new Blue Star Select National Team.

"I am going to suggest to the other Nike teams not to play in any events that this team plays in," said Roland McAbee, coach for the Nike-sponsored Georgia Elite.

McAbee also suggests Boo Williams, who runs events and teams on both the boys' and girls' sides and is considered one of the most influential figures in club basketball, takes a stand against Flynn's play.

"If we stick together on this, Mike [Flynn] will have to play under-talented teams and it will be very hard for him to find competition. Also, if teams do not attend the Blue Star events, it will have the same effect along with not providing him the income to support this team. Nike should drop all of its sponsorship and support for anything Mike has. I feel this is the only way you can combat this move. If Boo [Williams] sets the precedent by not allowing him to play it will set the stage for the rest if the year."

Club teams customarily draw players from similar geographic areas, though recent years have seen the birth of super-regional teams that pull from several different states. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) restricts recruiting to neighboring districts. The NCAA is widely expected to place restrictions as soon as next year on the geographical makeup of girls' club teams competing in sanctioned evaluation events the way it already has for boys' teams.

The Blue Star National Team's working name signifies only its intended geographical reach. Official national teams, such as those that compete in the Olympic Games and various age-group world championships, are assembled and operated by USA Basketball.

Nike spokesman Knox said, "In regard to the opportunity for players being involved in representing a national team, those players are expected to return to their original Nike team for all July competitions."

Blue Star had included Nike Nationals on tentative schedules sent to parents and coaches, but Knox said the team has not been invited to what arguably is the most prestigious event of the summer NCAA evaluation circuit. The team, which has listed one of its coaches as Teresa Grentz, one of the all-time winningest coaches in NCAA history, is supposed to be traveling to Europe for part of its competition schedule. The other part of its schedule includes the Boo Williams Invitational, April 18-20 in Hampton, Va., and several events staged by Blue Star in the summer, according to messages sent to parents and coaches by Blue Star.

"The majority of the schedule is final except for Augusta where a lot of people are upset that this team is being put together," Flynn wrote in a Feb. 27 letter to parents. "I am working on that now and have made contingency plans in case we choose to do something else fun. I can explain that world of basketball to all of you in Hampton during the Boo Williams event."

Reached after multiple attempts, Flynn refused to comment, in an e-mail message, on the philosophy or makeup of his team "because it is not done yet." He also generally refused further comment in another e-mail exchange, accusing ESPN's HoopGurlz.com of trying to provoke discussion of the team and Blue Star "to create importance and controversay (sic)."

The team's centerpiece player is said to be Bone, a 6-foot-3 post out of Stafford, Texas, who is ranked No. 1 by HoopGurlz.com in the 2009 class and widely considered a shoo-in for future U.S. national teams. Bone is free of club entanglements because her Nike-sponsored team last year, West Coast Elite, was sold when director and coach Kevin Morrison was named an assistant at Cal. The team, in essence, disbanded when its new coach, Brian Crichlow, formed his own team, West Coast Premier, which is sponsored by Nike.

Bone initially helped attract her good friend, Skylar Diggins of South Bend, Ind., the No. 4 player in the HoopGurlz Super Sixty for 2009, to the Blue Star team. Diggins had been attached to a longtime Nike team, The Family, based in Indiana. She no longer is committed to Flynn's team, according to her stepfather, Maurice Scott.

Blue Star even approached Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, the No. 3 player in the HoopGurlz Super Sixty for 2009, according to a message from Blue Star to parents and prospective parents and coaches of the national select team. Ruffin-Pratt is a mainstay for Boo Williams, who has been described by several as a close friend of Flynn's, as well as one of the most powerful people in club basketball, girls or boys. Williams downplayed the report, saying Ruffin-Pratt "wasn't leaving" his team.

Baylor commit Odyssey Sims, one of the top 2010 players, was another Nike-affiliated player listed on preliminary lists sent to prospective parents and coaches. Sims will stay with DFW Elite, which has assembled a team, including another Baylor commit, Brittney Griner, of Houston, who is the No. 2 prospect in 2009, and Tierra Rogers of San Francisco, a top national high school player of the year candidate, that looks to be the strongest on any club circuit this year.

Kelsey Smith, another 6-4 post who has played in the past for the Illinois Hustle, a Nike-sponsored team, has been listed on preliminary Blue Star Select National Team rosters.

Several sources indicated that a top 2010 wing, Laurin Mincy, and her teammate at University High in Newark, N.J., Nadirah McKenith, have agreed to play for the Blue Star team. Neither was previously affiliated with a Nike-sponsored team.

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