Recruiting takes toll on players, coaches

Last month, Kristi Kingma of Mill Creek, Wash., played at the Nike Nationals with a rotator-cuff sprain and two partially torn ligaments in her right shoulder. She did so because she wanted the University of Washington, where she had committed, to see her play and make sure they still wanted her. Kingma is among the very best pull-up jump shooters in the country.

Another player, Ashley Corral of Vancouver, came back early from surgery to repair ligaments in her ankle so she could play at the USA Basketball Youth Development Festival. She then continued to play, despite knowing it was very likely that she would have to have surgery on her other ankle. Corral is one of the most highly-desired point guards in the country.

Neither played particularly well with their injuries, but that should have been expected. I'm not picking on either, I'm just using them to illustrate a point about the compulsion our system of recruiting plants, not just in players like them, but in the coaches as well.

This hasn't been the cheeriest recruiting season for Western Washington state. It began with the death of 14-year-old Carly Stowell in her hotel in Raleigh, N.C., where she was to play in an NCAA-sanctioned showcase tournament.

I spent much of July complaining about "killing" - and, yes, I used that word - the kids and the coaches. I had several college coaches tell me the same thing.

"At least we took a step in the right direction," they said, "with the break," meaning the six days of down time that breaks the July evaluation period into two. That's the same break during which hundreds of kids attended additional training camps and everyone else took flights home or vanned home for a few days, only to turn around and come back.

It is a system in which, at the beginning of July, most of us can watch a kid run up and down the court a couple times and tell immediately if she's an elite athlete. Yet, we're inclined to give every athlete and non-athlete, player or non-player, the benefit of the doubt because they've been playing at least two games a day for the past month straight.

It's a broken system. Has been for some time. The mid-July break was just a bandaid stripped across a compound fracture.

The coming year will be filled with some turmoil in the club-basketball world. But, within that turmoil, lies an opportunity for change.

There is a widening belief that the NCAA may limit club teams to utilizing players only from a single state or geographic area, thus abolishing the super-regional teams. By many accounts, Adidas, having ousted Michael T. White and his operations, is attempting to get into the club scene in a much bigger way. White, meanwhile, has told several people that he intends to maintain his operations under a new sponsor, possibly Reebok. And Nike is certain to not want its grip on the sport to loosen.

Instead of chasing control and dollars, all the interested parties could get together and attempt to take the sport off the path to implosion. After all, by many measurements, girl's basketball is the fastest growing sport in the country, behind only football and boy's basketball, on which it has been gaining steadily. In other words, there is an already big pie, growing bigger, and thus enough to go around.

The growth is at odds, however, with the widespread, Title IX-induced misperception that female sports programs are swimming in cash. On the contrary, one of the factors driving more constricted evaluation periods, for example, is the staggering cost of travel.

The solution probably is not increasing the number of evaluation days, though it seems worth investigating the addition of one or two weekends in April or May. If July is made more efficient, it all would either balance out or, even, alleviate the financial strain on college programs and families.

To that end, what if the summer evaluation period were expanded to seven weeks - with one week of evaluation followed by two weeks off? The summer session could begin at the end of June and end in early August.

Some have suggested to me a week-on, week-off pattern, but my belief is that some teams would stay together for a week to practice or "bond," and others would have their time off eaten up by travel. Two weeks prohibits that, but also must be absolute no-contact periods for college coaches. The recruiting that goes on during the dead periods may add more to the stress of the players than anything else.

The second step to this would be reforming the arcane notion that tournaments are the correct format for exposure and evaluation. Playing to a champion only slakes the egos of coaches and parents. It adds more games -- often two or three during a short period of time, causing poor play when the play is supposed to be crescendoing. In the end, what does playing to a champion have to do with the aim of putting coaches and players together so scholarships can be offered and accepted?

Events may thus look like this: none is more than three days, allowing travel between events during the seven-day "on" period. One game per day, each precisely scheduled and an exception of two games on one day only, making for five-game events. This would help eliminate the impossible mathematics required for coaches to figure out how to be at Game 18B at Gym X and Game 26E at Gym T at the same time. It also would eliminate the common drill of coaches (college and club) playing pool-standings merry-go-round as they fill out their championship brackets. The events that offer six- and seven-game guarantees only satisfy the club coaches and parents who want to feel like they "got enough games" -- in other words, received value for their large entry fees and travel expenses.

Really, the bottom line should be -- did my kids get seen? And the system just described comes closer to fulfilling that aim than the one that currently exists. Not having to play to champions also could encourage club coaches to actually play all their players -- again, fulfilling the promise of "exposure."

And to those who'd complain that not playing to champions would eliminate the factor of competition I'd say, if auditioning for a $250,000 or more scholarship isn't motivation enough or your kid just isn't innately competitive, you're better off spending the summer touring the Grand Canyon.

To address the country's appetite for champions, you might even allow traditional tournaments to be held during, say, the third summer evaluation week.

A real radical approach could be conducting week-long "summer leagues." Each "league" would essentially take over a city and its (air-conditioned) facilities and each evaluation week could have, say, two sites. Week One would be Los Angeles and Queens, N.Y. Week Two would be Chicago and Las Vegas. Week three could be Denver and Atlanta. The cities would rotate every year; the "leagues" could be awarded by an NCAA committee through a bidding process (leagues even could be divided into "clusters" of gyms, each cluster operated by a different organizer). This way, everyone would know exactly where they were going, months and months in advance.

Who would be against reform? I only can imagine those who seek to profit greatly from the current, broken system. And these may be either event organizers or recruiters who believe they flourish in the current chaotic climate. The only other ones could be those to whom these appears too daunting a challenge -- to figure it all out and take the crap from those resisting the change.

Most of the rest of us agree -- that the summer now is a pit that invites disaster. Hopefully, the impetus to real reform will not require one of our own to follow the fate of the late Skip Prosser, or even more players lose precious months because of fatigue-induced injuries.

Look at it this way: people said Elena Delle Donne was courageous for taking the summer off. It looks now like pure genius.

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