The Harrison twins have picked Kentucky. Maryland fans weap. Under Amour employees continue searching for their next next big thing.
Aaron and Andrew Harrison, 6-5 twin guards out of Texas, will announce where they plan to play college basketball next year at a 5 p.m. press conference scheduled to be televised on ESPNU today.
They're supposedly picking between defending national champion Kentucky and still-rebuilding Maryland. Wildcats head coach John Calipari has had 15 players drafted into the NBA in his three years coaching in Lexington. Playing for him is seen as the surest way to a quick, smooth transition to professional basketball -- after a stop in the Final Four, of course.
Maryland, meanwhile, finished 17-15 a year ago. There are many straightforward reasons for the Terps being able to make this unlikely push for elite players: the Harrisons are from Texas, the state in which Turgeon coached for four years before coming to Maryland. Their father grew up in Baltimore. A good friend, Shaquille Cleare, is the Terps' top incoming recruit this year.
But all anybody is talking about is the Under Armour connection; the Baltimore-based company sponsors their AAU team, which is coached by their father. And, of course, they provide gear for Maryland's athletic teams.
How else to really explain what the Sun's recruiting writer, Matt Bracken, has dubbed the most high-profile recruiting battle in the school's history (or at least the part of history during which recruiting was covered closely.)
Eric Prisbell, formerly of The Washington Post and now with USA Today, has driven this story. He wrote about the close relationship the Harrison family has developed with Chris Hightower, who works in basketball marketing for Under Armour and is a liaison to the twins.
"He is my saving grace that there are some upright, straight, humane people in the basketball business," Aaron Harrison Sr. told Prisbell. "He is the one guy who can call Aaron and Andrew."
Shoe companies have long built their brands by getting their gear on the feet of elite players, often when they are very young. There's nothing inherently nefarious about the practice. But these deals always lead to suspicion. Here's CBS hoops columnist Gary Parrish:
"The unconfirmed stories I could tell you about moves one shoe-company executive or another have pulled or tried to pull would blow your already cynical mind, and they usually begin with Nike, Adidas, Reebok or, in this case, Under Armour deciding to fund some team or program featuring elite talents. The idea is to create an advantage with money, build and nurture a relationship with the principal parties and hope it all pays off when the time comes for those elite talents to pick a school."
Under Armour founder Kevin Plank is, of course, a Maryland grad. He's never hidden his pride for Maryland ... the state or the school. And he loves to win. He lives to win. I'm sure that he wants the Harrison twins to attend his alma mater, and then to sign endorsement deals when they turn pro. That's where the real money is.
Under Armour officials, for what it's worth, have not responded to requests for comment about this situation. Nor have they allowed me to talk to Hightower or another member of their grassroots basketball marketing team.
I did speak to one prominent AAU director who said that having a shoe company representative develop a close relationship with a player is not that unusual. Criss Beyers runs the Indiana Elite program out of Bloomington, Ind. The program has nurtured the likes of Eric Gordon, Tyler Zeller, Mason Plumlee, Cody Zeller and dozens of other Division I players. It is currently sponsored by Adidas, but Beyers ran a program with Nike's help years ago (it included players like Shawn Kemp and Glenn Robinson).
"Every company I've been with, the grassroots basketball guy has taken an interest in the kids," he said. "That's natural. They get feedback on the product and, yes, they build that relationship."
Beyers was an assistant coach at Bloomington South High School when the Panthers struck a deal to wear Under Armour gear a few years ago when the company was introducing its basketball shoes. Those, the kids were lukewarm on. But they loved the apparel.
That's still the case today, Beyers said.
"The shoes are getting there," he said. "But the other gear is right up there with anybody."
Beyers has seen Under Armour take a careful approach to building its brand, coming to deals with select AAU teams across the country. They're focusing on partnering with established programs -- or those with elite talent coming through the pipeline. They don't have the sway of Nike or Adidas, and probably even trail Reebok in some areas.
"I wouldn't say they're up there with the big two," Beyers said. "But I wouldn't say they aren't headed there. I've heard nothing but very positive things about Under Armour."
Kentucky is a Nike school. If the Harrisons do what almost everyone expects them to do and opt to turn pro after a year, they could spend less than 11 months in the program.
Would that be long enough to break any bond the twins have formed with Hightower? Can Nike turn them that quickly?
Perhaps the better question is: does it really matter? If the Harrisons develop as projected, they'll demand top money from sponsors. Relationship or not, Under Armour will have to pay it.
As I said earlier, Plank wants to win. Badly. But in some ways the company has already done what it needed to do: create buzz.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times