Cage Camp Matches Top Players, Recruiters : Preps Shoot for Scholarships, Scouts for Outstanding Talent

Times Staff Writer

Even if they couldn't see Big Brother watching them, the high school basketball players who converged upon UC Santa Barbara recently probably could sense his presence.

The 15th annual Sportsworld Invitational Superstar Basketball Camp attracted about 150 college recruiters who perched high in the stands at Events Center, armed with notebooks and keen eyes.

A blur of prep talent scurried on the four courts below. For five days, 260 of the best high school players in the West furiously battled each other. All hoped to rise above the crowd. Catching an eye meant possibly catching a college scholarship.

It's doubtful that any talent went unnoticed and there were few surprises.

"Before, you could discover somebody," Northwestern assistant coach Jim Brewer said. "Now, if you can play, everybody knows it."

A few feet from Brewer stood another coach jotting down notes.

"It used to be some guys were hidden," UCSB assistant Ben Howland said. "There are no secrets now."

Everyone agrees exposure is the main focus of the Superstar camp. Coaches cannot recruit or even talk to the players. But they can watch. That was the primary reason the camp was created in 1973. That's why every player laid down $365 to attend.

"Basically I think everybody is trying to set a standard for themselves so they can be known," Santa Monica player Chris Cotton said. "You're trying to establish a reputation as a good player. You don't want to leave a bad impression; this is your future."

Everyone who enters the camp is known as a good player. All 260 players were invited to attend. Not anyone with a nifty jumper can show up. Max Shapiro, president of Sportsworld, said the camp has always been by invitation only.

"I thought there was a need," he said, "for some of the better players to be in an environment to compete with some of the better players in the West."

The competition rarely ceases. Campers are numbered, placed on teams and play two games a day. Games are played simultaneously on four adjoining courts. There are also one-on-one and three-on-three tournaments, as well as various shooting contests.

The Events Center becomes a buzz saw of bouncing basketballs and squeaking sneakers. But through the haze of players, the best of the bunch emerges. The camp ends with an all-star game featuring the top 15 players of the week.

Becoming one of the highly desired prospects is the goal of every camper. Weeding out the talent, however, is not the only purpose of the Superstar camp. Proposition 48, which requires a minimum SAT score and a minimum grade average, has heightened awareness of academic achievement and has brought more to the camp than just pickup games. "What we're trying to focus on with the youngsters is the importance of being a student athlete as opposed to a dumb jock," Shapiro said. "Kids are finding out that if you're not a student, if you're not passing, then you're not playing basketball."

The camp attempts to get this point across in a number of ways. Speakers provide academic counseling. The players even take a mock ACT standardized test and have the results mailed to them. Coaches lecture on the recruiting process. One session of talks is devoted to the evils of drugs and alcohol.

All the programs away from the court stress that someday, that's where every player will be--away from the court. Basketball isn't eternal. The game eventually ends for everyone.

"The camp is trying to make the educational part of sports more palatable for the young athletes," Brewer said. "They need to understand there's more to life then bouncing a basketball."

Although the counseling is looked upon as a bonus, the focus of the camp is still primarily on bouncing a basketball. Players attend to play games, improve and impress.

"They know why they're here," Howland said. "They're here because they want to be seen."

Coaches are there to see. Most are following up on guys they know about. Sometimes new names are added to the recruiting list. Others are dropped.

The mass of talent makes the job of selection of the chosen few much easier for a scout. In effect, the players come to him instead of the coach chasing down the player.

"Camps are more important now," UC Irvine assistant Bob Thate said. "You used to drive up to L. A. and go to one gym to see one kid play. Here, you can see 200 kids."

Seeing as many players at once is even more important for scouts this summer. NCAA rules that went into effect last fall give coaches only the last three weeks of July to evaluate prospects. That is half the time granted last summer.

"Because the recruiting period has been narrowed, this is the first exposure a lot of coaches have of the kids," Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery said. "There's not enough time to give them a second or third chance. You have to make some fairly quick decisions, nay or yeah, on who to pursue."

The limited recruiting time also means camps are now in competition. The Superstar camp was held at the same time as the Nike Camp in Princeton, N. J. The Nike camp is more prestigious and lured some of the prized prospects from the West.

"Because of the new NCAA three-week window, this camp is a little watered down," Arizona State assistant Frank Arnold said. "But there's still sufficient talent."

"There are a lot of good players here," Thate said. "Very few great players."

That is a change at the Superstar camp. The first camp roster in 1973 included NBA players Reggie Theus, Bill Laimbeer and Bill Cartwright. Other Superstar veterans include Kiki Vandeweghe, Lafayette Lever and Brad Lohaus.

Shapiro agrees the bigger camps have drawn away the bigger name players. But that isn't a concern that has caused a change in the camp format.

"The camp today doesn't have all the top players as it did when we started," Shapiro said. "But that's not bad. The camp wasn't created to benefit only the top players. This camp is still fulfilling the purpose it was created for."

With the best-known players heading East during the summer, the door at the Superstar camp has been opened for lesser-known players.

"This gives more kids a chance to be seen by a wider range of coaches," Montgomery said.

"Mostly we're watching kids we're already recruiting," Howland said. "But there are some new faces we were not aware of and that is always nice. There is always a kid who was not known and in three or four days everybody knows him. It happens every year."

That's the dream of every camper. That's why they attend. Every move they make, every shot they take, will be watched by scouts with scholarships.

"You know they're up there watching you," Nogales player Corey Rogers said. "You know you have to pull out your best and play to all your ability. You don't just want to lollygag around."

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