Deborah Lopez, mother of one of Southern California's best grade-school basketball players, was more than a little occupied with her 23-month-old twin sons. They squirmed and tugged as she walked into the gym at Campbell Hall School in North Hollywood two months ago.
But the twins were not the only ones competing for her attention.
Lopez was being followed by a man she had just met. He wore a blue jacket embossed with the logo of a high school all-star game. He was carrying a notebook and pen.
But he was not attending the game to take notes on the eighth-grade basketball tournament. He was there to meet the Lopezes.
After he had been introduced to Deborah's husband, Heriberto, he turned his attention to basketball. At first, his up-tempo banter centered on the game in progress.
Then, the conversation turned to the Lopez's oldest son, Alex, who was playing in the tournament. Before the family left, the man had dropped a few names--John Wooden, Michael Jordan, Don MacLean--and given his phone number.
Deborah Lopez remembers thinking, "My gosh, it's starting."
Really, though, the recruiting of Alex Lopez had begun long before.
Lopez is a junior high school player who stands 6-feet-10. At 14, he already has piqued the interest of the basketball world.
Before the family decided last week to send Alex to Campbell Hall, he was one of the Southland's most sought-after eighth-graders.
High school coaches watched his games from the stands. College recruiters and boosters introduced themselves at youth tournaments in Las Vegas, Seattle and Phoenix. Summer league coaches have asked him to switch teams.
The man who followed Deborah Lopez into the gymnasium last February was a student teacher at Alex's Porter Junior High in Granada Hills. His motives, Deborah said, were unclear.
"Call me if you need any help organizing Alex's college recruiting," the man said. "Call me if I can help with anything."
When the Lopezes seek assistance, however, they call Rich Goldberg, founder of the San Fernando Valley-based American Roundball Corp., a youth league for players from 8 years old through high school. Goldberg coaches Lopez's eighth-grade team, which includes some of the Southland's best 13- and 14-year-old players.
Goldberg has become a mentor not only for Alex, who started playing in ARC in the fifth grade, but the entire family. At the family's request, he has counseled the Lopezes on which San Fernando Valley high schools offer the best athletic-academic balance.
Lopez lives in the Kennedy High School attendance area. But he can enroll at any private school.
Kennedy is a three-year, public school, which the Lopezes believe is a disadvantage for a college basketball prospect.
"Rich Goldberg has compared players who have gone to three-year and four-year schools, and he says there is a tremendous difference when they go to a three-year," said Deborah, who like Goldberg is a schoolteacher. "They lose one full year of development. It's crucial for these boys to attend a four-year school."
With that in mind, the family asked Goldberg to arrange visits to practices and games at several schools being considered.
Dean Crowley, an administrator with the California Interscholastic Federation's Southern Section, said that if Alex and his parents spoke with coaches during the visits, it would violate the rule of undue influence. The rule requires coaches to direct inquiries dealing with the athletic program and enrollment to high school administrators.
If a violation were proven, the school and coach could be sanctioned, Crowley said.
"The rule is in place specifically to prevent this kind of shopping around," Crowley said. "Coaches may not have contact with players who are not in their school."
One of the schools Lopez and his father visited was Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, where Lopez took the school's entrance exam. Mick Cady, Notre Dame's coach, admitted speaking with the Lopezes during the high school season.
But Cady said that was during a visit by Lopez, his father and Goldberg. Two players said the three stayed at a Notre Dame practice for about 30 minutes, and that Cady talked with the group during water breaks.
Tim Williams, an assistant coach and chairman of the school's English department, spoke with them outside the gym for 20 minutes after practice. Williams said he escorted them and answered academic-related inquiries.
"They ducked in and watched practice for a second while they were checking out the rest of the campus," Williams said. "They wanted to know where the computer lab was, so I showed them. We've been very careful about possible infractions."
Crowley, however, said that a prospective athlete cannot speak with an assistant coach under any circumstances.
"If they have questions about that school or program, they should be talking to one of three people: the principal, the assistant principal or athletic director," Crowley said.
The Lopezes also visited Campbell Hall. Joe Jackson, the second-year coach, said Alex and his father attended some games, but maintains that he did not violate recruiting rules.
Jackson, who said he is not well versed in the rules, admitted speaking with Lopez on a few occasions regarding personal and academic matters. Such discussions would amount to a violation, Crowley said.
Lopez's recruiting has not been limited to high schools.
Colleges started making indirect contact after Lopez's sixth-grade year, his mother said.
Goldberg said such inquiries are not unusual, and that many of his eighth-graders receive literature from colleges.
"He doesn't get letters that say, 'Dear Alexander, we want you to come to our school,' " Deborah said.
"He gets postcards in the mail that say, 'Our team is here and we just won.' They just want him to keep their name in (Alex's) mind."
There are other things on Alex Lopez's mind these days. He has a long way to go in developing his skills.
"We want it to remain fun for Alex," Goldberg said. "We're not trying to hurry him along. Alex is a kid who has a lot of interests. He collects Batman comic books."
Lopez is the oldest of four boys--all of whom are expected to grow to 6-10 or taller, their mother said. He is the family's first to experience the pressures of youth basketball.
The Lopezes are on guard.
"They're looking for a piece of the pie," Deborah said of people who have approached her about her son. "They're looking down the road, projecting, so they can say, 'I knew so-and-so when he was young. I saw him play as a kid and I helped develop him.' "