For the casual fan, the games are under the radar, the results not counting for much. But the summer basketball circuit is a place where the stars of tomorrow are frequently discovered -- not only by fans and coaches, but by agents, marketers and other entrepreneurs looking for a way to cash in.
The summer’s glitziest events are held this month, and it was at these games only a few years ago that O.J. Mayo, a phenom from Huntington, W.Va., was discovered and touted as one of the sport’s next big things.
After one season at USC, Mayo became the No. 3 overall pick in the NBA draft last month. But he has also become a cautionary tale, an example of what can go wrong on the path from youth basketball prodigy to stardom as a professional.
Mayo faces an investigation into allegations he accepted illegal benefits from an agent’s representative whom he met on the summer circuit, and his situation is reverberating in gymnasiums and arenas across the country.
Watch who you talk to, players are warned. Be careful about what you might accept. Beware of newcomers who approach only after your career begins to blossom. Remember O.J.
“If you let one person into your circle, they can mess everything up,” said John Wall, a junior point guard from Raleigh (N.C.) Word of God Christian Academy who is considered one of the top players in his class.
Wall was participating in the recent Pangos All-American Camp held at USC’s Galen Center, where Mayo last season starred and Rodney Guillory was a regular at games and practices.
Guillory, a local events promoter, has been accused by a former associate of accepting nearly $250,000 from a sports agency and funneling a portion of it, in cash and other benefits, to Mayo before and during his one season with the Trojans, in violation of college rules.
Middlemen between agents and athletes are called “runners,” and Mayo has acknowledged meeting Guillory at a summer camp when he was in the eighth grade.
“You just have to be on the lookout for people like that,” said Darius Morris, a junior point guard from Los Angeles Windward School who says he has scholarship offers from USC, Michigan, Washington State and Arizona. “It’s kind of hard to tell who’s real and who’s fake out here.”
Guillory has not publicly commented on the allegations. Mayo says he did not accept money or gifts, and that Guillory is a friend and trusted advisor.
And that’s what often complicates matters, those familiar with the summer scene say. Runners typically occupy a position of trust -- a relative, friend, teammate or coach may try to steer the player in a particular direction for their own financial gain.
“A runner is not a specific thing,” said an agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to publicly divulge his association with such individuals. “More than half the time, they’re getting in play because they have claim to be there for another reason. ‘I’m an AAU coach. I’m a financial advisor. I’m a marketing guy. I’m a concierge company.’ They’re not coming in as, ‘I’m a runner.’ ”
As it is, summer basketball is largely unregulated. There is no rule preventing a runner, or an agent for that matter, from buying a ticket to a tournament or walking into a gym and chatting up parents, coaches, even players. It becomes a problem, though, if money, gifts or other favors that college rules prohibit as “extra benefits” change hands.
Brian Clifton, founder of the North Carolina-based team featuring Wall and two other players who had flown across the country to attend the Pangos Camp, says his policy is to be “leery of everybody.” He says he monitors his players between games and has advised them not to give out phone numbers.
“Whether we know guys or not, it only takes a second for somebody to be compromised . . . " Clifton said. “I would be absolutely mortified if someone got next to John and put him in the type of situation that O.J. was in.”
Among those who attended the Pangos camp was Duane Cooper, a former USC player listed as “West Coast director of grass roots basketball” for Excel Sports Management.
Cooper’s responsibilities, according to the Excel website, entail “scouting, evaluating and contacting new perspective [sic] clients” for an agency that represents such NBA players as Paul Pierce, Jason Kidd and Lamar Odom.
Cooper said he attended the camp’s final day to watch the all-star games and to support several friends who were coaches affiliated with the event, not to identify potential clients for his agency. When he discovers a prospect, Cooper said, he typically speaks first with the player’s parent.
“I have two sons of my own, and I wouldn’t want someone to go talk to my sons without first coming to me,” Cooper said. “I would like to give them that respect.”
When it comes to pickup lines used by runners to entice players, tactics vary.
“It’s not an exact science and there’s not an exact formula,” said Dinos Trigonis, director of the Pangos camp. “But it’s not different than meeting people and making friends.”
Wall, the guard from North Carolina, said he was frequently approached after high school games last season.
“They would tell me I had a good game, I’m a good player and they want to start helping me out basketball-wise,” Wall said. “I was like, ‘Nah. If you weren’t there before I had anything, there’s no point in you coming around now.’ ”
Compton High Coach Tony Thomas said agents and their runners hounded DeMar DeRozan, a USC-bound swingman who is already projected as a top pick in the 2009 NBA draft. “Everybody tried to talk to DeMar,” the coach said.
Thomas said he tried to serve as a sentry of sorts by exchanging business cards with prospective agents but making no promises about meetings or future access.
Some observers compare a coach who purports to guard a player’s best interest with the fox guarding the henhouse.
Pat Barrett, director of the perennially powerful Southern California All-Stars basketball club and for years a controversial figure in local basketball circles, is quick to acknowledge that he’s “not affiliated with any rules. . . . I have no kids in school, I’m not a booster, I’m not alumni,” Barrett said at a recent tournament at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. “I give my opinion and [a player] can take them for what they’re worth.”
Mayo certainly isn’t the first basketball star to be investigated for accepting what college rules refer to as “extra benefits,” and former shoe company executive Sonny Vaccaro confidently predicts he won’t be the last.
Vaccaro, who for years set up deals to sponsor some of the nation’s top teams and players, anticipates more scandals will arise in the wake of a 3-year-old NBA rule that high school graduates must wait one year before playing in the league.
The vast majority of players with NBA aspirations spend that one year in college, where, Vaccaro says, they become more susceptible to runners and other unsavory influences.
“In high school, everyone around you is in your same environment. Strangers stood out,” said Vaccaro, who hopes to testify before Congress trying to get the rule repealed. “But in college, the accessibility of the outside people [to players] is much greater and much more tempting.”
Then again, Guillory’s initial contact with Mayo predated even high school, and Bob Becker, coach at Cerritos Gahr High, offers a view that directly opposes Vaccaro’s. Becker says too many star players are being coaxed to transfer to high schools for basketball reasons.
“In the NCAA there are compliance people at every college monitoring everything so a kid stays clean,” Becker said. “How can we be so strong in college and not in the high schools? These kids are flying all over, with guys around them all the time. It’s so unregulated.
“People say it’s just the culture. Well, no. It’s wrong.”
Times staff writer Lance Pugmire contributed to this report.
Runners: An agent tells how easy it is for third parties to come into the recruitment picture. D10
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Dozens of youth and high school camps and tournaments fill the summer basketball calendar. A few of the best and biggest upcoming:
Three Stripes Tournament, Cal State Dominguez Hills, today through Tuesday -- The 52-team Amateur Athletic Union tournament is scheduled to include USC recruit Dwayne Polee Jr.
Fullcourt Press Cream of the Crop Challenge at the Hangar Athletic Xchange and Lynwood High, Monday and Tuesday -- About 300 college coaches are expected to attend this event featuring both club and high school-affiliated teams.
Reebok Summer Championships, Henderson, Nev., July 22-26 -- Considered the best-organized and longest-running of the Vegas-area summer tournaments.
Main Event, Las Vegas, July 22-26 -- Last year’s event drew 696 teams from the United States, Canada and New Zealand.
Adidas Super 64 Tourney, Las Vegas, July 22-26 -- Event was launched several years ago after Sonny Vaccaro left Adidas for Reebok.
AAU West Coast National Championships, Las Vegas, July 22-25 -- Tournament with as many as 168 teams sanctioned by the national AAU basketball committee.
Fullcourt Press End of the Trail Classic, Long Beach Cabrillo High, July 28-30 -- Scheduled to include 40 teams, including contingents from Compton Dominguez and Santa Ana Mater Dei high schools.
Double Pump Best of Summer Tournament, Loyola Marymount, July 27-31 -- As many as 192 teams will compete in a tournament that wraps up the summer period.
-- Ben Bolch