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A School for Scandal
Alexander Wolff
February 26, 2001
Take a championship high school team, an NBA-ready 7-footer, a coach accused of molestation, a secretive summer-league operator and a community desperate for a winner, and you've got all the ingredients for...
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February 26, 2001

A School For Scandal

Take a championship high school team, an NBA-ready 7-footer, a coach accused of molestation, a secretive summer-league operator and a community desperate for a winner, and you've got all the ingredients for...

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Word on the street is $200,000, a reporter tells him.

"Two hundred thousand dollars is nothing when you've got a $12 million contract."

And Russell Otis?

"I'd hope Tyson would take care of people who've taken care of him."

THE SHOE COMPANY

Marketing people call the seedbeds where young ballplayers germinate "the grass roots," and there was a time when Nike had the grass roots all to itself. But in 1991 the company fired the founder of its grassroots program, Sonny Vaccaro, and with a vengeance Vaccaro took his savvy and connections to Adidas. Before long, Adidas's grassroots division cultivated McGrady and Kobe Bryant, signing both to endorsement deals as they jumped from high school to the NBA.

Nike and Adidas have been joined in a soles-for-souls fight ever since. Their objective is to lock up the loyalty of as many top prospects as possible in case one should blossom into a high-profile endorser. It's essentially an exercise in plumbing-installing a network of catch basins to collect and channel young talent from youth teams to high schools to colleges and beyond.

Nike makes sure its pipes are made of platinum. In addition to its support for Barrett's program, the company picks up most of the tab for Dominguez's extensive national travel. The Dons may be based in Comp-ton, but they didn't play their first game in Southern California until the second week in January. A team that played only in half-empty gyms in decaying neighborhoods around L.A.—that didn't flaunt its status as national champions in Fresno; St. Louis; Trenton, N.J.; Portland; and Lewes, Del., as Dominguez has done this season—wouldn't be leveraging Nike's investment.

Because they fertilize so much basketball bottomland, the shoe companies have suffered a number of public embarrassments in addition to those involving Russell Otis and Pat Barrett. Last June, Adidas-affiliated Artesia High in Lakewood fired its coach, Wayne Merino, after determining that he was suiting up transfers from the Dominican Republic and Iceland who had phony student visas. In 1998 parents discovered that one Nike-affiliated youth coach in Massachusetts was a convicted sex offender. The same year in the same state another coach, supported by Adidas, lost his funding and AAU standing after parents and players filed complaints alleging that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior. Until 1997 Nike supported Kansas City-based youth coach Myron Piggie, a convicted crack dealer who, to avoid prosecution on a weapons charge, pleaded guilty last May to a federal count of mail fraud for compromising the amateur status of Corey Maggette, JaRon Rush, Kareem Rush and Andre Williams, all of whom were suspended for multiple games for Duke, UCLA, Missouri and Oklahoma State, respectively. The episode put Nike in the awkward position of watching its grassroots director, George Raveling, get hauled before the Piggie grand jury.

"I don't understand why the shoe companies don't reevaluate their involvement," says Dean Crowley, who retired as commissioner of the CIF's Southern Section in 1999. "Because of them, basketball in Southern California is an uneven playing field. The companies direct the traffic. Parents want kids in the visible programs, and the kids don't have the maturity to deal with that environment. We should have an open division. If you have a shoe deal, you should play only against schools that have shoe deals. Call it the Shoe Division."

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