ESPN HoopGurlz: Flight's super team could force changes
It was a confluence of circumstances that may have prompted the beginning of the end of the girl's club-basketball system as we know it.
In Southern California, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis was looking for a reduced summer schedule and to get away from the cattiness of her native region. In New York, Stefanie Dolson's program imploded and her longtime club coach helped her land elsewhere. In the hoops fertile, D.C./Maryland/Virginia (DMV) region, Ronika Ransford emerged as a high-profile recruit and outgrew her high-school-based travel team.
All three landed in the same unlikely place, hundreds of miles away, on a club team called the Tennessee Flight, based in Shelbyville, Tenn. The Flight, which also has players from Mississippi and Kentucky, in addition to Tennessee, proved attractive because it is the defending Nike Nationals champion and its coach, Tom Insell, the product of a well-known coaching family, was willing to make accommodations. None of the three girls practice with the team on a regular basis, for example, and Ransford's high-school coach, Frank Oliver of H.D. Woodson in Washington, D.C., was offered a spot on the Flight bench.
For Insell, taking on three of the best players in the country -- Ransford and Dolson are Nos. 11 and 14 in the 2010 class; Mosqueda-Lewis is No. 2 in 2011 -- was a no-brainer.
"If you're not driven every year with your team, every team that you have, to make them the best team in that age in the country, then you're not doing something right," said Insell, whose father, Rick, is the head women's basketball coach at Middle Tennessee and brother, Matt, is an assistant at Kentucky.
"We want our freshman team and our sophomore team and our big team to be the best team in that division in the country. That's what pushes us every year. We take it to a higher standard every year. We took it from last year where we win Nike Nationals and we took it three steps farther this year. I think this team is three times better talent-wise, but they're not a team yet. Last year's team was totally different. I had to make them believe they could win. This team knows they can win, I just have to get them playing as a team.
"Me, I'm goal-oriented. My coaches are goal-oriented. We want to have the best Nike team in the country, year in and year out. We want to be the ones (who are) heading to Nike meetings in the fall. We want the best team in the country. If we're not the best team, we're not satisfied. That's the real reason we decided do this."
As understandable and typically American as Insell's decision may have been, it also is considered by many college, club and high-school coaches and other basketball sources interviewed by ESPN HoopGurlz to be the tipping point for the club-team system on the girl's side. Many expect efforts to change NCAA recruiting legislation for women's basketball to accelerate and emulate changes already implemented on by the men. The most relevant example in this case would be confining club teams to fielding players from the same state with, at most, three from a geographically adjoining state; players must maintain three months residency in states they are supposed to be representing.
Mosqueda-Lewis has committed to playing both this year and next year for the Flight, according to her step-father, Khairi Ali, but if the "adjoining state" legislation were to pass, she'd be prohibited from fulfilling the second year of that commitment.
The NCAA is also investigating links between club teams and recruiting services. Eliminating the spring evaluation period in April on the boys' side caused colleges to rely more on the services and some coaches have expressed the fear of being blocked from recruiting certain players if the schools didn't subscribe to the services with which those players' teams were affiliated. The NCAA has placed additional restrictions on recruiting services, such as requiring publicly posted pricing, free samples to prospective subscribers and mandating content beyond only player contact information and rankings.
Certification of club coaches and mandatory registration of club teams already has been mandated by the NCAA for participation in certified evaluation events. The NCAA requires relevant contact information for each player on a roster, halting a previous practice of coaches listing their own addresses for each recruit.
The youth basketball landscape also is rife with speculation that the NCAA could attempt to scale back or eliminate privately operated evaluation events and steer the recruiting process more toward high schools. Though many college coaches have their particular issues with the club-basketball system, they mostly point out that congregating dozens of elite prospects in one place -- as the spring and summer evaluation events do -- is far more cost-effective than the mostly single-game-based high-school season. Also, private stakeholders in the club system, most notably Mike Flynn of Blue Star Basketball and U.S. Junior Nationals (USJN), have successfully used the legal system to forestall attempts to restrict evaluation events.
Asked about the possibility of any major overhaul of the current system of evaluation events, Michael T. White, another of the country's major event organizers, responded, "Can you say, 'Restraint of trade?'"
As much as anything, economic factors, particularly the global recession, have fueled the discussion of the future of club basketball. The fires of that discussion were fanned when Mary Thompson, Nike's Elite Youth Basketball Manager, was caught in the athletic footwear and sportswear manufacturer's recent layoffs, which in turn were sparked by tail spinning revenues. After all, sneaker companies, with Nike in the forefront, arguably are the most influential forces in club basketball.
Mirroring the boys' side, the club system on the girls' is splintered, largely along sneaker lines -- Nike, Michael T. White (associated with Fila) and adidas -- with several satellite, sub-circuits tied to recruiting services and event companies. Nike is the unchallenged queen of the girls' game, offering prestige in the form of team sponsorships, its Regional and National Skills Academies and its sponsorship of the two biggest tournaments in the sport -- Nike Nationals for club teams in July and the Nike Tournament of Champions for high-school teams in December. As one club program director put it, "You're either fighting to stay Nike, or fighting to become Nike. If you're neither, you probably don't really count."
Since Thompson's layoff, many have surmised that Nike is poised to scale back its commitment to club and high-school basketball. However, Nike says its focus has been on staging the remaining events on its girl's basketball calendar -- the National Skills Academy, which tips off on Tuesday, and Nike Nationals, July 28-31 -- and will consider future endeavors in the fall. It seems unlikely that Nike will conduct any large reduction in its club-basketball presence.
"Nike is committed to building on the popularity of women's youth basketball," said Jill M. Pizzotti of Nike Women's Basketball Sports Marketing. "We believe that basketball is a catalyst that helps kids stay active and have fun. Healthy environments help create healthy minds for girls around the world -- Nike remains committed to building essential life skills at the grass roots level."
Sneaker sponsorships provide some common benefits -- free or subsidized gear, waived or subsidized tournament fees and preferential placement at events (players into individual showcases or teams into "elite" brackets) -- but there is a definite caste system, according to various sources who helped shed light on the financial aspect of the club sponsorships.
Nike team sponsorships are said to be $15,000 to $20,000 in credit for top-tier teams, which are believed to be locked down in five-year contracts; $9,000 to $12,500 for middle-tier teams in two-year deals, and about $5,000 for the lowest-tier teams, also in two-year contracts. After product is acquired at discounted rates, Nike cuts a check for the difference between the grant assigned to the team and the value of the product. The sources indicated that it costs about $1,000, at Nike's discounted prices, to outfit one team with uniforms and sneakers.
White's breakup with adidas in 2008 spawned two "circuits" (generally, sneaker-sponsored teams are prevented from participating in rival sneaker-sponsored events during the NCAA evaluation periods), so several teams have been on both sides of the coin. In one-year contracts, adidas offers gear credit, which at one time, at least, was as much as $12,500 for teams brimming with elite prospects; adidas programs complain their credit doesn't go very far because adidas does not offer substantial discounts to its teams. White's teams receive Fila sneakers, but coaches say the real value is playing in White's events, which are considered among the best in the country.
Still, even the largest grants do not completely cover the costs of fielding an elite travel team -- all estimates landed at about $20,000 per year, the largest portion of which goes to travel. For that reason, some club teams choose to remain unaffiliated, with New York-based Exodus being the prime example.
Time was, teams would divide the costs evenly among the players and their families, but those days are quickly vanishing for the elite travel teams. More and more, club coaches and directors are using the lure of free or all expenses paid to recruit top prospects. Costs usually are covered by passing them on to other teams in the same program or staging fund raising events, among other methods.
Elbert Kinnebrew, for one, got tired of fielding youth teams and helping players develop, only to have them get recruited away at high-school age by teams offering to cover expenses. So he consulted his wife, Karen, who played at Loyola Marymount, and they agreed to fund Cal Sparks Gold, their Southern California program's top team, to the tune of about $20,000 per year. When their second team, Cal Sparks Black, grew in talent with the addition of several players from resource-stretched, south-central Los Angeles, they decided to personally back that team as well.
"When I'm 65-70 years old and looking back on my life, I want to feel like I made a difference with these girls," Kinnebrew said. "I'm competitive and winning is fun, but that's not why I'm doing this. I take a lot more pride in taking kids and seeing them improve. You have to have a priority list and do not waver from it. If winning was a priority, we wouldn't put a 6-foot-3 kid out on the wing, or post up our point guard. Those are the kind of things that will grow their games, not necessarily get you wins."
Kinnebrew said he wants to develop Sparks teams by building chemistry and the skills of their players. So he won't accept players who cannot attend practices and said local teams offer consistent coaching that playing for regional or nationalized club teams cannot. He says, "the fly-em-in-and-play way is for other people."
Insell is one of those "other people." But he is not the first, even in recent years, to cross multiple state lines for players. The Flight's predecessor as Nike Nationals champion, Florida-based Essence, also had players from Georgia, Mississippi and Texas when it claimed the title in 2007. Last year, Blue Star pulled together a team, headlined by Kelsey Bone of Sugarland, Texas, from all over the country and played in Europe.
Though most college coaches interviewed by ESPN HoopGurlz generally were against the "super team" (multiple states) concept, only a few were adamantly so. Most cited the inevitability of more regionalized recruiting events and efforts, dictated by the recent, difficult economic times. Some coaches voiced concern about teams such as the Flight because of the recruiting involved, which could tempt ethical or rules violations or prompt what one assistant termed, "recruiting fatigue."
"By the time those players get to talking to us," the coach explained, "they've been pushed and pulled so much by the club teams, they don't want to go through it all again."
On the other hand, while an adjoining-state rule would temper some club-team recruiting battles, it would not eliminate them. Many of the most vicious fights take place in major metropolitan areas -- Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and Orange County, Calif., for example -- which host multiple elite travel teams across sneaker lines. One of the more contentious regions is metro New York, which feeds back and forth to New Jersey and is presently engaged in a "Godfather" like war with Philadelphia, in the bordering state of Pennsylvania.
Insell would argue that he has not contributed to the recruiting mess in girl's club basketball. After all, it was the players and their parents who approached him and the Tennessee Flight coaches, not vice versa.
Khair Ali called on Mosqueda-Lewis' behalf shortly after the Flight's win at Nike Nationals. When Insell traveled to Chandler, Ariz., to watch Mosqueda-Lewis play with Mater Dei High School in the Nike Tournament of Champions, he was approached by Oliver about Ransford, whose team also was playing in the TOC. Marc Riley of New York Elite, the longtime club coach of Dolson, a Connecticut commit, called Insell a couple months later. Oliver and Riley, in particular, were interested in getting their players in front of a more national audience in hopes of boosting their resumes for postseason honors.
"Why people like Stefanie, like Kaleena, like Ransford, like Valencia McFarland ... why do they play?" Insell asked. "They're going to get anything they want, but they play because they love the game. And the next thing is, they're like us. They want to win a national title. My kids that won it last year, are wanting to win a second one, back-to-back, that's never been done. Now, what's their other benefit? They're playing for McDonald's, they're playing for the WBCA, they're playing for the top rankings in the country.
"Here's what I told the whole team, and I'll give you the speech I just gave them and I've given them about four times," Insell added. "They're scholarships, they've got them. Every one of them on that team, they're going to sign major scholarships. Wherever they want 'em, they've got 'em. Four or five of them are already committed. We're not playing to get them scholarships. (The players) are not playing to show these colleges that they can play. They (colleges) already know that. The main thing we're playing for and our goal right now and it was our goal last year is to win Nike Nationals. Not any other tournament."
If the Tennessee Flight are successful in this quest, maybe, just maybe, it will come at the cost of next season's best player, as well as the kind of flexibility that put them in position to accomplish their lofty goal.