How the NCAA discarded a program that could have helped address college basketball's problems

NCAA president Mark Emmert did not show the same enthusiasm for the First Team program as his predecessor did. (AP)

As college basketball’s power brokers grasp for ways to address the bribery and corruption uncovered by federal investigators last month, an ex-NCAA staffer openly chuckles at the irony.

Duke Pryor says his former employer’s best plan of attack would be reviving a groundbreaking program it needlessly discarded earlier this decade.

“When all this scandal stuff came out, I just sat there initially and was like, ‘There was a program in place that could have helped the situation,'” Pryor said. “I was like, ‘You already had your answer, but y’all did away with it.'”

From 2002 to 2012, Pryor was one of the pillars of what some consider to be the most innovative program the NCAA ever created to help elite male basketball prospects navigate the pitfalls of the college recruiting process. Participants in the First Team Program entered as high school freshmen and received year-round education and mentoring the next four years, helping them improve their study habits, understand NCAA eligibility rules and steer clear of exploitation and extra benefits.

Despite a skeleton staff and a budget that was far from lavish, Pryor and his First Team colleagues made meaningful connections with hundreds of prospects at the program’s annual conference or during sporadic home visits. By no means did they deter every First Team participant from ceding control of the recruiting process to a slick-talking handler or accepting under-the-table payments from an unscrupulous agent, but they at least were able to help prospects and their families make better-informed choices.

The initial sign of trouble for First Team arrived in 2009 when it was folded into iHoops, an ambitious joint initiative from the NBA and NCAA intended to improve the quality of grassroots basketball. First Team’s altruistic mission didn’t match the objectives of a for-profit start-up tasked with achieving financial self sustainability within five years, nor was iHoops longterm viability ever promising given its convoluted business plan and founding partners with clashing philosophies.

There’s a good chance First Team might have outlasted iHoops had former NCAA president Myles Brand not contracted pancreatic cancer in January 2009. First Team lost its most powerful advocate when Brand died eight months later. Successor Mark Emmert displayed less enthusiasm for the program and chose not to resuscitate it after iHoops quietly folded in late 2012.

“First Team was Myles Brand’s baby,” said Jason Singleton, an assistant director for the program from 2007 to 2010. “He knew exactly who we were as an organization. He would often call us to ask how things were going or just to talk. Once Myles passed, I don’t think we were a priority for the NCAA any longer.”

The NCAA’s decision to allow the First Team program to wither away merits further scrutiny now that the FBI has blown open the doors to the unsavory world of college basketball recruiting.

On Sept. 26, federal authorities indicted 10 men in a widespread fraud and bribery scheme involving top recruits, prominent coaches, agents, financial planners and shoe-apparel executives. FBI agents have since raided the office of high-profile agent Andy Miller and subpoenaed employees of Nike’s EYBL grassroots division, strong indications that other prominent college basketball programs could be ensnared before this investigation is over.

Nobody affiliated with First Team is naive enough to suggest an understaffed mentorship program with no punitive power could have singlehandedly stamped out college basketball’s thriving black market for top prospects. Every year, there were marquee prospects whose handlers forbade them from participating in First Team presumably to keep them oblivious about what was really going on in their recruitment.

Nobody affiliated with First Team is jaded enough to suggest the program couldn’t make a meaningful impact if it were still operating though. To this day, ex-First Team staffers still hear from players grateful for their mentors’ guidance and support.

“The education and information we provided dispelled a lot of myths, answered a lot of questions and possibly avoided some serious consequences for those who took what they heard to heart,” said former NBA standout Len Elmore, who oversaw First Team during his two-year stint as iHoops CEO from 2010 to 2012.

“The First Team program did a tremendous job year after year. If you went to their annual conference, you saw the growth of those kids. You saw seniors with tears in their eyes thanking us for putting them through the program and giving them the tools they needed to succeed.”

An iHoops clinic held at the 2011 Final Four (Getty)

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The impetus for the creation of the First Team program was the NCAA’s desire to address some issues that will sound very familiar to today’s basketball fans.

Transfer rates in college basketball were too high and graduation rates were too low. Players often left for the NBA before they were ready. Street agents and shoe companies cozied up to elite high school players and their handlers in an effort to gain influence by the time they were ready to turn pro.

The year wasn’t 2017. It was 1998.

Eager to combat that culture of corruption, the NCAA did what it does best — it formed a committee, one with a needlessly long title no less. Among the solutions the NCAA’s 27-member Working Group to Study Basketball Issues proposed the following year was an education and mentoring program intended to help top prospects avoid negative influences during the recruiting process.

Out of that recommendation sprung First Team, which launched in 2002 under the leadership of former Winston-Salem State athletic director Anne Little. Her first three hires were all former men’s college basketball players: Greg Turner, a teammate of Charles Barkley at Auburn, Greg Graham, a two-time Big Ten champion at Indiana, and Pryor, who played for NAIA Marian College.

Little instructed her three-man staff to identify the nation’s most promising eighth-grade prospects and persuade them to join First Team the summer before they entered high school. It was a daunting challenge in an era when it wasn’t yet normal for middle-school phenoms to have YouTube mixtapes or scouting services to rank players so young.

First Team staffers scoured the nation for talent, sometimes booking cross-country flights to evaluate a player based on nothing more than a tip from a coach one of them knew. It didn’t matter whether it was an at-risk teen from the inner city or a privileged kid from a wealthy suburb. The goal was simply to find prospects with high-major Division I potential.

“We were on a flight every week and we were all over the country,” Pryor said. “The shoe companies would be like, ‘Dang, how did y’all find that kid?’ I’d be like, ‘Man, we’re working. We’re out here on the grind.'”

At least 50 of the nation’s most promising rising freshmen got invitations to apply to join First Team every June. Those who accepted received a plane ticket to First Team’s annual August conference, a summer-circuit event unlike any other in that there was no basketball played.

“The main thing I think they did was show all of us they cared,” said former Florida State star and current Miami Heat forward Okaro White. “The program was like no other, the way the yearly conferences were set up around teaching and in a college-class type of format. The staff worked hard not just the weekend of the conference but throughout the year checking in on us.”

The three-day conference typically featured seminars on everything from mock recruiting situations to media training, from time management skills to table etiquette. College stars and NBA luminaries would also mingle with the players and speak about the challenge of transitioning from high school to college, the importance of setting and achieving goals or the perils of the recruiting process.

While the summer conference was First Team’s signature event, players in the program would also receive monthly phone calls and letters from their mentors, occasional home visits and even a card in the mail on their birthdays. Among the most prominent First Team alums now playing in the NBA are Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers, Gary Harris, Brandon Knight and Mike Conley Jr.

“When I go to an NBA game and see one of our former kids, a lot of times they run out from their posse to give me a hug and tell me, ‘You don’t know how much you taught me,'” Pryor said. “People look at me like who the hell is this guy?”

Adidas executive Lawrence Norman throws the three stripes sign during a 2009 iHoops photo shoot. (Getty)

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When the NCAA folded First Team into its newly created iHoops venture in 2009, it didn’t take long for staffers to recognize their jobs were about to get more complicated.

Several First Team staff members recall an ominous moment during a photoshoot following the June 2009 announcement that Nike and Adidas had joined iHoops as founding partners. Adidas executive Lawrence Norman subtly yet unmistakably flashed the three stripes hand sign as he posed for a group picture with other iHoops stakeholders, an early sign that the partners in this start-up would be looking out for themselves.

A confidential business plan for iHoops written in December 2007 reveals the blueprint for a company that didn’t yet have a CEO or any employees but was already trying to achieve too many goals and serve too many masters.

To help make their new joint venture capable of sustaining itself financially by its sixth year of operation, the NCAA and NBA intended for the iHoops website to become an “online destination” for teenage hoopers and “the authoritative source of information about youth basketball in America.” There was even discussion of a youth basketball social media element “along the lines of MySpace or FaceBook.”

Needless to say, the iHoops website fell short of those grandiose expectations. Corporations typically weren’t interested in paying to advertise on the site because it didn’t generate sufficient traffic.

“Our sales team met with huge obstacles,” Elmore said. “Most advertisers wanted to know, ‘Where’s your million unique visitors, where’s this or where’s that?'”

Another prong of iHoops was providing more structure and higher standards for grassroots basketball. The company hoped to develop education and certification programs for grassroots coaches and referees and establish a sanctioning program for events that would serve as a way for participants to know the tournament in question met iHoops standards. The business plan indicates iHoops did not anticipate conducting events itself within its first five years, though it did not rule out the possibility at a later date.

While the mission to improve youth basketball was admirable, the NCAA and NBA greatly underestimated how much pushback they would receive from grassroots coaches and event organizers wary of iHoops encroaching on their space. Prominent AAU kingpins with checkered pasts didn’t want to submit to a background check. Event operators who were raking in money from entry fees or coaching packets also viewed iHoops as a potential competitor if the NBA and NCAA decided they wanted a piece of that lucrative business.

“While iHoops was officially endorsed by the NCAA and NBA, it had no real authority in the grassroots space,” said Kevin Weiberg, who served as the first CEO of iHoops for 13 months. “There really wasn’t anything the initiative could do to change things besides ask people to cooperate.

“You had different points of view among the primary organizations that came together to form it about what iHoops should and shouldn’t do,” . The NBA provided great support, but they viewed it in some respects more as a marketing effort or an effort to try to build a large audience as opposed to any sort of major reform effort. If reform came out of it, that was a good thing. But it wasn’t the primary focus.”

The conflicting interests of the iHoops stakeholders were especially problematic with regard to the last of the company’s three major objectives, a mission its business plan refers to broadly as “educating athletes.” The founding partners agreed that the First Team program should take ownership of this objective, but they differed on what the primary goals were.

During Brand’s tenure as NCAA president, he made sure First Team had enough staff and resources to mentor as many as 300 Division I prospects at one time. Once iHoops launched, some NBA executives viewed that as a needless money drain and wanted First Team to focus exclusively on a smaller, more select group of prospects who were more likely to play in the league someday. Then there was Nike and Adidas, who were mistrustful of one-another and unwilling to provide First Team staffers access to speak to their younger players at camps or tournaments.

“Everyone had different agendas,” Singleton said. “The NBA was more centered on elite athletes, the small percentage of athletes who had a chance to play in the NBA someday. The NCAA was looking at a bigger picture. It wanted to educate more student-athletes, which was a fundamentally different approach.”

With the website not generating enough revenue and reform efforts stalling out, iHoops churned through three CEOs in less than four years. Weiberg left for the Pac-12 after 13 months because he feared the company’s business model would not sustain it long enough to drive change. Elmore lasted two years before the iHoops board of directors all but forced him to resign by demanding he leave New York and move to Indianapolis full time. His replacement, former Colgate basketball player Derrick Godfrey, took over in May 2012 and was in charge just six months before iHoops shut down.

First Team died along with iHoops. Most of its staff saw what was coming and bailed for other jobs just before the program’s demise.

The NCAA had done little to address the corruption in college basketball since then until the results of the FBI’s investigation forced its hand. In classic NCAA fashion, Emmert announced earlier this month that he’s forming a 14-member committee to study the problems plaguing college basketball and determine what can be done to combat them.

It’s safe to say the former members of the First Team program have some suggestions on what Emmert should do. Singleton, now an assistant compliance director at Ohio State, is actually drafting a list of recommendations for the committee that includes bringing back the First Team program and providing it more resources.

“First Team is the best thing the NCAA has ever done,” Singleton said. “You have so many success stories, so many parents who would call or email us to thank us for the mentoring that we did. So many people in these kids’ lives have a hidden agenda, but we didn’t have a hidden agenda. We gave the kids a chance to get away for a little while and not be part of a meat market.”

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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