Hoopmasters: Courting Success

By Edward Cone Print this article Print

Van Coleman is an online aggregator and distributor of statistics on high-school players. You might think of him as a scout.

College basketball's championship tournament is known as March Madness, but things really get crazy in the business of amateur hoops in July.

Midsummer is peak season for the high-profile tournaments and camps where high-school stars show their stuff to college coaches. In one four-day stretch, Las Vegas alone will host three major events involving a total of more than 200 teams from across the country.

This is Van Coleman's moment to shine, a chance to display his quickness and the new moves in his game. But Coleman isn't a player. He's an online aggregator, analyst and distributor of information, or what's commonly known as a scout.

Speed matters in the scouting business because coaches have a limited amount of time to recruit players. NCAA rules limit recruiting to 40 days during the academic year and two brief windows during the summer—and showing interest early can help build a relationship.

"The first coach to call a player may be the guy that gets [the player] to sign with his program," says Coleman, a veteran of three decades on the road evaluating talent in high-school gyms.

Coleman and another well-known scout, Bob Gibbons, created a Web site called Hoopmasters.com that has become an online decision-making tool for coaches. The subscription site publishes information on top amateur players across the country, including physical measurements such as height, weight, and age; game statistics including scoring average and rebounds; and eligibility for college ball. They also send out e-mail updates to subscribers and will post daily Web bulletins from the camps and tournaments on player performance.

But Hoopmasters provides something more than speedy stats: It gives coaches the perspective of written evaluations of players' skills and attitude. Like corporate recruits, amateur athletes can't be judged by their resumes alone. There is no scientific formula for rating young players because statistics lie about schoolboy players. Sometimes the tourney games don't even keep official records of scores and stats.

"I don't know that there can be a formula," says Larry McKay, director of the Big Time tournament in Las Vegas, sponsored by Reebok. "You are not dealing with something that is robotic in nature."

College coaches, like corporate recruiters, are trying to judge not just potential but the potential to fulfill potential—qualities like character and commitment. This requires coaches to see kids play in person and meet their high-school coaches and parents. And as with hungry job seekers, young players are often tempted to latch onto the first decent offer they receive.

Coleman's value comes in quickly delivering reports that combine the basic stats on a player with critical, unstructured data—the qualitative analysis of how a player does what he does, based on the scout's experience watching tens of thousands of players in person over the years.

The same kind of unstructured data is critical in hiring workers, says Melissa Maffettone, a consultant and manager of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office of recruitment firm Robert Half International. "We need to judge candidates against other qualified people," she says. "To make that judgment call, we rely on both science and art. There is a technical part that involves their documented experience and a softer part that starts when you talk on the phone for the first time. The interview, the reference checks are critical. And you need a network of people who refer people to you."

Corporate recruiters and large companies maintain their own databases of job candidates, including unstructured data such as interview notes. But character traits can be tough to describe, especially since employment law requires that all statements in a candidate's file must be supportable by information in the file. Interviews can say only so much.

To record more detailed assessments, recruiters need their own scouts in the form of personal references. By building up a database of comments—such as "self starter," "works well with others" and more detailed critiques—recruiters can put together more informative candidate profiles that can be quickly searched when positions open up.

Here's how it works at Hoopmasters.com:

Maryland high school star Sam Young is listed at 6 feet 6 inches and reported to have scored 28 points in one game at a recent tournament. To find out more, coaches also can click through from a menu or a news story to a page breaking down the details of his game: "Excellent footwork and body control in the paint. Always manages to get his shot off inside, despite his lack of ideal height. Can go outside and drain jumpers." High-school junior Chris Bethel from the Bronx, N.Y., is said to be "a good effort guy who'll thrive at the mid-major level."

Categorizing a player by the type of school he could play for, e.g., mid-major or high major, is more valuable than crunching stats to produce a ranking number, says Coleman. (A mid-major school belongs to a conference in Division I—the top level of collegiate play—that has less power and visibility than better-known leagues such as the Atlantic Coast and Big East conferences, which include high-major stalwarts such as Duke, North Carolina and Connecticut.) "Nobody has come close to equaling the mind's snapshot of where a player ranks," he says. "I've seen maybe 25,000 kids in the last 30 years who have played some level of college basketball ... How can a computer measure quickness, or desire?"

What a computer can do is help send coaches after the right players in a timely way. "[The scouts'] ability to put time-sensitive information instantaneously onto the Web helps us make decisions on whether we want to further evaluate a player," says Fran McCaffery, the head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, a mid-major school. "We used to waste a day in the car out there," he says of the Las Vegas tournaments. "With 200 teams at 25 sites, you need to maximize your time. Now we can zero in more effectively on the individuals we want to see."

Web-based services let coaches process information from more sources, says McCaffery. He subscribes to online reports from regional scouts like North Carolina-based Bob Smith, who publishes the information he gathers in high-school gyms around the region at PrepPlus.com, and another regional expert, Tom Konchalski, as well as national reports from veteran scout Gibbons. "It greatly enhances our ability to not spin our wheels, so we save time and money," McCaffery says.

Services like Hoopmasters direct him to the kids most likely to meet his criteria. With about 500,000 boys playing high-school ball each year and the NCAA limiting recruitment, the technology helps coaches know who is worth a visit.

McCaffery, a former point guard at the University of Pennsylvania who has guided his UNCG Spartans to appearances in the NCAA tourney and the National Invitational Tournament, uses the Web to plan his schedule during hectic trips like the one to Vegas, and the other authorized recruiting periods. McCaffery also needs to know the likelihood that a particular kid might play in Greensboro, based on things like signing status, academic performance and hometown (kids in mid-major programs like his tend to stay closer to home than the superstars who go cross-country to play at a Duke or Arizona), before he commits his time to a visit.

Says McCaffery, "Ultimately, it's the coach in the gym and evaluation of character that matter most. I don't see the day a statistical model really works. When you go watch a player in high school, you look at the perceived upside more than past performance."

Word from a respected scout helps him narrow down the list of kids to visit. "I try to do character assessment before athletic talent—talk to his coach, his AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] coach, the opposing coach. If seven people rave about a kid's work ethic, you know you have something."

The scouts get paid to know this kind of stuff about the less-publicized players, the ones who can make a difference at smaller schools or programs that aren't traditional powers— and the ones who might still be available when the big names are done cherry-picking the ranks each spring.

Hoopmaster.com has about a thousand subscribers, including coaches at powerhouse college programs like Duke and Michigan State; big regional organizations like the Atlanta Celtics AAU program, which attracts top-level players such as Atlanta's Dwight Howard, a high-school senior who expects to go pro this summer; and rabid fans. Hoopmasters offers free pages in addition to its paid content ($7.95 per month or $59.95 per year), with news about players and games available on the front page and player stats and analysis behind the paywall. Hoopmasters also sells printed reports and magazines.

One promising new online service is video. "You have to see a kid play," says McCaffery. The chance to see a player in multiple games lets coaches judge intangibles like hustle and attitude that numbers don't always show. "We used to get VHS tapes taken by dads; now sometimes we get DVDs. Putting video of high-school games and high-school players on the Web makes a big difference."

The returns for moving quickly and correctly can be great. Offering a scholarship to the right player can bring back the investment many times over. USA Today estimates that national player-of-the-year Jameer Nelson may have been worth $2 million to tiny St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, including increased ticket sales, television appearances, merchandise and cash donations. (St. Joe's made it to the quarterfinal round of this year's NCAA tournament, the so-called Elite Eight.) A trip to last year's Final Four earned the University of Kansas an extra $200,000 from the sales of licensed merchandise, more than half again what it earned during the rest of the season. Major conferences will divide about two-thirds of the $425 million the NCAA got for TV rights to the tourney this year, with more money going to conferences with more successful member teams; each win by a conference school in the NCAA tournament is worth more than $100,000.

ESPN has started televising high-school games as a growing number of players skip college to go directly to the National Basketball Association. Many all-star games are also televised, and they serve as marketing vehicles for brands including McDonald's, videogame-maker EA Sports, and the major athletic shoe companies. Indeed, when Reebok hired amateur-hoops guru Sonny Vaccaro away from Adidas last fall, it was big enough news to earn a mention in Reebok chief executive Paul Fireman's discussion of third-quarter 2003 earnings.

These companies are searching for the next LeBron James, the high-school-to-the-pros marketing prodigy who pitches Sprite, Nike and other famous-label products to the tune of $135 million in endorsement contracts when he's not starring on the court as the NBA Rookie of the Year and leading scorer for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

With companies and coaches sometimes pursuing the same kids, it's no surprise that corporate recruiting and amateur scouting look more alike than ever.

This article was originally published on 2004-05-14
Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.
eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.