My friend Dick Weiss called yesterday to check up on me and to report in from the various summer basketball camps he’s been attending. No one in basketball calls Weiss by his first name. He is “Hoops,” to everyone—including his wife Joanie—because there has never been anyone who has followed basketball or known the game at all levels for longer than Hoops.
Hoops is a Philly guy, born and raised. He graduated from Temple and, even though he’s worked at The New York Daily News for years now, he still lives in Philly and eats and breathes Philly basketball. Sitting with him at a game in The Palestra is a little bit like sitting with Red Auerbach at a Celtics game. Everyone stops to kiss the Hoopsian ring.
Summer basketball camps have long been a pox on all of basketball because they have allowed some extremely sleazy people—shoe company reps and AAU coaches specifically—to wield ridiculous amounts of power in the basketball world. Nowadays when a coach wants to “get,’ to a player he rarely goes through parents or a high school coach he goes through a shoe company rep, an AAU coach or a “street agent,” some hanger-on who has managed to glom on to a kid with talent early on.
“It’s worse than ever,” Hoops reported. “These things are absolute dog and pony shows. Coaches are just there to make sure the right people see them. Players are just showing off, not playing basketball. And the sleaze level gets higher all the time.”
I have no doubt about that. I’ve been to enough summer camps myself to see that sort of thing first hand. The one summer camp I really enjoyed was the original basketball summer camp, “Five Star,” which was the creation of the great Howard Garfinkel. Graf brought in great players and coaches from around the country and actually made them play basketball: they had to do drills and learn to pass and cut and catch and shoot. Garf. Who defines the term, “Runyenesque character,” knew everyone and everyone knew him. He had one weakness: he liked to bet on anything and everything, which is sad because it is the reason he isn’t still running the camp today.
Five Star was where Michael Jordan was first discovered by the basketball culture in the summer between his junior and senior seasons. The list of great players who have gone there is endless. Back in 1984 I wrote a lengthy piece in The Washington Post on the proliferation of shoe-company sponsored summer camps and the fact that even then they were the dog-and-pony shows Hoops is referring to. I did a separate piece on the wonders of Five Star, on how it was still a teaching camp, on Garf’s refusal to put numbers on the kids because it wasn’t his job to create a tryout camp for college coaches. I talked about the traditions of the camp—the post-lunch speakers (who ranged from Bob Knight and Jim Valvano to Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski); station 13 (the court where everyone learned basic drills); the night games played outdoors; kids paying their own way (Danny Ferry was my lunch waiter the first day I was there) and the lousy food.
The day the piece ran Garf called. I waited for the thank-you, the pat on the back for noticing that Five Star still stood apart.
“I read your story,” he said. “What the hell do you mean saying the food’s lousy?”
Guess what, the food was always lousy. Part of the tradition.
What killed me about the camps was the way they made stars of kids not ready to be stars and of kids who weren’t all that good.
A few years ago, I remember a big crowd gathering around a court at FDU-Teaneck at one of the shoe company camps because the two next great players were in a game and going head-to-head. This was, everyone said, the beginning of the next great basketball rivalry. Coaches jostled for position as did media members. This was not to be missed so that, years into the future, you could say you were the first time LeBron James went one-on-one with….Omar Cook.
Yup, Omar Cook. James hit a shot over Cook at the buzzer to win the game and that may have been Cook’s last moment of glory. He went to college for one year and is—who knows where—right now. Maybe he’s playing in the same league as another kid who was getting a lot of hype in the camp that summer.
The kid’s name was Tamir Goodman. His nickname was, “The Jewish Jordan.”
No hype there, huh?
I think I’ll leave the summer camps to Hoops in the future.