Recruiting magazines and newspapers were like pornography to me. I kept stacks of them by the bed, piles of them in the living room. They were also perfect reading on long car trips, especially if I wasn't driving, although even when I was, I found a way to scan them at stoplights and long straight stretches of the Interstate. For hours, I pored over the heights and weights of seventeen and eighteen year olds, absorbing the salacious details of their jump shots and pivot moves, the wicked excitements of their coachability and practice habits. Even their bloodlines were traced when applicable, as if they were ponies and I was toting up bets in the Daily Racing Form. So and so was the son of this or that NBA player--this portended well.
Starting at the end of the summer--the major camps had ended by then--the publications began to pile up in the apartment at an even faster rate. I read them on the subway and at lunch. I read them before I turned out the bedside light. I dreamed of future line-ups. Many people mark the New Year on January 1. For me, it was signaled by the October arrival of the Street and Smith's Basketball Annual.
I was a hopeless junkie for information. Dean Smith had magnanimously suggested to Carolina fans that they let him worry about recruiting. They could fret over the team at hand. But if you really loved the Tar Heels, you had to peer into the future. You had to tantalize yourself with possibilities, steel yourself against prospective loss. You could envision the shape of future seasons by discovering the whims of eighteen year olds trying to decide where to pursue their basketball careers. After a while, you got really good at it.
There were things you had to know. Was the prospect raw but promising? Did he have a left hand? How were his SAT scores? Had he faced tough competition? Was he temperamental? Did he shoot well from the foul line? Had he already peaked? Or was he just rising into form? A lifelong Carolina fan? Or nearly a done deal for the Big East? I could dissect the answers to these questions with precision.
If a player was called a "manchild," for instance, I knew that he was a] black (no white player was ever called a "manchild);" and b] a physically rugged athlete who rebounded well but tended to be a little undeveloped in the skill department.
If a player was a coach's son, that usually meant he was a little undeveloped in the athletic department but played a heady game of basketball, knew how and when to execute a bounce pass, showed nice form at the free throw line, and would have trouble keeping up with ultra-quick point guards.
If, God forbid, the prospect was described as "mercurial," that meant trouble. He would come to college, sulk when he wasn't playing, sit at the end of the bench, linger at the edge of huddles, and often transfer to at least one or two more schools before washing out of basketball altogether and ending up in either anonymity or prison.
Before the Internet existed, recruiting services offered phone lines featuring the latest news on recruits. I remember at a moment of weakness calling the Bob Gibbons Hoops Hotline, desperate to know the college destination of one Samaki Walker, racking up a twelve minute call (even though the first minute or so of teasers was free) in the process. I know this because a month or so later, my wife came to me, waving the phone bill, asking me what a "Hoops Hotline" was, fearing the worst, no doubt.
"It's not what you think," I said. "It's about basketball."
"Basketball!" she said. She studied the bill. "You made a twenty-eight dollar call about basketball. How is that possible?"
She may have meant this question in an existential sort of way having to do with the priorities one makes in life, but I chose to answer it in a narrow, technical fashion that allowed me to preserve a shred of dignity.
"The time just got away from me," I told her. "Also, Bob Gibbons has a bit of a drawl, and that probably slowed the rate of information delivery. So, you know, the call went a little long."
My wife looked at me with such bafflement that I had the feeling it would have been more comprehensible had I called the Hot and Randy Blondes Phone Line. Or the Let‘s Talk Dirty Party Line. That she might have understood. But twenty-eight dollars on the Bob Gibbons Hoops Hot-Line. I was a naughty, naughty boy indeed. Or, worse--insane.
On the day that Samaki Walker was supposed to finally announce his college choice, I posed as a reporter for the New York Post and called his hometown paper. "I'm on deadline," I told the guy who answered the phone in the sports department. And before I could even get the question out, he simply said with a world-weary tone that suggested he‘d said it a few times that day: "Louisville."
It turned out that there were dozens, if not hundreds of fanatics like me, trolling the media. For some reason, we had to know where Samaki Walker was going to college.
These days, with the Internet, anyone can call himself a recruiting guru, set up a recruiting web site, and phone prospects about everything from their college preferences to their favorite hip-hop number. I read them religiously.
Be sure to look at pages 46-53 in the March issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine for a must-read excerpt. )