The Most Important Recruits: Local Coaches

Juliet Macur, NY Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/06/sports/ncaabasketball/patrick-ewing-georgetown-coach-aau.html?_r=0)

WASHINGTON — Patrick Ewing, the most famous Georgetown basketball player in history, was back on campus on Wednesday for his introduction as the new basketball coach. The savior, all seven feet of him, had arrived.

A gantlet of cheerleaders was there to greet him, as were members of the pep band, who were wearing T-shirts that read, “Home Sw33t Home,” a nod to Ewing’s old jersey number.

“It’s a new era now,” Ewing said to a room filled with reporters, alumni and people connected to the program.

Which brings us to a man standing in the hallway of the new, $62 million John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center as Ewing spoke in the room next door: Keith Stevens. He’s a symbol of how winning college basketball programs are formed in today’s era, a process that’s much more complex than it was when Ewing showed up at Georgetown in 1981 as the country’s top recruit.

Stevens arrived late to the news conference, dressed in his usual work outfit: black sweatsuit, black sneakers and, in one hand, a cellphone. At 5 feet 6 inches, he might be smaller in physical stature than Ewing, but his influence on the area’s basketball scene is probably bigger. He is the coach of Team Takeover, one of the top A.A.U. teams in the Washington area, and a power broker of high school basketball in this region, which is teeming with basketball talent.

Photo

Coach John Thompson, left, embraced Ewing, the most valuable player of the 1984 N.C.A.A. tournament, as Georgetown defeated Houston to win the national championship in Seattle. CreditAssociated Press

That talent has recently, more often than not, left to play college basketball elsewhere.

Stevens will tell you why he and local A.A.U. coaches like him will be important to Ewing’s success at turning around a program that is still running on the fumes of its only N.C.A.A. national championship — won with Ewing’s help, 33 years ago, in 1984. For Georgetown to re-establish itself as a powerhouse program, Stevens said, it must lure local players to bolster its talent pool and fan base, and it will be “a big deal” for Ewing to get that task right.

“To be successful these days, it’s all about recruiting, and recruiting isn’t what it used to be, 10, 20, 30 years ago,” Stevens said. “Used to be that college coaches could go right to a player’s parents or high school coaches. Now there are many more people a coach has to go through to get a player. Trainers, guys in the neighborhood. Coaches. Just a lot more layers.”

Stevens is one of those layers. He scours the area for potential stars, who are as young as 8 when they show up on his radar. He signs them to his program, nurtures their game, gets them seen by college recruiters, then becomes the middleman who steers them to the right college program.

He has top college coaches in his phone’s contact list, and they have him in theirs. Most A.A.U. coaches have connections to agents, too, and all of them have connections to sponsors that fund their programs. In an industry in which so many people are pulling young athletes in so many directions, these coaches are often the ones trusted with their future.

So it would probably be best if Ewing got on Stevens’s good side and on the good side of other local coaches. Yet in Washington, that’s not so simple.

The A.A.U. world can be tough and touchy, with power and money at stake. Just look at a slice of A.A.U. history here: Curtis Malone, the founder of D.C. Assault, a top program, is in prison for operating a cocaine and heroin distribution ring along the East Coast.

It’s not your father’s recruiting process anymore. Certainly not what Ewing is used to. And not what John Thompson, Ewing’s former coach, relied on to build the Georgetown brand. He was a high school coach in Washington before he came to Georgetown in 1972, and brought five Washington players with him when he showed up on the campus’s hilltop.

That natural feeder system, however, disappeared long ago, and its decline didn’t help John Thompson III bolster the program when he became the Hoyas’ coach in 2004. He was fired two weeks ago after not making the N.C.A.A. tournament for two seasons in a row, and replaced by Ewing, who has 15 years’ experience of coaching as an assistant in the N.B.A. but none in college.

From Stevens’s perspective, Ewing must get to work schmoozing with the local basketball community — like, yesterday.

“The first 72 hours is important,” Stevens said. “The community is watching. How do you connect with the community? How do you connect with the guys who have a relationship with these local players? It won’t be easy, but I think he can do it.”

He added: “It’s just like if I was courting a woman. I’d buy her some flowers, take her to the best restaurants. You have to make them a priority.”

The problem with that is that Ewing has never navigated the labyrinth of the recruiting world. So the assistants he hires will be important.

“It’s all about going out and selling your program,” Ewing said. “I think that I’m a great salesman.”

It will be easier for him to sell Georgetown than it would be for other coaches, considering he’s a Hall of Famer and an 11-time N.B.A. All-Star. But, at 54, it’s no guarantee that current high schoolers even know who he is, let alone what he has done.

“He was blocking shots long before I was even born, and I think recruits will be excited to see him,” said guard Tre Campbell, who is from Washington and one of the Hoyas’ few local players. “But I really know him because I used to watch ‘Space Jam.’ ”

Some players won’t know Ewing for his dominance on the Knicks but will recognize him because he had a role in that 1996 cult film starring Michael Jordan — and Bugs Bunny. In the film, Ewing and other professional players have their talents stolen by aliens. But don’t knock it.

“He has to find creative ways to bring an attraction there,” Stevens said. “Find something different. I don’t know what that is. But he needs to find a way to get these kids to stay home and play here. He has to work hard at being the closer. He has to get the guys to believe in him and what Georgetown brings to the table.”

Georgetown’s athletic director, Lee Reed, acknowledged the importance of Ewing’s assistants on Wednesday. “Patrick might not have the recruiting experience,” Reed said, “but he’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know, and that’s going to be important going forward. He’ll surround himself with people who do know.”

Time will tell if Stevens will be one of those people.

“I’m not going to call him,” Stevens said, as he chatted up people in the hallway, well after the news conference was over. “But I think he’ll call me.”

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