Teenage boys in big cities share a primal desire. It's the
impulse that drives Tyson Chandler today, Martin Luther King Jr.
Day, at Los Angeles's Dream Classic high school basketball
Tyson wants to go to the NBA. He's only 18, but at 7'1" he's
virtually sure to do so this summer, straight outta Compton
(Calif.) Dominguez High. As the Dons play Clovis West, a team
from Fresno, he pulls up on the wing, gathers his bony limbs,
then rises for and bottoms out a three-point shot. He flashes
through the post, takes a pass, turns and flexes down a dunk.
Trailing a Clovis West fast break, he shows off his ability to
run the floor, catching up with the action and knocking an
attempted layup harmlessly off the glass. "This is the hardest
I've ever seen him play," a college coach says. "You should have
seen him last summer. Uninterested didn't even begin to describe
him. I wanted to check his pulse."
The reason for Tyson's vigor can be found courtside, where scouts
from a half-dozen NBA teams sit, exercising due diligence in this
era when a high school kid can wind up a lottery pick. Dominguez
loses for only the third time this season, but Tyson scores 17
points, grabs 15 rebounds and blocks 11 shots. "Sometimes late at
night, trying to go to sleep, I lie back and think about what I
might miss if I don't go to college," he tells a knot of
reporters after the game. "But if going to the NBA is one of my
goals, [bypassing college] may be something I've got to accept."
By any honest measure, Tyson is already a professional. Elite
schoolboy ballplayers in Southern California are routinely
paid--if not by their high school coaches, then by out-of-season
traveling-team coaches, agents or a combination of the three--with
cash, cars and other considerations. They are swaddled and
coddled with gear and shoes, primarily from Nike or Adidas. They
attract middlemen and hangers-on, and lead lives of bizarre
itinerancy, relocating from far-flung towns and far-off states to
showcase themselves at high-profile hoops schools. Those who come
to Compton are exposed to gang violence, deplorable academic
standards and, if sensational charges pending against Tyson's
high school coach are true, sexual predation.
To an astonishing number of young men and their families, such
conditions are worth enduring for a shot at a college
scholarship--or in Tyson's case, an NBA contract, no collegiate
stopover required. And when a 7-foot teenager finds his way to a
place as bleak as Compton, where youth basketball is one of the
few growth industries, other parties with their own agendas will
The P.A. announcer at the Dream Classic introduces Tyson as "the
Frannnn-chise!" Like any franchise, he has his stakeholders.
In the late 1980s Tyson Chandler's mother, Vernie Threadgill,
moved with Tyson, then a grade-schooler, south from Hanford,
Calif., near Fresno, to San Bernardino. Split from Tyson's 6'10"
father, Frank Chandler, she met and married a man named William
Brown. "William is Tyson's dad," says a confidante of the family.
"Not his father--but his dad."
By the time he was ready to enter high school, Tyson stood nearly
as tall as his natural father and had already appeared on 60
Minutes as a superstar-in-the-making. He and his family decided
that he should take advantage of an interdistrict permit provided
for by the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) and attend
Compton Dominguez, even though it required a 132-mile round-trip
commute each day during his freshman year. Only a year ago did
Tyson's mom and stepfather buy and, with Tyson and his three half
brothers, move into a house in Buena Park, a 20-minute drive from
Dominguez. Tyson and his mother declined interview requests for
this story, but last month Los Angeles magazine reported that
Brown owns a check-cashing business and Threadgill runs a
day-care business out of their home--although neither she nor
Brown is registered with the Orange County community-care
licensing office as a day-care provider.
Children in the Compton Unified School District have long tried
to learn without sufficient textbooks, fully credentialed faculty
or civilized rest rooms. As recently as 1998 fewer than half of
the city's schools had functioning libraries. The sound of
gunfire would sometimes trigger "code yellow" alerts that
confined students to campus buildings, which were plagued by
peeling lead paint and leaky roofs. Eight years ago the Compton
schools were such a fiscal and physical mess that the state
seized control from the local school board. Since then four
state-appointed administrators have come and gone, and only under
a fifth have conditions slowly begun to improve.
Still, ballplayers come to Dominguez from points all over
California and beyond. They transfer in because the Dons win; the
Dons win because, year after year, the finest players transfer
in, partly because of the imprimatur of Nike, which plies the
school with traveling money, shoes and gear. The Compton schools
place at or near the bottom of rankings using almost any
criteria. But last season Dominguez finished atop USA Today's
final national boys' basketball poll.
Tyson chose the Dons for many of the reasons a high school
senior signs with Kentucky or Duke: travel, the exposure of a
high-profile program and a coach who could prepare him for the
THE HIGH SCHOOL COACH
Russell Otis wore a sweat suit graced with a familiar swoosh when
he appeared in California Superior Court on Dec. 28, as if he
were honoring some public appearances clause in his contract as a
consultant to Nike. The company must have winced at the occasion:
a preliminary hearing on charges that Otis groped and sodomized
one of his players last fall.
Otis took over at Dominguez in 1987, fresh out of Southern Utah
State, where he had been an All-Rocky Mountain Athletic
Conference swingman during a two-year career. "Russell built his
empire," says Scott McClain, who spent four years as an assistant
with the Dons during the late 1990s. "He got lucky in having some
kids living around Dominguez, and he got it done with them at
first." Otis used an astringent manner to prod his team into
playing fierce pressure defense, and in his second season the
Dons won a CIF Southern Section title. Even so, he could do
little to keep other high schools in Southern California from
poaching his players.
Then, in the fall of 1993, Dominguez signed a deal to begin
wearing Nike. "That changed everything," says former Dons player
Tremain Ross. Dominguez upset Oak Hill Academy, a national high
school power from Mouth of Wilson, Va., at a holiday tournament
in Las Vegas in December '94, and two years later Otis had his
own deal with Nike, which supplemented his coaching salary with
up to $15,000 a year. Soon he was a regular at Nike's elite
summer camp and at Michael Jordan's jamboree in Santa Barbara.
Back home, so many parents approached him about finding a place
on his team for their boys that Otis put most of them off,
referring their calls to school district administrators.
One transfer he did agree to accept, a 17-year-old who lived
within the Compton city limits, is now referred to in court
records simply as John Doe. He had spent his freshman year at
Dominguez High before transferring to another school in Los
Angeles County to get a better education. There he began to
blossom as a ballplayer, and by his junior season he had become
very good. So last summer, after much discussion with his family
and assurances from Otis that a spot awaited him on the varsity,
he transferred back, in the hope that the Dominguez name would
increase his chances of landing a scholarship at a prestigious
According to Doe's testimony on Dec. 29 at the preliminary
hearing, over the summer he would swing by the coach's town house
in Carson to watch TV. Otis would let him drive his car and
occasionally give Doe spending money, $5 and $10 at a time. In
September, Doe testified, Otis began asking him sexually explicit
questions. When they were alone in the coach's car, Otis
allegedly asked him if he'd ever had "pom-pom." Otis explained
that "pom-pom" was a person "giving another person [oral sex]."
The player said no. The coach allegedly brought the subject up
again on other occasions, once saying it was "better for a man to
According to Doe, while the two were at the coach's house later
that month, Otis retired to his bedroom and eventually summoned
Doe to join him. There Doe says he found Otis, aroused, watching
a pornographic video. Otis allegedly tried to touch Doe's
genitals, but the player brushed the coach's hand away.
About a week later, Doe testified, Otis took him to a mall in
Lakewood, gave him $200, and offered him the use of his credit
card "if you let me do anything I want." Doe said he turned down
the offer of the credit card, but with the cash bought a jacket,
a shirt and a CD. The two returned to the coach's home, where Doe
says Otis asked if he could perform "pom-pom."
"He asked me five to 10 times," Doe said in court. "I finally
said yes...because I got tired of him asking me and I thought
if I do this it will be over with." After five minutes or so of
"pom-pom," Doe told Otis to stop. Then, Doe testified, "he
stopped and I got up. And he was like, 'Turn over.' And I was
like, 'No.' And he, like, grabbed me...and I don't know when he
had a chance to pull down his pants or anything like that. He
just grabbed me and pushed inside of me and somehow I broke
At first Doe didn't share his story with his family. He told his
mother only that he wanted to leave Dominguez. Eventually he
divulged why, and when an uncle, former Dons assistant football
coach Keith Brooks, found out, Brooks showed up at the school on
Oct. 31, furious, determined to confront Otis. Instead, according
to Brooks, he found Willie Donerson, a teacher and the school's
former athletic director, and told him that Otis had been
"messing" with his nephew.
Donerson calmed Brooks down. Doe's lawyer, Randy McMurray, claims
that Donerson should have reported the allegations of abuse of a
minor, but instead he rounded up Otis and drove over to Doe's
home. There, Doe testified, "[Otis told me] I shouldn't...tell
nobody because it will ruin his reputation and his family."
Later, in the presence of Otis, and joined by his own family and
Donerson, Doe backed off the account he had earlier shared with
relatives. That night Doe told the L.A. County Sheriff's
Department only that Otis had made inappropriate remarks to him.
But the next day he returned to the sheriff's department to press
his allegations of sexual abuse. On Nov. 2 Otis was arrested on
charges of oral copulation and sodomy and a misdemeanor charge of
child annoyance or molestation, and released on $100,000 bail.
Otis denies all criminal charges and says that, while he has
helped kids in need, he has never given anything "outrageous" to
them. His lawyer, Leonard Levine, says that Brooks didn't
complain to Donerson that Otis had been "messing" with his
nephew, only that the coach had made inappropriate remarks.
Levine further contends that Doe leveled his original charges out
of frustration over the news that a rival for a starting position
had just become eligible, and that Doe is motivated by the money
he might collect in a civil suit. As for the other witnesses at
the preliminary hearing--two former Dominguez students, one of
them a former player, described instances dating from the late
1980s in which Otis allegedly gave them money and other attention
before molesting them--Otis's lawyer ascribes to them similar
Doe's lawyer, however, sees a case of a young man who came to
Russell Otis in the hope of getting a college scholarship, and
got molested instead. "[Donerson] took the perpetrator to the
victim's house to try to quash this," says McMurray, an associate
at Johnnie Cochran's law firm, who on Jan. 24 filed a formal
claim against the Compton school district on Doe's behalf, the
first step toward a suit for monetary damages. "The family has
been devastated by this. But somehow the victim has been
portrayed as a villain."
During the preliminary hearing, Doe alleged that one day in
September, Otis produced an envelope and indicated that it
contained $1,000. "He said it [was] mine," Doe testified. Doe
added that Otis had taken the envelope from the visor of his
"That's the same kind of car that Tyson Chandler drives?" the
"Yes," said John Doe.
THE TRAVELING-TEAM COACH
One day in the summer of 1996, while Tyson Chandler and his
family still lived in San Bernardino, a team from the Los Angeles
area traveled to Riverside Community College to challenge Tyson's
AAU team of eighth-graders, the Inland Stars. The Southern
California All-Stars featured some of the players who would
become the stars of this year's high school recruiting class,
including Cedric Bozeman (he has committed to play at UCLA next
season), Josh Childress (he'll play for Stanford) and Jamal
Sampson (he'll go to Cal). Tyson led a decisive spanking of the
big-city visitors that day, thereby attracting the attention of
the coach of the losers, a man named Pat Barrett.
Barrett, now 46, is a burly specter in a sweat suit who played at
San Jose State during the mid-1970s. Except for a brief stretch
in the mid-1980s, when he drove a forklift in a nut-packaging
factory, he has made his living through basketball. Barrett, who
declined SI's repeated requests for an interview, first gained a
reputation in the mid-'80s as a youth coach, when his efforts to
land a no-show job for himself in exchange for delivering his
first top player--eventual USC and Pepperdine star Tommy Lewis--led
Jerry Tarkanian, then the coach at UNLV, to call him "the biggest
whore I ever met." (Barrett has said he wanted a job at Lewis's
school so he could look out for his player's well-being.)
Since 1994, when Nike first staked him to an annual stipend in
six figures along with $50,000 in shoes and gear, Barrett has
cultivated prospects in his basketball hothouse. His nonprofit
organization, originally called Orange County Hoops and since
1999 known as the Southern California All-Stars, fields a dozen
teams for ballplayers aged 10 to 18, the best of whom are placed
at Dominguez and other Nike-sponsored high schools in the Los
Unlike the heads of most nonprofits that solicit donations,
Barrett doesn't court publicity. Perhaps that's because when the
spotlight has found him, the picture hasn't always been
flattering. Nike stood by him despite Barrett's boast to the Los
Angeles Times in 1996 that, as someone beyond the oversight of
college or high school authorities, he was subject to no rules,
least of all any restrictions on what he could give a teenager
who played for him. Nike renewed its support even after an L.A.
Times report in 1997 that he had hired as a coach of one of his
youth teams a man out of a halfway house--a former cocaine addict
with convictions for embezzlement and having sex with an underage
girl. Says Joe Keller, the Inland Stars coach who started working
with Tyson when Tyson was a 6'6" seventh-grader, "Pat is more of
a businessman than he is a basketball coach."
And business has been good. According to tax filings and
published reports, between 1993 and '95 Orange County Hoops
received more than $350,000 in contributions from Frank Pritt, a
software mogul from Charleston, W.Va. During that same period
Pritt, a childhood friend of Jim Harrick, then the UCLA coach,
was also donating six-figure sums to the Bruins athletic
department. According to a report in the L.A. Times, in January
1995 Barrett signed over a Honda Accord he had purchased for
$13,265 to one of his best players, Olujimi Mann. (Mann's
father, Richard, said he repaid $5,000 to Barrett, but
Department of Motor Vehicles records indicate only that the car
was a gift.) Two months later Mann announced he would attend
UCLA, touching off a Pac-10 investigation into the chummy
relationships among Harrick, Pritt and Barrett.
Academic problems kept Mann from enrolling in Westwood, rendering
moot the Pac-10's interest, and Pritt's support of Barrett had
ended by the time UCLA fired Harrick in 1996 for expense-account
irregularities. (In August '95 Pritt brought in his own
accountant to try to detail how Barrett had been spending his
funds, and Pritt and Barrett parted ways soon thereafter.) But
Barrett's players continued to live the good life. Soon after his
All-Stars lost that 1996 game to the Inland Stars, Barrett began
lavishing Nike gear on Tyson and his teammates. He paid the way
for Tyson and his Inland Stars coach to travel to out-of-state
AAU tournaments. By December, Barrett had added Tyson to his
flagship traveling team, which included the finest young players
in the L.A. area, and continued to supply him with gifts, shoes,
gear and more. Sensing that the swoosh was gaining an advantage,
an Adidas operative named Elvert (Kool-Aid) Perry sent Tyson a
care package of product.
Within a month, however, after Nike had trumped its rival with a
massive shipment containing warmups, bags and some 20 pairs of
shoes, all in Tyson's size, Adidas gave up. Eventually, says an
associate of Tyson's, Barrett took Tyson out for movies, dinners
and shopping sprees sometimes worth more than a thousand dollars.
Last summer, the associate says, Barrett even flew in female
friends that Tyson had made at tournaments around the country.
"I think Tyson felt uncomfortable at first with Pat giving him
all this stuff," says Mark Soderberg, whose son was one of
Tyson's teammates on the Inland Stars. "He was a 14-year-old kid
who was getting mixed signals about what this was all about. Pat
never says no. He's the ultimate Santa Claus. He comes 365 days a
During his freshman year of high school Tyson moved into
Barrett's home in Orange County to shorten his commute to
Dominguez until his own family could move west--first to
Montclair, 37 miles from Compton, before Tyson's sophomore
season, and finally into its current home in Buena Park. Tyson
makes the trip from there to school in his 2000 Escalade, which
has a blue-book value of $47,000 and is leased in his mother's
There is no evidence to suggest that Barrett had anything to do
with Tyson's getting a car, but one former Barrett player has his
suspicions. "Everybody knows if you play for Pat Barrett, there
are benefits," says Kenny Brunner, a former Dominguez star who
had troubled stints at Georgetown and Fresno State before landing
at a juco, the College of Southern Idaho, for a season and then
disappearing into pro basketball's minor leagues. "That's one
reason I changed AAU teams--to play for Pat Barrett and reap the
benefits. I received a car via Pat Barrett, a Ford." There were
other incentives too. For example, Brunner says, "when I got MVP
at the Easter Classic [AAU tournament, in Las Vegas], I got taken
to Foot Locker and received $300 extra from Pat." In all, Brunner
estimates that over six years of playing for Barrett, he
collected $10,000 in cash.
Barrett's generosity has not always brought out the best in his
players. Such proteges as Don MacLean, Chris Mills, Cedric
Ceballos and Jelani McCoy reached the NBA and carved out careers
there. But more recently Barrett has produced a succession of
disappointments. The Angelenos who have made it lately--Austin
Croshere, Baron Davis, Cherokee Parks, Paul Pierce, Jacque
Vaughn--have limited or no connection to Barrett. In the end, such
Barrett products as Lewis, Mann, Charles O'Bannon, Ed O'Bannon,
Schea Cotton, Chris Burgess, Keilon Fortune and Brunner either
got sidetracked by trouble or have yet to fulfill their promise.
Brunner thinks he knows why.
"I've been a professional since I was 13 years old," he says.
"I'm not saying it's Pat's fault, but if you look at me, Chris,
Olujimi, Schea, Keilon, we were all blue-chippers, but you
corrupt our minds and we're thinking only about money. It was
hard for people to coach us. We went through years where we could
do whatever we wanted, and then we were supposed to go to college
and change? If you're unlucky enough to have been with Pat since
you were 10, you're used to a lifestyle that requires you spend
money, have a car, have the shoes and the jerseys.
"If Schea had made it to the NBA, Pat would have felt like Schea
owed him something. Tyson will be that way. You see what kind of
car Tyson drives. I'll leave it at that."
Ernie Carr coached at Dominguez--coached Russell Otis, in fact,
whom he chose in 1987 to succeed him--when high school was still
high school. "We might have had a little gear," says Carr, who's
now an administrator for the Compton school district. "But it was
a beg. We'd do fund-raisers, go to the PTA."
Carr took his '84-85 Dominguez team to the CIF Southern Section
4A final, in which the Dons lost to Glendale. In that Glendale
team he saw a last stand of sorts: "It was a team of kids from
the same area who grew up together. You don't see that
anymore--kids going to the same elementary and middle schools,
playing on the same traveling team, staying together through
senior year. I wouldn't want to coach high school today."
Under CIF rules, interdistrict permits and open enrollment rules
now allow kids to show up for classes in Compton and be eligible
immediately for any school sport. "Nowadays, public schools pick
kids like apples off a tree," Carr says. "You can live in Death
Valley, way out in the desert, and go to Dominguez, because the
rules say you can. Choice and vouchers are the rage, and the CIF
feels it has to stay ahead of the curve politically. It's afraid
some parent will say, 'Who's telling me my child can't have a
comprehensive high school experience anywhere I want, athletics
included?' If you're behind the times, parents will litigate."
The CIF used to have four divisions, and schools played for a
title within each. Now the CIF has added an additional division
and broken Southern Section schools into A and AA
classifications. So in the L.A. area, teams that once played for
four possible titles now play for 10. "With more [titles] to
play for," Carr says, "the thirst is even greater for coaches to
find ways to improve."
One way is to recruit. CIF rules don't permit it, but so many
coaches do so anyway that the two months between the end of the
high school season and May 15, the deadline for students to apply
to transfer under open enrollment, have become an annual bazaar.
"You've got spring leagues, and parents all looking for that pot
of gold--a college scholarship, gear, the NBA," Carr says. "I know
Russell was concerned that Tyson might leave [for another school]
after his freshman and sophomore years.
"Tyson didn't grow up a Dominguez kid. He grew up a Nike kid with
Pat Barrett. Then it became a matter of where they would send
him. The traveling-team coach is the conduit. As a high school
coach, what do you do? Do you say you don't want Tyson Chandler?
When the rules allow it?"
The shame is that by Carr's reckoning, Tyson would get a great
deal out of college. "He enjoys high school," Carr says. "I see
him on the sideline at a Dominguez football game, slapping the
players' helmets and tossing a ball around. It's hard to imagine
him a year from now, going through the preseason and 82-game
grind, having to work."
What's sure to be a difficult transition to the pros could be all
the more challenging as a result of Tyson's tumultuous senior
season. In November students and teachers chased away a TV news
crew that showed up at Dominguez looking for comment about the
Otis affair. Compton is so firmly behind Otis that the
prosecution considered asking for a change of venue. "The last
few years, the city has completely embraced the team," Carr says.
"You've read the Compton Bulletin and seen almost nothing about
the case. The community wishes it would go away."
He is asked a question and repeats it. "Who's closest to Tyson? I
knew the answer six months ago. But it's changing as we speak. So
many potential players are coming out of the woodwork. There's
immense b.s. out there, all self-serving. The situation with
Russell makes it more difficult, because Russell was deflecting
That Tyson Chandler won't go to college is a foregone conclusion
among those around him. As of last week he still hadn't taken his
college entrance exam, and college recruiters are virtually
absent from his life. "We're not wasting our time," says an
assistant coach at one school that would normally be in the hunt.
So speculation has shifted from which college will sign Tyson to
which agent will sign him. Will it be Andre Colona? Bill Duffy?
Dan Fagen? George McQuarn?
One agent agrees to speak about Tyson, but only anonymously. He
mentions the NBA player Tyson says he looks up to, the one who's
supposed to provide a model for both his style of play and the
arc of his career. "Tyson's like Kevin Garnett," he says. "If
Kevin hadn't grown up in South Carolina--if he'd grown up in
Chicago from Day One--he'd be screwed up. Tyson's lucky. His
grandparents were farmers, so he has country values in his
family. The negative is that he's been exposed to a lot of s---
since he got [to the Los Angeles area]."
It's easy to see how Tyson might have sometimes felt that he was
being used. A Fountain Valley, Calif., fitness trainer named Mike
Rangel provides an example. Rangel has worked with several of Pat
Barrett's top players, and he runs a youth all-star game, the
Roundball Extravaganza, over which he admits he and Barrett had a
falling out last June after Barrett failed to deliver some of his
players to the game. Rangel says Barrett approached him in the
summer of 1999, worried that he didn't have enough money to carry
his teams through that AAU season. Although tax records show that
between '95 and '99 the declared receipts for Barrett's program
more than doubled, from $168,415 to $373,500, Rangel says Barrett
asked him for help in raising $40,000. Rangel wasn't interested
in donating. But, he says, Barrett told him, "Let's take this
approach. Let's get an attorney or a sports agent to give us [a]
loan. We'll tell him that I'll help direct Tyson and other kids
to him when they turn pro."
Rangel says that a friend of his helped arrange for Barrett to
meet with an Irvine, Calif., lawyer and aspiring agent named
Leonard Shulman. Shulman doesn't dispute that his law firm,
Marshack, Shulman and Hodges, donated thousands of dollars to the
Southern California All-Stars, even helping to throw a
fund-raising dinner and auction at the Anaheim Hilton last March
on behalf of Barrett's nonprofit. But Shulman says that his
fledgling sports agency, Spectrum Sports Group, gave nothing, and
that Barrett's steering players to him "would never have been
discussed....There was no quid pro quo or anything like that."
Sources say, however, that Barrett brought Tyson by Shulman's
offices (the same building houses his law firm and Spectrum
Sports) in late summer of 1999. Shulman says his law firm's logs
show no record of such a visit, but he acknowledges that he
developed enough of a relationship with Tyson's family that he
visited the house in Buena Park and brought with him his partner
in Spectrum Sports, a Toronto-based lawyer named Daniel Lawson.
"We were assisting the family with a legal matter...unrelated
to sports," says Shulman, who cites attorney-client privilege in
refusing to discuss the particulars of that meeting.
Last summer, according to Shulman, his firm dropped its support
of Barrett's program. "I think we preferred there to be more
controls, more accounting of how things were being spent," says
Shulman. "Not that we are insinuating that there was anything
improper....We were concerned that the money was not going to
the truly needy, although we have no evidence that it wasn't."
What motivates stakeholders and would-be stakeholders as they vie
for Tyson's ear? The usual. For those who attach themselves to
young talent early and securely enough, the payoffs can be huge.
When Tracy McGrady signed a $12.3 million endorsement deal with
Adidas in 1997, he made sure that his high school coach and the
Adidas scout who discovered him each received a total of $900,000
over six years. Says the agent who compares Chandler to Garnett,
"I think Tyson will give something to Pat."
Word on the street is $200,000, a reporter tells him.
"Two hundred thousand dollars is nothing when you've got a $12
And Russell Otis?
"I'd hope Tyson would take care of people who've taken care of
THE SHOE COMPANY
Marketing people call the seedbeds where young ballplayers
germinate "the grass roots," and there was a time when Nike had
the grass roots all to itself. But in 1991 the company fired the
founder of its grassroots program, Sonny Vaccaro, and with a
vengeance Vaccaro took his savvy and connections to Adidas.
Before long, Adidas's grassroots division cultivated McGrady and
Kobe Bryant, signing both to endorsement deals as they jumped
from high school to the NBA.
Nike and Adidas have been joined in a soles-for-souls fight ever
since. Their objective is to lock up the loyalty of as many top
prospects as possible in case one should blossom into a
high-profile endorser. It's essentially an exercise in
plumbing--installing a network of catch basins to collect and
channel young talent from youth teams to high schools to colleges
Nike makes sure its pipes are made of platinum. In addition to
its support for Barrett's program, the company picks up most of
the tab for Dominguez's extensive national travel. The Dons may
be based in Compton, but they didn't play their first game in
Southern California until the second week in January. A team that
played only in half-empty gyms in decaying neighborhoods around
L.A.--that didn't flaunt its status as national champions in
Fresno; St. Louis; Trenton, N.J.; Portland; and Lewes, Del., as
Dominguez has done this season--wouldn't be leveraging Nike's
Because they fertilize so much basketball bottomland, the shoe
companies have suffered a number of public embarrassments in
addition to those involving Russell Otis and Pat Barrett. Last
June, Adidas-affiliated Artesia High in Lakewood fired its coach,
Wayne Merino, after determining that he was suiting up transfers
from the Dominican Republic and Iceland who had phony student
visas. In 1998 parents discovered that one Nike-affiliated youth
coach in Massachusetts was a convicted sex offender. The same
year in the same state another coach, supported by Adidas, lost
his funding and AAU standing after parents and players filed
complaints alleging that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual
behavior. Until 1997 Nike supported Kansas City-based youth coach
Myron Piggie, a convicted crack dealer who, to avoid prosecution
on a weapons charge, pleaded guilty last May to a federal count
of mail fraud for compromising the amateur status of Corey
Maggette, JaRon Rush, Kareem Rush and Andre Williams, all of whom
were suspended for multiple games for Duke, UCLA, Missouri and
Oklahoma State, respectively. The episode put Nike in the awkward
position of watching its grassroots director, George Raveling,
get hauled before the Piggie grand jury.
"I don't understand why the shoe companies don't reevaluate their
involvement," says Dean Crowley, who retired as commissioner of
the CIF's Southern Section in 1999. "Because of them, basketball
in Southern California is an uneven playing field. The companies
direct the traffic. Parents want kids in the visible programs,
and the kids don't have the maturity to deal with that
environment. We should have an open division. If you have a shoe
deal, you should play only against schools that have shoe deals.
Call it the Shoe Division."
Nike may find its stake in the Franchise to have been a
particularly bad investment. If John Doe does file a civil suit
against Otis, his lawyer is considering naming the company as a
codefendant, liable for supplying the bait with which Otis
allegedly enticed his victim. Nike is standing behind the
Dominguez coach. "We at Nike have always had a policy of innocent
until proven guilty," says spokesman Eric Oberman. But the
company has apparently exhausted its patience with Barrett, whom
it dropped before the new year.
"Pat Barrett was the most effective grassroots person Nike ever
had," says Adidas's Vaccaro. "He'd deliver 10 of the Top 50 to
their camp every year, for years. With Pat gone, it means we
could get [the top junior in Los Angeles, Fairfax High forward]
Evan Burns. If Pat were still [Nike's man] in Southern
California, we wouldn't stand a chance."
Banners on light poles outside Compton City Hall snap a hopeful
trinity--PEACE, PRIDE, PROGRESS--in the breeze. Peace is elusive
here. Progress is fitful. For a while, at least the city had the
Dominguez Dons to nourish its sense of pride.
Last April, Mayor Omar Bradley dunned local businesses for funds
to celebrate the Dons' national championship. At an outdoor
presentation in Martin Luther King Civic Plaza, cheerleaders
cheered, a band played and a drill team high-stepped. Together
the team circled the city in two stretch limousines, and later
each player received a ring bearing his name and number. "I felt
like a Laker," says one of the honorees, forward Bobby Jones.
"But we were in nicer cars than the Lakers."
Compton sits on about 10 square miles of coastal plain, just
south of the L.A. city line. Its fate followed from FDR's wartime
executive order banning racial discrimination in the defense
industries. Housing developments in towns close to the coast
enforced restrictive covenants, so black laborers bought homes
inland, on Compton's West Side. Soon the Hub City, nicknamed for
its proximity to downtown L.A. and the harbors of Long Beach and
San Pedro, featured a stable black middle class.
The city began to come a cropper after the 1965 riots in
neighboring Watts. First white homeowners, then white businesses,
finally white capital fled. By the end of the '70s the tax base
had evaporated, and soon Compton was providing fodder for the
explicit dispatches of rappers like Dr. Dre and N.W.A. In 1999
its homicide rate was more than six times that of Los Angeles
County as a whole.