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Bob Ryan

Star search can corrupt

By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / March 27, 2009
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The people who really know the turf say this University of Connecticut recruiting thing is bad news for Jim Calhoun.

But should anyone be surprised? It's hardly the first time in the Calhoun era UConn has been accused of malfeasance, NCAA impropriety, or whatever you'd like to call it, and it certainly isn't the first time Calhoun has gotten involved with a young man of dubious character.

You can't win without great players, you know.

Calhoun, like countless other coaches, including perhaps - who knows? - one or two of his counterparts at the NCAA Regionals, will do what he has to do to attract and maintain the eligibility/availability of players to put the best possible team on the floor. Any fan who doesn't comprehend this is probably as shocked as Inspector Renault was to discover that gambling was taking place at Rick's Café.

The NCAA attempts to perpetuate the notion that all the young people wearing Division 1 basketball uniforms are exemplary individuals whose eventual career choices, should the NBA not prove to be a viable option, will include law school, medical school, and becoming an international relief worker in Darfur. Hence the laughable insistence about what the members of these teams should be called.

At every press conference run by the NCAA, the participants must be referred to by the moderators as "student-athletes." You or I would call them, you know, "players." That's because they are, you know, players. Players. P-l-a-y-e-r-s. This is not a derogatory term. It's a perfectly legitimate designation for someone who happens to, you know, play on a basketball team.

This insistence on referring to the players as "student-athletes" is stunning in its pomposity, and, as many people know, it is, on more occasions than most people realize, 100 percent inaccurate. In the modern world of collegiate sport, we have encountered the phenomenon of the "one-and-done" players who enter school in the fall, play one college basketball season, then declare for the NBA draft. In some schools, I am told, it is possible to arrange the player's situation so he never has to go to class.

"Student-athlete," huh? How about "Hired Hessian"?

And even if the players do attend class and turn out to be legitimate students, when they are presented for interview purposes it is because they have been, or are about to be, playing a game. I don't believe I've ever heard anyone say that so-and-so was "student-athleting" a game.

So where were we? Ah, yes, the supposed shenanigans at Connecticut.

What strikes me about these allegations is the recklessness involved. The fascinating volume of "impermissible" phone calls and texts to the recruit in question by Calhoun and his staff over a two-year period (more than 1,500) doesn't bother me, because it's a silly rule and, frankly, I really don't care.

But I do care that Calhoun was foolish enough to get involved in the recruitment of Nate Miles as long as the player was personally involved with sports agent Josh Nochimson, a former UConn student manager. According to Adrian Wojnarowski and Dan Wetzel, the Yahoo! writers who broke the story, Calhoun knew the NCAA officially considered Nochimson a "representative of UConn athletic interests," and was therefore prohibited from "contacting the player, or giving him anything of value."

Calhoun's continued involvement in the recruitment of Miles was beyond stupid in terms of risk-reward. The only way to rationalize this would be if Miles were the next LeBron James, in which case it might be worth taking a chance and hoping you wouldn't get caught. Now maybe it's because I had never heard of Miles before yesterday, but I'm going to go out on a limb and state categorically that he is not the next LeBron James. So by that reasoning, Calhoun's involvement in anything connected with Nochimson is way beyond stupid. Did he think no one was going to notice?

What must be understood here is that this is simply rules violation case No. 2,786,543, give or take a thousand, in the oft-sordid history of college basketball recruiting. Coaches have always been willing to compromise themselves when the subject is the pursuit of the great young basketball talent.

Recruiting is a notoriously nasty business, and it's far worse now than ever before because the breeding ground for recruits is not necessarily the high school, as in olden days. Adolescent basketball has been hijacked by the loathsome AAU, which sinks its fangs into both boys and girls as they turn 13 and introduces them to a nonstop whirl of gifts, inducements, and far too many games played far away from home. Woe to the college coach who doesn't make nice with the coach of the local AAU juggernaut.

As a corollary, an amazing percentage of top-flight prospects change schools as readily as managers head to the pitching mound. Why? Well, it's not because of the math department, if you get my drift. Then throw in the proliferation of fly-by-night prep schools, many with quasi-religious trappings, who seem to exist solely to play basketball.

What emerges from all this are young people who: A) have never worked in their lives, and B) have no real sense of what's inherently right and wrong, cynical kids who have always been treated like commodities and who have been well-schooled in the art of Looking Out For No. 1.

Calhoun isn't the only one who gets involved with these seedy AAU leeches and messed-up kids. I can't say they all do, but among the teams who consistently show up in the Top 40, most of them do, however much they hold their noses when they decide they simply must have a particular play . . . oops, student-athlete. And I'm talking about colleges of every description, whether they are standard private schools, big state universities, or religiously oriented schools. They are all united in their quest for athletic excellence.

These coaches are not like you or me. Think about Calhoun. He has done the impossible by making Storrs, Conn., a destination. He has won two national championships and could very well be on his way to a third. He already is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. If he doesn't win another game, his legacy is secure.

So why would he risk the censure of the NCAA and the scrutiny he's getting now, for any one play . . . oops, student-athlete, let alone one entangled with the red-flagged Josh Nochimson?

So, Jim, Jim, Jim. What was the matter with you? Stupidity? Arrogance? Didn't you trust your superb coaching ability enough to think you still could win your fairly predictable 30 and make a run at the title if you had allowed someone else to have Nate Miles? Didn't you have some warning mechanism to let you know that it was time to back off?

Or is winning that powerful a drug?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe's 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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