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She Got Game

The hoops and dreams of Colorado's budding girl basketball stars.

Ten years ago, Smith says, there wasn't a women's coach in the country with a $100,000 contract. Now, he says, there are forty to fifty coaches with base salaries better than that. The top echelon coaches, like Tennessee's Summitt and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer, earn more than $400,000 annually. Smith also points out that it is now standard for a program to have two full-time assistant coaches, a personal assistant and a secretary.

LaTonya Watson, an assistant basketball coach at the University of Colorado, says recruiting wasn't nearly as intense when she signed up to play for Eastern Michigan in 1988. "My experience was nothing like what Walters went through," says Watson. "The intensity has increased because people are getting paid more now. And you get paid for wins and losses, so that means that you'd better get some talent into your program. But even though women's basketball can now make as much money as the men's game, I still don't think you can compare the ethics of the women's game to the ethics of the men's game, because we don't do what they do as far as recruiting. People in the women's game know that they'll be found out if they violate the rules. And if you get caught, it's an automatic boot out the door. I know it's happened in the men's game, but I sincerely hope that it doesn't get to that point in the women's game."

Former star players who are now coaches marvel at the distance the women's game has traveled.

"When I got recruited," says Caryn Jaroki, a former University of Denver player who coaches the Highlands Ranch High School girls' team, "you had to write to colleges and send them film. There weren't anywhere near as many clubs or tournaments where college coaches could come see you play. Now these kids get nationwide exposure on a regular basis. I've got freshmen here at Highlands Ranch who are getting letters from college coaches before they even walk on the high-school court. A lot of that is because of the club teams."

John Meadows, coach of the Boulder Rockies club team and father of Brooke Meadows, agrees that summer basketball has been instrumental in getting the word out on Colorado talent. "Our team is going to Oregon, Colorado Springs and Washington, D.C., this summer to play in tournaments," says Meadows. "Not only will this provide my players with an opportunity to play against some of the best competition in the U.S., but it will also allow them to be seen by hundreds of college coaches. In small-population states like Colorado, if a college coach flies in to watch some kids play, they've got to drive great distances to see all the talent. It's not like L.A., where all the talent is concentrated. That's one of the biggest advantages of taking a team to a national showcase."

Traveling to national tournaments also gives young players increased confidence in their abilities, according to former Colorado Xplosion assistant coach Gail Hook. "In the long run, travel prepares the kids for the college level," says Hook, who is now a talent consultant for the college-level Women's Basketball Coaches Association. "When I first came out here from Maryland seventeen years ago, the major colleges didn't even bother coming to Colorado. Although today you don't have to worry about coaches not finding a young player in Colorado, it still helps to go out and sell yourself at camps and tournaments during the summer where there are going to be 250 to 300 college coaches in the stands."

However, as club coaches play a bigger and bigger role in getting young players national attention, Joe Smith worries that the door could be opened to trickery.

"As the girls' club programs get more important, you run the risk of seeing the coaches assuming the same grandiosity that you see in the men's game," says Smith. "In places like Chicago, you've got to pay the men's-club coach cash just to get a chance to talk to a player on their team. It could happen to women, too. Especially as the shoe companies start pouring more and more money into the women's game at the club level."

There's another danger resulting from the rise in the importance of summer basketball. Gail Hook says she's distressed to see some of the weaker high-school programs suffering. Because Colorado public schools have an open-enrollment policy, kids can transfer to whatever school they want. As a result, Hook says, parents are no longer willing to send their kids to a lower-echelon basketball program after a summer playing with the best. "I've been seeing a lot of parents shopping their kids around to programs that are more successful than their home school," says Hook.

Sports official Bob Ottewill says he's heard rumblings about certain programs getting the best players. A lot of this, he says, is because of friendships formed on the club teams. "I've heard complaints about kids playing on club teams and then wanting to continue playing together during the regular season," says Ottewill. "But as far as actual violations, there haven't been any. The only situation that really sticks out in my mind concerns Heritage High School back in 1996. They won the girls' 5A championship by thirty or forty points that year. Four out of five starters on that team played at different schools the year before. But like I said, it wasn't really an accusation of recruiting. It was just that the kids decided they wanted to go to school together."

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