Courtesy of Ed Craw
Thursday, July 26, 2018 | 2 a.m.
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Tournament officials arm college programs with roster packets—complete with contact info for all players—from teams participating in their events. It’s a vitally important step in the recruiting process … and it comes at a cost. At the Vegas Finals, for example, one packet is $350. Each additional packet is $100.
Local clubs have helped develop players selected as first-round NBA Draft picks the past two years. Zach Collins, taken 10th overall by Portland in 2017, played for Vegas Elite. Troy Brown Jr., picked 15th last month by Washington, hooped with the Las Vegas Prospects. And get this: Both players reached the NBA as teenagers, one year removed from club ball.
There could soon be more. Rising juniors Isaiah Cottrell (Elite), Jalen Hardy (Prospects) and Julian Strawther (Prospects) are all ranked as top-30 recruits in their graduation class.
Las Vegas-area high school basketball players would check the mail every day in March for their invitation. Al La Rocque summoned only 25 players to try out for the Las Vegas Stars, the lone club basketball team in Southern Nevada from the 1980s into the ’90s. The Stars would play in a handful of spring and summer events scouted by college coaches—so the best chance to reach the next level meant beating out other locals for a Stars roster spot.
After the tryout came more waiting before La Rocque called those who’d made the team. “I remember sitting by the phone for hours and not leaving the house. The emotions and anxiety were high,” says Jermone Riley, a Clark High standout during the early 1990s who went on to play college ball at Northern Arizona and Texas-San Antonio. “The next day, everyone would ask, ‘Did you receive the call? Did you receive the call?’ ”
Times have changed. Las Vegas has gone from about a dozen high schools to more than 30. In their day, the Stars took the best 15 players, regardless of graduating class; the others had nowhere to play. Now, there are four prominent clubs—the Las Vegas Knicks, Las Vegas Prospects, Las Vegas Punishers and Vegas Elite—all with a team in each age group. That means far more Las Vegas teenagers have opportunities to get scouted at major events, including this week in Las Vegas during the NCAA’s open recruiting period.
Four tournaments, each supported by shoe companies, will bring a bevy of college programs to town in search of players. Many of the incoming squads are sponsored by the shoe companies, providing players with access to the newest apparel—shoes, uniforms and travel gear. That wasn’t the case when Riley played. “We might have received one pair of shoes, and we were so grateful for that,” he says.
In Riley’s day, the marquee event was the Basketball Congress International in Phoenix. Southern Nevada hosted just one tournament, the Las Vegas Invitational at UNLV’s north and south gyms. La Rocque remembers the local event having just eight teams one year. The next, he says, it ballooned to 124. “It literally blew up,” he says. “The shoe companies got involved. The shoe companies blew it up.”
La Rocque can talk for days about his old Stars teams. One year, guards comprised his entire starting lineup. Another, he had future University of Arizona great Matt Othick and Kevin Soares—now UNR’s all-time assists leader—in his backcourt. He also coached Jermone’s brother Ron Riley, a future standout at Arizona State, now a member of the Pac-12 Conference’s Hall of Fame. Others Vegas notables, including Thomas McTyer, Prince Fowler, H Waldman and Tony Johnson, also thrived with the Stars before beginning their college careers.
Several former Stars have become Las Vegas coaches. Brian Sitter heads Vegas Elite, one of the area’s top club programs. Foothill High’s Soares is one of the area’s most respected high school coaches. Eldorado’s Reggie Ingram, Mojave’s Adam Schwartz, Basic’s Leonard Taylor and Palo Verde girls coach Phil Clarke Jr. also played for the Stars. “It’s a who’s who of [Las Vegas] greats,” La Rocque says.
The retired La Rocque, who coached at Western and Durango, still hits gyms throughout the year, especially in the summer. And he constantly runs into former Stars players. “Everybody was rooting for one another. We still do,” Riley says. “I was excited for [UNLV and Northern Arizona player] Chancellor Davis or my brother or anyone who got an opportunity in college.”
• Host site: Bishop Gorman High, 5959 S. Hualapai Way
• Cost: $15 for a day pass; $60 for tournament pass
• Info: lasvegasfab48events.com
Las Vegas Classic
• Host site: Spring Valley High, 3750 S. Buffalo Drive
• Cost: $15 for a day pass; $50 for tournament pass
• Info: bigfoothoops.com/tournaments/las-vegas-classic
• Host site: Rancho High School, 1900 East Searles Ave.
• Cost: $15 daily
• Info: basketball.exposureevents.com/107554/rebound-hoops-vegas-finals
Under Armour Association Finals
• Host site: Coronado High
• Cost: $15 daily
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.