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October 21, 2018

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With pressure from NCAA, could this be the end of summer youth basketball in Las Vegas?

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Fans fill the stands at Bishop Gorman High School to watch Vegas Elite play the Arkansas Wings during the Fab 48 Tournament on Wednesday, July 26 2017.

On Wednesday afternoon, Grant Rice was a whipping around the gym at Bishop Gorman, preparing the venue’s four basketball courts for the start of the Las Vegas Fab 48, one of the summer’s biggest grassroots tournaments.

With more than 900 teams participating in the five-day event, which takes place in dozens of gyms across the valley, the Fab 48 — as well as simultaneous tournaments like the Bigfoot Hoops Classic and the Rebound Hoops Vegas Finals — help make the city a basketball hub every July.

If the NCAA has its way, however, that tradition could be coming to an end.

After Arizona and other college programs were implicated by the FBI in a corruption sting last season, the NCAA is moving to overhaul the recruiting culture that has supplied college basketball with its star players for decades. An exploratory committee last month recommended that the NCAA eliminate live recruiting periods in July and replace them with NCAA-run evaluation camps.

Such a move could sap the Las Vegas events of their allure and dissuade thousands of participants from flocking to the city every summer.

Rice, the Bishop Gorman coach and one of the directors of the Fab 48, did not want to comment on potential rule changes, but he took time to stump for the value of such events, even as he was helping to situate the youth teams that had begun to file through the registration desk.

“It takes a lot of effort and a lot of people to pull off these events,” Rice said. “This many teams, this many college coaches, you have to have good people who want to work hard and do the best they can for these kids. And for the kids, they can hopefully play in front of some college coaches. It’s good for the young kids to be playing basketball in big-time events where they can be seen.”

Under the current recruiting system, shoe companies like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour sponsor teams and can supply the coaches and directors with salaries and free gear. The coaches, in return, can exert influence over the players to steer them toward certain colleges that also have exclusive deals with the shoe companies. It’s a murky quid pro quo dance that has existed for years, but the NCAA has incentive to crack down now that the FBI investigation has been made public.

Under the new rule recommendations, which could go into effect as early as next year, the NCAA committee believes it can minimize the power that sponsored youth coaches and shoe companies hold over elite recruits.

In his role as director of the Nike-sponsored Las Vegas Prospects, one of the nation’s most prominent travel squads, Anthony Brown has been involved in the recruiting process for hundreds of players. He believes the proposed rules would be an extreme overreaction to a very specific and limited problem.

“Ridiculous,” Brown said of the proposal. “Let’s do the numbers. In the Bigfoot Hoops 17-under division, let’s say there are 500 teams. Then say on average there are 10 kids on a team. That’s 5,000 kids playing 17-and-under. We’re not even talking about 16-under, 15-under, all the way down. Right now, there’s probably 15,000 to 20,000 kids in Las Vegas this week to play club basketball, and we’re proposing rules that only affect maybe five kids — maybe three to five kids who are being recruited at the level where it’s a problem. This proposal doesn’t make sense.”

Brown believes that even if the NCAA does move to terminate the July recruiting period and decertify grassroots events, all but forcing college coaches to stay away, the shoe companies will still operate camps and work around the new rules.

“If [the proposal] does go through, I’ll speak from the Nike standpoint, if I’m Nike we’re still doing our events," he said. "We’re live-streaming. If I’m a coach, you can’t tell me I can’t watch this from my computer. They’ll still hold the camps and the coaches will still watch. You’ve just empowered the local media, the internet scouts and the companies that do the live-stream videos.”

UNLV coach Marvin Menzies will be a frequent spectator at gyms across town this week, maybe for the last time, as he watches some of the Rebels’ recruiting targets for the 2019, 2020 and 2021 classes. Menzies didn’t want to speculate on the proposed rule changes, but he said he and his staff will be prepared to adapt for anything the NCAA throws at them.

“You don’t really know anything until it’s engraved in stone, and I’m still hearing all kinds of different scenarios,” Menzies said. “I will say, I do believe change is coming and I do believe it will be significant. It will be a transition to that new paradigm. Whatever changes they make are going to be assessed up and down – it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right or wrong thing to do. There is definitely a need for change and I’m patiently awaiting what that actual change will be.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to make the distinction between the Amateur Athletic Union and other youth organizations. | (August 9, 2018)

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