The right player in men's college basketball can be the difference between a national contender and a team that struggles to compete. Winning teams fill arenas and university coffers. Losing teams can get coaches fired.
With stakes that high, the NCAA, which governs college sports, is increasingly wary of what colleges sometimes do to get those difference-making athletes. Getting the star might mean first taking care of his friend, family members, or those in the inner circle who simply have their hands out.
Today, for instance, 6-foot-10 center Gus Gilchrist will make his debut for the University of South Florida. He is a potential franchise player for the Bulls, who have mostly been overmatched in basketball since joining the Big East Conference. Shortly after Gilchrist entered USF's program last summer, the Bulls created a job as a video and conditioning assistant for one of his closest friends.
Terrelle Woody was the player's personal trainer, adviser and spokesman as Gilchrist hopped from two high schools and two other universities before landing at USF. Hiring him broke no NCAA rules and the practice is widespread enough that many coaches know the drill.
"I had an opening on my staff last year and three different guys called me about it," said Phil Martelli, coach of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "They all said the same thing: 'If you hire me, I can deliver this guy (high school player) to your program.'
"Frankly, it made my skin crawl. Not to make an analogy that's a huge over-exaggeration, but hasn't slavery ended?"
The prospect of these shadowy deal-makers having such a large impact on one of the NCAA's marquee sports makes a lot of people nervous. Even if arrangements such as Woody's at USF don't violate the rules, many say the system has too many loopholes and is open to high-level abuse.
"Follow the money, follow the money," former University of Pennsylvania and Boston College coach Chuck Daly said, evoking images of Hal Holbrook's stern advice to Robert Redford in "All the President's Men."
In an unprecedented move, enforcement officials were deployed to Las Vegas, Orlando and other summer-basketball sites to infiltrate what NCAA President Myles Brand describes as a "dysfunctional" system of recruiting. On a staff of 20 investigators, the NCAA has now designated three solely for men's basketball.
"There has been growing concern at some of the things developing in men's basketball," NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said. "We want to get deeper into that environment and culture."
Front and center: The connections between Amateur Athletic Union coaches, sometimes affiliated with agents, and high-profile players.
"Recruiting is extremely difficult right now," said Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, formerly of USF. "The player is the center of the universe. You've got to draw a circle around that player and then touch everyone in that circle. If you don't touch the right person, you're going to be eliminated."
'Return On Investment'
An ESPN investigation last spring revealed University of Southern California player O.J. Mayo, now in the NBA, had received money and gifts from agents, some as early as seventh grade.
Those gifts are meant to ensure loyalty when a talent such as Mayo goes on to play professional basketball. He was a first-round selection last summer in the National Basketball Association draft.
Sonny Vaccaro, who once advised Nike to design an athletic footwear line for a young player named Michael Jordan, calls it "capitalism ... return on investment" and says these arrangements "should be saluted."
Even some elite players, though, say they wanted to choose a school based on academics and basketball - not what their family or friends could get.
Kenny Boynton, a senior at American Heritage School in Plantation, is the No. 8-ranked player in the country and has committed to the University of Florida. He also plays in AAU tournaments for the elite Team Breakdown.
His father, Kenny Boynton Sr., said he rebuffed all calls from recruiters and "street agents" offering to broker deals.
"A lot of people put into these kids' minds the thought of 'What can they get?'" he said. "Those guys work the moms. They promise to take them to California for AAU and stuff.
"A lot of kids may get pressure from their parents if they're in a bad situation. Every situation is different. Those behind-the-scenes guys, they never come to the gym. As long as I've been with Team Breakdown, I've never seen it happen. I try to keep him around good people. The street agent knows who is vulnerable."
Last season, a last-second shot by Kansas guard Mario Chalmers sent the national championship game into overtime. The Jayhawks went on to beat Memphis. On the bench was Chalmers' father, Ronnie, the program's director of basketball operations.
Chalmers is now in the NBA. His father has resigned. Mission accomplished.
Also on the bench that night was assistant coach Danny Manning, the former Jayhawks' All-American who led Kansas to the national title in 1988. His arrival at Kansas was clinched by the hiring of his father, Ed, onto coach Larry Brown's staff.
"The bottom line is people don't care how these kids get on the court," Vaccaro said. "They're only interested in the wins and losses."
Last summer, Baylor University hired Dwon Clifton, coach of the AAU team that includes the nation's top point guard prospect, John Wall from Raleigh, N.C. Wall hasn't signed a scholarship, but Baylor is on his short list.
It's 'About Relationships'
Lamont Peterson is administrative assistant to Memphis coach John Calipari. Peterson also is the personal strength and conditioning coach for freshman guard Tyreke Evans, who was the nation's fourth-rated prep player last season.
"Recruiting is about relationships," Calipari said. "Sometimes, it's with AAU coaches when you have one of their kids and you do well by them, then they help you get another kid. I have a lot of relationships and don't apologize for them."
Larry Orton, the father of Daniel Orton, a top-10 high school player, was paid $4,800 for speaking engagements at University of Kentucky camps, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. The player's stepbrother was paid $1,950 for more talks to campers. Daniel Orton attended those camps. It was all legal under NCAA rules.
Daniel Orton has committed to Kentucky.
Kansas State's Michael Beasley, last season's national college Player of the Year, once made an oral commitment to the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. But the assistant coach who recruited him, Beasley's former AAU mentor, Dalonte Hill, moved to Kansas State and received a $400,000 salary.
Beasley signed with Kansas State.
"I think the whole thing needs fixing," said Orlando Christian Prep coach Reggie Kohn, a former USF point guard. "There are too many people pulling at these kids. As a high school coach, you'd want it recruiting to be under your control, along with the parents, but that's not how things work these days."
The NCAA's Involvement
Five months ago, John Henson of Sickles High School, a 6-foot-10 forward who has signed with top-ranked University of North Carolina, was surrounded by big-time coaches as he performed during an AAU national tournament in Las Vegas.
Also in the crowd: NCAA investigators.
The organization was stung by the revelations on Mayo and other high-profile players. The combination of money, pressure and opportunity for abuse raised numerous red flags, especially because the NCAA has little ability to control what goes on in AAU.
"The summer coach has in far more cases than not taken the place of the high school coach in terms of where the kid is going to go to school," said Bobby Knight, who won three national championships at Indiana and leads all Division I coaches with 902 career wins. "He goes to play for some guy that really has no ability to teach."
Vaccaro shrugs off the concerns.
"This is simply doing business. Nothing more," he said.
University of Florida coach Billy Donovan said adults have failed the kids, pointing to an NBA rule that prohibits drafting players until they have turned 19. In effect, elite players are just passing through college and everybody knows it.
"O.J. Mayo is basically a good kid who works hard and means well, but he never should have been in college," Donovan said. "When these guys agents come around, how are you going to monitor a kid in the ninth grade?
"It's not the kid's responsibility to know all the NCAA rules and in the end, the kid is made out to be a bad guy. With the way things are set up now, of course these kids are going to have temptations."
So will coaches. Donovan has always known that. When his program captured its second consecutive national championship in 2007, he deflected the praise.
"We could've told you about strategy, about what our coaches did on the X's and O's," Donovan said. "But in the final analysis, that's not what gets you to the top. You build a program by recruiting the right kind of players. They're the driving force."
Keyword: Basketball Recruiting, to see a video report of high school players and college coaches discussing the recruiting process.
Joe Henderson, Joey Johnston, Nick Williams, Ira Kaufman, Anwar S. Richardson, Bill Ward and Scott Butherus.