For the country’s best high school basketball players, a good showing at Nike Camp can lead to a college scholarship, even a career in the WNBA. But as recruiting heats up for the next star, it’s the coaches who are doing most of the sweating.
Nike’s annual all-star camp
It’s dead summer, and every major women’s college basketball coach in the country is sitting on shaky aluminum bleachers in an Indianapolis gym, blinking under fluorescent lights and wondering what happened to their profession. The 80 best high school players in the United States, aged 14 to 18, are stampeding up and down the court to a continuous shrieking of whistles, while the coaches watch with the gimlet eyes of auction bidders.
This is Nike’s annual all-star camp, an invitation-only event held every July, and it is the tryout of a lifetime. A big performance at Nike Camp can launch a girl’s career, earn her a scholarship to play for a big-time program, and from there perhaps pave the way for a WNBA career.
The large gym on the Indiana University campus has been transformed into a modern-day Baghdad flesh bazaar, except that the girls are wearing jerseys and high-tops. Nike Camp is one of the most important events of the year in women’s high school and college basketball, both for the players and for the coaches who are recruiting them. But Nike Camp is also a window on the state of the sport: It is a story about supply and demand–lots of demand–for the best young athletes in the country. The college that wins the most blue-chip talent may propel itself to a national championship and reap the accompanying riches. For coaches, a winning program can mean job security and national prominence, which lead to lucrative side deals in summer camps and team sneaker contracts.
The campers are already stars in their towns and cities; they are the players who Nike believes will one day take over the WNBA. A row of gigantic posters advertising the larger-than-life success stories of Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie hang from the rafters of the gym.
Somewhere, here, is the game’s next poster gift. The ratio of coaches to players gives a clue about the high stakes: 195 coaches and assistants are watching 80 girls. “It’s one-stop shopping,” says University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.
The battle for talent is being waged in the bleachers with quiet feyness. A future national championship can be won or lost during these three days in Indianapolis, depending on whether a coach can outmaneuver his or her competition. NCAA rules forbid coaches to talk directly to players during the camp, so visibility is the only way coaches can make their interest known. They jockey for seats in the first row of the bleachers.
When a ball rolls toward the sidelines and a top recruit races over to pick it up, Tara VanDerveer of Stanford wants her to look up and see her; C. Vivian Stringer of Rutgers wants her to look up and see her. “Everyone thinks that we’re here to watch the players,” one coach says, “but the truth is, we’re the ones being watched.”