It’s 8 a.m. on an already sweltering July morning, and Mike Krzyzewski, the man who has coached Duke University to four NCAA basketball championships, is watching a layup drill in the Rancho High School gym. Alongside him is Roy Williams, the coach of Duke’s bitter rival, North Carolina. They’re just two of several members of college basketball’s coaching royalty who have descended on Las Vegas for a weeklong amateur basketball bonanza spread across more than a dozen gyms and featuring the nation’s most prominent prospects.
These coaching icons will end up shuttling between all of those gyms during 16-hour days in search of their next great recruit. But right now, right here, they’ve come to catch a glimpse of the biggest prize of all, a once-in-a-generation prospect named Shabazz Muhammad. He is a chiseled 6-foot-6, 215-pound, 17-year-old man-among-boys, and he is considered by nearly every major scouting service to be the best prep basketball player in the country.
During the school year, Muhammad stars for Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High School, but today he is leading his Amateur Athletic Union team, Dream Vision, one of more than 1,000 AAU squads from around the world participating in three Las Vegas-based tournaments: the Adidas Super 64, the Las Vegas Fab 48 and Big Foot Hoops. Over the past two decades, such events have shaped Las Vegas’ reputation as the summer basketball capital of the world, with prospects named Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant draining 3-pointers and rattling rims in local gyms long before they were NBA legends.
The difference is that this year the Kobes and LeBrons happen to call Southern Nevada home. Las Vegas is no longer just a sunny port for the traveling circus of youth basketball. Thanks to a convergence of urban growth, gifted athletes and top-flight coaching, it has emerged as a true basketball town, with its own scene and its own national allure.
Of the nation’s top 100 basketball recruits, no fewer than six suit up for Las Vegas high schools, including three players—Muhammad, Brandon Ashley and Anthony Bennett—who are ranked in the top 10. But the one who has become the symbol of the city’s coming of age as a basketball hotbed is Muhammad, who in elementary school was, by his own admission, just a “short, fat kid” with a dream.
Muhammad was born to 5-foot-9 Faye Paige (now Faye Muhammad), an All-American track star at Long Beach State, and 6-foot-5 Ron Holmes, a swingman for USC in the 1980s, on Nov. 13, 1993. He followed older sister Asia (now a professional tennis player) and preceded younger brother Rashad (a promising 6-5 junior at Bishop Gorman), and together the family of five moved from Southern California to Las Vegas when Shabazz was 3 years old.
Not long after the boxes were unpacked, Holmes went into the garage, picked up a basketball and started dribbling. Shabazz did the same. It was his first recollection of his introduction to the sport, and even though it was love at first sight, it was hardly success at first touch. “Everybody was picking on me,” he recalls of his early years on the court. “I was short, I was fat. I wanted to play the game, and I thought I was good, and I really wasn’t.”
He worked hard on his game, and as he did, he started to slim down and sprout up—5-8 by sixth grade, 5-11 by eighth grade. But the on-court results were slow to materialize. Even when he first got invited to play with Dream Vision—a prominent San Diego-based club team—it was only because a close family friend was a coach. And he was little more than a bench-warmer at first.
“They kind of put him in his place,” Holmes says of the Dream Vision players. “They were all dunking at the time, and he couldn’t dunk, so they were making fun of him, saying, ‘Ah,
you’re not athletic, you’re not this, you’re not that.’ I think it gave him a little bit of a reality check. But I knew that some kids matured faster than others; I was one of those kids. So I told him, ‘Shabazz, look, bro, you can’t get [upset] if guys who have mustaches and beards are better than you in basketball. They’re probably not going to grow anymore. That’s just how it works.’ He just didn’t understand that.”
Neither did Grant Rice. The Bishop Gorman boys basketball coach (and brother of new UNLV head coach Dave Rice) first encountered Muhammad during a kids camp after his eighth-grade year but didn’t immediately sense his potential. Holmes, however, was determined to give his son the best opportunity to succeed, and as far as he was concerned, that meant enrolling at Gorman, a private Catholic high school with a rich athletic tradition.
A couple of months into his freshman year at Gorman, Muhammad had shot up to 6-2 and was practicing with the varsity squad, not only holding his own, but dominating. So much so that when Rice allowed two upperclassmen point guards to choose sides for pick-up games, the lanky freshman was the first one selected. Says Rice: “When Johnathan Lloyd, who’s one of the best players we’ve had here, picks Shabazz first in front of [all the upperclassmen], I’m thinking, ‘OK, maybe I should take a look at this kid.’”
Muhammad made the varsity squad as a freshman—something Rice says is “rare”—but didn’t make an impact until midway through the season. Facing Durango High School, he came off the bench and scored 29 points. The Gaels went on to win the state championship, and Muhammad joined Dream Vision’s 15-and-under squad that summer. The teasing stopped and the domination continued. In the championship game of the most prestigious AAU tournament in the country—the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions in North Carolina—he dropped 38 points on Indiana Elite, the top 15-and-under team in the country that year. Dream Vision won in a blowout and took home the crown, while Muhammad took home tournament MVP honors—but not before giving several interviews to media and scouts, all of whom were eager to learn more about this phenom from Las Vegas.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Muhammad recalls, “because I was a nobody.”
Bishop Gorman has won four basketball state championships since Rice took over as head coach in 2002. Perhaps an even more impressive accomplishment: In Rice’s tenure, 25 of his players have received scholarships to play college basketball, including 16 at the Division I level.
It’s natural to wonder how so much talent ends up at a private school with an enrollment of about 1,200, but Rice insists he doesn’t pillage local high schools. “I kind of laugh when people accuse us of recruiting, because to be honest, we really don’t need to recruit.”
Certainly, all those championship banners and Division I scholarships and Rice’s 257-56 record in nine years as coach serve as an adequate advertisement to prospective talent (and their parents). So does a national schedule that in recent years has seen Gorman travel all over the map—from Anchorage, Alaska, to Fort Meyers, Fla.—giving kids like Muhammad and Rosco Allen (a 6-9, Stanford-bound Gaels swingman who was rated as the nation’s 55th-best prospect by ESPN) the kind of exposure most high-school players can only dream of.
This is not to say Rice has a monopoly when it comes to premier prep talent in Southern Nevada. As he’s quick to point out, despite a roster that included another blue-chip prospect, Ben Carter, the Gaels didn’t win last season’s state championship. That honor went to Canyon Springs, a public school in North Las Vegas.
And then there’s Henderson-based Findlay Prep, which in just five years has grown from a dream in the mind of local auto dealer and former UNLV basketball player Cliff Findlay into one of the most successful high-school basketball programs in the country. Talent from all over the world flocks to Findlay’s home base, the academically respected Henderson International School, where the Pilots have soared since Findlay launched the program in 2006. (The recession forced the formerly pre-K-12 private school to drop its high school in 2010, but it maintains a college-preparatory curriculum for the Findlay players.) Playing a mostly national schedule over the last four seasons under head coach Michael Peck, Findlay has amassed a 125-7 record with titles in 2009 and ’10 at the ESPN RISE National High School Invitational, the closest thing there is to a national championship.
While outsiders naturally focus on Findlay’s on-court achievements, Peck prefers to highlight another impressive stat: All 22 seniors who have played for his program have gone on to earn a Division I scholarship. In addition, four Findlay alums have been selected in the NBA draft over the last two years, with three of them—Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph—getting picked in the first round after spending just one year at the University of Texas. The influx of talent continues this year, as Peck’s roster features four of the nation’s top 70 recruits, according to Scout.com: Ashley from Oakland (ranked No. 3), Bennett from Ontario, Canada (No. 9), Winston Shepard from Fresno, Texas (No. 43) and Dominic Artis from Richmond, Calif. (No. 63).
Although many parents would love for their son to play basketball for Findlay Prep, the program has an agreement with the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association that it will not accept any in-state student-athletes. It is an arrangement Peck embraces.
“Let’s say, for example, that we took Coronado High School’s best player. Now how do you think Coronado is going to feel about us? Probably not very good, which I understand,” Peck says. “We don’t want that. We want the community to embrace us, to feel good about us so we can gain support. We know that the way we acquire our student-athletes is different, and not the way the local schools can do it. It’s not an even playing field.”
But if area schools want to take on the challenge, Findlay will play them. The result on the scoreboard might not be pretty, but the exposure to college recruiters who attend all of Findlay’s games is invaluable.
One prep program that has proven it can compete with the Pilots is Gorman. In an epic matchup last season on Jan. 22—before a standing-room-only crowd at Cox Pavilion on UNLV’s campus—Findlay prevailed 89-86 in double overtime, the final points coming on a 3-pointer with two seconds left. Pilots guard Myck Kabongo, now a freshman at Texas, electrified the gym with his quickness en route to 26 points, while Muhammad scored a game-high 32 in a losing effort. About 15 college coaches were attendance, as was former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, who sat courtside. Some longtime local hoops observers called it the best high-school game in Nevada history, and certainly the one with the most talent, setting the stage for a highly anticipated rematch Jan. 21 at Cox Pavilion, a game scheduled to be televised live on ESPNU.
Such a national spotlight has become second nature for Findlay Prep, now a marquee attraction in the world of amateur basketball. And yet back home, in the Entertainment Capital of the World, Peck’s program remains something of a secondary act. And he’s cool with that.
“If you put our program in the state of Kentucky or Ohio, our staff wouldn’t get any work done; our kids would have so many distractions,” Peck says. “But here, we’re not a big deal. … We’re a bigger deal nationally, and maybe globally, than we are locally. And I’d just as soon keep it the way it is.”
One outside observer who gives Findlay a lot of credit for elevating Las Vegas’ basketball image is ESPN scout Joel Francisco, who says the Pilots are “evolving into the Oak Hill Academy of the West Coast,” referring to the nationally dominant Virginia program. “They have that [national] reputation now.”
Francisco’s experience with the Las Vegas prep basketball scene dates to 1986, when he was a high-school senior in Long Beach, Calif., and traveled here for a tournament that included Rancho High School, led by future UNLV star Greg Anthony. In 1992, as a senior at Long Beach State, Francisco started his own scouting service, and for the last five years he’s worked for ESPN, traveling to Las Vegas at least twice a year for spring and summer tournaments.
“Vegas has always had very good athletes,” Francisco says. “But I think the players lacked coaching in many regards, to be honest with you, in the high schools. There were good athletes there, but they weren’t fundamentally sound. They didn’t have great skill development. So what’s happened in the last 10 years is the coaching has really improved.”
Along with better coaching and the emergence of Findlay Prep, Francisco points to a third key factor in the city’s basketball growth: the population boom from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. “You think about it, Vegas was one of the fastest-growing cities in America. So a population influx has definitely brought in more families, which has brought in more talent.”
Sure enough, if Ron Holmes hadn’t relocated his family to the desert, Shabazz Muhammad would be starring for a Southern California high school—and almost certainly UNLV would not be in the running with Duke, North Carolina, UCLA and Kentucky (among others) when he makes his college choice this spring.
Anthony Brown is a Las Vegas native who played defensive back for UNLV’s football team from 1995-98, when the Rebels won just six times in 45 games. It took several years and a change in sports, but Brown has found athletic success as coach of the Las Vegas Prospects, one of the area’s top AAU basketball programs. He launched the team nine years ago in hopes of getting his younger basketball-playing brothers college scholarships. “College was an option for them, but we needed a way to pay for it,” he says. With the help of legendary former Durango High School coach Al LaRocque, Brown got the Prospects off the ground, and by the end of his first year had struck a sponsorship deal with Reebok, becoming Nevada’s first AAU team, he says, to secure a relationship with a shoe company.
The sponsorships (the team later switched to Adidas) paved the way for Brown to take the Prospects on spring and summer trips to national AAU tournaments, which give top local players whose high-school teams don’t travel an opportunity to showcase their talents in other cities. The tournaments are one-stop shopping for college coaches: They may arrive at a tournament in, say, North Carolina, to watch a kid from the East Coast, but they may leave with one of the Las Vegas Prospects at the top of their list.
“Once I got to the Prospects, I got to see some of the better [national] competitors,” says Anthony Marshall, a former Prospects and Mojave High School star who is now a junior guard at UNLV. “You know, we’re not known for having big men in Las Vegas, so once I got to the East Coast, I had to change my game. I couldn’t just go into the lane anytime I wanted for a layup or dunk. I had to either shoot a floater or pass [the ball out]. It helped my game a lot by getting out there and seeing different players.”
Marshall is among 35 former Prospects players to receive a college scholarship since the first graduating class in 2004. Other high-profile alumni include Billy White (San Diego State), Elijah Johnson (Kansas), Johnathan Lloyd (Oregon), Luke Babbitt (Nevada) and Craig Brackins (Iowa State). Babbitt and Brackins ended up being selected 16th and 21st, respectively, in the first round of the 2010 NBA draft.
The life of AAU players isn’t always so charmed. After all, on the reputation continuum, “AAU coach” is wedged somewhere between “Ponzi scheme ringleader” and “used-car salesman.” The stories of basketball prodigies as young as 8 years old being exploited by supposed father figures are endless. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist George Dohrmann deftly reports in Play Their Hearts Out, an acclaimed 2010 book, the AAU subculture has been sullied by coaches out for personal gain: Attract a superstar to your AAU team, the theory goes—befriend him, tell him how great he is, cater to his every desire—and eventually the NBA comes calling. And when that day comes, there you are, attached to his back pocket.
Brown knows all about this reputation. “It’s easy to place blame on AAU coaches because a lot of them aren’t licensed educators,” he says. “A lot of them don’t work for a living, and they do different things to generate money. So they’ve got some shadiness to them.”
Despite the “bad apples,” he says plenty of AAU coaches have the players’ best interests at heart. Brown requires his players to be working toward academically qualifying for college, and he holds them to a code of conduct. As for what he gains from the experience, Brown—who works for the Clark County School District, helping children with disabilities—says he doesn’t pull a paycheck. Nor does he want to.
“I went to college for free,” he says. “And I want to see kids get the same opportunity that I did.”
The Big Time
Former Valley High School principal Ron Montoya, who was a head coach at Basic High School in Henderson from 1978-84, has headed up the Adidas Super 64 summer tournament since its inception in 2004. He says the per-team entry fee that year was $100. As of this past summer, it had jumped to $700. “Back in ’04 I had to beg teams to come. I don’t have to ask anymore,” he says, adding that he has an annual waiting list of 400 teams.
Somewhere in Pebble Beach, Calif., Sonny Vaccaro beams with pride.
Though Vaccaro, 72, has been out of the amateur basketball limelight for several years, the mere mention of his name still triggers barstool debates. Some view Vaccaro, known as the godfather of summer basketball, as the antichrist, someone who infiltrated the innocent world of amateur hoops and turned it sideways, with kids serving as pawns in a corrupt, big-money business. Others look at Vaccaro and his past associations with shoe giants Nike, Adidas and Reebok, and see a genius who used his power and influence to grow amateur basketball to unimaginable heights, with the tangential effect of helping thousands of kids (many of them underprivileged) secure college scholarships.
Whichever side of the Vaccaro fence you stand on, there’s no arguing this: Without him, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight Howard never would have set foot in a Las Vegas high school gym, and the city wouldn’t be known as it is today as a summer basketball mecca.
“There’s not a sport in the world that can give you the birth of young talent like basketball,” Vaccaro says. “You can see the brilliance at a young age. And Vegas is a place where people want to see the best.”
Vaccaro’s Las Vegas basketball roots run deep. He’s been friends with Tarkanian since the latter was still coaching at Long Beach State in the early 1970s, and Stacey Augmon (the Rebels’ former star and current assistant coach) tabbed Vaccaro to be the godfather to one of his children. But it wasn’t until 1995 that Vaccaro turned an otherwise ordinary week in late July into, as Anthony Brown puts it, “basketball paradise.” That year, while affiliated with Adidas, Vaccaro started The Big Time Tournament, at first bringing together 64 AAU teams from all over the country, one of which featured Bryant, who was named to the inaugural all-tournament team.
The Big Time expanded each year, growing to 400 teams (from multiple countries) by 2003, at which point several other amateur basketball tournaments began to flourish here, riding The Big Time’s coattails.
Vaccaro left The Big Time in 2007, and the tournament eventually became the Reebok Summer Championships, which ceased operations in 2010 after Reebok pulled its sponsorship. Still, the godfather of summer basketball has fond memories of his signature Vegas event.
“It evolved into the biggest and best summer tournament in the world,” he says. “We attracted the best. Winning The Big Time Tournament was like winning the NCAA championship for those high-school kids.”
Hyperbole aside, the summer tournaments have given local basketball fans an opportunity to get an up-close-and-personal look at basketball’s stars of tomorrow. More importantly, they’ve given local players who can’t afford (or haven’t been invited) to play on a travel team a platform to strut their stuff against the best players in the country—and in front of the best coaches in the country.
“What an opportunity if you’re a local team, you don’t need to travel,” says DeShawn Henry, Durango’s boys basketball coach, who also assists with the Prospects. “You can stay here and play in some of the biggest tournaments on a great stage. Which is why I think some of our local kids are starting to get recognized on a national level.”
The population influx. Findlay Prep’s swift national ascent. The AAU basketball and summer tournament scenes. UNLV’s resurgence. The presence of the NBA Summer League and USA Basketball. The simple good fortune that Shabazz Muhammad calls Las Vegas home: It takes a confluence of demographics, dedication and luck to build a basketball town. Which begs the question: How far can this go? Is what we’re seeing now just a cycle that’s reaching an apex, or is it the start of something bigger? The answer varies depending on whom you ask.
“I don’t really see it as a cycle,” Rice says. “I think the talent will continue. Kids are playing a lot more at an early age, and [even though] I’m not necessarily in favor of it, you see specialization now. We used to play two or three sports, but nowadays you’re a basketball player or you’re a football player. And they’re becoming elite.”
His colleague across town has a different take.
“If people expect it to be like it is now every year and sustain it, well, I think they’re delusional,” Peck says. “I think it will stay [on a level] where people say, ‘That is a good basketball city.’ But will they say it’s the best or that it will stay where it is? I don’t know. Getting there is easier than staying there. And that’s not to say getting there is easy. That’s hard. But guess what? It’s hard to stay there. That’s a whole different deal.”
If there is a consensus opinion, it’s this: God-given ability only partly explains why a short, fat kid blossoms into the No. 1 player in the country, and why a bunch of his peers all over town are right on his heels. There’s a unique work ethic and competitive fire that burns within these teenagers. And the hope is that those attributes will rub off on the next generation of amateur basketball players, ensuring that Las Vegas remains a second home for college basketball’s marquee coaches for years to come.
“I would like to believe as more and more kids in our town get the opportunity to go away to school and they start coming back, that will then serve as a model for some kids who maybe have those aspirations,” says Cheyenne High School coach Teral Fair. “This is how you do it, this is what’s required and what’s going to be asked or demanded of you. [Hopefully], the reciprocal effect will also help the quality of play because kids will be able to touch and feel—to have tangible examples—of what it takes to get to the next level.”
• • •
It’s a Wednesday evening, the final one of September, and all eyes turn to the No. 1 prospect in the nation as he saunters into Bishop Gorman’s gym. A crowd of several hundred has gathered to watch Shabazz Muhammad and dozens of other local players ranging in age from 14 to 17 play in the Fullcourt Press Las Vegas Fall Showcase, a series of exhibition games that feature less defense than an NBA All-Star game. Those in attendance, all of whom paid 10 bucks to get in, don’t know it yet, but the main man they’ve come to see has a mild ankle injury that will keep him on the sidelines.
As Muhammad takes a seat courtside, two teams made up of mostly juniors are throwing down highlight-reel dunks and sinking long-range shots in a game that goes into overtime and ends with more than 230 combined points. One of the players contributing to the scoring frenzy is Rashad Muhammad, Shabazz’s little brother. Another is Stephen Zimmerman, a 6-foot-11, 15-year-old freshman, also from Bishop Gorman.
Zimmerman shines against opponents two years his senior, which isn’t surprising, considering the kid is regarded as the top incoming high-school freshman in the country and already has a scholarship offer from UNLV. It won’t be the last. In fact, barring injury, by the time his senior season rolls around, Zimmerman likely will be standing where Shabazz Muhammad stands today: as the nation’s most prized recruit.
And if Francisco, the scout who’s been evaluating young basketball talent for two decades, is to be believed, Zimmerman will have plenty of local company right behind him. “I’d say this class of 2015 is as good as I’ve seen come out of Vegas since I’ve been doing this.”