Robert K. Cato

Letters, texts and phone calls. Promises of championships. Offers of big-money scholarships. Another day in the college sports recruiting wars? No, it’s what local kids as young as 10 are being deluged with—from some of Philadelphia’s most elite private high schools

IT’S PUSHING 9 P.M. on a recent night, and Horace Spencer Jr. is looking for relief. He and his eighth-grade son, Horace III — a 6-foot-8, 200-pound prodigy who this year is one of the region’s most prized basketball recruits — have just returned to their home in Warminster after the younger Spencer’s practice. All day long Horace Jr. has been fielding calls and e-mails on behalf of his son.

“It’s very intense,” he says. “I have four schools that are ringing my phone every day. It’s a lot. It can overwhelm me.”

Roman Catholic, Archbishop Wood and La Salle are among the schools that have flooded the Spencers with attention. “Most of them are pushing basketball,” Horace Jr. says. “I’m interested in academics.”

Coaches aren’t the only people pestering the Spencers. Parents of other players call him, trying to find out where Horace III will go so they can send their children to that school, too. Horace Jr. suspects some of the parents are being put up to it by the coaches. Since Horace III is not allowed to have a cell phone — “I don’t want coaches putting ideas in his head,” his father says — coaches have other players ask him where he’ll go.

So what does it take for a school to land a player with the potential of Horace III? The word used most to describe whether a school is interested in creating a successful publicity-grabbing program is “commitment.” That term has many meanings but ultimately characterizes what a school is willing to do to win, from doling out more financial aid to admitting students who might not be as academically strong as other applicants.

“If a school wants to be good in athletics, they’re going to be good,” says Chris McNesby, basketball coach at Roman Catholic, a perennial Philadelphia hoops powerhouse. “It’s very simple. If you turn on the faucet and get kids in school for free, you’ll win.”

Getting those kids begins with identifying and generating interest among top athletes. That requires developing contacts among grade-school and community coaches, having a keen eye for talent, and dazzling kids with some good old-fashioned salesmanship. “I’m doing more of going out and selling the school,” ANC’s Givens says. “If I can get into a living room and talk to kids about coming to ANC, I’m going to have success getting the kid to come to our school.

“There aren’t too many schools in the [national basketball] top 25 with the academics we have.”

To get top prospects, Givens and other coaches must navigate the treacherous waters of Philadelphia’s Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) circuit — a primarily spring and summer basketball league that attracts the region’s elite talent. One of ANC’s top players this season, 6-foot-9 forward Rakeem Christmas, who will play at Syracuse next year, joined the Lions from North Catholic in large part because two AAU teammates — Savon Lloyd-Goodman and Malcolm Gilbert — had already joined up with Givens. “I knew Savon and Malcolm from AAU, and ANC seemed like a comfortable spot in a nice, little town,” Christmas says.