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Youth hoops 'dirtiest business' ever, recalls Kevin Love's dad
The Swoosh Effect: an occasional series
Jeff Manning | The Oregonian/OregonLive
When allegations of secret payoffs and six-figure bribes engulfed college basketball last fall, Stan and Karen Love were hardly surprised.
The scandal reminded the Lake Oswego couple of the "creeps" who wanted a piece of their son, Kevin Love, a decade ago when he was a high school star running the gantlet of club basketball, sneaker sponsorships and college recruitment.
There was the sports agent who allegedly paid $250,000 to Kevin Love's club team coach in hopes the coach would "deliver" Love as a client.>Stan Love thought he'd seen everything, but he says the world of youth basketball was an eye-opener.Thomas Boyd/Staff
There was the NCAA investigator who, according to the Loves, showed up at Lake Oswego High School, convinced the teen was driving an expensive new SUV and otherwise profiting off his basketball prowess.
There were the athletic footwear wars as Love bounced between brands and endured a turbulent on-again, off-again relationship with Nike.
Stan Love - who spent four years in the NBA himself before taking a job with The Beach Boys -- thought he'd seen it all. But youth basketball topped everything.
"It's the dirtiest business I've ever been around," he said. "And I was in rock-and-roll for 35 years."
SURROUNDED BY TALENT SCOUTS
It was clear early on that Kevin Love was exceptional.
He played for elite club teams starting in middle school. He led Lake Oswego High School to three consecutive state championship games. As a senior, he was the fourth-ranked high school recruit in the country, according to some grading services.
Talent scouts from both colleges and footwear companies began to hover, tracking Love on the court. "The first to show up was Sonny Vaccaro," Stan Love said, referring to the basketball savant who'd worked at nearly every major U.S. sneaker company. "He wanted Kevin and [South Medford prep star] Kyle Singler. That's what they do, they want to get players' allegiance early."
In 2005, Kevin Love decided to attend Vaccaro's famed ABCD Camp. The 6-foot-10 Love wanted to test himself against the other leading big men, most particularly Greg Oden, his father said.
"Greg was the No. 1 player in the country," Vaccaro said. "And Kevin outplayed him. He was brilliant."
Father and son were celebrating Kevin's selection as camp MVP when a phone call cast a sudden pall. The Loves were about to learn the price of a sneaker sponsorship in modern youth basketball.
A Nike rep was on the line. The company was upset that Love, who played for a Nike-sponsored club team in Portland, had attended a Reebok camp.SPECIAL REPORT | The Swoosh Effect An occasional series on the sneaker industry's growing influence on grassroots basketball.
The loyalty game: The college basketball investigation that has toppled coaches and sports agents and cast a pall over such marquee Oregon companies as Nike and Adidas also casts a harsh light on grassroots basketball, the barely regulated frontier between youth and college competition. Story link
The prosecution of Myron Piggie: A 2000 Kansas City case serves as an eerie harbinger of today's basketball scandal. Story link
Portland prep star shines: Kamaka Hepa's journey from Alaska to Oregon illustrates how club teams, high school sports and sneaker companies both fuel and capitalize on hoop dreams. Story link
The "dirtiest business" ever: Kevin Love's days as a top recruit swept his Lake Oswego family into the athletic footwear wars and sparked an on-again, off-again relationship with Nike.
Neither Stan nor Karen Love would comment on the breach with Nike. The company also declined to discuss it. However, published reports at the time said the Oregon-based sneaker giant considered Love's participation at ABCD an act of disloyalty. Kevin Love was informed that he was no longer welcome on the Portland Legends, the Nike-sponsored club team he played for. Nor was he wanted at the impending Peach Jam, Nike's national tournament for its sponsored club teams, the reports said.
Troy Berry, coach of the Portland Legends, disputes the notion that Kevin Love was kicked off the team. "He was welcome to come back to the Legends as far as I was concerned," Berry said.
Whatever the impetus, Kevin Love left and joined the Southern California All Stars run by Pat Barrett, for years a prominent and controversial fixture in big-time club basketball.>Kevin Love led his high school team to the Oregon 6A tournament in 2009 and attracted plenty of attention. Bruce Ely/Staff
Vaccaro thought he saw an opening and approached Lake Oswego High School with a hefty sponsorship offer. Reebok offered close to $50,000 a year in merchandise and other support, Stan Love recalled.
That was significantly more than the school was getting from Nike, which had long provided it with athletic gear. Though there was no contract - more like a "gentleman's agreement" said Bill Korach, the superintendent at the time - it would have been difficult for a community brimming with Nike employees to accept Reebok's offer.
"There were definitely some overtures" Korach said of the Nike rival. "I think they were more focused on Kevin than they were on the district."
The Nike families made their objections known, as did the company itself. "I know there was a concern at Nike related to their significant support of our school's athletic programs," Korach said.
Reebok's proposal went nowhere.
'A LOT OF DEALINGS'
Powerful players in the basketball world were jockeying to get close to the young star.
ESPN analyst Jay Williams, a former sports agent with Ceruzzi Sports and Entertainment, recently said his ex-employer paid Barrett $250,000 in hopes Love's grassroots coach would persuade the young star to hire Ceruzzi.
"There were a lot of dealings that were being made that people didn't know about," Williams told ESPN in September. "There was a lot of money being exchanged. I know that we [paid] an AAU coach for a guy named Kevin Love who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers. We gave him over $250,000."
It didn't work. Love hired Jeff Schwartz of Excel Sports Management to represent him.
Barrett didn't return numerous phone calls. Williams also could not be reached.>A frenzy followed Kevin Love during his high school years. His dad, Stan, traveled to watch him play in Las Vegas.Bruce Ely/Staff
The frenzy intensified when Kevin Love was considering colleges. His father recalls one particularly ardent Pac-12 coach who refused to accept that there was little to no chance he would land the young star.
"We're at this hotel in Las Vegas, and this coach just won't let up," Stan Love recalled. "He says, "We really, really want Kevin. Is there anything we can do?" And me, funny guy that I am, I tell him a big shopping bag of cash would be nice."
He later realized his attempt at humor had been lost on the coach, who circled back later to say, "I think we can make that happen."
Kevin Love opted instead to attend conference rival UCLA.
One early morning in the winter of his senior year, Kevin Love was summoned to Lake Oswego High School to meet with an NCAA investigator. There were questions about the new SUV that he was driving.
Karen Love, who'd heard nothing from the NCAA, was furious that the NCAA had hoped to question her son without his parents present. She insisted on attending. "We get there 90 minutes late," she said. Basketball coach "Mark Shoff was there. So was the principal. They were trying to catch him in corruption. That he'd been seen driving a new Range Rover."
Karen Love told the investigator that Kevin had been using her new Chevy Tahoe, she said.
The NCAA took no action.
A CURE FOR THE SYSTEM
As the bribery scandal continues to unfold, the Loves are just glad their son has aged out of the system.
Stan Love said there's a cure: Pay the players. End sham amateurism. The current system breeds corruption, he said.
"You have parents from economically tough backgrounds, if they have a Tiger Woods superstar kid, they want to be paid. They don't want to put up with the $1,500 in scholarship money."
The Loves have gotten to know embattled Adidas executive Jim Gatto over the years and say they feel terrible for him. Gatto, who lives in nearby Wilsonville, was among 10 people arrested on conspiracy and fraud charges last September. Federal prosecutors allege he was part of a network that paid high school players or their families as much as $150,000 to attend an Adidas-affiliated school.
"It saddens me to see him in this situation," Stan Love said. "There are people all around him with their hand out. He's trying to land a client for the company. He knows that this kind of thing is going on everywhere."
Gatto, who worked out of Adidas' North American headquarters in Portland, was put on paid leave after his arrest. He has pleaded not guilty and has an October trial date.
BACK IN THE FOLD
Kevin Love has been an NBA standout nearly a decade now. He reached a new level of national prominence when he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014. Suddenly, he was playing with LeBron James and competing for NBA championships.>The parents of Kevin Love, who is now a five-time All-Star with an NBA title, are glad their youth basketball days are in the rearview mirror.The Associated Press
Love signed a new contract in 2015 that will pay him $113.2 million over five years. The average NBA salary now tops $6 million a year, making it the richest sports league in the world. The highest-paid players - Stephen Curry and James - collect more than $33 million a year. The players signed a new contract in 2016 that will pave the way for a 61 percent wage increase by 2020.
It is a level of affluence that helps explain all the hustlers, and street agents and "creeps," to use the Loves' word, who attempt to latch themselves onto players.
And those numbers don't count players' sneaker contracts.
Love had journeyed through the outer fringes of the endorsement game. For most of his career, he wore shoes from Peak and 361, Chinese brands relatively new to the U.S. market.
But the Cleveland trade seemed to thaw the relationship between Love and Nike. Who made the first move is unclear. But their decade-long estrangement ended in 2015.
Nike hasn't given Love a signature shoe. It did give him his own logo, complete with a small Douglas fir.
-- Jeff Manning