This was a terrific sports weekend: A thrilling three days of college football (with the deliciousness of Johnny Manziel tormenting cranky middle-aged men just for the fun of it); Roger Federer's possible goodbye at the US Open; the Jets, hilariously, signing Brady Quinn; the Patriots cutting poor Tim Tebow. But the most exciting sporting event of the Labor Day weekend for me involved a tweet sent by some kid from Alabama I've never met and never heard of.
His name is Garrett Tucker, and he is a "national recruiting analyst" for Future150.com, a site I'd also never heard of before this weekend. He's one of six analysts for the site, which tracks college basketball recruiting in large part, it seems, to promote their own high school basketball camps. (The site calls the Future150 Basketball Camps "the top basketball exposure camps … including press coverage by Future150," which is a masterpiece of circular logic; pay us to come to our basketball camps because you will get exposure when we write about our basketball camps.) Only one of these six analysts, Jason Pratt, the president and presumed boss, appears to be older than 22 years old; Tucker, in particular, looks like he just enrolled at St. Paul's, and this recruiting thing is just one more column on the "Activities" ledger of his CV.
On Saturday afternoon, Leron Black, the No. 36 senior basketball prospect in the country as ranked by ESPN, committed to play for John Groce at the University of Illinois, my alma mater and personal college basketball obsession. This was quite the coup for Groce and got Illini fans all starry-eyed, but it wasn't until Tucker piped up that the ground started to vibrate.
Here was Tucker's Tweet from Sunday morning.
Adding Leron Black is HUGE for Illinois. He and Cliff Alexander had discussed playing with each other at one point during the summer- Garrett Tucker (@GTuckerF150) September 1, 2013
Yesterday, Tucker (presumably) logged onto his 24/7 Sports account. 24/7 Sports, a site I had heard of, is owned by CBS Sports and essentially (among other things) logs every prediction by every recruiting analyst, top to bottom, all across the country. Their "Crystal Ball" section is absolutely vital to anyone who follows college basketball recruiting. No one in the college basketball world thought Black was going to Illinois until the beginning of August when, seemingly out of nowhere, everyone on Black's "Crystal Ball" page began predicting Illinois as his destination. Tucker was the second analyst to make the switch to Illinois, so everybody, including me, freaked out a little Sunday when Tucker went on the record about Cliff Alexander going to Illinois.
Cliff Alexander, if you've been busy watching actual sports, is the breakout star of the recruiting season, a 6-foot-9 monster ranked No. 2 by ESPN who would be a lottery pick next year if high school seniors were allowed to come out right after they graduated. His highlight tape makes him look dominant, though all highlight tapes make everyone look dominant:
If he came to Illinois with Black, it would change the face of Illinois basketball, and perhaps college basketball as well. (Reasons for the latter statement would range from "Chicago recruits staying in their home state for once" to "See, Kentucky doesn't get everybody!" to "Turns out bald men can recruit just fine.") Alexander is aware of this, and had some fun with it on his own Twitter, retweeting people who dream of a Black-Alexander combo and posting a Photoshop of him in an Illinois jersey someone put together. It's all in good fun. Everybody's having a good time.
Except, well… this is all sort of horrible, isn't it?
The following facts are undeniably true:
- Cliff Alexander is 17 years old. He will not turn 18 until November 16.
- Professional journalists, smart ones, are ranking the nine most likely schools he will attend to the wagging tongues of thousands. To read this story, you must subscribe to an insider service owned by one of the most profitable media companies on Earth.
- His girlfriend, who will be playing for Kansas' women's basketball team next year, has become a figure of considerable intrigue and mystery on the message board of every team in the running for Alexander.
- A comment under this piece, from a Kentucky recruiting blog, exists: "If he's acting like he's got a ring in his nose & following a split-tail around this early in life, I feel sorry for him. It just makes it twice as bad that it's Kansas. But good lord guy, grow a pair, go out & see the world before you get tied down. Hopefully you won't do something that stupid straight out of high school."
- The fight to bring in Alexander has been called a "war" by esteemed college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News. In conversation, Alexander sounded exhausted and bewildered by the whole process… and that was a month-and-a-half ago, before he really exploded up the chart.
- If Alexander has a Google News Alert set up for his name, he will see roughly 15-20 different strangers talking about him every day. And Google News Alerts don't include comments.
- Did I mention Cliff Alexander is 17 years old?
- He is almost certainly going to play only one year for whatever school he selects before leaving for the NBA.
- The only way he won't is if he injures himself. This theoretical injury, because he is not allowed to join the NBA now (even though he is clearly talented enough to do so), would cost him millions of dollars through no fault of his own.
- Alexander basically has tens of thousands of people -- fans, journalists, coaches, administrators -- begging him to attend their school for one year. If he earns a degree, it will be years from now, while he is already a millionaire.
- Whichever school Alexander picks will be heralded as a major power in college basketball, and the coach who lands him will be called a genius, and given a raise, a better job or both.
- His Twitter is pored over like the shroud of Turin for clues about his destination by grown adult humans, who have jobs, families and responsibilities.
- If Alexander commits to a certain school, that school's alumni and fans will love him forever. The schools he doesn't choose? Their fans will boo him every time they see him.
- By all accounts, Garrett Tucker doesn't seem to know Cliff Alexander, and certainly doesn't claim to understand his thought process.
- Nevertheless, that Garrett Tucker thinks Cliff Alexander is going to Illinois has changed the narrative and the thrust of Alexander's recruiting for tens of thousands of people.
- There will be Cliff Alexanders every year, from now until the end of time.
I've started following Cliff Alexander and Garrett Tucker on Twitter and will be staring at my computer waiting for updates from both. This is part of being a fan now. It's dirty, it's stupid, it's gross and I'm as guilty as everybody else. I know this is just a 17-year-old kid picking a college, trying to take care of his family. But I can't see that. I just want him to play for my team, so I can be happy. And now I can track it all every minute. I, a 37-year-old man with a job, a wife and a child, have spent my morning reading hours of material on Cliff Alexander, a teenager, a boy who just hit puberty four years ago. And I will be mad at him if he doesn't pick my school. I will be furious.
College sports are horrible and wrong, and they're just getting worse. And they're bringing all of us down with them. I need to let them go. But I never, ever will.