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Handy says the sponsored AAU programs, flush with shoe-company cash, are usually the most predatory and least well-intentioned. "They have the most money," he said. "They can go after the elite kids, all of whom want to play on elite teams, get free shoes, get free gear. Nowadays, AAU is going through a phase where a lot of people say, 'This guy's going to be a really big player, going to play in the NBA, and that's going to be future dollars for me.'"
One of the Soldiers founders, Calvin Andrews, is now senior vice president at a major sports management agency that represents some forty NBA players, including a former Soldier. In 2008 Andrews was suspended from representing NBA players for one year upon allegations that his company had funneled tens of thousands of dollars to college star OJ Mayo, who was briefly a client of Andrews' until the recruitment story broke.
The murkiness surrounding summer ball — on one hand it's a necessary vehicle for a player looking to showcase his talent, and on the other, it introduces players to the more shadowy side of amateur basketball — has led to a complicated set of decisions for the Brown family. "The reason that Jabari's still there is that Jabari wants to be there," explained Fannie Brown, seated in the family's living room. David added: "His take is, 'I know what the Soldiers are all about. I know the good, I know the bad, and the good is that they can put me on the court in the big events where I can be seen.'"
Partly as a result of his performance with the Soldiers, Jabari was offered a spot last year at Findlay Prep, a Las Vegas-area prep school famous as a basketball talent factory. For Brown, it was a golden opportunity for more exposure and top-flight competition, with national television appearances on ESPN and a cross-country schedule. Findlay players regularly land at the nation's best college basketball programs. In its short existence, the team has suited up players from numerous foreign countries including Nigeria, Puerto Rico, Australia, and Croatia. "It will be hard, but something I'm willing to do to make that sacrifice," Brown told a local newspaper last June, three months after winning a state championship with Salesian. "I want to be successful."
Even for Brown, a blue-chip prospect coming off a stellar season, the move to the controversial Findlay was a big jump, both on and off the court. During the 2008-2009 season, while Jabari Brown was leading Salesian to its state championship, Findlay played in eight different states and logged some 30,000 air miles. Findlay Prep was founded and is financed by Cliff Findlay, a Las Vegas automobile tycoon and University of Nevada-Las Vegas athletics booster who started the team as a vanity project of sorts in memory of his late parents. Lacking an actual campus of their own, Brown and his teammates attended class at the nearby Henderson International School, where Cliff Findlay and his cohorts paid each player's $17,000 tuition. While his mother, father, and younger brother remained back home in Oakland, Brown lived with his teammates and an assistant coach in a five-bedroom house outfitted with wireless Internet, cable televisions, and two fully stocked refrigerators. The house, player tuitions, coaches, and nationwide schedule comprise an operation with annual costs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, a budget only partially offset by a Nike sponsorship.
It's paid off, as the Findlay Pilots have won two straight ESPN RISE National High School Invitationals, an end-of-season tournament widely regarded as a de facto national championship. It's also garnered the program a substantial amount of criticism, but head coach Michael Peck is unapologetic. "The last time I checked, this is America," he said. "Kids and parents have the right, if they don't feel comfortable or don't like the public school they're geared toward, to go somewhere else. Our program offers a great opportunity for development and exposure. It's not about our program or our school. It's about the kids. People are always going to be hating on it and that's fine, I can't control it. All I know is what we're doing is good for us."
For a while, Jabari seemed to be doing well at Findlay. He continued to succeed in the classroom, and, as the Pilots began the 2009-2010 season ranked first in the nation, Brown averaged 16.8 points per game, good for second on the star-studded team. But the pressure was intense and midway through the season things began to deteriorate. The death of a cousin and close friend — in addition to an ailing terminally ill grandmother — hit Brown especially hard living away from his family. Meanwhile, on the court, Brown and his coaches disagreed over his commitment to defense and hustle and Brown saw his playing time abruptly decrease. Brown felt like he was ramping up his effort level as Peck and the other coaches requested but they didn't find it satisfactory, even though Peck said he still regrets Brown's departure. Brown says he approached the coaches multiple times to find a solution, but to no avail. "You wonder why you don't play!" Peck yelled at Brown in a timeout during one game, which was caught in an online documentary that chronicled the team's season. Brown raised his eyebrows and palms apologetically and opened his mouth to speak. "Don't give me excuses!" Peck screamed, and pointed Brown toward the bench. Just after the new year, Brown packed his bags and left Findlay. He enrolled at Oakland High, his local public school where his younger brother Jamil Brown plays basketball.