By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Udonis Haslem made a name for himself in Jacksonville. In only two seasons the starting power forward for the Wolfson Wolfpack high school basketball team established himself as one of the best big men in the state, earning a spot on the Jacksonville All-Stars traveling squad. Teammates say Haslem's sure hands can catch any ball thrown at him. Most attractively, he possesses the one asset every coach knows you just can't teach: Haslem stands 6'8".
Haslem's stepmother Barbara Wooten works for American Express. After her son's sophomore season two years ago, her supervisors offered her a promotion that required a relocation to South Florida. She considered turning down the job to keep her son at Wolfson, but ultimately decided the promotion was too great an opportunity to pass up.
That was good news for the high school basketball coaches of South Florida. According to one of Haslem's former coaches, seven different high schools in Dade and Broward counties attempted to recruit him. "Once it was established that [Haslem] was going to have to leave, they went after him." Most aggressive among the suitors, the Jacksonville coach says, was Miami Senior High. "When we went to camps while he was still playing for us, the Miami coaches were all over him. We went to a tournament and the whole Miami team was watching him play. He had all these Miami people hanging over him and watching him. Everybody knows what they were doing."
To quote from the handbook of the Florida High School Activities Association (FHSAA), the nonprofit governing body of high school sports, "direct or indirect communication by anyone associated with a school ... in an attempt to solicit or encourage the enrollment of a prospective student athlete in that school ... is expressly forbidden." So-called undue influence is a tough rule to enforce, however, because it requires documenting what usually amounts to an informal conversation.
Sometimes, though, a coach will simply admit to it.
"I talked to [Haslem], sure," says Mark Baranek, one of six assistant coaches on the Miami High team. "I mean, let's not be naive about this. I saw this big horse of a boy playing up in Gainesville when I was coaching [a Miami High] team up there. When I heard he was going to move to Miami, I went over and talked to him. Naturally."
And naturally, Haslem decided to play for Miami High, joining a veritable Dream Team of talented transfers. The Stingarees have won two state championships in a row and seventeen in all, more than any other school in Florida. Last year the team finished its season 36-1. So far this year they're 34-1, good enough to be ranked in the top ten nationally by USA Today. (The only loss of the year was by one point, to Provo, Utah, in a tournament played in Hawaii.) Barring a miracle upset, Miami High will capture its eighteenth championship this Saturday at the state tournament in Lakeland.
Miami High's success, not surprisingly, has rankled other coaches. "Some people like to say that our program is one of cheaters and underachievers," complained head coach Frank Martin in the Herald's 1997-98 high school basketball preseason preview. "But it's not that way at all. Miami High has always had a great basketball tradition. We work hard to earn it. Some kids in the past have legally transferred to Miami High because they want to play for the best program in town. I can't help that. Every kid on this team is legally registered."
Not exactly. A New Times investigation has revealed that as many as one-third of Miami High's players are of dubious eligibility. Glaring violations of FHSAA rules abound.
According to student records maintained by Dade County Public Schools, five of the fifteen players on the current Miami High varsity roster live with either a school employee, a coach, or a team booster. All three of those arrangements violate the FHSAA's policy on recruiting. Some of those students don't actually live at their given addresses, despite information to the contrary on the school district's computer system, preferring instead to live with their families many miles outside the school's attendance boundaries. The remaining ten players traveled a variety of circuitous paths to the Asylum, Miami High's home gym. At least two players transferred to participate in the school's education magnet program. Six players transferred via the county's Minority to Majority (M&M) program, which allows black students to transfer to predominately Hispanic Miami High, located on Flagler Street in Little Havana. One moved in with his grandmother.
To get an idea just how far Miami High will go to bring talented players into the fold, consider the case of three marquee talents: Haslem, who transferred last year; forward Antonio Latimer, a Puerto Rican who played at the Florida Air Academy in Melbourne; and Steven Blake, one of the best guards in Dade County and a leader on the Killian team that reached last season's state semifinals.
According to school district records, when the current season began Latimer and Haslem supposedly shared an efficiency apartment with a man who describes himself as an unpaid assistant coach for the team. Blake and his father, again according to district records, supposedly lived with a booster named Joyce Lund. Miami High coach Frank Martin admits that none of the boys in question actually lives at these addresses. "I'll shoot straight with you," he says. "I have no idea how those addresses got on [the school district computer] system."