By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
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."
Miami High athletic director Tiger Nunez responds with bafflement when asked why these players would use addresses that belonged to team boosters. "I can't give an explanation," he says. "This is the first I knew about it." Coach Martin initially agreed to make his players available for interviews with New Times, but when questions about eligibility arose, he referred questions instead to the boys' parents.
Even before parents could be contacted, New Times's scrutiny sparked a frenzy of address changes and relocations. Rather than calling for an internal investigation of the basketball program, school officials and even parents appear to have conspired to cover up any wrongdoing.
Barbara Wooten, Udonis Haslem's stepmother, moved from Jacksonville to Miramar, in the southwest corner of Broward. She lives with her partner, Johnnie Haslem, who is Udonis's father and legal guardian. Udonis's own driver's license bears a Miramar address. When he was in a car accident in July 1996, he told the reporting officer he lived in Miramar. The black Ford Explorer he drives to school every day, the one registered to Barbara Wooten of Miramar, is parked in the driveway every night at the same house in Miramar.
But Wooten insists her stepson lives with his mother in North Miami. "I'm just amazed and appalled at the people who say otherwise," she told New Times. One of those people who say otherwise is Haslem's mother.
A few days after New Times began asking questions about where Haslem lives, the school district records listing his address -- and those of Blake and Latimer -- were mysteriously changed. The district now lists Haslem as living with his mother.
In 1920, long before Michael Jordan became a household name, the principals of 29 state high schools convened in a muggy hall on the campus of the University of Florida, in Gainesville. Rules were needed, the men decreed, to ensure equality in athletic competition. Fair play was mandated. Sports should not exploit a student, they declared, but be used to enhance the student's complete education.
In the 78 years since the founding of the FHSAA, high school sports in Florida and elsewhere have evolved into a major American business. High school athletes now routinely transfer among schools in search of a better coach, more playing time, or anything else that might increase their chances of landing a college scholarship and a shot at the pros.
Miami High basketball players have a better shot than most. This year's varsity roster features nine present and future Division I college prospects. Haslem and 6'10" forward Sylbrin Robinson will play next year for the University of Florida. Latimer signed with DePaul. Coach Martin boasts that even the athletes at the end of his bench have a good shot at a scholarship to some school. "The college guys come in and they all see what's going on with our kids," Martin says. "They see that our kids are being prepared for that next level and they share those sentiments with me. And I see my kids go to college and they're doing well when they get there."
In the past five years, though, high school basketball standouts have begun bypassing college altogether. Kevin Garnett prompted the exodus. The 6'11" forward moved from South Carolina to Chicago specifically to play basketball for Farragut Academy, a high school. Upon graduation he signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves, with whom he recently inked a six-year deal worth $126 million, the most lucrative contract in NBA history. Kobe Bryant -- at nineteen the youngest NBA All-Star ever -- leaped straight from a high school gym to the Great Western Forum, where he plays for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Because of this trend, high schools with strong basketball teams now receive thousands of dollars in cash donations and equipment from shoe companies on the lookout for the next superstar. Such contracts are extraordinarily lucrative at a level of the sport where many high school athletic directors must sell up to 100 dozen glazed doughnuts a day just to field a team. These elite programs -- that's what they're called, programs -- travel the country to play each other in tournaments as they pursue the national championship, awarded annually by USA Today.
Miami High is Florida's elite program. In past years the Stingarees have played in tournaments in Ohio, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Hawaii. Prior to the start of this season, Nike flew Coach Martin to its world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, as a thank-you for switching to the swoosh from the Adidas shoes his kids wore last year. At the end of last season, USA Today ranked the Stings third in the nation. They're currently ranked number six.
"They have so much talent that from a community standpoint it is difficult for them to get a game," says Tom Moore, basketball coach at Southwest High School. "You have to play a perfect game, and you still can get beat by 40 points. Only the mercy rule -- which runs the clock in blowouts -- stops them from scoring 100 points almost every time." Moore is the only visiting coach to have won a game played at Miami High in the past thirteen years.
All the travel and the winning and the free shoes makes the school even more attractive to the best young players from Dade and beyond. The field, according to FHSAA commissioner Ron Davis, is no longer level.
"You asked what's wrong with one team being so good," says Davis from his Gainesville office. "I ask you this: What's right? What's right about a team that has all the talent playing against a school that can't necessarily entice a young man or a young lady to come to their school? The team has an unfair advantage."
And the FHSAA has less power than ever to enforce its own rules. Changes urged by the Florida legislature have made it harder to restrict the movements of students from one school to another. Before this academic year, an athlete and his parents or his legal guardians had to have lived at a new address for a full year before the student could play sports at a different school. A new rule allows a player to move as often as he likes, and to live with whomever he pleases, as long as he and his parents are living within the school's attendance boundaries at the start of the school year. The new rule was added to accommodate kids who endure chaotic home lives, those who might shuttle between various locations for perfectly valid reasons -- if, for example, a parent or guardian is arrested.
It's pretty much up to the each school principal to make sure that every one of his or her students is legitimately enrolled, and the FHSAA provides firm rules to guide them. Basically, if kids have relocated into the district at the beginning of the year, their parents must have moved with them. They have to bring everything they own -- all their frying pans and televisions and sofas -- to the new house. And they have to sell their old house to someone outside the family, or at least put it up for long-term lease. "Maintaining multiple addresses in order to circumvent the rules is expressly forbidden," states the FHSAA handbook. The penalty is severe. The student must forfeit a year of athletic eligibility.
The association continues to "expressly forbid" recruiting, which it deems to be "a gross violation of the spirit and philosophy" of the association. To combat recruiting, the rules prohibit players to live with anyone associated with their school. Parents can't receive free or reduced rent. Academic magnet programs "cannot be used as a subterfuge for recruiting students for athletic purposes.
"A student who allows himself to be recruited," the FHSAA handbook continues, "... will be declared permanently ineligible for athletics at that school." The student could also be barred from playing for any other Florida public school.
Frank Martin adamantly denies that Miami High recruits basketball players. "That comment about [Miami High] recruiting comes from all the people, all the coaches at other schools who are sitting on their rear ends and don't want to work," he huffs. "It's unbelievable all the crazy stories I hear about recruiting. It's ridiculous. It's absolutely absurd. At the high school level, there really is no recruiting. It's not like you see me out at the fifteen-and-under league palming kids over."
No, you don't. Athletic directors at rival schools agree that Martin's program is so attractive -- with its shoes and trips and track record of success -- that prospective players approach him. But they also insist, vehemently, that there are people who steer players Miami High's way.
"We feel that in a year or two we'll be able to compete with Miami High, and maybe even knock them off," says the athletic director of one Dade school, who asked not to be identified. "It all depends on whether we can keep our team together, though. And already the kids are being talked to.... It's not necessarily a coach or a player [who does the recruiting]. It's often someone who's on the fringe of the team and who wants to contribute and feel like he's a part of the success of the team."
To quote FHSAA rules again: "Schools are responsible for any violation committed by any person associated with the school, including principals, athletic directors, coaches, teachers, any other staff members or employees, students, parents, or any organization, such as booster clubs, having connection to the school ... [including] anyone acting at the direction of the school or anyone associated with the school."
When New Times began its investigation in early February, the address in the school district computer system for both Udonis Haslem and Antonio Latimer matched a woebegone two-bedroom bungalow due southeast of Miami High. New Times visited on a Saturday afternoon. A young child's colorful plastic play furniture lay strewn about the property. The child herself jogged around the front yard as her father hacked at some bushes with a machete. The father said he lived at the address.
And what about Udonis Haslem?
"Udonis Haslem?" he said. "Who? I've never heard of an Adonis before." Shown the unique name printed on a piece of paper, the man still indicated no recognition. Nor did he know of anyone named Antonio Latimer.
A squat man standing off to the side of the house overheard the conversation and quickly made his way over. "They're not here," he said, referring to the two nearly seven-foot-tall boys. "They're probably at their grandma's house or something. They'll be back."
This second man identified himself as Bob Corella. He said he lives in an efficiency apartment in the back of the house. He also said he is an assistant coach for the Miami High team. "I'm not yet on the payroll," he explained, as he wiped his hands on his Nike shorts. (Only four of the team's six official assistant coaches are paid.) Corella said that Haslem and Latimer both lived with him in the efficiency apartment and would return, but suggested that any interviews with players be set up through Coach Martin.
Frank Martin called New Times, unsolicited, the following Monday. "I understand you've been out to see one of my guys to ask about Latimer," the coach said. "I guess you wanted to see him and Udonis at home. For whatever reason they've got that address listed there but that's not their home address. I'm not going to kid with you. I've got no idea how they got put at that address. Latimer lives on his own, in an efficiency on his own. Haslem lives in Liberty City." He could not explain why Bob Corella would say that the boys lived at that address.
Martin added that Corella is not an assistant coach, though he did once keep the scorebook for the team. He said Corella is simply a devoted fan: "He's somebody that whenever I need to take five kids to the doctor, he's willing to help. He comes to practices and he takes his girlfriend and he'll go and watch us play."
Two days later the addresses in the school district computer system for both Latimer and Haslem changed. Latimer is now listed as living inside the Miami High School attendance zone, at the same address that appears on his driver's license. Also living at the address is Rosie Faz, a long-time assistant in the Miami High School athletic department. Faz confirms that Latimer lives in an efficiency on the property, which her parents own. By FHSAA rules, a player who accepts residence "with any person associated with a school" can lose his athletic eligibility for a year.
Should FHSAA officials choose to examine the propriety of Latimer's new digs (or of his supposed old digs with Corella), it wouldn't be the first time the basketball player finds himself in trouble with the association. Earlier this season FHSAA officials declared Latimer ineligible to play for Miami High. He transferred from Melbourne to Miami after the year had begun, they noted, a move that normally costs a year of eligibility. But rather than abide by the ruling and lose out on their new star player, Miami High officials took the FHSAA to court. In November Circuit Court Judge Alan Postman issued an injunction reinstating Latimer's eligibility. The FHSAA declined to appeal.
Haslem's address on the district computer system did not change to Liberty City, where Martin had claimed he lived. Nor was it changed to the Miramar home of his father and stepmother. Instead it was changed to a house in North Miami. According to property and driver's license records, the house is occupied by Debra Haslem, Udonis's mother.
"Oh, I've got my hands full right now," said Ms. Haslem when New Times stopped by at noon two days after the address change. "I'm feeding three little children. Can you come back at three o'clock?"
By 3:00 p.m. Debra Haslem had not only fed the kids, she had changed into one of her best outfits, applied makeup, curled her hair, and donned pearl earrings. "I've got to make myself presentable," she said with a broad smile. One of the young children, stuffed from lunch, lay on the floor watching cartoons. Scattered throughout the living room were photographs of various boys and girls. There were no pictures of Udonis.
Debra explained that she was extremely proud of her son, though she doesn't get to see him as much as she'd like. "I don't know if you're aware of this," she confided, leaning close. "But his father and I divorced when Udonis was seven and he got custody. He had the lady [Barbara Wooten] and she had the good job and the home and the cars, so they both got my boy."
Now that Wooten and Johnnie Haslem have moved down from Jacksonville, Debra gets to attend her son's games. She laughed at how engrossed she becomes in the action. At one game, after her son took an elbow in the mouth, she had to be held back from running on the court to attack the referee. She is very impressed by the Miami High coaches.
"Even before Udonis moved down here, he had decided that he would be going to Miami High," she recalled. "They must have a good program for him to be traveling to school every day from Miramar. I mean, that's a long way to drive just to go to school!" Debra Haslem said Udonis visits her at her home only about three times a month, and usually to go to church. "Oh, he hates church but I drag him along anyway," she said with a laugh. "You know, he called me on Monday to ask what my address was here. That must have something to do with you."
That interview took place on a Friday afternoon. Frank Martin made another unsolicited call to New Times the next day.
"I'm aware of the majority of things that happen with the program," he said, noting that he was aware of the interview with Debra Haslem. "If something is wrong with the system, it is my responsibility. I am the one that makes the final call when I know that there's a kid transferring to school. About Udonis and Latimer and Blake having addresses in the homes of boosters, I don't know what to say. I will say that when I was in grade school, my parents used a different address because they didn't want me going to the school in our district. That happens all the time."
When asked why Latimer and Haslem both used the same address at Corella's efficiency, Martin breathed deeply, then sighed. "There is a reason for things," he said slowly, sounding tired. "That is not a coincidence. Behind all this is the fact that certain rules are made. People find out the rules and do whatever they can to abide by them. Sometimes they use loopholes. Loopholes, as you now know, can be tough."
A couple of other things that can be tough:
Damion Fray is 6'7", 205 pounds, and just a sophomore. In other words, he is a born basketball player. Fray lives with Roma Nicholas, a 58-year-old woman who, according to the school district computer system, is his mother. "Oh, no, I'm not his mother," says Nicholas when reached by telephone at her townhouse, which lies inside the Miami High attendance zone. "I'm a friend. A friend of the mother." Damion's mother, says Nicholas, remains in Jamaica, from which Damion moved to play basketball. Nicholas does have a son named Malcolm, however, who lives with her and Fray. Malcolm is an assistant coach of the Miami High basketball team on which Fray plays.
Barbara Inskeep, age 58, has lived for the past 25 years in a large house on a shady street in Coral Gables. She works as a college assistance program counselor at Miami High, helping students navigate admissions and scholarships. She also attends every Miami High basketball game unless there is a conflict with her beloved University of Miami, at which point the Hurricanes pull rank.
According to school district records, Miami High guard Thaddeus Ambrose, a senior, lives at her house. "He doesn't really live with me," says Inskeep. "He did for a while. He's really been living with his mom in Overtown. He did live with me for a few years. I had helped other basketball players in their studies and given them support and mentoring and he sort of tagged along with them to begin with. I guess I tried to help him, too."
The other athletes Inskeep is referring to are former Miami High players Steve and Allen Edwards, two of the best basketball players in the history of Dade County. Steve Edwards played for UM. Allen is currently the captain of the Kentucky Wildcats. Inskeep says she provided housing for both of them, too. While Inskeep is no doubt trying to help these student athletes, her provision of housing appears to jeopardize their eligibility under the "undue influence" clause in the FHSAA rules.
The Edwards brothers both played on Miami High teams that won state championships, Steve in 1991 and Allen in 1993. Blue nylon banners commemorating those victories hang from the rafters in Miami High's home gymnasium. On game night, the overhead lights glow a hazy caramel color that nearly matches the trim on the team's custom-made white, navy, and gold Nike uniforms. Tonight's opponent is Coral Gables, whose players nervously watch from their end of the court as the Stingarees robotically rehearse dunk shots. Compared to Miami's big men -- Haslem, Latimer, and Sylbrin Robinson -- the Gables players look like, well, like high school kids.
"Be Like Mike," the theme song of Nike spokesman Michael Jordan, rings from the public address system as students gather on the pine bleachers. A cheer group known as the Stingarettes wave blue-and-gold placards that read, "Just Do It Stings," an homage to the Nike marketing slogan. On the south windows of the gym hangs a wooden stingray, painted yellow and blue. Flanking the mascot on both sides are large black flags emblazoned with the white Nike logo. When the referee announces that the game is about to begin, Stings equipment manager Big Ed Peguero gathers up a dozen Nike basketballs, provided free by the company.
Frank Martin steps onto the sideline. His hair is slicked back, a la Heat coach Pat Riley, and he sports a collarless shirt under his black suit. Pinned to his lapel is a shiny Nike swoosh, just like college coaches wear.
Martin, who is 31 years old, played for Miami High under legendary coach Shakey Rodriguez. After graduating he coached the junior varsity. For two years, starting in 1993, he was the head coach at North Miami High, immediately turning around that moribund program with his work ethic and discipline. When Rodriguez accepted a job at Florida International University three years ago, Martin returned to Miami High as the new head coach. He's won a state title every year since.
Behind Martin sit the alumni, many of whom are regulars at practice. Someone the coaches call the Postman is here, as is Tuna, a booster who drives players to summer games in his van. Taking notes is Jesus Delgado, the alumnus responsible for the Miami High basketball Website, an extraordinarily detailed chronicle of every rout over Coral Park and trouncing of Leilehua (Hawaii). The site is a multimedia assembly of music (Queen's "We Are the Champions"), photos, history, and even a link to online reservations for hotel rooms in Lakeland.
"There's a group of alumni that are here every game, no matter what," Martin says. "Alumni who have played here before. Alumni who graduated from the school years ago and who still follow the program. That's what we're famous for, and that's what makes Miami High special. These people are in our corner and they're going to battle extremely hard when the chips are up and when they're down, either way."
Three years ago it was the alumni who lobbied for Martin to succeed Rodriguez. Those same alumni hounded Martin when he lost eight games in his first season. Before the team embarked on the 1996 state tournament they would eventually win, the school held a pep rally in the Asylum. Students and alumni cheered as the players were introduced. "When they brought me out, the people were booing and throwing stuff at me," Martin recalls. "I'm the same person that eight months earlier they were all calling and hugging and kissing and asking to take over the team. Then all of a sudden they were booing me. Teachers were calling for my head. One month later we won the championship and they were hugging me again. The pressure to win at this school is unbelievable."
Miami High controls the opening jump and scores first. The Gables point guard dribbles up court tentatively, cowed by the relentless pressure that is a Stingaree trademark. Syl Robinson steals a crosscourt pass and drives for a layup. One minute into the game, the Cavaliers have already abandoned the disciplined, slow-down strategy necessary to keep the score close. They heave desperate passes and long, errant shots that are collected by one of the three Miami big men planted in the paint. A quick outlet pass to a streaking Stingaree, a dunk. Repeat as necessary.
By the end of the first quarter it's 27-14. When play resumes, a bored-looking Martin stares at his thumbnail. Blake, spotting Haslem under the rim, throws a pass into triple coverage. No Gables player is tall enough to prevent Haslem from catching the ball and dunking effortlessly. By halftime the scoreboard reads 51-24.
Gables is probably the second-best team in the county. The Cavaliers won more than twenty games this year, many of them by wide margins, but they don't even belong on the same court as the Stingarees. The final score is 73-46, and as the old adage goes, it wasn't even that close.
After showering and dressing in the locker room, Haslem climbs behind the wheel of his stepmother's Ford Explorer for the drive up to Miramar. Steven Blake hops into a BMW owned by a man who lives one block from his parents' house in a prosperous Miami Lakes subdivision.
Although Steven Blake plays basketball for Miami High, he lives in Miami Lakes. So does his mother. So, according to several people interviewed, does his father. When New Times first started looking at school district records a month ago, Steven Blake's address was not in Miami Lakes but rather at 1841 SW Fifteenth St. A modest house stands at that address, just a few doors down from the home of late Miami mayor Steve Clark. Dade County property records indicate that Joyce Lund owns the home, and that she claims a homestead exemption, meaning this is her primary address.
Lund, age 56, is a pleasant woman with short gray hair, an athletic walk, and a quick smile. She graduated from Miami High in 1959. A passionate sports fan, she owns season tickets to the Miami Heat, the Florida Marlins, the Florida Panthers, and UM baseball and football. She attends every Miami High game she can, regardless of the sport. "I don't have any children of my own," she says, "so I channel a lot of my energies into the sports I follow. When I told you what season tickets I had, did I mention the two Heat tickets? I did? Okay, just wanted to make sure."
While she enjoys all levels of competition, she holds a special place in her heart for her Stingarees. High school sports, she says, are the last refuge of the talented little guy. "You see some kid and you know he doesn't have a fart's chance in a windstorm of making it on a college program, but you see him working so hard and accomplishing so much for his school team that it's just breathtaking."
On warm spring nights, she drives her 1974 Dodge Duster, the one with the "Just Do It Stings" signs tossed on the floor and the Miami High football T-shirts stretched over the seats, to nearby Curtis Park to watch talented little guys play under the lights for Miami High's baseball team. Even when school is out of session, she haunts the Asylum in search of sports action. That's how she met Richard Blake, Steven's father. (According to coach Martin, the Blakes had just broken with the coach at Killian, and had approached him to see if there was room for Steven Blake at Miami High.)
"I was at the AAU [basketball] program in the summer, watching games, when I met the Blakes," Lund recalls. "I said if there was any way I could help out [with their enrollment at Miami High], I'd be delighted to." She says this is not the first time she's donated her address to the school's sports program. "I've put a couple of baseball players up here in the past," she elaborates. "I told them I'm willing to do anything I can do."
Steven's mother Cindy told New Times she and her husband had separated as a couple prior to the start of the school year. Her son, she said, chose to live with his father in an apartment in the Miami High attendance zone. Both Lund and Coach Frank Martin say that the "apartment" was in Lund's house.
Lund, along with the Blakes, is apparently unaware that this arrangement is forbidden under FHSAA rules and could result in the loss of Steve Blake's senior year of athletic eligibility. At New Times's request, she gamely provides a tour of the Blakes' ostensible living quarters. "They slept here," she says, stepping into a single cramped room occupied by a pair of twin beds. She points to a pair of old white sneakers placed by the door to the room. "Those are Steve Blake's shoes," she asserts. "You can clearly see that they are his shoes."
If the shoes belong to Steven Blake, they appear to be the only things he or his father owns in the whole house. Lund -- who was told by Miami's coaching staff and by the Blakes to expect a visit from New Times -- says that Richard and Cindy Blake recently reunited as a couple and that Richard and Steven moved back to their Miami Lakes home. Oddly, however, she does not seem to know when Richard and Steven moved out of the home she supposedly shared with them. "It may have been last night," she says. "It may have been a couple of weeks ago. I'm not certain." (Richard Blake did not return a telephone call.)
New Times informed head coach Frank Martin of questions about Blake's residency on Monday, February 16. By Wednesday of that week, Steven Blake's official home address in the school district computer system changed from Lund's home back to his family home in Miami Lakes.
"[Steven] has just moved back to Miami Lakes," chirped Cindy Blake when reached that Friday. "My husband runs an apartment complex in the [Miami High school] district and they were living there together." She could not say where this apartment complex is located. "I would have to look at the address and I don't have it here [at work]," she said. "I don't know it off the top of my head. I have this information at home, of course. I just never had to go there or mail anything there. I just don't know it. I haven't been there in a while." Cindy Blake insisted that her son moved home "because I missed him," and that she "checked everything through with his coaches and saw that he could move back, so he did.
"It was a completely honest decision to play for Miami High," she added. "My husband and I split up and that's a fact, that can be checked. He got an apartment down there, in the district, and they both lived there. To be honest with you, we're not stupid enough to do it any other way. That doesn't make sense to put our child's future -- his career -- in jeopardy. Anything done was done completely aboveboard."
Although Cindy Blake's accounts of her son's whereabouts sound awfully confusing, one thing is clear in speaking with her: She is fiercely devoted to Miami High's basketball program. "Last year I would have been the first to complain about them," she says. "I didn't like them at all. When I saw it from the inside this season, and saw that it was run by such wonderful people and such great coaches, I changed my mind completely. When Steven played at Killian, my husband would point to the Miami High bench and say, 'Look at that! Why do they need six assistant coaches?' Now we found out why. They are all so helpful. They travel with the team, they take them to the movies. One coach took a player to the hospital when he got injured. I don't hesitate any more to say that the program is fabulous. I had no clue it was like this. Had I known more about their program, Steven probably would have been there as a freshman."
Miami High is not the only school to which talented athletes transfer. Richard and Cindy Blake's home lies clearly within the attendance zone of Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School. Yet before becoming a Stingaree, Steven Blake somehow played two seasons at Killian High in Kendall. Even Stings coach Martin complains that students who should be in his program end up at other schools. Lucas Barnes is a prime example. Florida's Mr. Basketball for 1996, Barnes attended a middle school that feeds into Miami High, yet enrolled at and played for South Miami.
Enforcement of the eligibility rules falls to Wayne Story, executive secretary of the Greater Miami Athletic Conference, the local arm of the FHSAA. Story says he won't initiate an investigation until someone -- an athletic director or perhaps a rival coach -- puts a complaint in writing: "I hear rumors all the time. But before I can do anything, I need written verification of a witness who saw a coach or a booster talking to a kid or that a kid does not live at the address he's supposed to. If I get that, then I can go out and speak with these people."
Story rarely receives written complaints. Several athletic directors told New Times that the complaint process is a no-win situation. "If you lose [a game] and you file a complaint, it's seen as sour grapes," says one athletic director. "It also takes something in writing, and no one wants to be seen as the whistleblower."
Tom Moore, coach at Southwest High School, is one of the most respected coaches in Dade County, in part because he refuses to accept transfer players on his team. He once followed through on a complaint. He wishes he hadn't. "I went to court one time and we won," he recalls. "I said after it was over that I wouldn't do it again. Because a child is involved. Kids. Screwing over a kid to get at a parent doesn't seem right."
FHSAA commissioner Ron Davis bristles at Moore's logic. "That's a cop-out," Davis says. He notes that the complaint system is designed to level the playing field, not to "get" parents. But Davis does acknowledge that some pain is necessary if things are to improve. "Somebody somewhere along the line is going to have to be hurt," he says. "If not by the complaint, then by what's going on [with transferring], if that is indeed what's going on."
On the other hand, Davis says discovering violations is not the association's job. "We are an enforcement agency. We are not a police force. We don't have a cadre of detectives up here to perform those duties," he says, pausing for a moment to reconsider his statement. "There is a cadre of enforcement officers out there who are supposed to make sure their organizations follow the rules, to make sure booster clubs and the faculty members and the athletic community know the rules. Those people are known as the principals of our member schools."
Miami High principal Victor Lopez didn't want to address specific questions about boosters and transfers and athletic eligibility. He referred such questions to Tiger Nunez, his athletic director. But he did speak generally about his ballyhooed basketball program, noting with pride that he regards the team as a valuable commodity. Attendance at Miami High has dropped slightly in recent years, which Lopez blames in part on a shooting in the main hallway two years ago. The basketball team's success, the principal says, has prevented a greater exodus, which could have hurt the school financially. "It's been a real focal point, something we can rally around," he says. "It brings people to the school and it improves the atmosphere of the school. Students walk around Miami High proudly wearing basketball team T-shirts." Lopez himself wears a large "Back to Back" state championship ring.
The principal regards his school's emphasis on winning as something to respect and cherish. "Basketball is big here," he explains. "When I went to this school as a student, basketball was big. When I was a teacher, it was big. Today it is still big. This is not something that happened in the past couple of years. It is something that's been going on for more than 30 years. If you want to study marine biology, you go to MAST Academy. If you want to play basketball, you go to Miami High."
Nunez, athletic director for fifteen years, has been associated with Miami High even longer. He attended classes at the school with Shakey Rodriguez, his best friend. As athletic director, he tabbed Frank Martin as Rodriguez's replacement because he wanted to keep the program in the Miami High family, as he refers to it. One reason almost every local athletic official New Times spoke to asked to remain anonymous is that most of them like and respect Nunez, even while they criticize the program he oversees.
"I wish I could tell you, I wish I could literally look in your eyes and say my program is clean," Nunez says. "But I can't. I don't know what [the] alumni are doing. I can't totally control them and I don't know how to. I do what I can. Anytime I have a transfer I don't feel comfortable with I call that school's athletic director. Especially with a high-profile transfer like Steven Blake. When I heard he was coming over, the first thing I did is call up Pete Hertler [the A.D.] at Killian and ask, 'What's going on?' If he or if anyone has a problem, I'll investigate it or stop the kid from playing."
Whether anyone will file a written complaint about Blake or Latimer or any of the other players who appear to have broken FHSAA rules remains to be seen. But the feeling among local coaches is that Miami High is not likely to forfeit the championship it is expected to win this Saturday. Come October, Nunez will likely hang another banner from the Asylum rafters. New championship rings -- Martin's eighth, counting his tenure as an assistant -- will probably still be handed out.
A powerhouse high school program fielding ineligible players is not unprecedented in Miami. Consider the Jackson Five. In the 1974-75 season the Miami Jackson High School Generals peeled off a 33-0 record, winning games by an average of 30 points. Seven members of the team were major-college signees. Four of the starters were drafted by the NBA. One of those players, Mychal Thompson, was selected first overall by the Portland Trailblazers. (He went on to star for the Los Angeles Lakers.)
More than a year after the Jackson Five downed Winter Park to claim the state title, the FHSAA stripped the school of the championship. Four Bahamian transfers were declared ineligible. One was too old. Another had already graduated from high school on his home island. Although four asterisks now sit next to Jackson's name in the state record book, officials at the school have yet to return the trophy.
Julio Davila was the Jackson Five's starting point guard. After graduating from Jackson, he played ball at Western Kentucky University. He moved to New Orleans and took a job with a Fortune 500 company before returning to Miami in the late Eighties. He and his family settled into a house in Coral Gables.
Thanks to Dade's strong tradition of high school basketball, Davila has been able to see his legacy repeated. His son Jemel is emerging as one of the leading three-point threats in the county. Only a sophomore, Jemel contributed a solid 8.8 points per game this season for his high school team. Although the Davila house lies well within the boundaries of the Coral Gables attendance zone, Jemel does not play for the Cavaliers. Thanks to a transfer into the education magnet program, he plays for Miami High.