Never Too Small to Break the Rules
Andrea Loring is fighting against the tide. Marching toward the cafeteria, she looks in the eyes of every student still lingering in the hallway. "Hugo, you're heading the wrong way," she says to a boy strolling past her. "Eddie, you too," she calls out to a second boy, a sheepish-looking string bean lugging a computer monitor in his arms. "You're going the wrong way." She is smiling. She is enjoying herself. Reaching the cafeteria now with a train of students behind her, she throws her arms around two former pupils, both of whom have dropped by to sample the free soul food that will be offered following today's Black History Month assembly. "Good to see you!" she says to a boy in an orange Fubu baseball jersey. "You're back at Coral Gables, I hear. How's it going?" Loring also reaches out for the boy's friend. "And this one," she adds, beaming with pride, "he's moved on to FIU."
Loring runs the Academy for Community Education (ACE), an alternative high school located in downtown Coral Gables. The school caters to students who have dropped out or who are at risk of dropping out of other public high schools. A self-described "family atmosphere" is fostered at ACE through intensive student counseling, "reverse peer pressure," and a heavy emphasis on academics. "A return to the small-school concept" is the ACE motto, and it's no exaggeration. Only 160 students attend this Miami-Dade County public school, leaving plenty of room to stretch out in the cafeteria as Loring takes the podium.
A sign hovering near her head proclaims "Jaguar Pride." Sports have been an important component at ACE since the school's founding in 1981. The athletics program runs year-round even though the school struggles to field just three sports teams for boys and four for girls. Playing against the tiniest schools in the county (usually small religious academies), ACE owns a decent reputation on the basketball court. In 1995, for instance, the Jaguars boys' team made it to the championship game of the state's Class 1A tournament.
No such luck this year. No chance, even. In the few seasons since ACE's memorable playoff run, the nature of high school basketball in Florida, especially among small schools in Miami-Dade, has changed drastically. Whole teams of talented foreign-exchange students -- several nearly seven feet tall -- have enrolled at five small private schools. All fourteen players on one team hail from outside the United States. Eleven exchange students stock the bench of the defending Class 1A state champions. Prior to the start of this school year, one school recruited and enrolled six players from the Dominican Republic's junior national team. Thanks to the influx of such phenomenal foreign students, these small schools now stand tall enough to conquer traditional big-school powers such as Miami Senior High, whom Northwest Christian Academy defeated this season in a holiday tournament.
Each year in Florida six separate state championships are awarded in basketball. The six divisions, or classes, are designed to allow schools with similar student enrollments to compete against one another. Class 1A consists of schools with the smallest enrollments, Class 6A the largest. At this year's championships, which will be settled this Saturday, March 11, in Lakeland, the most competitive teams weren't to be found among the Class 6A powerhouses, but rather in Class 1A and Class 2A, schools with minuscule enrollments.
That is, until Andrea Loring blew the whistle.
A two-page complaint she sent January 24 to the Florida High School Activities Association (FHSAA), the Gainesville-based governing body for high school sports, led to an investigation of Miami's leading Class 1A and Class 2A basketball programs: Berkshire Academy, Miami Christian Academy, Northwest Christian Academy, Champagnat Catholic, and tiny Gettysburg Academy, a school with an enrollment of only 35 students, a star player from the Dominican Republic, and a first-year basketball program that entered the playoffs with a 33-4 record.
The FHSAA promptly documented ineligible students at three of the schools. Three of the Dominican standouts enrolled at Miami Christian Academy had already played four years of high school ball before moving to the United States. A transfer to Northwest Christian had used up his eligibility playing ball in New Hampshire. Eight of the eleven Yugoslavian students playing for Berkshire were determined to have been recruited by the school solely to play sports, a practice explicitly forbidden by FHSAA bylaws. Punishments included season forfeitures, player suspensions, and the removal of teams from the state tournament. The two other schools remain under investigation.
Since filing her complaint, Loring has weathered blistering personal attacks from fans of and administrators at the suspect private schools. The principal of Berkshire Academy, one of two schools Loring identified by name in her complaint (Miami Christian was the other) filed a countercomplaint with the FHSAA, alleging that the mediocre team at ACE also is stocked with ineligible players. Loring's critics have been so vehement in their anger at her that she initially and repeatedly declined to discuss the matter at all.
"I'm a single mother," she explains now, finally speaking on the record. "For the first time in my life I felt scared for my safety and for that of my daughter."
The investigation of illegal recruiting is in the hands of Dan Boyd. In a telephone interview from his Gainesville office, the FHSAA's associate commissioner is trying to explain what bothers him about this relatively new phenomenon. "I think importing foreign students for the primary purpose of playing sports is blatantly unfair and completely contrary to the spirit of amateur athletics and to interscholastic competition," he says in a deep Southern drawl. "What it amounts to is the school that can out-recruit the other ultimately wins the prize, which is the state championship.
"If you look at 99 percent of the schools in Florida, both private and public, the coach might see a gleam of potential in an athlete and work for years with that athlete, hoping the skills will be developed so the athletes can make contributions to a team effort," he continues. "What I've seen in some of these schools in Miami is these coaches are looking for a quick fix. We're not talking about development, but about going out and finding athletes who've already developed and bringing them in. If an entire team is brought in one year, and if every player is playing their first year of sports in Florida, there is not a chance that this is happening by coincidence. It's being orchestrated behind the scenes."
Today Boyd's FHSAA finds itself in a situation similar to that experienced by the International Olympic Committee a couple of decades ago. Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, the Olympics struggled to remain an amateur competition in the face of growing professionalism in track and field, downhill skiing, and other sports. The Olympic ideal, that athletics are but one component of a well-rounded life, eventually was abandoned; the games are now played primarily by elite, well-paid professionals.
It would be naive to deny the growing professionalism of high school sports. Street recruiters scour local gymnasiums across America in search of undiscovered talent they can exploit. Colleges compete ferociously for the loyalties of talented players, almost as ferociously as athletic-shoe companies, which court players into Adidas and Nike camps in hopes of cashing in should the players ever turn pro. Some ambitious high schools construct basketball factories in hopes of boosting enrollment or securing lucrative endorsement contracts or, occasionally, just to satisfy the human desire to triumph.
If there ever could be a refuge from the business aspect of sports, though, Class 1A and Class 2A basketball would appear to be it. The starting lineups of most teams at this level are filled with the overweight, the short, and the blissfully average amateur athlete. "Your typical Class 1A basketball game is hard to look at," says Claude Grubair, coach of Class 3A Ransom Everglades in Miami. "Yet now, because of recruiting, some of these schools are considered the elite."
The chasm between average 1A and 2A teams and exceptional teams is causing strain on both sides. Two seasons ago, after several extraordinary foreign transfers upgraded expectations at Northwest Christian, coach Anthony Pujol spoke of the mediocrity of most 1A teams as something he would have to endure. "Our mission is to win the district and make it through the playoffs and back to state," he told the Miami Herald. "It's not to beat up on teams that can't compete with us. If they are 1A and we must play, then we will do our best to make it a fair game."
More than a few of those teams Pujol labored not to embarrass would rather not even step on the court, says Jeffrey Peterson, principal of Princeton Academy, another small school located outside Homestead. "We don't think that fielding a virtual semipro team is good for the overall health of our school," Peterson remarks. Princeton used to dress a pretty good basketball team, prior to the foreign invasion. "If the FHSAA would have allowed these schools to continue to recruit, we, along with some of the schools who won't play the recruiting game, would have been faced with dropping out and forming our own end-of-the-year tournaments. We would just kind of assemble our own league."
The arms race in boys basketball didn't start in Miami. It actually began in the Panhandle, at Malone, a small school located near the Alabama border. For five years, starting in 1993, Malone won five straight small-school state championships. Vanquished teams included ACE, Champagnat, and Northwest Christian. After suffering this dynasty for a few years, local schools realized they needed to beef up their talent if they were ever going to dethrone the champs. By adding top foreigners to their rosters, Miami schools became competitive with Malone, and ultimately superior. In last year's championship, Northwest Christian defeated Champagnat. Malone had lost in the semifinals.
"[Northwest Christian coach Anthony] Pujol took three steps onto the basketball court -- one for each year his team has made it to the state finals -- and got down on his knees," the Herald lovingly recalled in an article the day after the 1999 championship. "Pujol leaned forward onto his two palms and kissed the glossy purple floor once -- a confirmation of the first state championship in the school's history. 'Thank you,' Pujol murmured as he rose to his feet, wiping his teary eyes. Pujol never said another word. He slowly walked alone out the access tunnel to outside the arena. There his silence was shattered when he was mobbed by 300 Eagles fans, and the hugs and celebration once again started."
Rewards followed, both personal and institutional. Pujol was named Class 1A coach of the year. Northwest Christian received a coveted sponsorship from Nike. Champagnat's head coach, Rolando de la Barrera, who in five years had taken his program from startup to two straight state title games, accepted the head coaching job at Berkshire Academy in Homestead. Unlike Champagnat, Berkshire is a boarding school, and de la Barrera promptly filled the dorms with top foreign students. According to the FHSAA, he acquired most of them from an exchange-student agent named Julie Zapata Lyon.
"For a price she brings in athletes from outside the U.S.," Dan Boyd explains, "athletes who need the visibility, the exposure, so they can compete for college scholarships in the U.S. I don't blame the kids for this. A lot of these kids are coming out of terrible environments. Playing sports in the U.S. would be a dream come true for them. But for somebody to be recruiting and placing a large number of athletes at one school, like we saw at Berkshire, kind of leaves me hollow. I start wondering: Where is fair play and sportsmanship and all these virtues we all subscribe to?"
According to records on file in Minnesota, Zapata Lyon is the proprietor of Lyon International Student Exchange, a nonprofit company. No other public records are available detailing the nature of her business. Calls to her home in Plymouth, Minnesota, and e-mail messages left for her were not returned. But earlier this season, at a basketball game on the Berkshire campus, Lyon handed her business card to the Academy for Community Education's athletic director, who promptly turned it over to Andrea Loring. "I called her as a principal," Loring recalls. "I asked her what services she provides for schools. She told me that she was in the business of helping schools fill positions on their athletic teams, and for a fee she would help me to fill any position that I needed. She told me in return I'd be expected to waive tuition and waive all fees. She didn't realize that I run a public school.
"She did not say she only worked with athletes," Loring continues. "I don't want to be unfair to her. But she didn't say otherwise, either. I told her I'd received her card from my athletic director. Then we only discussed transfer students in terms of my athletic program. She certainly had plenty to say about how she could help me recruit some athletes for a flat fee of $2000 a student. She said she'd be more than happy to help me. She said she would provide the proper records, transcripts, and such. She mentioned that she'd worked with Berkshire and with the Florida Air Academy in Melbourne."
The FHSAA, as part of the investigation of Berkshire, documented Lyon's role in steering the foreign students to the school. The eight students she was involved with were declared ineligible to play for the boys' team. (Four more students were deemed ineligible for the girls' team.) "These are students who were brought to that school for the express purpose of playing basketball and winning state championship trophies at the expense of, and without regard for, every other school in Berkshire's classification," declared FHSAA commissioner Robert W. Hughes when he banned Berkshire from this year's state playoffs.
Berkshire principal L.R. Farrell disagrees with the FHSAA's conclusions. "We did not recruit," he declares. "[Zapata Lyon] has nothing to do with the operation of the school other than she picked up information from my advertisements in Europe, in the U.S., in Homestead, and elsewhere. What this means, I assume, is every private school that has a residential program now cannot take in students."
In apparent retaliation for Loring's complaint, Farrell filed a countercomplaint with the FHSAA alleging athletic shenanigans at ACE. "Since the mid-1990s inclusion of opportunity schools in the lower division of the FHSAA, Ace Academy [sic] has thrived where others have not," wrote Farrell in his February 15 complaint. "While only able to attract a supposedly small population because of their admission criteria, they have produced successful basketball teams every single year. [Other alternative public high schools have] not. What makes [ACE] Academy so different? Simple, they recruit, play kids beyond their eligibility, and admit students to the school who do not meet the criteria."
Farrell proceeded to list five vague or dated complaints, such as: "It is not uncommon for the [ACE] Academy to falsify reports concerning grades and amount of years their students have played varsity sports.
"In summary [ACE] Academy for years and with the knowledge of many member schools have [sic] broken many of the FHSAA bylaws but they have won and advanced. Today [ACE] because of new rules regarding GPAs has difficulty recruiting eligible students and they are not as prosperous. Now it's time to mudsling and go after whoever is successful! ...[ACE] has always been corrupt and they desire to win again. Just because someone screams the loudest does not make his or her message the right one."
The FHSAA is still investigating ACE as well as Gettysburg Academy, a school scrutinized also at Farrell's request. "We're getting the cooperation from ACE that we would expect, and I haven't seen anything that has set off any alarms," says Boyd. "The same for Gettysburg."
"C'mon, rebound!" shouts Lorena Morrison. "Let's get that ball! Defense! Let's go, Victors!" Morrison is a short woman, athletic-looking in jeans, a polo shirt, and running shoes as bright and white as her hair color. She is the head administrator of the Miami Christian Academy, a small school located in a residential neighborhood just north of Sweetwater. When she roots for her school's basketball team, she does so with as much energy as the fifteen-year-olds fidgeting in the bleachers beside her. "Okay, Victors," she cries, "get that ball back!"
Guard Kelly Ortiz dribbles upcourt, bouncing the ball on the school logo of a knight mounted on a horse. With a smooth behind-the-back pass, he forwards the ball to a teammate, who promptly launches an alley-oop pass to six-foot nine-inch forward Johan Rivera, who slams home a thunderous dunk. Miami Christian is easily dispatching tonight's opponent, ACE, Loring's school. Miami Christian head basketball coach Mitchell Means calmly watches the rout unfold. Sitting on the bench beside him is Art Alvarez, a businessman who volunteers his time as an assistant coach. Alvarez waves his knees open and closed anxiously, engrossed in the game.
Only 400 students attend Miami Christian, from kindergarten through high school. A full squad of three cheerleaders jumps and kicks after every Victors free throw. Two civilian girls bounce around behind the Miami Christian bench, waving a large Dominican Republic flag as if they were watching a soccer game at the Orange Bowl. A second blue, white, and red flag hangs from a side backboard, taped up by players on the team, most of whom transferred this season from their homes in the Dominican Republic. "The boys asked if they could put up a flag," Morrison reports. "We said as long as it isn't offensive, it was okay with us."
The Dominican flavor of the basketball team is a new ingredient at Miami Christian. Over the summer the team's entire starting roster, plus one reserve, transferred to the school near Sweetwater. Most of the athletes played for top Dominican club teams. Several of them also play for the Dominican junior national team. Three of them, Johan Rivera, Nelson Matias, and Carlos Morban, are among the best players in the state at any level.
In her complaint to the FHSAA, ACE principal Loring accused Miami Christian of tracking down the Dominicans. "The coach of Miami Christian made a very public 'recruiting trip' to the Dominican Republic this past summer, which resulted in the immigration of five Dominican young men, all of whom played on the Dominican National Team," Loring wrote.
Morrison adamantly refutes this charge. She insists her team's head coach, Mitchell Means, did not recruit the Dominicans. "Coach worked for us all summer, at our Bible camp," she says flatly. "He never took a vacation, so he did not and could not have traveled to the Dominican Republic." As further evidence of her claim, she explains that Means does not speak Spanish.
But Alvarez, the volunteer assistant coach, does speak the language. And according to sources familiar with the FHSAA investigation, he did travel to the Dominican Republic over the summer, and he did persuade the kids to attend his school.
Morrison denies this as well, and offers an alternate explanation for how the boys ended up at her school. "A man named Andrew from the Boys and Girls Club went around to different schools with the players, trying to find the best fit," she says. "We checked on them and decided that they fit best at Miami Christian, so we accepted them." She does not recall the last name of Andrew, nor can she provide any other details of the transaction. She said the decision to accept the Dominicans had nothing to do with their athletic gifts.
After Loring filed her complaint, FHSAA investigator Dan Boyd drove down to Miami to inspect the transcripts and birth certificates of the school's players. He determined that three Miami Christian starters had already used up their eligibility in the Dominican Republic. The players were suspended, and the team was stripped of all wins from the regular season. The Victors are playing in the district playoffs only because every school in Class 1A qualifies for the games. The three suspended players lounge on the bench in nylon sweat suits, looking bored as their backups cruise to an easy win.
"When we took these kids on, we knew we'd be scrutinized," Morrison says. "We tried to do everything right. We know that no matter what happens here, these kids still have potential. Hopefully the decision [by the FHSAA] won't hurt them too much. We love 'em. They're good kids."
Immediately after her players were suspended, Morrison hopped in her car and drove straight to Gainesville, unannounced, to plead her case before the FHSAA. She could not persuade the organization to rescind or even delay the penalties. "How can a state that is so international in makeup have its athletic association run by a group of men who are entirely encapsulated by the mentality that all foreign athletes should be kept out of the country?" she asks. "Is it right for a school to be penalized for giving the basic right of education, including athletics, to a few good internationals? Should those with the John Rocker mentality be allowed to govern our state's athletic association when our state's population is so international?"
With three Dominicans still on the roster, including the dominant Johan Rivera, the Victors have controlled the game with ACE right from the tip-off. (These same backups scored a 103-38 victory over Brito Private two nights earlier.) By the end of the third quarter, the score is 58-37. Frustration grows on the ACE side. A Michael Jordan acolyte on the ACE team, a boy wearing a jersey with Jordan's number, a black-and-red elastic knee brace folded over just as Jordan wore, and Air Jordans on his feet, receives a second technical foul and is ejected from the game. He bursts into tears. Crouching with his back turned to his coach, he cries into his hands. Eventually he slumps down and pulls the neck of his jersey over his face to hide his tears. On the court Miami Christian swoops in for another easy basket.
There is a lull in crowd noise as the ACE point guard dribbles up the court. Suddenly Morrison leans forward to break the silence. "Deee-fense!" she screams, and her Miami Christian players seem to respond. The final score is an easy 28-point win for the Victors. Stepping down the bleachers after the game, Morrison smiles broadly. "Just imagine what we could have done if we had our full bench!" she exclaims.
The fake transcript bothers Dan Boyd the most. In all his investigations of foreign transfer students, it's the academic record of an American that convinces him his labors are justified and necessary. There can be, he intones, no more blatant an example of cheating.
Last year guard David Christ played his basketball at a boarding school in New Hampshire. He transferred down to Florida over the summer, and enrolled at Northwest Christian Academy for what school administrators said was his fourth year of high school. He's nineteen years old.
"His transcript immediately caught my eye," says Boyd, who examined the records of every player on the defending state championship team. "He was a very good student, all A's and B's. The question in my mind was why would an A and B student still be in high school when he's approaching age twenty? Because I had the ability to contact a U.S. school and speak the language -- which is a difficulty when you're talking about Yugoslavia and Russia and these areas -- I made it my business to run down the school this boy had transferred from."
Boyd learned that Christ had attended a public school for the first three years of high school. He then transferred to Victory Baptist School in Londonderry, New Hampshire. "For some reason his parents asked and the [Baptist] school let him repeat his junior year," says Boyd. "According to the official transcript that I had the principal of the New Hampshire school fax down to me, the student had already used up all four years of his eligibility."
But that's not what was indicated on the transcript Boyd obtained from Northwest Christian. "It had clearly been doctored," Boyd asserts. Victory Baptist is such a small school that Christ's official transcript from that institution simply listed on plain paper his grades, classes, and dates of attendance, all accompanied by the signature of the school's principal. Northwest Christian also provided Boyd with a supposedly authentic copy of the Victory Baptist transcript, but this one was printed in a different typeface. The principal's signature was neater, and obviously a forgery. Most relevant, Christ's entire freshman year from the official transcript had been lopped off the fake transcript. According to Northwest Christian's transcript, Christ had another year of eligibility left when in fact he did not.
"The gentleman I talked to in New Hampshire was a real nice guy, very helpful," Boyd recalls. "He said that coach Pujol had called him within the last month and had asked for the boy's grades from the repeat junior year. That would imply to me that somebody [at Northwest Christian] knew what was going on." (In a telephone interview last week, Anthony Pujol, Northwest Christian's head coach, responded to an inquiry about the fake transcript. "I don't know anything about that," he said.)
Because of Christ the FHSAA stripped Northwest Christian of all 22 victories earned this season. The school was denied a chance to defend its state championship in this Saturday's playoff final.
Christ had been ineligible all year long. Technically, though, the school was punished only for playing him in the district championship game, against Champagnat. That contest was played on a Saturday night at the gymnasium of Miami Country Day in Miami Shores.
The teams are the fiercest of rivals. Last season Champagnat won the district championship over Northwest Christian only to later lose the state title game to the same team. Champagnat had reached the state final the year before; Northwest Christian had reached the final four. After a Champagnat player transferred to Northwest Christian this past summer, the Catholic school persuaded the FHSAA to revoke the player's eligibility.
As they tip off tonight, both teams are under investigation by the FHSAA. Champagnat's eleven international transfer students all claim to live with a single assistant coach. The dual investigations lend the game an unspoken parity. Neither team has the upper hand. Both teams could be pulled from the playoffs as early as Monday. Tonight's game, though, is strictly about basketball, about relatively equal programs determining which one is better.
On the sidelines Pujol excoriates his Eagles to play smarter. In the style of so many basketball coaches, he screams and yells at his players, his bearded face contorting in grimaces of rage. When he disagrees with a referee's ruling, he throws his hands in the air in a theatrical display of disgust. Sometimes he uses props. After receiving a technical foul for arguing with a referee, Pujol throws a pen from his hands, the plastic disposable Bic sliding across the wooden floor until it crashes against a concrete wall.
Gaston Rodriguez leads the Champagnat Lions his own way. The rookie coach looks as young as his coaching résumé. He sports Gap khakis and a blue-cotton dress shirt the exact color of his tie. Instead of chewing out his players, he pats them on the back or holds out his hands in exaggerated applause. He is friendly, upbeat. His team also happens to be winning, by a lot.
The height of the Champagnat players amazes. Three of them at out nearly seven feet in the air. Not one of these giants appears gangly or awkward as a teenager might. They are strong young men. Smaller Lions players, such as both six-foot two-inch starting guards, dazzle with extraordinary athleticism. This could be the best team in the state.
The Country Day gym is modern and clean, though not so clean that they won't let you eat pizza or drink a soda during the game. Three small boys play with a red-and-white pompon loaned by a Champagnat cheerleader. For a stretch in the second half, two preteen Lions fans scream to create a distraction before every Northwest Christian shot. On a Saturday night in this gym, the game is played with a passion that can't be found at, say, a Heat-Pacers contest at the American Airlines Arena. While the quality of play is not as good as it could be, the sport is lean and pure. At least on the court.
It will be the last game of the year for Northwest Christian. Within a week David Christ and the Eagles will be removed from the playoffs. More disciplinary action may follow. Champagnat remains under scrutiny, though the team has been allowed to participate in the playoffs. Right now, in this gym, there is none of that. Following Champagnat's convincing win there are only strong young boys, their faces split with smiles, hoisting aloft the district championship trophy. Their parents and girlfriends break into applause. For tonight, for now, they are the champions. It's a seductive illusion, conjured by making seven-foot power forwards from foreign lands magically appear.
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