Where is everyone? Raphael Chillious can't believe his luck. He has arrived this Thursday afternoon at a high school tournament in Nederland, Texas, near the Louisiana border—out of the way, sure, but hardly out of the ordinary for a college basketball recruiter—to watch a player who has been rated by some services as the best ninth-grader in America. Maybe he is, and maybe he isn't, but everyone agrees that this homeschooled 15-year-old, Justin Jackson, will develop into a special talent. It isn't just his athletic ability. It's also his skills, his composure, the head on his shoulders. Yet there isn't another national coach in sight. "A Polaroid moment," Chillious says.
The Washington assistant started the week in Seattle. After a Huskies victory on Monday, Dec. 6, he slapped backs in the locker room. In the tunnel he kissed his wife and three-year-old daughter and then headed to the airport. He caught a red-eye to Newark to see a promising power forward on Tuesday, then flew to Houston on Wednesday to scout two more. On Friday he'll be in Dallas. The travel schedule is debilitating, but zeroing in on a player like Justin is why Chillious loves recruiting. "Some schools write letters to all the top 100 kids," he says, "but personality and style are so important. Can a kid play for your type of coach? Can he play your type of game?"
Justin has Washington written all over him. He's still skinny, but he's looong—"the body type we like," Chillious says. Justin moves well. And Chillious knows he's a shooter. Chillious was there two weeks before, in Austin, when Justin scored 20 points in one of his first high school games. Now, from across the gym, Justin's father has spotted Chillious's shaved head and purple UW sweats. The coach's iPhone chirps, and he snatches it up. "We're here," Chillious says. "Washington is here."
The 39-year-old Chillious is one of college basketball's hottest assistants. He established himself as a shrewd judge of talent in stints at two high school basketball powerhouses and as the business manager of Nike's Elite Youth Basketball program. For two seasons he has been working under Lorenzo Romar at Washington, preparing for the day when he'll be in charge of his own college team. Every week Chillious calls or texts dozens of AAU and high school coaches. He's constantly updating a thick notebook that's full of information about players around the country.
The ninth-grader misses his first few shots. "You want to see how he handles adversity," Chillious says. And an off game might scare away some other college recruiter. But then, there is nobody else here today. That doesn't mean other top programs aren't tracking Justin. Schools can see a prospect only seven times per season, so they need to pick their spots. But a kid as good as this, in a tournament just after Thanksgiving, before the schedule has gotten crazy? Chillious can hardly contain himself.
"This is a Polaroid that you shake off, stick on the refrigerator and date," he says. "Because later on, when Justin's a senior, I can talk about it. 'Man, how long ago was it, I saw you play that game in Nederland? Remember? You were in ninth grade. Man, you got so much stronger since then.' And other coaches won't have that memory with him."
Recruiting in college basketball is the equivalent of fund-raising in politics, except the food is worse and the logistics are absurd. It's done in the gaps, the interludes, on off days and travel days and everyone else's vacation days.
An assistant coach is often more valuable on the road than he is on the bench. When Bob Huggins took control of a downtrodden Cincinnati team in 1989, he ordered his top recruiter to rack up the miles. "I can lose by myself with what I have here," Huggins told Larry Harrison, who proceeded to fill the Bearcats' roster with future NBA draft picks Nick Van Exel, Kenyon Martin and Danny Fortson.
During games, assistants decorate the bench in suits and ties, reminding a post player to move his feet or a guard to rotate the ball. When the horn sounds, their real jobs begin. NCAA Division I schools are allowed three assistants, and the four coaches have a combined 130 recruiting days during the high school season. Then come summer tournaments. "You pretty much lose the month of July," says Kansas's Joe Dooley. "And quite a bit of September, because of the in-home visits."
The travel is not just onerous—it's unpredictable. If you're a recruiter, you'll miss your kids' birthdays and Little League games and recitals not because your team is playing a road game, scheduled in advance, but because you're at the mercy of the decision-making process of a high schooler who might have a tough time choosing what to order at Taco Bell, let alone where to spend the next few years of his life. Suddenly it becomes necessary to be in Philly or Dallas or the Upper Peninsula, courting some kid you might never have met.