It was almost 2 a.m. by the time the Findlay players tumbled into bed at the hotel, the end of yet another long day of carrying bags through airports, waiting in security lines and cramming their long, lanky frames into airplane seats for a cross-country flight.
A few hours' sleep in beds far from their suburban Las Vegas homes, and it was time to get ready for their first game. It's a schedule minor leaguers and some college players know all too well.
The Findlay Pilots, however, are still in high school.
And trips like that are hardly unusual for many top prep basketball programs.
The Associated Press examined the schedules of the top 25 prep teams and found that, with growing corporate and public interest in the sport, some are logging tens of thousands of miles each year. Findlay will travel nearly 32,000 miles this season _ three times the mileage of perennial college powerhouse Duke.
Add in classes and homework, and a kid's game can look more like a job.
"I have very strong reservations about how wise it is for us to be going down this road," said Bruce Svare, psychology professor at the State University of New York at Albany and director of the National Institute for Sports Reform. "Is it wise educationally? Is it wise fiscally? I think the argument could be made in both cases that it is not."
The well-traveled schools argue that they're exposing athletes to the best competition and giving students a peek at the challenges awaiting them in college and beyond.
Among the top 25 teams in this week's National Prep Poll, the AP found:
_ Twelve will travel more than 5,000 miles this season _ roughly a roundtrip between New York and Las Vegas.
_ Nine will travel 10,000 miles or more.
_ Only three will travel fewer than 1,000 miles, and two of those are in Indiana, which has some of the strictest travel rules.
_ Road trips aren't limited to private schools best known for sports. Los Angeles public schools Westchester and Fairfax will travel more than 10,000 miles this season.
High school sports have always involved some travel. But the popularity of the NCAA Final Four and the advent of cable TV and the Internet have created an almost insatiable appetite for college basketball, and there's a similar frenzy at the high school level.
ESPN has televised 56 regular-season high school games since 2002, including 15 this season. Last fall, it launched ESPNRise.com _ dedicated to prep sports. The number of tournaments and special events has grown in the last decade, fed by fans eager to see tomorrow's stars.
Eddie Oliver remembers calling to invite teams to the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., when he was the executive director, and learning that some coaches did not even know about such tournaments. Now Oliver publishes the HoopsUSA High School Basketball Tournament and Events Report, and this year's list of 400 events was "just a drop in the bucket."
"It's not new, but there is certainly more of it," said Jamie DeMoney, founding publisher of PrepNation.com, which issues the National Prep Poll. "There are more companies that want to be involved with high school sports, from Nike all the way down to local sponsorships. Like anything else, there has to be money available."
That money comes from a variety of sources. Sometimes the tournaments or sponsors pick up the tab, sometimes the schools kick in money. The players themselves can even contribute, doing fundraisers.
As a result:
_ Findlay has made six trips to the Eastern time zone since mid-November.
_ St. Benedict's Prep went to a tournament in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., returned to Newark, N.J., for about a day and then headed to Puerto Rico for another tournament.
_ Wheeler (Ga.) High School and St. Patrick's in Elizabeth, N.J., played in back-to-back tournaments in Fort Myers, Fla., and Myrtle Beach.
_ Chicago's Whitney Young traveled to California, New Jersey and Massachusetts for single games.
_ Virginia's Oak Hill Academy played in Kentucky, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Hawaii during two weeks in December. The perennial prep powerhouse that produced Carmelo Anthony, Jerry Stackhouse and Ron Mercer will travel more than 18,500 miles this year.
This is exactly what sports reform advocates have been warning against for years, Svare said. Education is supposed to be the main priority in high school, and an extensive travel schedule runs counter to that, he said.
"All of the bad things we're seeing at the collegiate level, we're duplicating them at the high school level," Svare said
Yet it's all perfectly legit.
College teams from Hawaii to Harvard are bound by rules and standards set by the NCAA or NAIA. But there is no equivalent for high schools. The National Federation of State High School Associations has some authority, but most of the power is left to individual states.
That makes for widely varying rules. Wisconsin has no travel restrictions, while Michigan limits trips beyond bordering states and Ontario to 600 miles and also prohibits visits from teams outside that radius.
Also, not all schools belong a state association. Oak Hill, for example, isn't eligible for the Virginia High School League because it isn't a public school.
"We don't miss as much school as people think. We missed four days of school this year," said Oak Hill coach Steve Smith, who's had this type of schedule for about 30 years. "People who know our program _ the college coaches, the people in the know _ they realize the benefits of our program."
The primary benefit is the competition. Defeating every team in a 20-mile radius might make for a nice record and local bragging rights, but it won't do much for player development. Play an Oak Hill or a Mater Dei, however, and strengths and weaknesses will be laid bare.
The exposure can be priceless, too. The top tournaments draw college coaches, who can scout a dozen or more players at once. Blue-chip prospects already are known commodities, but lesser-knowns can earn scholarships with a couple of good performances.
And coaches insist there are lessons that last a lifetime.
Though most of the big tournaments are played in the two-week winter break or on holiday weekends in January and February, some trips are bound to conflict with classes. Players learn how to manage their schedule and schoolwork, or they fail.
Coaches usually expect players to finish the missed work even before they leave, and many teams have mandatory study halls. Oak Hill's Smith checks in with teachers every Friday.
"I think it'll help me out a lot (in college) because I'll be going through the same thing next year _ but even more," said Avery Bradley, a Findlay guard who has committed to Texas. "You're always traveling and playing, and I'll be used to it next year because I'm going through it now."
But Bob Kanaby, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, questions whether such values as a strong work ethic are being taught.
There's also burnout, as well as possibly preventing students from exploring other activities, said Dave Czesniuk, director of operations at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.
And while athletics can teach responsibility and time management, Czesniuk said he fears few high schools have sophisticated academic support systems for what is essentially independent study.
For some, though, the system works.
Zack Rosen acknowledges he initially chose St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J., because of basketball. After two seasons at his local high school, Rosen missed his junior year due to injury, and transferring to St. Benedict's allowed him to play two more years before college.
But the school wound up having a bigger impact on his life.
He said he played in Canada, Virginia, "all over the place." The schedule was organized so he wouldn't miss class but still had to find time for homework.
Now a freshman at Penn, Rosen starts for the Quakers and had a 3.08 GPA his first semester in the Wharton School, one of the most prestigious business programs.
"No freshman at Penn finds it easy," Rosen said, chuckling. "Academically it's not easy and with basketball, you've got a lot of things. But I was definitely helped by my time (at St. Benedict's). I don't feel overwhelmed."
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