To me, it was LeBron James who let the genie out of the recruiting bottle. It's a genie that has plagued college recruiting ever since.
In 2002, James exposed high school basketball to the highest levels of media coverage and proved that the recruiting process could make a lot of people a lot of money. In turn, money followed him.
During the summer before his senior season, a broken wrist kept James out of action. However, it didn't prevent him from being given superstar treatment by two shoe companies. LeBron attended the Nike All-American Camp as a spectator with a small entourage of friends and family members. After Nike rolled out the red carpet for a kid who couldn't even play, he then played the part of a shrewd businessman. Just a few days after arriving to sit courtside at Nike's camp, the teenager turned up the heat on the shoe companies by showing up at Nike's rival camp, adidas ABCD.
It was at the 2002 ABCD Camp where the first "King James" T-shirt was created. Adidas made the T-shirt for LeBron and unveiled it during a news conference held for him. At this point, LeBron was officially a rock star. Most of the kids at the camps were worried about impressing college coaches; LeBron was on to the next phase of his career -- marketing. He was less than a year from signing a blockbuster deal with Nike worth a reported $90 million.
Just as LeBron was a cut above his classmates on the court, he was a cut above them off the court as well. But his peers learned, and they learned fast. And to some degree they've been catching up.
Obviously the rules have changed since 2002 with the NBA's mandate that players wait a season after high school before entering the draft. Although we may never again see the lavish displays I witnessed during the James "recruitment," it seems that money increasingly influences the recruiting game. Big money drives big-time college basketball at the highest levels. Today's recruits know this. Players -- or their handlers or family members -- are chasing that money that surrounds the recruiting process.
Many programs are asking the same question: At what cost? Others are simply willing to pay it. And this is how they do it.