Why a figure of Mills’ stature would make time for someone who calls himself the “Junkyard Dog” is a question that speaks to Williams’ growing influence in high school, college and professional basketball circles.
Williams is the coach of Findlay Prep, an elite basketball program that has sent five players to the NBA in seven years, including Anthony Bennett, the top overall pick in June’s draft. Three years ago, three other alums, Tristan Thompson (fourth), Cory Joseph (29th) and DeAndre Liggins (53rd) were selected by NBA teams as well.
Williams regards Findlay Prep as akin to an NBA team, and he scours the world for talent to fill the roster.
“It’s like being an NBA GM because we’re putting together a team,” Williams says. “We scout just like the league.” Over the past six seasons, Findlay has gone 192-9 and produced seven McDonald’s All-Americans— their jerseys decorate a wall in Williams’ office in red and yellow — while playing on ESPN’s family of networks 19 times.
If the team seems too good to be true, it’s because on the surface, it is. Findlay Prep is not a traditional high school, but a basketball team that consists of just 12 players who live together in a private residence and barnstorm the country, playing a national schedule. The team operates out of a singleroom storefront office adjacent to the Henderson International School, just a quick drive from the Vegas strip. There at Henderson, the players take classes at a high school that consists of — you guessed it — the 12 students who make up the Findlay Prep basketball team.
It’s a unique set-up that has drawn the ire of rival high school coaches as well as the attention of the NCAA, which recently labeled Findlay Prep a “non-scholastic” entity, barring college coaches from in-person recruiting.
Critics contend that Findlay Prep is nothing more than an AAU team masquerading as a high school and its education is a sham, similar to a diploma mill. But the faculty at Henderson International says otherwise, and not one student has ever failed to qualify for a Div. I scholarship in the school’s existence, Williams says.
A former player at Findlay, Amir Garrett, did fail to qualify initially at St. John’s, an issue that Williams attributes to the player’s work at a prior high school. But after doing post-graduate work at another school, Bridgton Acadamy, Garrett did qualify. Williams isn’t overly concerned with how others or even the NCAA view his program: He has grander ambitions for his players — and himself. Williams, who exudes charisma, charmingly refers to himself as the “JYD” and always wears a smile. He has designs of one day running his own NBA franchise, and he counts Mills and former GM and current Toronto Raptors adviser Wayne Embry as mentors. As a result, he sees his time at Findlay as laying the groundwork for taking over an NBA team. And he uses his NBA experience to introduce concepts, such as “branding,” to his players to make them aware of how to take full advantage of their earnings potential once they hit the big time. Williams even teaches a “Global Citizenship” class at Henderson on the nuances of NBA basketball.
“I try to make them aware that every aspect of what they say or do can affect the amount of money they’re able to make in their careers,” Williams says. “So if you want to make money, if you want to make an NBA check, I’m giving you the Cliffs Notes version on how to maximize the amount of funds you can make for you and your family.”
If this all sounds bizarre — teaching high school kids about making money in the NBA — then welcome to the new, specialized age of high school athletics. What’s clear is that Findlay Prep represents a new model of prep school that has more in common with hyper-focused sports academies such as Nick Bollettieri’s tennis school in Bradenton, Fla., (now IMG Academy) than traditional high schools. And has inspired copycat schools to emerge in the hopes of duplicating its success, schools such as Huntington Prep (W. Va.) and Prime Time Prep, the school in Texas founded by former NFL great Deion Sanders.
Assistant coach Andy Johnson describes Findlay as the “Juilliard” of basketball teams, citing the prestigious performance arts school in Manhattan.
To others, however, Findlay represents a trend they’d like to see reversed. Bob Hurley, the legendary coach of St. Anthony HS in Jersey City, was aghast when he heard what Williams was doing.
“He teaches a class in the NBA?” says Hurley. “Really?”
Hurley points out that only one in 32,000 high school seniors make the NBA and the average career lasts only around four years. With odds like that, why give players false hope?
“If that’s the average number, then my God, aren’t we wasting time with this?” says Hurley, who refuses to play socalled basketball factories such as Findlay. “Life after basketball should be the course they teach instead of teaching NBA wannabes, so that they have a perspective it’s going to be a short career and nothing is guaranteed.”
Ron Naclerio, who’s coached four future NBA players at Cardozo high school in Queens, fears that players might be tempted to leave college before they are ready because of the constant references to the NBA they’re getting at the school.
“You know what the NBA stands for? No Boys Allowed,” Naclerio said. “When you’re still in high school you’re still considered a boy. They don’t realize. The NBA is a whole ’nother world.”
But Williams views the issue from a different perspective. As the top players spend less time in college, schools such as Findlay Prep grow in value, serving as finishing schools for future pros, he says. And who’s better to offer them advice on how to make the transition to the NBA than a nine-year veteran of the league who once interned for the league’s corporate office and served as a union vice president during his career?
Williams, a 6-9 forward, last played in the NBA in the 2004-05 season with the Knicks. His NBA career came to an end when was waived by Isiah Thomas, but he says he still makes paid public appearances on behalf of the Knicks and Toronto Raptors, two of the four teams he played for in the NBA. He also still speaks at NBA rookie symposiums and helps out during NBA summer league, among other commitments. A scrappy fan favorite, Williams led the league in rebounding percentage in 2000 and won three NBA community service awards throughout his career, and he holds up his degree from Georgetown of proof of the importance of education.
“I have worked for NBA organizations,” Williams says, sitting at his desk at Findlay Prep. “I have worked for the NBA. So I’m pretty well versed in all of the things pertaining to basketball as a business. And with that knowledge if you’re able to equip young people who are potentially McDonald’s All-Americans — who you and I both know have a great potential to become NBA players — it’s imperative that they have certain information in today’s social media (for their) long-term capabilities of making money.”
Williams says that he’s spoken to 20 of the 30 NBA teams about his players at Findlay already, so he knows if a player is ready or not to make the jump to basketball’s highest level.
“(NBA scouts) are already evaluating,” says Williams. “We’re on ESPN. NBA scouts can watch their games. They can see whether or not they have what it takes.”
And though Williams didn’t come out and say he supports a player’s right to make the jump from high school to the NBA, others, like the basketball impresario and frequent NCAA critic Sonny Vaccaro, support a players’ right to make that decision. After all, it was Vaccaro who advised Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings to skip college entirely and play in Europe in order to wait out the league’s age limit.
“My theory would be to go to Findlay Prep and then be able to go to the pros,” Vaccaro said. “That would be what I would hope for these kids, rather than put these kids in a year of purgatory in college. If you look at their roster, every one of them that goes there thinks they’re going to be professional. And there’s no sin in that.”
Rashad Vaughn, one of the top high school players in the country, walks into the single-room office of Findlay Prep, a book-bag slung over his shoulders.
“What’s up Rashad? How’s class?” says Williams, seated behind his desk.
“Boring,” the 6-6 Vaughn says with a sheepish grin.
Williams does a double take.
“See, that’s not the answer I’m talking ’bout ’Shad,” says Williams.
During a recent visit, the coaches at Findlay Prep took pains to describe the relationship between Findlay and the Henderson International School. With the lurid history of diploma mills, it’s easy to lump Findlay in with those socalled basketball factories. But Findlay is vastly different, they say.
Williams describes the school like this: “This is Findlay Prep of the Henderson school,” says Williams, who has sent his own children to Henderson’s lower school. “So we are a program within Henderson International School. We are fully scholastic.”
Henderson consists of 430 students from preschool through 8th grade, along with the 12 students at Findlay Prep that make up the high school. And sure enough, there they were, 11 extremely tall students (the team is in the process of adding a 12th student) roaming the hallways on a recent school day, alongside their much smaller classmates.
“Going to school here is just like going to school anywhere else at any other school,” says Vaughn. “We have to work hard in class. We’re just not around a lot of other kids our own age.”
The Henderson International School consists of five buildings, with a football field with pro level field turf that’s no longer in use after the high school closed. The basketball team lives in two houses with a pair of assistant coaches less than a five minute walk up the road, while the team practices and plays its home games at the Henderson HS gym, which has a few bleachers and a weight room but is mostly sparse, nothing becoming a team of Findlay’s status. The team works out throughout the day, before and after classes, running up the nearby hills in the morning and lifting weights in the evening. For a social life, the team goes to the local high school in town for school mixes and frequents the town movie theater, but for the most part, the kids are on their own.
Findlay Prep was founded in 2006 by Cliff Findlay, a Las Vegas automobile tycoon and UNLV booster who
purchased the house where the players live for a reported $425,000 and provides each player with a $40,000 scholarship. After serving five years as an unpaid assistant, Williams was promoted to head coach at Findlay over the summer — at a salary of $60,000 — after the former coach, Todd Simon, took an assistant position at nearby UNLV.
Because of the unusual arrangement, the coaches and faculty find themselves constantly explaining how the school works and that the players are indeed students.
“They are high school boys, just like any other high school,” says Henderson International School headmaster Seth Ahlborn. “They live together; they eat together; they play together,” he said. “They just spend a lot of time together just like high school kids. It’s just smaller.”
Donna Raucher teaches high school English at Henderson and she’s well aware of the perception that surrounds Findlay Prep. She hears the whispers that say the players are not getting a real education. They’re only there to play basketball. They’re hired guns. She boils.
“It’s kind of insulting to me because I give real grades, I give real assignments, I give real essays and they read real novels,” says Raucher, standing outside her classroom, her voice rising slightly. “So they obviously don’t know what’s going on inside the program if they have that feeling.”
Yet everyone agrees the program at Findlay is anything but conventional. Ahlborn says he relies on the Findlay Prep coaching staff to bring in kids to Findlay and by extension Henderson. The school has hired another admissions officer to screen incoming students, so that it’s not just the coaches making the decisions, Ahlborn said.
But it’s clear the coaches, specifically associate head coach Andy Johnson, who serves as the admissions director for Henderson and handles all the NCAA compliance issues, have sway on who gets in.
“I would say Andy is the director of basketball for Findlay Prep (and he) is our admissions person for the high school,” Ahlborn said. “We have established criteria — Andy’s working off an established criteria (so it’s) not just ‘Andy thinks he’s a good basketball player’ and so we should take him.”
When the high school at Henderson shut down four years ago, it fueled rumors that Findlay Prep might have to move someplace else or might even disband. But Meritas, the company that operates the Henderson school and is owned by a private equity company, devised a format to allow the Findlay students to be able to take high school classes at Henderson by using middle school teachers and former faculty from the old high school, Ahlborn says.
Williams and Johnson say Findlay only works because of the educational component. The coaches closely supervise the players’ work, making sure they are on pace to graduate and also meet NCAA requirements to qualify for a Div. I scholarship.
“We have a 100% qualification rate with the NCAA,” Johnson says. “We never had a kid not qualify.”
“Division I,” Williams chimes in. “So while everyone else is talking — when (Div. I coaches) come to Findlay prep, there’s a few things that they pretty much know —(our players) qualify because we’re going to make (them) do the work. Check our track record.”
When the NCAA branded Findlay Prep “non-scholastic” last month, it briefly threw into question the legitimacy of what the players and coaches have been working so hard to accomplish. A program that held itself up as a model of academic success was now off-limits to college coaches.
In early September, Yahoo!Sports reported that Findlay Prep, along with Huntington Prep — another high school powerhouse — was off limits for in-person visits by college coaches after the NCAA ruled that both schools were “non-scholastic” bodies. At the root of the NCAA’s decision was the idea that Findlay and Huntington aren’t full members of the scholastic governing bodies that oversee the schools, which in Findlay’s case is the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA).
According to an email obtained by YahooSports! from Jamie Israel, associate director of the NCAA’s academic and membership affairs (AMA) department, Findlay and Huntington Prep were in breach of an NCAA bylaw, which says that “a team that is affiliated with a scholastic institution, but not subject to the rules and regulations of a scholastic governing body would be considered a nonscholastic team.”
Reached by phone, Eddie Bonine, executive director of the NIAA, said that Findlay Prep has always been a “quasi-member” of the NIAA in good standing but that because of Findlay’s unusual arrangement the NIAA simply didn’t have a category under which to grant Findlay Prep a full membership. When the NCAA decided to audit Findlay, they discovered that reality, resulting in the punishment, Bonine said.
But Bonine also maintained that Findlay pays membership dues and follows the NIAA eligibility standards. Williams and Johnson send their student transcripts to the NIAA and follow state rules, says Bonine. As a result, Bonine believes the team will be granted full membership status on Monday when the NIAA has a board meeting to vote on the issue. The NCAA did not return repeated emails and calls for comment.
“I don’t anticipate any glitch,” says Bonine. “I don’t anticipate a problem (with them being a full member). I have a decent rapport with my board. And Findlay Prep has done nothing but bring positive attention to the State of Nevada. They have done everything they said they would do and we have worked in lock-step together over the years.”
Williams was similarly confident that Findlay Prep will get approved and the issue with the NCAA will be resolved.
“We’ve already had talks with (the NIAA) and they were saying our intention is to vote you to be scholastic and that way we won’t have any issues,” Williams says in a phone interview. “It will have no choice but to resolve itself after that. If the state board votes you in and they still don’t qualify then they should (punish) every school in the state.”
Vaccaro was slightly more emphatic and colorful in his language.
“You can bet the corner bookie that it will get passed,” he says. “(The NCAA) can’t hold them out. These kids from that school have gone on to college and their grades were good and to say they’re not part of a scholastic element is ridiculous.”
Williams has no idea why the NCAA is punishing Findlay, citing the school’s previous academic success.
“We’ve graduated 38 players with full NCAA Div. I compliance and of those 38 players we’ve had 10 graduate from Div. I colleges,” he says. “So if we’re not scholastic then I don’t know how we’re graduating kids who are NCAA qualified and graduating from college.”
He suspects the NCAA’s punishment has something to do with the level of athletes that are coming out of Findlay Prep and Huntinton Prep. Findlay Prep produced the top pick in June’s draft and has won three of the past five ESPN National High School invitational championships, a prestigious tournament involving some of the top teams in the country. And Huntington Prep most recently produced Andrew Wiggins, widely considered the top freshman in college basketball, who has been compared to LeBron James, and goes to Kansas.
“Maybe they don’t like these super schools turning out NBA and No. 1 draft picks,” Williams said. “I don’t know.”