The 411 on the First Team Program
The First Team staff created the motto but didn't know it would take off like it has. They like it, because it reflects what they're trying to teach through the program better than anything else.
"Use basketball," the motto goes. "Don't let basketball use you."
The First Team program is now eight years old. After operating under the NCAA educational affairs umbrella since its inception, First Team became a part of iHoops in 2009.
So what exactly is First Team?
In short, it's a mentoring program designed to help promising high school student-athletes navigate the recruiting process and be independent thinkers in the world that awaits them. Dozens of college basketball players are First Team alums. So are eight current NBA players, including Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Eric Gordon and O.J. Mayo.
Oftentimes, basketball recruiting comes with the stress of outside influences that are either misinformed or aren't always looking out for the player's best interest. To counter this, First Team objectively educates highly touted student-athletes so they can make a decision that will be best not just for the next four years, but for the rest of the player's life.
First Team started in 2001, though it was brainstormed by the NCAA long before that. Roughly 60 new players join the program as high school freshmen each year. Most participate in the First Team program for four years before "graduating" their senior year of high school.
So what do First Team participants experience? The main course--and the overwhelming favorite among players--is the annual conference, usually held late in the summer. The conference takes place at a different location each year, and the 200-plus First Team members will fly in and participate in a 3 ½-day program that features guest speakers, panels, tourist activities and basketball-related fun.
"A lot of times it came right after a stressful AAU season and when a lot of (college) coaches were calling us," said Drew Hanlen, a First Team alum now playing at Belmont. "It really gave us a chance to have a break and enjoy our time with other athletes that we normally see on the court but now get to hang out with off the court as well."
Past conferences have taken place in locations such as Tampa, Fla., Tucson, Ariz., Indianapolis and Colorado Springs. The 2009 conference was in Kansas City, Mo.
While recruiting was the original motivator and remains a big part of First Team's mission, the program also tries to educate its members on academics, life skills, health and physical fitness. Big-named guest speakers are brought in, and past guests have included Charles Barkley, Clark Kellogg, John Thompson, John Lucas and Doug Collins.
With a limited number of spots available, the selection process is complicated. First Team organizers gather a list of highly recruited basketball players, and then make phone calls or hit the road to watch them play in person and learn more about them. They also accept recommendations from coaches who think their player might benefit from a program like First Team.
From there, they learn as much about the candidates as possible before meeting in Indianapolis and working on narrowing down the list. A selection committee makes the final decision on who is invited to take part.
While extraordinary basketball talent is the common thread among those who are selected, character and academics is also considered. Basically, players who would benefit from First Team and embrace what they will learn from the experience are considered good candidates.
Outside of the annual conference, First Team organizers keep in touch with all of the players at least once a month over the phone, and try to see them all play in person before they graduate. In the past, they have sent out motivational letters each month to players who might need a mental boost during the grind of high school.
Even after they leave the program and go to college, many of the graduates keep in touch with the First Team staff they've grown to trust.
"It meant a lot to me to have people to keep you on the right track in athletics and life," said Sergio Brown, who ended up playing football at Notre Dame. "Even after the four years of high school, me and Duke (Pryor, one of the First Team leaders) still communicated when I had some trials and tribulations at Notre Dame. I still reached out to him and asked for advice. It's nice having that outlet that you can go to."
iHoops continues to evaluate First Team to determine how they can best reach out to players who would benefit from the experience. The bottom line is, they want First Team participants to get all they can out of basketball--and not the other way around.
"(First Team) opens your eyes up to a lot of things most players wouldn't see," said Gregg Wooten, who now plays at Samford. "I recommend it to anybody that gets the chance to go to it."
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