Friday, October 23, 2009

Just a Minute with Frank Burlison of the Long Beach Press-Telegram

Prior to my immersion into the .com recruiting world with and, I was a young, hungry hoops addict that wanted to dive into the hoops journalism scene. I reached out to several top writers in the hoops world. One of those writers was Frank Burlison, one of the best basketball writers I knew of.

To my surprise, he replied back. We eventually talked for a while about hoops and for a couple of stories that I wrote for various publications. Now years later, I had the great pleasure of reaching out to Burlison again for a Q&A session for the National Hoops Report.

Burlison is a member of the basketball writers Hall of Fame and the brain trust behind the Best in the West list of the top high school basketball players from the West.

In part one of our two-part series, we talk a lot about the Best in the West and a number of other topics.

How long have you been doing the Best in the West series?

“This is our 31st year that I’ve done it. The first one I did, I was 21 years old. It was 1977. I’d do it every spring but with the advent of the November letter of intent whenever that was in the 80s, I thought it becomes rather anti-climatic. Everybody would have signed five months prior to the list coming out and people lose the enthusiasm with it. I moved it to coincide with the early signing period.”

When you did your first one, was it a matter of, “Okay, here is who I think is the Best in the West.” Or did you reach out to people like you do now?

“In 1977 I started doing it because at the time we had another guy at the paper who was really into football recruiting. He was heavy into it. Obviously when you are talking about the late 1970s, there is no Internet, no television games for high school, no recruiting shows. The way you got your information nationally was you knew coaches and you talk to them on the phone or you talked to them at games about the good players that they have seen. You have different friends that are writers that you’d call up and ask. Or you go to a big library that had all of the metropolitan papers and you’d learn what days would have the high school coverage and literally go through stacks of papers from across the country. You’d sit there for hours and read everything. There was no Google. No Internet. And if there was a big summer tournament, you’d try to go to it. You’d go to BCI. The Superstar Camp, which I think started in the summer of ’74 at Point Loma College in San Diego, then moved to UC Santa Barbara for a long, long time after that. Anyways, for someone like me in the West, it was great. Coaches would go to BCI, Superstar camp and that’s about it. Those camps would get about 90 percent of the best players in the West and a sprinkling of guys nationally. You’d have Watts summer games, which still exists but only has about 30 teams, but back then you’d have like 120 of the top teams in Southern California. It was a two weekend long thing. There’d be a few others. The only other camps out there were the Five-Star camps and Bill Cronauer camps. There wasn’t all these venues to see players like there are now. If you got to see 20 percent of the best players in the country, you were feeling pretty good. The first Vegas event that I went to was in 1975 at Valley High School. I think there was only like 18 teams there – two from New York, two from L.A., one from Vegas, one from Arizona, one from Utah, that was it. It was a three-day thing. College coaches would be there. The first one that I can remember had Riverside Church (out of New York) that had Jeff Ruland and Albert King. You were almost giddy to see an elite level player in person.”

Your story about the library reminds me of a story a head coach told me about his days as an early recruiter and doing the same thing with the newspapers and calling the kids that scored the most points in a game or the writer that wrote the game story.

“Or they’d go find the paper in the spring time that had the all-city or all-state teams. You’d get all excited and almost yell out ‘Oh there is an all-state team from Utah or Texas!’ You couldn’t tear the paper, so you’d either copy it or hand write it all out. Or you take your ruler out and rip it out and put it in a folder so no one knew you just ripped it out. The stuff I do now is just amazing for finding this information. You’d write the papers and ask them to mail you their all-state teams. Back then, I’m 17, 18-years-old, and I’m not going to work up a giant phone bill so I’d just write the papers and ask for them to send it to me. More often than not, they’d write you back. People would start to send more and more lists as it went along. It was really time consuming but it was a labor of love. Nowadays you Google a kid and there are three or four websites that have a profile on the kid and eight different papers have done a story on him and MaxPreps has all of his stats and you probably can find three different mug shots. You just don’t find sleepers anymore because of that.”

How much has Best of the West really evolved?

“When I first started doing it in 1977, I had already known a lot of college coaches just from covering the high schools and a little bit of college stuff. Back then, recruiting rules pretty much only said, ‘Don’t blatantly buy players.’ They could recruit 365 days a year if they wanted to. So I’d see coaches at Verbum Dei, Long Beach Poly, Crenshaw, all of the big programs. You’d see coaches all the time. You’d see the same coaches every summer, too, at the leagues. St. John Bosco and Bellflower would have great summer leagues with the best teams. I’d go there on my free nights and talk to the coaches and talk to people and drum up list. A lot of the people that I trust today I met way back then at these types of places like Dick Davey, who is now at Stanford. I’ve known Ben Howland since high school. We went to rival high schools. I got to know a lot of these guys when they were high school coaches or young assistant coaches. There are guys who vote now for Best of the West that were players on the Best of the West list. There are guys now that are Best of the West guys whose fathers were on the Best of the West lists back then. When you think about all of the years, it gets a little over-whelming.”

How many people vote for the Best of the West team now?

“Back then, I’d call the 12, 13 coaches that would recruit the West the best. There’d be two or three national coaches that I’d call, too, just because they would always been out here recruiting. I’d just talk to everybody and just reach a consensus of 10 players and an honorable mention. Now, I want to make it as objective as I could and I made a ballot and made it a regular vote. Back then, when there was no email, I’d type up a ballot and mail it out to make it easier for them. Four or five days later, they’d start to trickle into the office. I’d find myself racing into the office to see who else sent their ballot in and they’d pile up. Nowadays, I have like 30 ballots sitting here. Before I left the Press-Telegram in ’98 to go to the Orange County Register, it was ridiculous. I’d send out around 120 ballots and get 80 to 90 back. At the highest point, I think I had 90 or so voters through the mail. It became a very valid thing. In the late 1980s, the NCAA came up with the rule where college coaches couldn’t comment on players before they had signed so that ended me listing on who voted because technically that would be a violation of who voted for who. Now I think last year I had 50 or so ballots. Once you get to 50, the guys have already separated themselves beforehand. Nowadays, you already know who it’s going to be more times than not. You know what people are thinking and who people are watching. It’s not quite mysterious as it used to be. But in a year like this, after Terrence Jones or Josh Smith, you don’t really know. You can flip a coin and it because interesting.”

You bring up a good point about how there are really no more sleepers any more. Maybe as early as five years ago you could walk into a gym in Las Vegas and find a kid.

“Let’s put it this way, I still think there plenty of guys that are misevaluated. I don’t mean to put down any of the guys that do the scouting or speak ill will of anyone that does that for a living at all. Sleepers are guys that people just didn’t see. I think there are guys who people see but maybe don’t see in the right setting or the people who saw the player and just didn’t understand that player and what he does well. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t had any coaching. Maybe it’s because he’s a passive individual. All of those things have to be considered. You have to factor those things in. There probably aren’t as many sleepers anymore but there are still a lot of players that are not evaluated correctly. It doesn’t mean he’s way better than people think. I think sometimes the hype gets in the way sometimes with players, too.”

Who comes to mind, 10, 20 years back that are some of the best out of nowhere stories?

“A guy like Stacey Augmon was a guy like that. People maybe never realized how good he was until he got to Vegas. He never went to ABCD camp, he didn’t go to any of the Bill Cronower camps. Back then, the guys that didn’t go to those camps were the sleepers. He’s one that comes to mind.”

You said John Williams “was LeBron James well before the Cleveland Cavaliers' superstar was born.” For the kids, who is John Williams?

“Magic Johnson was the first 6-8, big, bulky kind of guy that was that skilled with the ball. John Williams came a couple of years after him and he was that same kind of player. He ate himself out of NBA stardom. Then LeBron came around. For their particular era, those three guys are unique compared to everyone else. Obviously Magic is an all-timer. In time, LeBron will be an all-timer. John Williams was a great high school and eventually a good college player.” (Read more on John Williams here).

Can you talk about Jason Kidd, who you call the best ever BIW player, when he was in high school?

“Kidd was one of these guys that had massive hype even pre-Internet, pre-national publicity. You’d hear about him all the time. He played varsity at St. Joseph’s as a freshman. Newspaper people and college coaches would always say, ‘You should see this kid playing summer league. He’s only 14. He’s in eighth grade. Jason Kidd! Jason Kidd!’ I saw him in Vegas for the first time and saw him at the Nike camp and you were just like, ‘Wow!’ Even back then, I was starting to become skeptical of hype but when you watched him, you were like, ‘Wow, he’s ridiculous.’”

More from Burlison's Q&A coming next week.

Just a Minute archives:
Gary Parrish, CBS Sports
Jody Demling, Louisville Courier-Journal
Jeff Goodman, Fox Sports
Rob Harrington, Prep Stars
Jerry Meyer,
Aran Smith,
Dave Telep,

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