It was early afternoon at a bleak industrial park near the Jersey Shore, and Rocktop Academy prep was about to play yet another basketball game.
The gleaming wood floor inside what looks like a converted warehouse was adorned with the Boston Celtics logo, and there was a small scoreboard on the wall. But most of the trappings common to even high school basketball games were missing. There were no mascots, no bands, no cheerleaders, no dance team and no student section. The entire crowd consisted of three parents and one friend of players from the other team. They sat on a small set of portable metal bleachers, camera phones at the ready.
This is what game day often looks like for Rocktop, a suburban Philadelphia school with no books or classrooms, and no curriculum other than basketball. Rocktop charges as much as $20,000 for seven months of intensive basketball training, room and board and, most of all, a schedule of more than 70 games, often against top-flight competition.
The Rocktop squad does not play for the glory of championships, or even necessarily to win. The team’s main goal is to sharpen the skills of its players so they can earn a college scholarship or, in some cases, just a spot on a college roster.
“We are a basketball academy, pure and simple,” said Sam Rines, a former La Salle University player who is executive director of Rocktop. “We can’t guarantee scholarships, but we promise training and playing time to get players stronger and better. We also get them exposure in front of elite competition. Then we use our connections and knowledge to put them in a position to get a scholarship.”
For many years, it has been common practice for many top high school basketball players to transfer into one of two dozen or so powerhouse prep school programs so they can play against elite competition and train at first-rate facilities while finishing high school. Some of those schools are legendary. Oak Hill Academy in Virginia has turned out top current and former pros, including Rajon Rondo, Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Jackson and Kevin Durant. Florida’s Montverde Academy has produced NBA All-Stars Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and D’Angelo Russell. Alumni of Nevada’s Findlay Prep include NBA stars Kelly Oubre Jr., Tristan Thompson and Avery Bradley. West Virginia’s Huntington Prep can claim current pros Andrew Wiggins, Miles Bridges and Patrick Patterson.
Other top players have turned to prep schools after high school to shore up their grade-point averages (sometimes in highly questionable academic programs) so they can be eligible to play in college, although that practice is less common now, a decade after an NCAA crackdown that limited the number of core courses for which players can be credited after attending four years of high school.
But schools like Rocktop offer an updated twist on the prep school idea. They profit from the hunger that many non-elite players have to earn college scholarships. For a hefty fee, they offer players a chance to get better without eating away at their collegiate eligibility, which limits players to four years of competition within five years of enrolling in college as a full-time student.
These teams operate in the unregulated terrain between high school and college. They have no governing body, no real rules and no formal interaction with the NCAA since they do not directly provide educational services. Nobody seems to know how many even exist, although there is general agreement that their numbers are growing.
“There are a lot of academies popping up that are not attached to schools,” said David Maron, longtime director of the National Prep School Invitational, a tournament that has been held for more than two decades. “There are schools like that all over the country.”
In the Philadelphia and southern New Jersey area, there is Rocktop, Olympus Prep Academy, and Covenant College Prep. Central Maryland has Mt. Zion Prep, and in south central Pennsylvania there is the postgraduate program of Scotland Performance Institute.
“These kinds of programs have kind of established themselves as a step between high school and junior college for a set of student athletes,” said Jeremy McCool, the NCAA’s director of enforcement. “We have seen quite a few horror stories about what these kind of nontraditional setups can provide,” including inadequate housing and food. “And very, very, very few success stories.”
McCool, who emphasized that he was not speaking specifically about Rocktop, said basketball academies can have a hard time sustaining themselves because coaches often have a hard time getting their weaker players the kind of scholarships they want. That, in turn, hurts the schools’ marketability. Still, every time a program disappears, another one pops up, he noted. “It is like whack-a-mole,” McCool said.
Coaches say the academies are responding to a business opportunity: Young people want basketball training and exposure to make themselves more marketable to college recruiters.
“It is like building any other kind of résumé,” said Wesley Rines, Sam Rines’ son, who works as Rocktop’s marketing director, a job that includes shooting game footage that he shares with college coaches and on social media. “We are helping to build their basketball résumé.”
Outside of teaching basketball, these academies are not schools at all. Academics are optional for players, and those who want school must make arrangements with community colleges, SAT and ACT preparation programs or other third-party educational outlets.
But book learning is not the point. At Rocktop, most of the dozen players are high school graduates with the grades necessary to play in college but not always the skills, strength or court savvy that college coaches covet. In other cases, players have the game but were overlooked in the college recruiting process. Those players and their families are gambling that Rocktop will hone their skills and give them the exposure to take them to the next level.
Rocktop helps players develop their games through constant training and competition. And with connections built over nearly three decades coaching grassroots basketball, Sam Rines serves as an invaluable reference. When Rines tells a college coach that a certain player is a shooter, or a good glue guy, or a defensive stopper, it can go a long way toward getting that player attention that might lead to a scholarship.
“Going to Rocktop helped me a lot,” said Justin Steers, a 6-foot-6-inch forward who now plays for Coppin State University in Baltimore. “We played a lot of games. Sam gave me the green light, which taught me how to lead and how to play with the ball in my hands. Plus, Sam seemed to know every college coach in the country. Everybody I talked to said, ‘Sam Rines is my guy.’ ”
Rines, 50, is a basketball lifer. He was a spot player for La Salle in the late 1980s, when the school was near the top of the national college basketball rankings and his father was a part-time assistant coach. From there, he went on to coach AAU, summer league, rec league and prep school ball. He says he worked with dozens of future collegiate players through the years and many others who made the NBA, including Kobe Bryant, Richard Hamilton, Kyle Kuzma, Tyreke Evans and Kyle Lowry.
His basketball company, Cool Hoops LLC, has run Rocktop for three years and also operates basketball camps and a recruiting service, Basketball Finders.
“A lot of prep school kids fell under the radar for one reason or another,” said Ashley Howard, head basketball coach at La Salle. “Guys like Sam are valuable in that he has seen a lot of players through the years and he has good credibility when it comes to assessing talent and projecting where a player may be able to fit.”
If the story at the shimmering top of the college basketball pyramid is about schools raking in many millions of dollars while exploiting players by giving them only tuition, travel, nice swag, small stipends and a little meal money, then schools like Rocktop are the flip side of that story.
Countless players are eager to play college basketball to earn scholarships that can be worth well over $200,000 over four years. Many others just want to prolong the thrill of playing a game they love at the highest level possible. Past Rocktop players have gone on to schools including Coppin, Alabama A&M and Hillsborough Community College in Florida.
Although the very top players are sometimes offered discounts, parents most often are willing to pay the money it takes to propel the dreams of their children — even if they have to borrow it.
At Rocktop, Rines said several players are enrolled in online college courses part time, making them eligible for federally subsidized loans. Students can use part of the loan money for tuition and part of it to help pay their living expenses at Rocktop.
Nikki Beck and her husband, Basil David Beck III, said they were reluctant to send their son, Emilio Brady, 18, to Rocktop. As a high school player in the Philadelphia suburbs, the 5-foot-10-inch Emilio was a late bloomer. He did not make his high school team in ninth grade, and although he eventually made the varsity, he was never more than a role player.
“He was passive on the court,” his mother said. “He seemed more worried about making mistakes than initiating action.”
But Emilio loves basketball, and his parents could see he was steadily improving. So when he approached them about going to Rocktop, they took him seriously. He was a good student and could have gone directly to college, but walking on to even a non-scholarship Division III team would have been a long shot.
His father, a lawyer, thought the money it would cost to send Emilio to Rocktop would be best spent on college tuition. But Nikki Beck, who still remembers the sting of her parents’ refusal to support her dream of becoming an actress, prevailed when she pushed for her son to go to Rocktop.
“He eats, sleeps and drinks basketball,” she said. “I know it may be far-fetched for him to be a big-time basketball player, but at least Rocktop gives him a lived experience about being disciplined and pursuing a goal. This can be a life lesson.”
Rines thinks Emilio has what it takes to play on the Division III level next year, and Emilio’s father has come around.
“This is a gap-year basketball program,” Basil Beck said. “When we send Emilio to college next year, maybe he makes the team. Then, this is worth it.”
Basketball and more basketball
There is little about the Rocktop program that anyone would mistake for glamorous. While Emilio is among a handful of players who live at home, most members of the team, all of whom are 18 or over, live three to a room in a sparse, rented townhouse in an aging garden complex outside Philadelphia. The deep freezer in the house is full of easy-to-cook chicken breasts and burgers. The pantry contains boxes of cereal and more than a few jars of Alfredo sauce. Players prepare their own meals.
The team members lift weights at a local LA Fitness and practice and play games at a sports training facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where Rocktop rents court time by the hour. Those in school are allotted three hours a day to study. Otherwise, non-game days are filled with basketball, weight training, sometimes yoga and always more basketball.
Rocktop’s season stretches from September to March, longer than that at any high school or college. The team flies to a few of the most distant games, requiring the players to pay extra, but most trips are taken in a rented van driven by the coaches. This season, Rocktop has played games in Miami, Sarasota and Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Philadelphia; and Newark, New Jersey. Future games are scheduled in Las Vegas; Chandler, Arizona; and back in Sarasota.
The robust schedule is a key selling point for players who are excited to play against anyone — especially if they have a big name. But the schedule is subject to frequent change. A planned matchup against SPIRE Institute, an Ohio squad that includes Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball’s youngest brother, LaMelo, was scuttled in December. A November game against New Jersey high school powerhouse St. Benedict’s Preparatory was changed to a scrimmage at the last minute. The Rocktop roster is often in flux too, as players drop off the squad, mostly because they were unable to keep pace with the tuition payments, and other players are added.
So far this season, Rocktop has played or scrimmaged against community colleges and elite high school teams. They have played against exclusive private schools that produce Division I basketball talent year in and year out and schools that, like them, are full-time basketball academies. The idea is to play against the best, get the best plays on video and use that to get players the attention of college coaches.
Playing for the tape
In the weeks before Christmas, Rocktop faced off against Westtown School, an exclusive West Chester, Pennsylvania, private school with a top-notch basketball program. Last year, the school sent shooting guard Cam Reddish to Duke. Orlando Magic big man Mohamed Bamba is a 2017 graduate.
The star of the current Westtown team is Jalen Gaffney, a 6-foot-2-inch senior guard who is committed to the University of Connecticut next season. Rocktop played reasonably well, losing by 14 points.
“They run a good structure, share the ball and play hard,” said Seth Berger, the Westtown coach. “It is a great way for us to play against college-level basketball players.”
Perhaps the greatest value for Rocktop was that Gaffney made some spectacular plays, including a couple of explosive dunks. Those highlights were featured as prominently as Rocktop’s own plays on the team’s social media feed, as well as its website, in a bid to gain the attention that the players crave.
“I’m trying to get to the best college I can get to,” said Teon Gardner, a 6-foot-3-inch combo guard from Baltimore who had some good moments against Westtown. He said the competition in the Baltimore public school league was good, but he added, “These guys we play against now are big, for real.”
Rocktop’s recent game on the Jersey Shore was against Covenant College Prep, another basketball-only academy for players trying to achieve their college basketball dreams.
The setting was bare-bones, but there was legitimate talent on the floor. Richie Jones, a sweet-shooting 6-foot-1-inch guard for Covenant, averaged more than 18 points for his New Jersey state champion high school team last year. But in part because of his size, his only college offers came from Division II and III schools and junior colleges.
“Everybody wants that full ride to a Division I school,” said his father, Richie Jones Sr. “We knew he had to get stronger, so we decided to do a year at a basketball academy.”
Olu Akinode, the father of Boye Akinode, a defensive-minded 6-foot-8-inch wing for Covenant, quickly chimed in: “The goal? It’s to go to college free. That’s it.”
Among the parents, there seemed to be no quarrel about the cost of a basketball academy. “Nothing is cheap,” said Carl Lane, whose 6-foot-5-inch son, Chase Lane, had several Division III offers but is at Covenant trying to follow three older brothers into Division I basketball.
“You have a lot of people who look down on schools like us and Rocktop because we are not schools,” said Covenant’s coach, Ian Turnbull. “A lot of other people think there is a bunch of money to be made here, but there is not. Sure, we make a living. But I tell people I get paid three ways: financially, when students go to school and when they graduate. For parents, it’s a $20,000 gamble. But if their son gets a scholarship, it’s worth $200,000. That’s what I call a good return.”
The game did not go well for Rocktop, which could not match Covenant’s size and lost. But neither players nor coaches seemed concerned. Rines was talking about an upcoming tournament where college coaches were expected to be in attendance. And his son had gotten some good footage of the squad.
Meanwhile, Emilio Brady’s shot had been off, but he pushed the ball and overall was aggressive on the court — something he was not just a few months earlier.
“I definitely think I’m getting better,” he said. “I’m enjoying this.”