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A tale of two sons: One a potential pro, the other at Middlebury College

With AAU pressure, relentless recruiting and now a fraud scandal, the Ingram family takes the long view

I first met Tyrous Ingram and his son Will in spring 2016 at a three-day camp hosted by the Yale men’s basketball coach James Jones.

Ingram was a rising high school senior and competing along with 100 other players in hopes of catching the eye of a member of the Yale staff or one of more than 60 Division III coaches in attendance.

In an industry where parents are often deluded when it comes to the abilities of their children, Ingram and his son seemed to have had a clear idea of where they fit in the supply side of the sprawling college basketball industry.

Will told me at the time: “I know that I’m not going to a big D-I school that produces NBA prospects because I know I’m not good enough.” He was going to be a senior at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas. “Being in the NBA was never really my goal.”

He admitted that while he fantasized about playing at a top-notch school in a Power 5 conference, he was fine with the non-scholarship Division III space. “Division III is fine with me,” he said. “I’m just trying to use basketball as a tool so I can get into a good school and further my education.”

Today, Will is a freshman at Middlebury College in Vermont. He is on the team, fighting for playing time and enjoying a fresh new college experience.

Now with the first of three children in college, Tyrous and Vera Ingram face a larger challenge.

Their youngest son, Harrison, turns 15 this month. He is a 6-foot-5 high school freshman and, in his age group, has been identified as a serious, Division I-caliber player.

Unlike his 5-foot-11 older brother, Harrison aspires to go to a top D-I program in a Power 5 conference, and he wants to go to the NBA. He is on the top-tier conveyor belt.

Harrison Ingram practices at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, Texas on December 6, 2017.

Cooper Neill for The Undefeated

Harrison enters a perilous basketball universe controlled by shoe companies, AAU teams that these companies support and college coaches who lean on these programs for the lifeblood of their existence: access to talented young players. Players like Harrison Ingram.

The recent Adidas scandal, which has resulted in the fall of at least one high-profile coach, several assistant coaches and shoe company executives, lifted a rock off an industry that is a veritable Wild West of conflicted ethics and morals.

This is a world where, for want of a scholarship and a path to a professional career, some players receive tainted money to play for this AAU team or that, where coaches steer top players to certain college programs based on their shoe affiliation, where assistant college coaches work in tandem with the AAU universe to secure access to the best high school players.

This is a world where parents and guardians are often complicit in the transactions.

This is a world Tyrous and Vera Ingram and their youngest son must navigate over the next four years. The better Harrison gets, the more challenging things may become.

The AAU network is largely beyond the reach of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which governs and polices member schools. The AAU is its own unpoliced frontier, especially when it comes to coaches whose teams are sponsored by one of the major apparel companies: Nike, Under Armour and Adidas.

Many of the coaches are affiliated with the shoe companies solely because they have access to the sort of top-notch players the companies want to have in their respective pipelines.

“With some of these guys you don’t know if they’re felons, you don’t know want kind of background they have,” said Ingram. “You don’t know if they have a degree or what they do for a living. A lot of these companies wouldn’t even interview some of these guys for jobs,” Ingram added. “But because they have access to the kids, you’re going to give them $60,000 for three years and no accountability?”

Tyrous Ingram rebounds for his son, Harrison Ingram, after basketball practice at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, Texas on December 6, 2017.

Cooper Neill for The Undefeated

Harrison has played on a Nike-supported AAU team in Dallas. He may switch this season to an Adidas-supported team that will allow him to play on a 17-and-under team or a 16-and-under team.

“I just want to make sure that with Harrison, more so him than with Will, I’m involved,” Ingram said. Because of Will’s more modest basketball aspirations, he did not come in contact with the sort of piranhas Harrison will likely encounter. “I don’t leave him with the AAU coaches, I go with them. A lot of these guys want to control the kids. They want to get paid off the kid. They want to handle the kid, use the kid as leverage. There’s a lot of ways these AAU guys make money, and it’s a shame.”

Ingram added: “When you have parents who don’t have means, or you’ve got parents who don’t have morals and they take the money because they’ve never seen $50,000, so they’re tempted, they’ll do whatever. They’ll put their kid out there to get that money.”

Having said that, Ingram is concerned that he may be compromising Harrison’s education by allowing him to remain on the Division I treadmill. So he gets into a top Division I program. What happens if Harrison does not make it to the NBA? Then what?

What he wants to know, and what there really is no way to know, is an answer to the million-dollar question: “Does Harrison Ingram have a chance to go pro?”

“This is what I struggle with,” Ingram said. “Am I really doing right by him by not encouraging him to go to an Ivy League school or a Division III school?

“If yes, then it’s OK to pursue the Kansases and Dukes and Texases and Virginias,” Ingram said. “But if he does not have a chance and just wants to play at a high major D-I, what’s the endgame? Is the endgame a B.S. degree he can’t do anything with, or he doesn’t graduate? Where is he going to be?”

While Ingram’s son, Will, has a much lower basketball trajectory, his long-term career trajectory from Middlebury seems assured.

“Will went Division III,” Ingram said. “He is doing well academically and looking at a summer internship. He will go on to work on Wall Street, will get an MBA and make a lot of money, hopefully.”

Ingram related the story of a classmate of Will’s who chose to attend Sam Houston State because he wanted to play D-I basketball. “There’s nothing wrong with Sam Houston State, but if I had a choice for Will to go to Sam Houston State and Middlebury, which one am I going to choose?” Ingram said.

“One of the things I want to make sure of is that when Harrison does go to school that the coach and the coaching staff won’t impede his progress in terms of getting a degree.”

Most of the schools that eventually may be recruiting Harrison will have outstanding academic reputations. But that’s not the point.

The question is whether the basketball rigor of an institution will allow the student to benefit from its academic rigor. Oftentimes the answer is no.

In any event, there is a long journey ahead before Harrison gets to that stage.

The immediate challenge is to protect Harrison during his journey on the AAU circuit and prevent moral and ethical lapses.

The lack of oversight of grass-roots, corporate-funded AAU teams is a major blind spot in the supply side of the basketball industry.

Which is why Tyrous Ingram keeps his eyes open.

“When he goes out of town to Vegas, I’m there,” Ingram said. “When he went to Portland for the Nike tournament, I was there. When he goes to AAU nationals, I’m there.

“I’m there.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.