By PETE THAMEL
EVERETT, Mass. — Nerlens Noel is a 6-foot-10 basketball star considered the best prospect from the Boston area since Patrick Ewing. He is the top-ranked high school senior in the country, and hailed as the best shot blocker of his generation. The 17-year-old son of working-class Haitian immigrants, he could be worth $10 million in about 16 months when he is eligible for the 2013 N.B.A draft.
His college choices have narrowed to some of the elite programs in the country: Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina, Georgetown and Connecticut.
All make the future seem blindingly bright for Noel. But in the shadowy world of recruiting, it is rarely that simple. The pursuit of Noel includes not just college coaches hoping for a star on the court. There are also fringe figures hoping to latch on to a player seemingly viewed more as a commodity than as a teenager.
“I feel like the kid is a piece of meat right now, and he’s going to be used,” said George Wright-Easy, one of the numerous adults who have mentored Noel over the years. “Grown men are fighting over a kid.”
Those tied on some level with Noel’s recruitment include a former Providence assistant who has been barred from visiting Noel’s prep school, an unemployed high school football coach, a prominent coach of a summer basketball team in Boston, Noel’s high school coach, a former star recruit who believes his career was derailed by bad advice and a low-level N.B.A. agent who works for the group that represents LeBron James, Creative Artists Agency.
The scramble to get close to Noel underscores how important it is to be associated with an elite high school recruit. For a coach, it may mean a lucrative job. For an agent, the hope is big money once the player reaches the N.B.A. For a player like Noel, however, it can mean a cacophony of voices, people with motives of their own. Choosing whom to listen to could mean the difference between a future filled with N.B.A. riches or a tale discussed in muted tones along the recruiting trail.
If Nerlens Noel is the first player selected in the 2013 N.B.A. draft, as the Web site Draft Express currently projects, he should receive a contract of about $20 million. If he is among the top 10 picks, he can expect a deal worth at least $10 million.
And that does not include endorsements, which could be lucrative for a player who has nearly 14,000 followers on Twitter and an account —
@NerlensHighTop — dedicated to his box-top Afro hairstyle. All that attention is a long way from Noel’s humble beginnings in the tight-knit community of Everett, Mass., on the outskirts of Boston. Dorcina and Yonel Noel immigrated to the area from Haiti in 1990, and friends of the family say they initially worked at cleaning jobs at a local hospital. The four Noel children, perhaps not knowing any better, would tell friends their father was a doctor.
Noel and his older brothers, Jim and Rodman, spent their afternoons in the Everett High School gym, playing basketball with the son of the school’s longtime football and basketball coach, John DiBiaso. After their games, DiBiaso would sometimes buy them Gatorade or maybe a Chicken McNugget value meal at McDonald’s.
With Noel’s parents working long hours and rarely attending school activities or sporting events, the community helped raise the Noel children. Parents of friends chipped in to provide cleats, baseball gloves and registration fees for youth sports. Someone always found them a ride to practice or a game.
Lenny Parsons, a youth coach whose son played with the Noel boys, gave one of his winter coats to Nerlens, who was wearing adult sizes when he was in junior high. Parsons learned Creole phrases — “ak pase?” means “what’s up?” — and knew Noel so well that he kept Cheez-Its, Noel’s favorite snack, at his home and jokingly demanded that Noel keep his sneakers on during visits because his feet smelled. When Noel had academic problems in seventh grade, administrators asked Parsons to help.
Parsons coached Noel on youth travel basketball teams. Even then, he noticed rival coaches sizing up his star player and attempting to poach him.
“There have been people trying to use him since the fourth or fifth grade,” said Parsons, who works at a Budweiser distribution plant and has a son who plays football at Princeton.
Noel’s older brothers were multisport stars at Everett High and earned football scholarships; Jim will be a senior at Boston College next season and Rodman a sophomore at North Carolina State. But early on, Nerlens focused on basketball.
“Nerlens is his own man, and he’s been that way for years,” said Errol Randolph, who worked as an unassigned teacher at Everett High and has advised all three Noel brothers. “Since he was in eighth grade, he pretty much went by the beat of his own drum. He don’t answer to no one.”
When Noel decided to leave Everett at the end of his sophomore year and attend the private Tilton School in New Hampshire, the move surprised the community and created hurt feelings. Some in Everett say that decision came after a meeting of the sort that can involve star players, even well before they approach college. At the meeting were Noel; his mother; Randolph, the teacher; and two former volunteers for the prominent local amateur team Noel played for, Chris Driscoll and Reggie Saladin.
Driscoll had known the Noel family since Nerlens was 10, first coaching Jim Noel. Driscoll had steered other players from lower-income backgrounds to Tilton and other prep schools. At the meeting with Noel, Saladin, the other former volunteer, was given an essential task: he translated for Dorcina Noel, the Haitian immigrant trying to decide what was best for her son.
Randolph said some in Everett blamed him for Noel’s leaving, but he insisted Noel made the best decision for his future.
“They felt like I made him to go Tilton, but if it was my kid and he could get a $60,000 education for free, I’d let my kid go there,” Randolph said of the school, which has an annual tuition of $47,600.
Noel did not discuss his decision with coaches or administrators at Everett. Suddenly, the kid who had grown up in the Everett gym and been embraced by the community was gone. He would not be graduating from the high school that his brothers Jim and Rodman starred for before heading off to college.
It is not clear how much say Noel’s parents, who are now separated, have in their son’s college decision. His father, Yonel, drives a cab in the Boston area, and Nerlens Noel recently told ESPN.com that his mother, Dorcina, can no longer work two jobs at the hospital because of back problems.
DiBiaso said he had placed a call to Georgetown during Noel’s sophomore year, believing the Hoyas were a possible destination for Noel because of the team’s successful history of developing big men like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo and the university’s strong academics. Yet, DiBiaso said that a rift developed between him and the Noel family after he made the call, perhaps an early sign of others attempting to influence the young star.
“The big thing I echoed to the parents when I did speak with them was that I’ve been here 33 years; I’m not looking for anything,” DiBiaso said. “I’m going to be here when I retire or hopefully until I die. I don’t need anything. I’m not looking for anything but what’s best for Nerlens.”
He let out a long sigh and said, “They chose a different tack and we lost touch.”
Noel declined to speak to a reporter from The New York Times when he was approached for comment.
The Everett High principal, Louis Baldi, said he was “extremely concerned” about Noel, and said that his recruitment reminded him of a boxer with a teeming entourage in his heyday who might find himself penniless upon retirement.
“I pray it works out for him and that the light turns on in his head,” Baldi said of Noel. “I pray it’s not too late.”
A Questionable Climb,
And Dubious Credentials
When Providence named Chris Driscoll an assistant in the summer of 2010, the move stunned many in college basketball. Driscoll had little playing experience beyond high school, his highest basketball position to that point had been as an assistant with a prominent amateur team, and he had not graduated from a conventional college.
What Driscoll did have was access to the top players like Nerlens Noel in the Boston area, a precious commodity for Providence, which was trying to keep pace in the Big East.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of college basketball. To win, coaches need a steady stream of good players. And if a person can deliver players like that, he can often parlay that talent, rather than extensive coaching credentials, into a job as an assistant.
Driscoll, 41, is separated from his wife and has three children. Associates say his main job over the years has been running the Massachusetts-based charity Mentoring At-Risk Athletes, called MARA. Driscoll’s ascension through the coaching ranks can be traced to his connection to Will Blalock, a talented young Boston-area guard in the early 2000s. Driscoll was a presence at Blalock’s games before becoming a volunteer assistant for the Boston Amateur Basketball Club in 2005, said Leo Papile, the club’s coach since 1977.
The Boston club is a prominent amateur team of the sort that now dominate the world of summer high school basketball and often play an outsize role in the development and recruitment of elite players. (For its part, B.A.B.C. says it does not get involved in its players’ recruitment.)
Blalock was the first prominent player Driscoll became close to, and after Blalock accepted a scholarship to Iowa State in 2003, Driscoll used him as a poster child for MARA.
A photograph of Blalock, identifying him as an at-risk athlete, appeared on the cover of a MARA pamphlet, along with the photographs of several other talented players from the Boston Amateur club. Blalock said he received numerous major scholarship offers before meeting Driscoll.
“At risk of what?” said Nate Thompson, a former assistant with club. “The only thing they were at risk of was becoming great basketball players. That made me suspicious. In my opinion, he was abusing the connections.”
Papile — who has coached players like Ewing, Chris Herren and Scoonie Penn and also worked as a scout and in the front office for the Boston Celtics for almost 15 years — said he regretted allowing Driscoll to have access to the Boston summer team and its top players. He has since barred all B.A.B.C. volunteers from becoming involved in a player’s recruitment. He calls it the Chris Driscoll Rule.
“He’s a great disappointment to me,” Papile said of Driscoll. “I thought he had wanted to be a coach, but it appears that his primary object was to be a handler. He’s not a teacher, he’s not a coach.”
He added, “Bluntly, you’re dealing with the worst guy I’ve ever known in this game.”
But Driscoll also had supporters from his time with the Boston summer team. Pernell McDaniel, whose son, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, went to Tilton with the help of Driscoll and is now a junior forward for Hofstra, called Driscoll “the best thing that happened to us.” Alex Oriakhi Sr., whose son, Alex, also went to Tilton and is a Connecticut junior, said his son called Driscoll their “white family member.”
Driscoll found himself in the middle of controversy during his season at Providence. Laurel Cannon, the mother of guard Gerard Coleman, called Providence administrators and claimed that her son was asked by Driscoll to fake an injury in order to lose games. The reason he asked, Cannon told Providence administrators, was so Coach Keno Davis would be fired and Driscoll could take over.
Coleman refused Driscoll’s request, his mother said, sending him a text message that said “the man in me” would not allow him do that.
“No one wants someone to see their child used as a product; no one does,” Cannon said. “He had us fooled. He really had us fooled.”
She informed Providence’s athletic director, Bob Driscoll, of Chris Driscoll’s request, but Bob Driscoll, who is not related, said he investigated and did not find reason to take any action.
“I took what his mother said very, very seriously,” Bob Driscoll said. “If that happened, it’s a fireable offense. Chris denied it and said it was a misunderstanding, and we moved on from there. I can’t tell you whether it happened or not.”
After multiple phone conversations, Driscoll said his lawyer advised him to say, “I vehemently deny all of the allegations.” He declined further comment.
Bob Driscoll was primarily responsible for hiring Chris Driscoll at Providence. He identified him as a candidate and suggested him as a possible assistant to Davis. Chris Driscoll received a multiyear contract, which is not standard for assistants.
One of the lines on Chris Driscoll’s résumé appeared to be dubious but apparently did not raise suspicion at Providence. He claimed to be a 1996 graduate of Amhurst University. Two of the country’s leading experts on fraudulent schools, the Illinois professor George Gollin and the former F.B.I. agent Allen Ezell, said that the apparently now-defunct Amhurst University, which billed itself as a distance learning center, was a diploma mill, essentially a school that awards a degree for money rather than the actual completion of coursework.
Gollin said that if Providence had investigated, it would have taken it little time to determine Amhurst’s illegitimacy. (A phone call placed to the number listed on Amhurst University’s Web site went directly to voice mail, and a message left received no response.)
Bob Driscoll said that Chris Driscoll passed a background check and that he was subject to the typical human resources review. Chris Driscoll also contended in his biography that he had an interim coaching record of 97-2 and won eight national championships with the Boston summer team, numbers that Papile said were exaggerated. Officials from a Massachusetts-based charity that Driscoll was involved with, Community Teamwork Inc., laughed when told that he claimed he raised $10 million; they said the actual figure was less than $100,000.
“If I had thought or learned that he didn’t have a degree or had surreptitious things on his résumé, we never would have hired him,” Bob Driscoll said. “I was under the impression he had a degree and it was legitimate.”
Chris Driscoll had a strong relationship with Noel before he was hired by Providence, helping to steer him from Everett to Tilton. Just days before he took the Providence job, Driscoll drove to the house of Tilton Coach Marcus O’Neil in Eliot, Me. According to O’Neil, Driscoll told him that he thought Davis would be fired at the end of the season and that Driscoll felt he had a chance to replace him.
“He told me that he thought he was going to be the next coach at Providence College and that I could be his assistant,” O’Neil said. “All I had to do was help him to get Nerlens Noel to commit to Providence College.”
O’Neil rebuffed Driscoll, but it was not the last time he was approached. After Driscoll had been fired by Providence along with the rest of Davis’s staff in the spring of 2011, he met O’Neil at a pizza restaurant in Tilton.
“Nerlens is my last chance,” O’Neil recalled Driscoll saying. “I need to score, and I need to score big.”
O’Neil said Driscoll added, “You’re either with me or against me on this.”
A Young Player
Who Had Seen It Before
Will Blalock met Chris Driscoll at a street-ball tournament after Blalock’s sophomore year of high school. Driscoll introduced himself as someone who ran a charity for at-risk athletes. Blalock did not think much of the encounter until a secretary at his high school called him soon after to say Driscoll wanted his phone number. Blalock told her to pass it along.
Thus began a relationship that would define and perhaps undo Blalock’s basketball career. Long before Nerlens Noel, Blalock embodied some of the same qualities — an elite player for B.A.B.C. who was considered one of the country’s top 100 prospects. Blalock struggled academically but drew interest from a number of major college teams. Blalock grew close to Driscoll, who steered him to Notre Dame Prep, 60 miles outside Boston, to help with his grades and eventually took over his recruiting process.
Blalock said programs like Memphis, U.C.L.A and Pittsburgh were interested in him. He said he liked Connecticut best, however, as it was close to home and he wanted to play for a coach like Jim Calhoun.
But when it came time to choose a college team in 2003, Blalock listened to Driscoll and went to Iowa State, then enjoying success under Coach Larry Eustachy. Nearly a decade later, Blalock regrets the decision.
“When I was 16 or 17, I might have said he’s helping me out,” Blalock said. “But at 28, he may have hurt me more than he helped me. I know what kind of guy he is now. He burns a lot of bridges.”
Blalock said he believed that Driscoll sold him to Iowa State, although he stressed he had no proof. When Iowa State fired Eustachy in the spring of 2003, Blalock said, Driscoll instructed him to call the athletic director, Bruce Van De Velde, and say he would attend another university unless Iowa State hired the assistant Wayne Morgan as Eustachy’s replacement. Morgan was hired, Blalock kept his commitment and Blalock said Driscoll visited Ames about four times a season. (A spokesman at Hofstra, where Morgan now works as an assistant, said Morgan could not be reached for comment.)
“I don’t like to live with regret, but every now and then, I do regret going there,” Blalock said. “When it was time to make my decision with the N.B.A., even though my numbers were better than the guys in my class at point guard, all of them went to bigger-name schools and got picked ahead of me.”
Blalock, who left Iowa State after his junior season, also said Driscoll guided him to an agent he did not want to sign with, the Boston-based Frank Catapano.
Blalock was the final pick of the second round of the 2006 draft. He has played just 14 N.B.A. games and may never play another after having a stroke a few years ago. He is currently attempting a comeback with the Reno Bighorns of the N.B.A.’s Development League.
During Blalock’s time in the N.B.A., he said, Driscoll helped to pay his bills after Blalock gave him restricted access to his bank account. Blalock said he was not angry at the thought that Driscoll had made money off him as much as was angry that the money he believed Driscoll made from steering him to Iowa State had not been shared with him and his family.
“We never got nothing from him,” Blalock said. “There were times I’d have to ask drug dealers in my neighborhood to get a plane ticket home from college.”
Blalock said he stopped talking with Driscoll after he pushed him to sign with Catapano. Catapano denied paying to get Blalock as a client and said that he had never received a fee from Blalock for getting him a guaranteed rookie contract, the only one of his career. Catapano said he donated money to MARA years later when Driscoll asked, but only a small amount.
“I can tell you unequivocally that Chris Driscoll did not get anything from me because I signed Will Blalock,” Catapano said. “I’m not one of the whores that chases after the kids in college. I don’t take care of kids in high school.”
Influence of Agents
Agents have become an indelible part of college sports in the last two decades, with so-called runners, who do not have formal ties to agencies, given the awkward job of growing close to top teenage players like Noel or the people around them. Although the N.C.A.A. has tried to create rules to inhibit agents’ access to high school players, the presence of agents and financial planners aiming to align themselves with top prospects has become commonplace.
The involvement of agents at the high school level has become so sophisticated, the notion that schools and boosters pay for players to join their teams has become somewhat antiquated. It is more common now for agents to cut a deal with people associated with a player and find a school that will protect him from other agents. In some cases, an agent will offer a high school player to a college in exchange for signing one of the talented players who is ready to leave and enter the draft.
Agents also carefully and discreetly try to influence people who have the ear of top prospects. Papile, the coach of the Boston summer team, said he had received calls from about eight agents regarding Noel, with many of their questions related to when he would decide to become a professional. Noel, who was originally expected to graduate from high school next year, announced last month that he would attempt to graduate this spring.
If he does not qualify academically for college, he could spend a year playing professionally in Europe.
For George Wright-Easy, an unassigned teacher at Everett High School, he saw the interest of agents in Noel up close more than a year ago while at a trendy Boston nightclub called Rumor. A mutual friend introduced Wright-Easy to Ty Sullivan, a low-level agent for Creative Artists Agency, which represents star athletes and actors like Will Smith.
Wright-Easy is the half-brother of a former Penn State tailback, Omar Easy, and Sullivan immediately began dropping the names of former Nittany Lions standouts into conversation, along with basketball stars like James.
Sullivan eventually said, “Your guy is going to be the truth.”
A confused Wright-Easy asked, “Who?” When Sullivan said, “Nerlens,” Wright-Easy responded indignantly, “Man, he’s like 15 years old.”
Wright-Easy said that he did not consider Sullivan a threat to Noel. A low-level agent like Sullivan, who handles mostly players in the European and development leagues, is unlikely to land a potential big name like Noel. And he is probably one of many agents and their associates who are trying to become involved with Noel’s recruitment.
When reached on his cellphone, Sullivan acknowledged following Noel but denied any relationship with him. (Papile, who spoke with Sullivan at one of Noel’s games, said that Sullivan also denied any affiliation with Driscoll).
Whether Sullivan or C.A.A., which also represents Kentucky Coach John Calipari, will become a significant factor in Noel’s agent recruitment is not known. But Sullivan’s presence and attempt to ingratiate himself with someone close to Noel is illustrative of the increasing presence of agents at the high school level.
“Going to a local high school game is, you know, I don’t think is a problem,” Sullivan said. He declined further comment.
A Venerable School
With its looming oak trees, elegant brick buildings and a history dating to 1845, the campus of Tilton School exudes the serenity of Norman Rockwell’s New England. But the last few months have been anything but tranquil for Tilton, which has a reputation for sending students to well-regarded universities in the Northeast and elsewhere.
Tilton has also become a national power in basketball, and Chris Driscoll is one of the people most responsible. Seven players on Tilton’s roster this season are from B.A.B.C. and he had steered several prominent players there in previous years.
For a time, the relationship between Tilton and Driscoll was mutually beneficial. The players that Driscoll steered to Tilton used their time at the school to qualify academically so they could play for the colleges of their choice. They also helped Tilton become an increasingly powerful basketball school nationally. Before, Tilton had been a middling performer on the prep school level. Now, while still mainly playing other schools in New England, Tilton has become a recognized team around the country.
It was not until Noel arrived that O’Neil, Tilton’s coach, and others at the school began to feel uncomfortable with the association.
Noel originally entered Tilton to repeat his sophomore year. (He had cracked a growth plate in his knee while warming up for a game with Everett.) After his knee healed and he became a coveted prospect, Noel decided to try to graduate from Tilton this year instead of in 2013. Tilton was annoyed by the decision, but Noel stuck to it and remained at the school for what will be his final high school season.
For his part, Driscoll is no longer welcome at the school.
Tilton’s headmaster, Jim Clements, declined to comment directly on Driscoll, whose son, Jeremy, attended Tilton as a postgraduate. But he did say it was his first time in his 14 years on campus that he had barred anyone from the school because of a relationship to an athlete. Still, Driscoll has maintained contact with Noel and acted as a liaison to college recruiters and some members of the news media about his recruitment.
O’Neil — who arrived at Tilton in 2004, works as a college counselor at the school and has a master’s degree in social work — stressed that school policy prevented him from speaking directly about Noel.
“I don’t think his primary focus is a student’s well-being,” O’Neil said of Driscoll.
From a basketball standpoint, Noel is considered raw offensively. He is not comfortable playing with his back to the basket and, at 215 pounds, the lanky Noel still seems a long way from being able to handle the physicality of the N.B.A. Still, it is believed he can make an immediate and significant defensive impact on the college level. Noel’s unusual skill set makes it difficult to compare him to another player, though some mention the former N.B.A. All-Star Shawn Kemp when discussing Noel.
Until this weekend, when Noel is scheduled to go on an official visit to Georgetown, he has had to pay for his visits to college campuses. He flew to Kentucky and Louisville on separate unofficial trips that Randolph and Wright-Easy said Noel’s father paid for. Clements said the school had had extensive discussions with Noel and his mother about the difference between official and unofficial visits and how to “not engage in behavior that would create a violation” of N.C.A.A. rules.
Papile said he considered this a lost year for Noel in terms of his basketball development.
“In my opinion, he’s given up this year because of bad advice,” Papile said.
In a recent game, Noel wore pink shoes, played out of position at point guard for long stretches and seemed to complain to the referees more than talk to his teammates. He rarely attempted to score inside.
For some who have watched him for a long time, Noel’s game seems to have stagnated, perhaps an outward sign of how the atmosphere surrounding his recruitment has affected him.
“The risk to him is that through poor choices on his part or his family’s part,” Clements said, “he would jeopardize the potential to participate in a college program with integrity and that would be of concern were that to be the case.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 10, 2012
An earlier version of a Web summary on this article said incorrectly that Nerlens Noel was from Boston, rather than Everett, Mass.