In a matter of just a few tumultuous months last year, Aquille Carr was a member of four different schools ranging from New Jersey to Jacksonville to Baltimore to Prince George's County. At the end of this year, Quince Orchard's Adam McLean will have attended his third high school, as will Wheaton's Michael Patterson, DuVal's Michael Cunningham, and dozens more. Still others will be at their second, some even their fourth.
Transferring at the high school level, what was formerly a last-resort practice, has ostensibly become the new norm, rampant to the point that, as ESPN high school basketball writer Dave Telep put it, “it's almost abnormal if kids are not transferring, which is really sad. We're in this cycle where guys are looking for the next best opportunity.”
But why now?
“Times are changing,” he elaborated. “Things are going downhill and there's no stopping it. With private schools and prep schools and charter schools, it really is the wild wild West.”
In 2010, for a full 75 minutes, a 25-year-old LeBron James sat in front of a platoon of ESPN cameras broadcasting to 13.1 million viewers to announce one sentence: where he would be “taking is talents” the next season.
The Decision, as it has come to be known, has had obvious effects, most notably the consecutive NBA Championships James has lead the Miami Heat in winning. But there has been a quiet one begat down at the grassroots level: the “LeBron effect,” as one Montgomery County football coach labeled it. “Everybody wants to take their talents elsewhere.”
“I think a lot of it has to do with what they see in the media,” Seneca Valley football coach Fred Kim said. “Look at the NBA, it's the cool thing to do. LeBron James with The Decision. Back in the '70s and '80s, you saw guys stay with a team for their entire careers.”
Kim argues that James created a 'Look at me generation' of athletes who go not where their loyalties lie, but where the best incentives — recruiting options, exposure, championships — are offered.
“Sometimes they're seeking a better academic situation, sometimes it's where they are athletically,” said former Princeton Day Academy basketball coach, Van Whitfield. “Some are looking for a higher level of competition and some are looking for a better match for their skill set.”
Whitfield should know. He took in six transfers just last season alone. This, in turn, has led to public school coaches resorting to a strange practice: recruiting their own kids.
“We're just trying to keep our kids in our school,” Henry A. Wise football coach DaLawn Parrish said. “I don't think when you get into coaching a public school your mind is set on recruiting kids. If you wanted to do that you would go to a private school or a college.”
But with cluster systems, the rise of private schools, consortiums, magnet programs, shared housing and various other loopholes, transferring has become a far less arduous process, and a far more common one.
“They're no longer loopholes if everybody's doing it,” Telep said. “It's a way of life.”
When Seneca Valley running back Kevin Joppy made his move to Quince Orchard for his senior season, there were certain inevitable drawbacks. But for the most part, “everybody still hangs out with Joppy,” Kim said. “We still love him, the kids still talk to him every day.”
If that were to happen when Kim was suiting up in a Seneca uniform, “it was 'Oh my God,'” he said. “He'd have the scarlet letter on him and he'd get his butt kicked. When I was at Seneca, the only time there was a transfer was when someone came in from out of town. Seneca Valley was the only team I ever wanted to play for. If you wanted to play for Gaithersburg, that was sacrilegious.”
What saddens Telep is that “you used to hear 'I want to win a state championship,'” he said. “Now you hear 'I want to maximize exposure.'”
If that sense of community, or even family, pride has not vanished altogether, it has certainly dwindled. Ten years ago, when Parrish was coaching DuVal, there was a member of a family on his team while his brother competed for Eleanor Roosevelt.
“I said 'That's crazy,'” Parrish recalled, laughing. “Back in the '80s, everybody wanted to play where their uncle played or their father played. You didn't think about moving around. Now there's so much moving around where I don't know how much loyalty to a school there is, which is unfortunate. It's rare you see a community school anymore.”
Kim could only point to two in Montgomery County that he would count as traditional, community schools: Damascus and Poolesville.
“You don't ever hear a Middletown kid going to DeMatha or Bullis,” Kim said. “You'd get your [butt] run out of town.” Middletown, Kim said, “is an anomaly.”
This past season, former Sherwood basketball coach Dondrell Whitmore took on more transfers than he ever had in his seven years at the Warriors' helm — three, two of which came by way of private school.
“A lot of these guys came from privates and times are hard, man,” said Whitmore, who has since stepped down. “I noticed [the transfers] along with the recession. I see it happening more this year.”
Many of the transfers, says Whitmore, are opting for the cheaper public schools in lieu of the more expensive private schools such as DeMatha. Kim reported a similar theory, pointing to the recessed economy as a major factor in the increasing movement among high school athletes.
“People are moving,” he said. “People are looking for more affordable places to live, using shared housing. The economy is down, and that's had an effect. With the economy so tough, people aren't buying houses. When you bought a house, you'd be rooted, you couldn't just pick up and go, whereas if you get an apartment with a one-year lease as opposed to a mortgage, you can move again.”
And when that lease is up, and the parents are raising a budding football player, what's to stop them from moving into state finalist Quince Orchard's district? Say it's a basketball player, why not traditionally powerful Springbrook?
“I think a lot of times it is and often appears to be that student athletes want to be in line with programs receiving scholarships,” Whitfield said.
Maybe it's in the name of that coveted scholarship to help offset the cost of college. Maybe it's a generational thing or parents wanting what's best for the kids. Maybe it's a desperate exposure grab or a loss of pride in the local system.
But “sometimes,” says Parrish, “the grass is not always greener on the other side.”