When Khalid El-Amin made a verbal commitment in August to attend the University of Minnesota, the Minneapolis North junior turned some heads. Foremost among them was the one belonging to Gophers men's basketball coach Clem Haskins.
El-Amin was coming off a breakthrough performance at the Adidas ABCD summer camp, a showplace for the nation's top recruits. Voted the top underclassman at the camp, El-Amin seemed poised to take his pick of colleges.
So, why Minnesota? It didn't seem to make sense. El-Amin cited his desires to stay close to home and take himself out of the recruiting rat race as reasons to commit early. But really, can the University compare to some of the other programs competing for El-Amin's affections?
Beside Minnesota, the schools at the top of his list include Cincinnati, California, Kansas and Georgetown, among others. Frankly, the Gophers aren't in the same league.
Last week, El-Amin retracted his verbal commitment. He issued a statement saying he decided to "explore other options concerning [his] collegiate career." Considering the overall health of the Gophers' program, it's hard to blame him.
But Haskins, to no one's surprise, gave credit to his news-gathering friends. "You can blame this one on the media," Haskins said. "I can't blame him (El-Amin) after all the negative publicity recently on all the talk shows and newspapers."
What? Sorry, Clem, but maybe El-Amin's decision had more to do with the Gophers' sloppy performance the first half of the season -- an opinion not limited to reporters.
Then again, I'm looking forward to the day when I hear the coach say, "You know, the team played great today. We shot the ball well and played tough defense. But we really owe this win to the media. They wrote some balanced, insightful stories and really prepared us for the game." Yeah, right ... and gophers might fly out of my butt.
The decision, of course, had to be a difficult one, regardless of what El-Amin says. After all, I can't imagine what a horrific experience it would be to play under coaches like Bob Huggins at Cincinnati, Roy Williams at Kansas or John Thompson at Georgetown. El-Amin's hint that he's open to suggestions will likely have others calling, knocking and begging, as well.
But any public scorn over the apparent change of heart should not be directed toward El-Amin. A high school sophomore has a hard time remembering to take out the garbage, much less the capacity to make a life decision without waffling a bit.
I'll bet El-Amin knows what garbage smells like, though, and perhaps he caught a whiff of Williams Arena after ugly losses to Michigan State and Indiana. Granted, the team is playing well of late, but a trip to the NCAA tournament in March is still about as likely as a media pajama party at Haskins' home. Ain't happening.
The fringe benefits -- read into that what you wish -- of playing for a national basketball power are unparalleled. Duh. Going to a school like Georgetown means tons of TV coverage and more attention from NBA scouts, not to mention a near god-like status among rabid basketball fans. And how many big-name talents have played under John Thompson? Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and budding superstar Allen Iverson come to mind.
Going to Minnesota means, well, living in Minnesota. Oh, there's also the colorful, tradition-rich confines of Williams and the wild-'n'-wacky Centennial Hall night life. And don't forget, that lucky recruit gets to put up with Clem for a few years. Imagine the fun.
As for A-list players from Minnesota, name one (Kevin McHale doesn't count). Voshon Lenard? Not quite. Kevin Lynch? He was last seen playing for something called Giesen overseas. Clem's record of removing the "raw" that typically precedes "talent" in discussions of his recruits is nil. He's never done it.
If El-Amin ultimately decides to roll the dice and stay in Minnesota, the program will likely benefit -- or even prosper. Believe me, a good point guard makes a coach look like a genius -- just the sort of accolade our Clem has been pining for for years.
Bob Gibbons, a recruiting analyst with All-Star Sports in North Carolina, considers El-Amin the best junior prospect at point guard in the country. "He's so quick, and shoots the ball so well," Gibbons said. "Despite his diminutive size (5 feet 10 inches), he's a very explosive lethal weapon in the backcourt .... I think he's fantastic."
Gibbons, obviously, isn't alone. El-Amin is the jewel still missing from Clem's recruiting crown. The kid is lighting it up at North, averaging 22.9 points and 6.0 assists a game. Any coach would drool over the thought of El-Amin running an offense. He has it all: speed, intelligence, shooting touch. Can't miss.
Good recruiting leads to better recruiting, and if Haskins wants last year's banner crop (Charles Thomas, Quincy Lewis, Courtney James, Bobby Jackson, Miles Tarver and Mark Jones) to flourish, the trend has to continue. The coach, in short, needs a player like Khalid El-Amin to keep Minnesota on the recruitment map, as well as butts in the seats.
El-Amin's signing with the Gophers is hit-or-miss, and will probably stay that way until the early signing period next November. Chances are good, sources say, that he'll still play for Minnesota, but nobody -- except for maybe the El-Amin family -- knows for sure what he's going to do. My advice to Khalid: Minnesota fans would love to have you, but you can do better.
Problem is, Clem can't.