I spent a season covering local high school basketball for the Chicago Sun-Times a few years back, and Ryan Boatright was the best player I saw. That statement is more impressive than it probably reads: last year, Chicago high schools produced nine of ESPN's top 100 hoops recruits. Over the last few years, Chicago's output includes a plethora of McDonald's All-Americans (Jereme Richmond, Wayne Blackshear), major conference college stars (Jon Scheyer, John Shurna) and first round NBA talent (Evan Turner, Iman Shumpert).
To take it a step further, it's totally possible -- likely, even -- that three years from now, Chicago will have produced three of the last seven No. 1 overall picks in the NBA Draft. Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis is being pegged as a potential top selection in the next draft just one year after the big man was playing in CPS blue league games at little known Perspectives. Current Simeon junior Jabari Parker is good enough to have some believe he might already be the best player in the world who isn't in the NBA. This all follows Derrick Rose, who went from back-to-back state championships at Simeon to becoming the new face of the Bulls as the No. 1 overall pick in 2008. Yet it was Ryan Boatright, at least for the season I saw him, who was better than all of his peers.
Boatright has spent his entire career playing under a sharp spotlight, so the UConn guard's newfound attention thanks to an NCAA probe for receiving improper benefits is hardly something he's ill-prepared for, discomforting as it may be. Boatright actually chose his college before his high school: as an eighth grader, Boatright was so dynamic with the ball that he gave a verbal commitment to Tim Floyd and USC before deciding he would attend East Aurora. After backing out of his commitment to the Trojans following the unceremonious exit of Floyd, Boatright would commit to Bob Huggins and West Virginia before finally landing at UConn. His path has been as winding as it has been tumultuous.
Note that I said Boatright was the best player I covered, not the best prospect. The dude is small: he's listed at six-foot by ESPN, but, at least when I covered him as a high school junior, he appeared a good three or four inches shorter than that. I do not know if Ryan Boatright will ever play in the NBA, much less be able to replicate the type of buzz someone like Shumpert has been able to generate so early in his pro career. But on a purely surface-level evaluation, Boatright was unparalleled.
The only name that comes to mind when watching Boatright play basketball is Allen Iverson. His crossover is that quick, his end-to-end speed that substantial, his guile and shotmaking ability that obtuse. Even when playing against suburban Chicago high school kids, Boatright was matched with a size disadvantage. Yet when you saw him dart between defenders, drain seemingly impossible floaters, and rise suspiciously high from the floor to throw down a dunk, it became obvious that he was a special player. He proved it firsthand in front of UConn coach Jim Calhoun, dropping 63 points against an unbeaten Proviso West team in December of his senior season.
Tim Floyd may have been much maligned when he was the coach of the Bulls, but he in part got that job because he had a real eye for talent. To identify Boatright as an eighth grader, when, for all we know, he was probably 4-foot-8, was a real stroke genius.
Only one thing is stopping Boatright during his freshman year at UConn, and it's not his size: it's the zealots who run college sports, and turn it into a witch hunt as much as anything else. They're preventing Boatright from playing basketball right now because of an NCAA investigation centering on a benefit his mother received. Yes, his mother. In the NCAA's world, even this small and irrelevant transgression is enough to ruin the sanctity of college sports, and therefore Ryan Boatright cannot participate.
Here is why Boatright isn't playing: when he was visiting schools, his mother Tanesha wanted to come with. Seems like a reasonable thing for a parent to do, yes? But under NCAA rules, UConn was only able to pay Boatright's way for the ticket, not his mother's. So Mrs. Boatright went to a friend with money: Reggie Rose, the older brother and steadfast guardian of Derrick Rose, the NBA's reigning MVP. Reggie Rose runs an AAU team of which Boatright was the star. This is an improper benefit, and Boatright is being held hostage by the NCAA because of it.
If you think this sounds insane, remember the nonsensical has become a bit of a specialty for the NCAA. It's not particularly surprising. In an excellent two-part op-ed piece in the New York Times this weekend, Joe Nocera spelled it out:
In America, a person is presumed innocent until proved guilty. Unless, that is, he plays college sports.
When the N.C.A.A. investigates an athlete for breaking its rules, not only is he presumed guilty but his punishment begins before he knows what he’s accused of. He is not told who his accuser is. The N.C.A.A. will delve into the personal relationships of his relatives and demand their bank statements and other private records. And it will hand down its verdict without so much as a hearing. Reputations have been ruined on accusations so flimsy that they would be laughed out of any court in the land. Then again, the N.C.A.A. isn’t a court of law. It’s more powerful.
How did the NCAA learn of Mrs. Boatright's free plane ride? From an ex-boyfriend, a convicted fellon. As Nocera says:
If this were a court proceeding, the ex-boyfriend’s credibility could be challenged and his motives questioned. Instead, in its crazed obsession with its extra-legal rules, the N.C.A.A. is willing to serve the interests of an angry ex-boyfriend who wants to ruin an athlete’s career to get back at his mother.
As Boatright continues to be stymied by the governing body of college sports, UConn is struggling. The Huskies have lost back-to-back games, including a Saturday tilt with Tennessee. After the game, teammates pointed to Boatright's absence as the reason they lost. It was the ninth game Boatright has missed this season, and third straight. The first six came at the start of the season, before Boatright played 10 games for the Huskies, which included a 23-point effort against Arkansas in his second ever college game.
Ryan Boatright isn't a criminal, or even the proprietor of immoral decision-making. He is a victim of the NCAA's wrongheaded, Joseph McCarthy-like dedication to outing "evil", which seemingly values a comped plane ticket for a family member as something far more grave. For Boatright to continue the impressive developing lineage of Chicago-bred hoopsters, all he has to do is get on the court. Right now, the NCAA is preventing it from happening.
Ricky O'Donnell is a writer and editor in Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. He is always very much available for hire. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.