On a recent evening, the Homewood-Flossmoor High School girls basketball team was routing the Sandburg High varsity in its last home game of the regular season. As his Vikings pushed their lead to 40 points in the fourth quarter, coach Anthony Smith stood courtside, barking at second- and third-string players to maintain defensive pressure and hustle the floor on fast breaks.
In more than a dozen years as a head coach, Smith has earned a national reputation after attaining a stunning win-loss record and capturing four state titles at his previous job at Bolingbrook High School. With state playoffs scheduled to begin Wednesday for his No. 1-ranked team, he is poised for another championship in his first season at H-F.
Besides the signature pressure defense and fast-break offense, Smith's squad looks familiar for another reason: Four of his starters from last year's Bolingbrook team transferred to H-F. Two more girls who played on Smith's elite summer team also moved into the H-F district to don the Vikings' red-and-white uniforms. Three of the girls who transferred listed the same house in Flossmoor as their new address on paperwork filed with H-F Community High School District 233.
The team's starting point guard and one starting forward are playing for their fourth high school in four years after a series of transfers.
Smith now finds himself at the center of a legal battle that alleges the secret to his success is not basketball savvy and hard work as much as the recruiting of star players in violation of state rules.
An unnamed player who was bumped from the starting lineup by the transfers sued District 233, opening a window to a world in which student-athletes vie for a relatively small number of college scholarships, outside leagues and showcase events can overshadow traditional high school sports programs and parents are willing to spend thousands of dollars and even uproot their families to further their kids' ambitions.
Smith has denied recruiting players but declined to comment for this story. Officials from the H-F school district and the Illinois High School Association ruled last summer that all six transfers were eligible to play. But after the lawsuit was filed last month in Cook County Circuit Court, H-F officials conducted an internal review of the allegations and presented their findings to the IHSA last week, according to Marty Hickman, the IHSA's executive director. He said he has requested more records from the district and was still reviewing its report but would rule soon. The IHSA could suspend players and coaches, order the school to forfeit games or ban the team from the playoffs if it finds wrongdoing.
Hickman acknowledged that so many girls moving to a new district "looks funny," but he said schools and the IHSA can do little to prevent students from moving from school to school in search of a program that they believe will spotlight their talents.
"If a parent wants to pack up their family and move to another school district, there is not much we can do about it," Hickman said.
The world of girls sports has changed dramatically since Title IX called for equal opportunities for males and females in high school and collegiate sports four decades ago, said Rod Fort, a sports management professor at the University of Michigan. Once schools began offering more girls sports programs, he said, they began a race for the top — not unlike the boys sports programs. The resulting scholarships have led to a competition as stiff as on the basketball court, especially as the cost of college rises.
"There are parents who will move for their kids — and it's not just for football and men's basketball anymore," said Timothy Epstein, a Chicago attorney whose practice includes sports matters. "It's important to the kid, and it can have a big financial impact on the family."
Under IHSA rules, coaches are not supposed to lure student-athletes to their schools, and school transfers are not supposed to be allowed solely for athletic reasons. There also are restrictions on how much contact coaches can have with players during the offseason.
Smith also coaches a team that competes in the U.S. Junior Nationals circuit, playing in a number of "exposure" tournaments, events designed to spotlight players for college coaches and recruiters
But recruiting is more common than many think, some local high school coaches said.
Smith's high school players have gone on to such basketball powers as the University of Connecticut and the University of Tennessee. This year, six of Smith's players, including four of the transfers, have already earned scholarships or will play in college, including at the University of Illinois, Wright State University and the University of Missouri at Kansas City.
Parents and players "probably feel like he's their meal ticket to the next level," said one private high school girls basketball coach who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The mother of one Bolingbrook player who did not follow Smith to Homewood-Flossmoor said her daughter begged to move when Smith told the team he was leaving.
"My daughter came home and said, 'Mom, we've got to move to Homewood. Tony's leaving and everyone is going,'" said the mother, whose daughter had played for Smith for three years at Bolingbrook. She asked that her name not be used so that her daughter would not face teasing at school. "I said, 'Honey, no. We can't do that. We're not moving everybody.'"
Smith became head varsity coach at Bolingbrook in 2001, leading the Raiders to their best record in school history in his first season, recalled Chloe Kerr, a junior when Smith came in as head coach.
Two pages of last year's Bolingbrook basketball program were devoted to the Coach's Corner, which included a large photo of Smith and his overall coaching record.