Area high school basketball coaches had heard of Donnie Gross long before the Amateur Athletic Union coach gave Maryland guard Duane Simpkins a $2,000 loan to pay campus parking fines.
Most coaches say they don't know Gross well. Others say he befriended their players, induced them to play in tournaments with free travel and apparel, and then gave them bad advice about academics and recruiting.
In an interview with The Sun, Gross defended his seven years as the founder and coach of the D.C. Players, a defunct summer league team that featured future Terrapins Simpkins, Exree Hipp, Keith Booth, Johnny Rhodes, Laron Profit and Obinna Ekezie and Simpkins' father, Sylvester, as an assistant coach.
Gross said his team provided the players with opportunities such as their first plane flight and exposure that has led to more than 100 of his players receiving college scholarships.
"Any high school coach is going to make me out to be a villain," Gross said in a telephone interview in which he refused to talk about the loan to Simpkins or his relationship with the University of Maryland. "You contact any kid and ask him if playing for D.C. Players isn't the best part out of their lives."
But some high school coaches say Gross ignored them, interfered in the recruiting process and steered players to certain colleges.
Coaches weren't the only critics. One of Gross' former players, Mount St. Mary's guard Riley Inge, said Gross treated his players unevenly.
"Donnie had a tendency to take care of his big-name players and shun the rest of us," Inge said after last night's game in Emmitsburg. "I know if I needed $2,000, he isn't going to write a check to Mount St. Mary's."
Said Ernie Welch, coach of High Point in Prince George's County: "When you're running an out-of-school high school program, you're not a leader and you're not a coach. You do things that aren't in the best interests of the kid and his family. Donnie Gross is certainly like that type sometimes."
Gross, 27, of Rockville, was a four-year starter at St. Andrew's Episcopal High School in Bethesda and served as a student assistant coach during two years as a student at Ithaca College in New York, he said. He spent two years as a volunteer assistant coach at San Jacinto Junior College in Texas, and in 1993, according to university alumni records, got his degree in communication at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.
In 1989, Gross started the D.C. Players in an effort to fulfill his dream of becoming a Division I college basketball coach.
"I think my whole life I've wanted to be a college basketball coach," Gross said. "I was just trying to create my own breaks."
First he found a sponsor, defunct clothing store Players of Georgetown, which put up the $250 to sponsor an AAU team. Then he got the players, recruiting Rhodes and Baltimore's Donta Bright and Michael Lloyd and other future college stars as eighth-graders by scouting the junior high playoffs.
After a few tournaments, Gross received free shoes, apparel and funding from Nike that helped his team compete in five or six national tournaments a year. "Getting equipment [from Nike] is not a big deal," he said. "Getting money is a big deal. We have been able to get money."
Gross would not reveal how much but said he lost money on the team every year by using personal funding. He denied using any money to pay his players.
"Here I was just a young white kid from the suburbs. AAU in Washington, D.C. is usually dominated by black coaches," Gross said. "There isn't one player that we wanted that we didn't get. We didn't have to pay anybody. It's amazing what a T-shirt and a free pair of shoes will do.
"Above all, being so young enabled me to be a real friend to them. When something goes wrong, they'll call me and still call me."
Some coaches say that Gross gave bad advice to their players, such as Inge of Paint Branch in Montgomery County and Stacy Robinson of DuVal in Lanham, encouraging them to attend San Jacinto, the junior college basketball powerhouse where Gross used to work.
Inge left the school after several weeks and transferred to Mount St. Mary's, but lost a year and a half of eligibility in the process.
"Donnie's motives are not always in the best interest of the kid or player," Inge said. "Donnie is looking for something, maybe a Division I coaching job. Everything is Donnie Gross. The way he goes about it kind of rubs people the wrong way."
Gross didn't help Robinson at DuVal, trying to get him to transfer to a prep school at midyear.
"I never realized that he had that much influence over what was happening in my program," DuVal coach Artie Walker said.
Robinson -- who had signed a letter of intent with Maryland -- stuck it out at DuVal, failed to qualify academically and ended up at San Jacinto at Gross' urging. The NCAA recently investigated a questionable correspondence course exam taken by Robinson, who has returned home but could not be reached for comment.
Gross says he gave Inge and Robinson good advice by telling them to attend San Jacinto.
"I recommended that [they] go to San Jacinto," Gross said. "Why not? It was rated junior college of the decade by the Sporting News."
But Gross denies the insinuations of several coaches that he brokers his AAU players to specific colleges and junior colleges in exchange for cash.
"It starts out with Donnie got $100, Donnie got $1,000, Donnie got $10,000, Donnie got $20,000," Gross said. "It's all a myth."
Howard University coach Mike McLeese, who coached Rhodes at Dunbar in Washington, agreed that Gross' influence is overstated.
"I don't think he means any harm," McLeese said before last night's game at Coppin State. "Most of the AAU coaches are legitimate and sincere, and I place him in that group. All the dealings I've had with him are legitimate."
Yet McLeese recognizes flaws: "Sometimes he's overzealous. He wants to be a college basketball coach. Sometimes he wants in the [college] group so bad that it clouds his judgment."
After seven years as an AAU coach, Gross says his dream of being a college coach is over. He dismantled the D.C. Players after last season. In February 1995, he incorporated a Rockville-based prepaid phone card business called Edge Communications Co.
"The coaching thing kind of failed because I realized how hard it was to become a Division I assistant," Gross said. "I saw a lot of my friends who are Division I assistants become career assistants. I just thought it was time to move on."