Once they saw Nathan Bellman play basketball, they promised him the world.
Free tuition. Free transportation to school. A free ride on his grades. The
chance to star for a Maryland basketball power.
All this for a gangly eighth-grader at Holabird Middle School in Baltimore
Since last summer, the 14-year-old Dundalk youth has been the target of a
fierce recruiting effort on behalf of Dunbar High School, albeit not by official
representatives of the Baltimore city school. While it's just one of many
behind-the-scenes recruiting campaigns that go on every year, the aggressive
effort has caused Nathan and his mother no small anguish.
"They've offered him just about anything to get him to go," says Nathan's
mother, Dorothy Harbeson. "They're stopping him on the way to the school bus and
they're trying to talk to him in school." The campaign has been waged by avid
Dunbar supporters who scout talent for the East Baltimore powerhouse that has
produced the likes of NBA players Sam Cassell, David Wingate, Keith Booth and
Barbara Allen, Dunbar's athletic director, says that while she condemns
anyone making false promises on behalf of the basketball team, she's powerless
to stop people who don't work for the school.
Still, school officials acknowledge that recruiting has begun at younger and
younger ages as the money attached to sports escalates. No longer is it just
professional teams seeking college athletes and colleges seeking high school
" It happens all the time, from when kids are in Little League," says Bob
Wade, the city school system's director of athletics. "Every day, year after
year, there are kids being recruited to play for someone."
Wade -- who has coached basketball at both Dunbar and the University of
Maryland, College Park -- is quick to emphasize that public school coaches
aren't allowed to recruit.
"It's illegal for coaches to recruit, but we can't stop supporters, " he
In the Baltimore area, however, recruiting is more open in private and
Among other things, those schools are not governed by public school
residency requirements and often have more flexibility in offering breaks on
"The bird dogs are out there looking for the players," says Ronald Belinko,
Baltimore County's coordinator of athletics.
"Why do you think all of those private schools are building new athletic
facilities? It's another tool to recruit."
Spotted at outdoor games
For Nathan, the recruiting started early last summer, when he was spotted
playing basketball on the outdoor courts of eastern Baltimore County.
At 6-foot-1, he stands above most other eighth-graders, and his coaches at
both Holabird Middle and the Colgate Recreation Council praise his ball-
handling ability and intelligence on the court.
Nathan has averaged 14 points a game as a guard and forward in Holabird's
first four games, or nearly half of the team's average of 34 points.
" Nathan possess exceptional skills," says Holabird coach Steve Oppenheim,
who teaches social studies and math at the school. "He has more to learn, but
I've never seen someone with as much talent as he has at his age."
Over the past six months, men claiming to represent Dunbar have regularly
talked to Nathan, visiting him when he plays late into the night at Colgate Park
near his house.
They've driven him to play in other gyms and given him a basketball and
other equipment and clothing. They lent him a pager so they could reach him to
play basketball. They have worked with him on techniques.
While Dunbar is a Baltimore high school with open enrollment -- which means
anyone in the city is eligible to apply to its academic program -- a Baltimore
County student such as Nathan would be required to pay $1,500 a year in tuition.
Nathan and his mother say they were told by the recruiters that both tuition
and transportation would be "taken care of."
If Nathan became concerned for his safety at the school, security would be
provided, they were told.
"I was told that it wouldn't matter how I did in classes, that my grades
wouldn't matter," says Nathan, who gets mostly A's and B's. "But I want to go to
college. I want to be a doctor."
The recruiting effort was stepped up this past week as Holabird Middle
students prepared to register for their ninth-grade classes at nearby Dundalk
One morning, Nathan said, two of the recruiters were waiting for him at his
school bus stop.
To avoid them, he missed the bus and had to walk to school, arriving late.
The men then went to his mother's house.
I got scared'
"They wanted to know when Nathan's next game was," Harbeson recalls. "When I
wouldn't tell them, they wanted to know when his lunch period was, so they could
go to the school and see him there. That's when I got scared.
She called Holabird, asking the school and the coaches to make sure that
recruiters stay away from Nathan.
Holabird's principal, Henry Wagner, says that county policy prohibits
unauthorized people from entering the building on Delvale Avenue and he is not
aware of anyone sneaking in to talk to Nathan.
Though she didn't have the full names of the recruiters, Harbeson decided to
call Dunbar as well.
"It's so much pressure for a 14- year-old, and I just want him to
concentrate on school and getting ready for ninth-grade at Dundalk High," she
Allen, Dunbar's athletic director, says she's familiar with at least one of
the recruiters -- a former off-and-on volunteer assistant coach at Dunbar who
was let go.
" The persons involved in this situation are not members of my coaching
staff and are not affiliated with the team," she says. "We have a lot of
supporters in the community and a lot of people who follow kids and try to
influence them to attend certain schools.
"They are not members of our staff, they shouldn't be making promises for
the school and we don't condone what they're doing," Allen says.
Responding to Harbeson's complaints to the school, Wade says he's already
cleared Dunbar officials of any wrongdoing.
But Wade says that there's little he or anyone in the city system can do to
control people who don't work for the schools.
Both phones mother
Both Allen and Wade have called Harbeson to reassure her that the recruiters
do not speak for the school.
Wade also drove out to Holabird to urge Nathan to focus on his academics,
telling him that his basketball skills won't take him anywhere without good
But Harbeson says that Dunbar's coach has since told her that if Nathan is
interested in Dunbar, the door is open.
"If they're doing this to him now," she asks, "what are they going to be
doing in two or three years if he turns out to be really good?"