College Sports

Marvin Bagley III zigzagged his way to Duke and the NBA. Can his brother make it, too?

Sierra Canyon’s Marcus Bagley shoots over Crossroads’ Cole Thomas. Michael Owen Baker Los Angeles Daily News
Sierra Canyon’s Marcus Bagley shoots over Crossroads’ Cole Thomas. Michael Owen Baker Los Angeles Daily News

Marcus Bagley was going to be next. As older brother Marvin Bagley III started his one-and-done Duke basketball career in the summer of 2017, Marcus, also a highly regarded prospect, played pick up games at Raleigh’s Ravenscroft School, preparing for what he hoped would be his own run to the highest levels of basketball.

Marcus, also a sought-after prospect, had numerous high school options in North Carolina, including Durham Academy, a private school a few miles from Cameron Indoor Stadium where he’d have played with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s grandsons, Joey and Michael Savarino.

The Bagley family picked Ravenscroft, where Kevin Billerman, who played at Duke and later coached Division I basketball at Florida Atlantic, runs a solid basketball program. When practices began in October 2017, Marcus took the court with other varsity hopefuls. The 6-7 sophomore displayed a nice shooting touch and ball-handling skills, impressing his potential Ravens teammates.

But Marcus Bagley would never play for Billerman. Three days into tryouts, the Ravenscroft coach received a text message from Marvin Bagley Jr., Marcus and Marvin’s father.

“They decided not to play high school basketball last season,” Billerman said. “Marcus was a real nice young man. In the days he tried out, he did well. He was a great team player.

“I guess it was a family decision.”

When asked why he didn’t play at Ravenscroft, Marcus said a knee injury was partly to blame. But he added that he “could have played” and that he missed being part of a team.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids blowing up in high school ball,” Marcus Bagley told The News & Observer in May. “It was tough. Everybody would come to school, talking about the game last night. But, well, it is what it is.”

After the decision to skip his sophomore year of high school basketball, Marcus Bagley embarked on a basketball odyssey not unlike the one taken by his older brother. Along the way, he played for his father’s Nike-sponsored AAU team just like Marvin III, only to be sidetracked by Marvin III’s decision to sign an endorsement deal with rival apparel firm Puma.

Marcus landed this summer at Sheldon High School in Sacramento, according to the Sacramento Bee, where his family moved after Marvin III was drafted No. 2 overall by the Sacramento Kings.

Such is the Bagley family story, a tale of jumps from high school to high school combined with deep connections to summer basketball leagues sponsored by major shoe companies.

But this is also the tale of youth basketball, where youngsters are recruited by programs sponsored by billion-dollar apparel firms, sports agents, major universities and, if they are lucky enough to make the NBA, signed to million-dollar endorsement deals by those same apparel companies.

Marvin Bagley III made it to the NBA after playing for his father’s Nike-sponsored team, several high schools and one year at Duke. Marcus Bagley’s basketball path may turn out to be even more complex.

The Phamily business

Marvin Bagley Jr., 43, grew up in Durham, played football at N.C. A&T and settled in Arizona where he and his wife, Tracy, had three sons. He started a summer-league team, the Phoenix Phamily, which was renamed the Nike Phamily after a 2015 sponsorship deal with the sneaker maker.

Bagley, who would not comment for this story, turned the team and his son’s talents into a family business, working as Nike Phamily’s director and coach, posting photos and videos on social media of boxes and boxes of Nike gear being delivered for use by the team.

Boxes still coming! #NIKE #EYBL #PHAMILY

A post shared by Marvin Bagley Jr (@coachbagley) on

Meanwhile, Marvin Bagley III played at two high schools in Arizona before transferring to Sierra Canyon, a private school in southern California where tuition is $36,000 per year. On the Nike summer-league circuit, he blossomed into a top recruiting target while playing on his dad’s team from 2015-17 before heading to Duke.

Though players must maintain their amateur status and are not allowed to receive payment for their services, shoe companies commonly financially support family members who are running summer-league teams.

According to a 2016 Sports Illustrated story, Marvin Bagley Jr. said the family relied on the Nike sponsorship and an apparel company he was starting up to “try to make ends meet.”

Court documents in Arizona found by The N&O during a background check show the Bagleys, who had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April 2008, had their Phoenix home sold in 2011 at a trustee’s sale — a sign of foreclosure.

In a story earlier this year that detailed the Bagley’s relationship with Nike, The Oregonian newspaper in Portland reported that the Bagleys’ tax forms showed their California home was located in a gated subdivision where rents range from $2,500 to $7,500 a month. Similarly sized homes in the area range in value from $750,000 to $1.5 million.

All of this is allowed under NCAA amateurism guidelines, which is why Marvin Bagley III was cleared to play for Duke after the NCAA conducted a deep investigation into the family’s finances.

Nike’s sponsorship of Bagley’s team is part of a corporate strategy that goes back 30 years, to the days when Michael Jordan helped turn the company into a global powerhouse that reported $21.1 billion in footwear sales in 2017.

Shoe companies work to identify top amateur talent, sponsoring non-scholastic teams that play all over the country in the spring and summer months. The Under Armour Association plays games from California and Las Vegas to Charlotte and Atlanta. Adidas runs its Gauntlet league, with a stop in New York City, while Nike’s circuit is the Elite Youth Basketball League. Puma does not sponsor a grassroots league.

Nike’s EYBL finals take place in North Augusta, S.C., at the Peach Jam in a complex featuring multiple courts. It’s like a national coaching convention each July with Hall of Famers like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim squeezed into folding chairs on the baseline of courts, searching for the next wave of superstars.

The shoe companies’ plan is to grab young stars early so they can forge profitable endorsement deals if those players eventually turn professional. While the companies don’t release exact spending on grassroots leagues, a New York Times story in May said Nike’s annual marketing budget is $4 billion while Adidas and Under Armour spend around 10 percent of their wholesale revenue on marketing.

The players can get millions up front after they leave their college teams but prior to their rookie NBA seasons to wear the company’s gear. Shoe companies hope that connection will turn into sales.

Players team up on non-scholastic, grassroots programs, which receive sponsorship from apparel companies that outfit the athletes and fund costs for travel around the country for showcase basketball events. Where high school teams are an extension of their schools’ academic missions, grassroots teams focus on promotion and development of players’ athletic skills.

The FBI began investigating this system two years ago and last September announced indictments and arrests that have touched such college programs as N.C. State, Arizona, Louisville, Maryland, Kansas, Auburn, Miami and Southern California.

The first trial stemming from the investigation resulted in guilty verdicts for three men in a New York federal court earlier this month. A jury found former Adidas employees Jim Gatto and Merl Code, along with aspiring agent Christian Dawkins guilty of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud for their role in funneling payments to players to secure their commitments to adidias-sponsored schools Kansas, Louisville and N.C. State.

The NCAA’s Rice Commission, convened in response to the FBI investigation into the influence of shoe companies and other outside actors, has recommended the NCAA take over the summer recruiting circuit. The NCAA approved sweeping rules changes on Aug. 8 aimed at curbing the influence of grassroots coaches and shoe companies.

Enter Puma

The eldest Bagley son, 6-11 Marvin Bagley III, graduated early from high school to arrive a year ahead of schedule at Duke, where he was an all-American last season and became the No. 2 overall pick in the June NBA Draft.

The family followed him to Durham to closely follow his lone college season. Marvin Bagley Jr. worked with Nike to organize the Bull City Youth Basketball League, giving kids from families struggling financially a place to play while receiving free Nike gear. Nike Phamily also donated Nike gear to Durham’s Southern High School basketball team.

Still, despite Nike’s deep involvement with the Bagleys, Marvin Bagley III signed in June with Puma, which hasn’t sponsored an NBA player since Vince Carter 20 years ago.

Though signing with a company that had been out of the NBA shoe game for so long was rare, Bagley is not alone in switching shoe companies when endorsement time arrives after college, based on reporting by McClatchy sports reporters throughout the country.

For example, of the eight NBA lottery picks Duke has produced since 2014, five have been with the same company (Nike) from grassroots basketball through Duke to the NBA. The Mavericks’ Dennis Smith Jr., whose recruitment would be a subject of the FBI college basketball case, played for an Adidas-sponsored grassroots program, Team Loaded, and then N.C. State for one year before signing with Under Armour in the NBA.

When asked why the Bagleys went with Puma over Nike, Marvin Bagley Jr. said he liked his son being Puma’s focal point to restart its basketball business.

“There wasn’t a line he had to stand in, you know, as far as going to other shoe companies,” Marvin Bagley Jr. told “He probably would have made a lot of money, but he would’ve been in a line. In Puma, it’s kind of like, ‘OK, we’re going to put it on your shoulders.’ I think he’s up to the challenge.”

But when the reporter asked about turning away from Nike despite the family’s years-long relationship with that company, Marvin Bagley Jr., refused to answer questions.

“I’m not here to discuss,” he said. “Zero.”

Nike spokesman Josh Benedeck told The News & Observer via email this summer that Marvin Bagley III’s decision to sign with Puma will affect his company’s sponsorship deal with Marvin Bagley Jr.’s Phamily summer-league team.

Since unlike its competitors Nike, Adidas and UnderArmor, Puma doesn’t sponsor a summer basketball league, the idea of Marcus growing his profile by playing for his father’s summer-league team appears in limbo after his older brother’s move away from Nike..

A different path?

When Marcus Bagley arrived at Ravenscroft last year, it looked like the Ravens had added a talented player who could help them challenge for a state championship at the private school level.

“He was solidly skilled,” said Jack Hemphill, Ravenscroft’s 6-9 center who is now preparing for his freshman season at Boston University. “He’s not near as athletic as Marvin, but not many people are. He definitely would have helped us.”

Hemphill said he and Bagley would talk in the hallway at school about games and the team last season.

“He was bummed that he couldn’t play,” Hemphill said.

With his experiences in Division I college basketball, Billerman realizes how important the grassroots leagues are to the sport. Still, he believes Bagley would have benefited by playing at Ravenscroft.

“I think in most parents and even young people’s eyes, playing for their high school team is pretty cool,” Billerman said. “Friends and family get to see them play. It’s the one thing I wish Marcus had the opportunity to do is experience the Ravenscroft crowd and Ravenscroft experience. I think he missed out. He was best friends with all the players. He was missing out on games and practices.”

Instead, Bagley waited to play in the Nike-sponsored EYBL. In 12 games between April 20 and May 26, he averaged 5.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while making 20 of 93 shots from the field (21.5 percent).

Marcus Bagley said in May that he was working to become a more complete player.

“I was just trying to get my guard skills back up,” Bagley said told The News & Observer. “I used to just be a shooter on the perimeter. Now I’m trying to develop as a guard.”

Marcus Bagley said he prefers to focus on his basketball skills rather than the family’s apparel company connections.

“I don’t know much about that,” Marcus Bagley told The News & Observer. “I let my parents handle all that business. My brother and I just played for the team. It’s not really a business. We started an AAU program. Then Nike just picked up our program.”

When the Nike EYBL circuit made its annual Hampton, Va., stop over Memorial Day weekend, Nike Phamily played two games on May 26. Marcus Bagley played in the first game while his mother, Tracy Bagley, cheered him on from the stands. Younger brother Martray Bagley, who is 9 years old, wore a T-shirt with Marvin Bagley III’s face on the front of it as he watched the game from the Nike Phamily bench.

Marvin Bagley Jr. and Marvin Bagley III didn’t attend the games in Virginia since they were preparing for NBA pre-draft workouts.

Shortly after 7 p.m. on May 26, Marcus’ EYBL career came to an end.

Marcus Bagley was on the bench, not playing, as Nike Phamily battled Team United from Charlotte at the Boo Williams Sports Complex in Hampton. Shortly after halftime, Team United guard James Hampton collapsed on the court and fell unconscious. Efforts by trainers and emergency medical personnel to revive him were unsuccessful and the 19-year-old Hampton died at a nearby hospital. The game was not resumed.

Martray Bagley, 8, interacts with Nike Phamily players, including his older brother Marcus Bagley (23), on the bench during a Nike Elite Youth Basketball League game at Hampton, Va., on May 26, 2018. Steve Wiseman News and Observer

While Team United’s players decided to play their two EYBL games the following day, Nike Phamily left the tournament and forfeited its final two games. With a 1-15 record, Nike Phamily didn’t qualify for the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., where the EYBL champion was determined in July.

The Nike Phamily roster filed with the EYBL last spring listed Marcus as attending International Connections Academy, a Maryland-based online private school where annual tuition tops out at $6,800.

But now that Marvin Bagley III is starting his NBA career in Sacramento, the Bagleys have returned to California with him and Marcus is expecting to play at Sheldon High School.

Like Billerman at Ravenscroft a year ago, Sheldon coach Joey Rollings recognizes the talent Marcus Bagley could bring to his program.

“He adds a whole new dimension for us,” Rollings told the Sacramento Bee. “He’s big. He can post up, he can shoot and he can pass. He can really friggin’ play. I saw his highlights and thought, ‘Oh, wow!’

Marvin Bagley Jr. recently posted a video of Marcus playing for Sheldon’ High School’s team in the Sacramento high school fall league. Sheldon is a public school.

Currently in the class of 2020 and holding scholarship offers from UCLA, Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and UNLV, Marcus Bagley said he has no plans to follow Marvin’s reclassification strategy that got him to the NBA a year quicker.

“I’m staying in my class,” Marcus told The News & Observer in May.

That said, prior to the announcement of the new Puma deal, Marcus Bagley said he was enjoying a journey his older brother so successfully navigated.

“It’s fun,” Marcus Bagley said. “I’m enjoying the process after seeing him go through it. It’s kind of like learning, so when I get to that point I’ll know how things work. I’m just trying to follow in his footsteps, because he definitely laid it out for me.”

It was laid out at one time, anyway. The family’s move from Nike to Puma, and the cross-country move from North Carolina to California, changed his path.

Marcus is scheduled to begin his college career two years from now. Between now and then, the steps in his on-court journey could take him anywhere.

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