It’s hard for Dinos Trigonis to go more than about four minutes without rattling off the names of fabulously successful NBA stars who played at one of his basketball camps, showcases, or tournaments when they were just gawky teenagers. As much true believer as self-promoter, Trigonis has become the leading power broker of Los Angeles’s high school basketball scene, staging as many as 25 events each year, most packed with soon-to-be college players and NBA lottery picks.
Right now Trigonis is in salesman hyperdrive. Slouched across the couch in his cluttered Long Beach condo, feet tapping on his scuffed parquet floor (“Just like the Boston Garden,” he notes with pride), he’s working the phones, haggling with Norton Hurd, the director of a Memphis-based club team that boasts several highly recruited prep phenoms. Trigonis wants Hurd to bring the team to the Las Vegas Fab 48, a top-tier event he puts on in late July.
Even though basketball is thought of as a winter sport, in the ultracompetitive world of high school club basketball, July is like Oscar season, jammed with events held across the country, from the Nike Global Challenge to the Adidas Super 64 to the Peach State Summer Showcase. The tournaments offer top players the opportunity to demonstrate their skills in front of a swarm of college coaches, scouts, and sports Web site geeks. After all, high school teams schedule roughly 25 to 35 games a season, while the top club talent often play more than 100 games a year, and against elite competition, making club ball a far better barometer for evaluating players’ skills. Thanks to the cluster of July tournaments, college coaches can see dozens of potential top recruits all in one place at a time.
But star players are not only being courted by multimillion-dollar college basketball programs; they’re also being pursued by marketing behemoths like Nike and Adidas, which bankroll their own teams and skills camps in the hope of securing a new generation of sneaker spokesmen. Celebrity starts early. Basketball Web sites now have power rankings for fourth-grade club teams.
With such competition you’d think a small operator like Trigonis would have been elbowed out of the action long ago. It would, however, be a mistake to underestimate the burly 46-year-old entrepreneur who, given his habit of unwinding with a late-night meal at the Cheesecake Factory, looks like a lumpier version of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. “Everyone involved with L.A. high school basketball, whether it’s the coaches, parents, or the players, knows who Dinos Trigonis is,” says Frank Burlison, the respected Long Beach Press-Telegram sportswriter who left the paper to operate Burlison on Basketball, a sports blog and scouting service. “His brand is almost nationwide now…. Playing at one of his events really matters.”
As Trigonis continues pitching Hurd for the Vegas tournament, though, it’s clear this is going to be a tough sell. When Hurd reveals he’s leaning toward taking his team to a rival event, Trigonis tries to close the deal. “Come on, man, you’re killing me,” he barks. “Let’s get you to Vegas. It’s gonna be loaded like always.” And with that Trigonis cites an all-star contingent of young NBA stars who’ve played in his tournaments, from Russell Westbrook and DeMar DeRozan to John Wall and Brandon Jennings. After about a dozen names, Trigonis cackles triumphantly, “You want me to keep going?” Hurd’s team ends up taking a pass.
It’s a rare defeat for Trigonis, who through two decades of relentless networking and relationship building has made himself a major basketball presence in L.A., one of the foremost incubators of future NBA stars. The man is a bundle of nervous energy, whether juggling phone calls in his living room or bounding down the sidelines of one of his events, buttonholing everybody in his path, from parents and kids to coaches and scouts. Parents rave about his loyalty and dependability, qualities especially cherished in a cutthroat environment where even the most celebrated player is just one misstep away from a career-ending injury.
Ever since Michael Jordan made his TV spots for Nike in the late 1980s, basketball has been a zillion-dollar marketing enterprise dominated by sneaker companies whose product has enormous street cred with kids, not to mention huge profit margins for its manufacturers. Competition for brand names is fierce: LeBron James signed a $90 million endorsement deal with Nike when he was still an 18-year-old high school senior. Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy, whose Jabari Parker was the top 2013 recruit in the country, signed a four-year contract with Nike, which provides players with gear in return for exclusive rights to use footage of Parker from the team’s games in commercials.
To establish ties early, Nike sponsors individual club teams and stages high-end skills camps, where top high schoolers can share the court with NBA luminaries like LeBron, Kevin Durant, and Deron Williams. (At this level “camp” is something of a misnomer. Players get brief instructionals on strength, conditioning, and recruiting, but the emphasis is on the games being played. Every monster dunk or no-look pass provides fodder for a horde of writers and analysts from popular sports Web sites like Scout.com and Rivals.com.) Trigonis doesn’t have that kind of star power, although when there was a break in the action at his All-American Camp this summer at Long Beach’s Cabrillo High, Detroit Pistons star Brandon Jennings took the court, wearing shorts and a backward baseball cap, draining a series of 20-foot jumpers.
Nike may have the biggest all-star roster, but the personal touches Trigonis supplies still matter, especially to the parents who worry about their kids being exploited by the colossuses vying for youth basketball supremacy. He’s in constant motion at the camps, handing out stat sheets, slapping palms with parents, picking up empty water bottles, even grabbing a towel to dry up a smear of sweat on the basketball floor after a couple of players took a tumble battling for a rebound.
“Dinos is special because he cares about these kids,” says Jerrid Dorsey, whose son, Tyler, a six-foot-four junior who plays for Trigonis’s club team, is one of the top shooting guards in the country. “Everything in [youth] basketball is such a rat race now that it’s important to be with good people. Dinos comes to all of Tyler’s high school games. You wouldn’t get that from Nike or Adidas people. They’re only there when they need you. But Dinos is there all the time.”’
Trigonis grew up two doors down from his current home in Belmont Heights, one of three basketball-crazed brothers. At nearby Wilson High he was a reserve on some good basketball teams in the 1980s before majoring in political science at Long Beach State. About the only time he’s strayed from the area was to get a law degree from Temple University, but when he returned to L.A., he quickly found himself gravitating back to basketball.
“Law was too monotonous,” he says one day over lunch at a favorite barbecue joint in Belmont Shore. When he began coaching in the early 1990s, it was largely to facilitate his youngest brother’s club-ball ambitions. Soon Trigonis was staging events for top-tier prep talent and had launched a scouting tip sheet, which has subscribers from a host of premier college programs, including Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and Michigan.
But what propelled Trigonis into local prominence was the 2003 Dream Classic held at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. He’d organized similar tournaments but with little fanfare. This one was different: It was a heavyweight hoops fight, featuring Orange County’s top-ranked Mater Dei High against an Akron, Ohio, high school team led by LeBron James. Broadcast on ESPN, it was a glittering coming-out party for high school basketball as a mainstream media event. LeBron and Co. were met at LAX by a 30-foot-long Cadillac Escalade (borrowed from a Trigonis pal who owns a limo service) equipped with satellite TV and a wet bar. “It was a circus,” Trigonis recalls. “All the [NBA general managers] were there, from Jerry West to Mitch Kupchak to Danny Ainge. Adidas and Nike were there. [Nike CEO] Phil Knight was courtside. He bought 200 tickets.” Trigonis beams. “We did something UCLA couldn’t do that year—we sold out Pauley Pavilion.”
A decade later he has something resembling a business model. Teams pay up to $595 to participate in a tournament, and he charges college coaches $495 for his scouting services. Families also pay for their kids to attend his skills camps (though Trigonis offers some need-based scholarships, too). The only free rides go to top prospects who are invited to his All-American Camp and the kids who play for his club team. The squad—named Belmont Shore, naturally—has a trio of college prospects, among them the University of Connecticut-bound Daniel Hamilton.
Trigonis won’t say what he clears in a year. When I press him, he points to his 2003 Jeep Liberty. “It’s a ten-year-old car with 300,000 miles on it,” he tells me. “I live in a two-bedroom, 1,100-square-foot condo. Half of what I generate goes back into my club team. I help people to pay their rent or get a kid into a camp they couldn’t afford.” Trigonis sighs. “Put it this way—I’m not living the lifestyle of the rich and famous.”
Trigonis often sounds unsettled by how thoroughly youth basketball has lost its innocence, buffeted by a mad quest for riches and an insidious culture of entitlement. “Years ago people would come from Kansas, wanting a sniff of that Hollywood glamour. It’s the same with kids now,” he says, a trace of weariness in his voice. “They see athletes celebrated in ads and they think it’s the norm, not the rare exception. Now we’ve got parents putting kids on a path to professionalism, starting at elementary school.”
When it comes to feeding unrealistic expectations, it’s difficult to imagine anyone escaping blame, from sportswriters overselling the latest Cinderella story to college coaches recruiting eighth graders to, well, guys like Trigonis, who help provide a platform for all of the mania. To hear Trigonis tell it, though, a chunk of the blame falls on sneaker companies for seducing kids into believing practically anyone can be the next LeBron. “Kids are being showered with superficial materialism,” he says. “They don’t wear the same shoes twice! Their kindness and humility evaporate. They start thinking they’re better than the kid in the desk next to them in school just because Nike is showering them with free stuff. But if they don’t turn out to be the next big thing, Nike’s not around anymore.”
There’s another reason why Nike is a sore subject. Earlier this year Merl Code, who heads Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, began what Trigonis believes is a concerted effort to discourage Nike-sponsored club teams from playing in the kind of neutral tournaments he puts on, events not affiliated with any shoe company. Relations have soured to the point where Nike denied Trigonis media credentials to its LeBron James Skills Academy this summer. “They view me as a threat because I’m standing in the way,” he tells me. “They want the kids to attribute their success to Nike, not an independent guy, so that when they’re stars and it comes time to endorse a product, they’ll feel loyal to Nike.”
Code did not respond to my repeated calls and e-mails, but a Nike spokesman provided a statement saying, “We strongly believe the claims against our ethics are unfounded. Nike remains committed to responsibly supporting and growing the game at all levels through a range of experiences.”
But even parents whose offspring might be Nike spokesmen someday have reservations about the pervasive influence of the sneaker companies. “What I like about Dinos is that he does everything for these kids and without a shoe deal,” says Vance Jackson Sr., whose son, Vance, is a highly touted six-foot-seven sophomore at Pasadena’s La Salle High. “There are lots of greedy shoe companies, and you don’t want to get caught up with them too fast. It’s better to be neutral. You can always have a bidding war later on.”
Seeing Trigonis at his summer All-American Camp, toting boxes of T-shirts and headphones that he gives to the players, it’s easy to imagine him as a character straight out of a Hollywood underdog sports story—a Long Beach version of Rocky or Rudy or Remember the Titans. In fact, when he gives an inspirational talk to his players before the final game—a game open only to the camp’s all-star performers—the underdog theme is clearly on his mind. His voice hoarse, his T-shirt stained with sweat, Trigonis reminds the kids that while they are invariably hailed as can’t-miss phenoms, they will someday face adversity.
“Russell Westbrook is one of the best players in the NBA,” he says. “But when he was at this camp, he wasn’t an all-star. But he didn’t let that hold him back. He believed in himself, so he just worked that much harder. It’s not where you start; it’s where you finish.”
In a way it’s a quixotic ideal to espouse, since only a precious few of those hopefuls will ever come close to setting foot in the NBA. But cynics don’t hold much sway in youth basketball, a world almost entirely constructed out of boundless hopes and dreams. Perhaps that’s why Trigonis is such a success story himself. After years of struggling and hustling, he’s proved that some dreams are hard to deny.
Patrick Goldstein is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Follow him on Twitter.