On the move for the City of Basketball Love | Mike Jensen
With his web site, camps and now a scouting service, Josh Verlin has made an impact in local hoops.
Out of his car — on the move, quick first step on display — Josh Verlin zoomed into the Albright College gym lobby a little before 10 a.m., second day of the Hoop Group Elite camp in Reading. Scanning rosters and schedules, Verlin decided to bypass the three games in the main gym and head for the upstairs auxiliary gym, site of four more.
The City of Basketball Love's coverage day was up and race-walking.
Verlin, 28, grabbed a seat in a folding chair at the end of the court, watching the high school players out there, cross-indexing with rosters, checking his phone. "The big kid on the blue team is being looked at by Penn."
When did Verlin find that out? "Two minutes ago,'' he said. He had seen the player was from North Jersey, did a Twitter search, saw that he had visited Penn unofficially, that he had a scholarship offer from Binghamton. He'd get to that kid as soon as the game was over, and also the 6-foot-7 guy who had just hit a three-pointer. "He has an offer from St. Bonaventure,'' Verlin said, looking at his phone.
A Division III coach from a Southern school sat down, exchanging casual greetings with Verlin.
"Anybody catch your eye?" Verlin asked the coach.
"Like Pennsylvania guys?"
This was no one-man City of Basketball Love band at Albright. A Villanova student, Isabella Sanchez, recently had joined the site and was there, plus a recent Spring-Ford High graduate, Anthony Dabbundo, and a high school senior at Pope John Paul II High, Tyler Sandora, all scanning their own rosters looking for story lines. Verlin had a few ideas for them. Sandora wore a City of Basketball Love T-shirt.
"Josh wanted me to wear it,'' Sandora said when asked about it.
Not to promote the site — not just to promote the site — but to make it easier for Sandora, Verlin said, as the high school student approached coaches and even players for interviews. His shirt saved time, offering an introduction without words.
It just doesn't tell the whole story. How quitting Temple law school in the spring semester of Verlin's first year turned out to be a no-brainer even if La Salle coach John Giannini, hearing that news in March 2013, told Verlin the day before La Salle played in an NCAA Sweet 16 game that Verlin needed to go back to law school "or I'm never talking to you again."
Nope, law school was out. Giannini still talks to him. Everyone talks to him. City of Basketball Love now is an established part of the local hoops landscape, with Verlin adding camps and a scouting service, and T-shirts, as the site covers the local high school and college scene. (An initial attempt to cover the Sixers, to really live up to the name of the site in all its facets, Verlin said, was ignored by the Sixers.) This is the first year for the Del Val Report, cofounded by Verlin and Syracuse undergrad Ari Rosenfeld, from Cherry Hill. So far, 34 colleges subscribe.
The site has been a launching pad for a stream of local writers, many starting there from scratch, often working for nothing at the start. Is this website here to stay? Who can say? "I hope so,'' Verlin said. "I don't want to leave Philadelphia basketball. I'd like to expand. Not globally. But five years from now, be consistently in South Jersey and Allentown and Harrisburg with coverage, and run camps in those areas."
A women's college coach once got on Verlin about ignoring that side of the game. He explained to the coach that he doesn't have the staff to double his coverage.
Running from the law
Verlin remembers his law school adviser calling him in since the guidelines were that you're not supposed to have a job during the first year. This website thing …
"This is kind of bordering on a job,'' the adviser said.
"No, no, it's just a side thing,'' Verlin said.
Maybe they'd noticed him in torts class, "torts open on the left, I've got an article I'm working on on the right,'' Verlin said. A fake case about a credit card company and a fair credit act, "hours upon hours upon hours looking up these boring cases — you can't just look up the six hours and you're done. You have to do continuous research until the case comes …"
In the meantime, the Harriton High graduate would show up at a gym, talk to players and coaches. Write something up. Move on.
"Will you be disappointed if I don't end up a lawyer?'' Verlin asked his father, a lawyer. To maybe his own surprise, Verlin's father was not. When he talked to his parents about dropping out, "they were kind of, like, what took you so long?"
Temple gave him two years to change his mind, that offer now long gone. As an undergraduate at Temple, Verlin had studied broadcast journalism. He took a sportswriting class. "I didn't do great in that class,'' Verlin said, recalling his teacher was the late Chuck Newman, a longtime Inquirer sportswriter and editor, and legendary curmudgeon. "He ripped me apart pretty well, which was new for me." Verlin didn't run. He began doing some freelance online writing, met a man named Aaron Bracy at a St. Joseph's game. Bracy was a full-time schoolteacher but was starting a site covering local Division I hoops, Philahoops.com.
"That year, I covered like 60 games for Phila Hoops,'' Verlin said.
When it was over, Verlin wanted to keep going, covering the sport year-round. Bracy, who had a family and a full-time job and intended to keep both, declined. Verlin and another Phila Hoops writer, Andy Edwards (now the sports information director at Ursinus), decided to go on their own. Verlin still has the three-hour text exchange as they talked themselves into it in June 2012. During the text conversation, they threw around names. At 9:57 p.m.: "City of Basketball Love?"'
"That's pretty good,'' Edwards texted back.
"I feel like we did the domain that night,'' Verlin said.
His photographer, Mark Jordan, has been with him the longest. They ran into each other at the Delco Pro-Am. Anywhere he could get in, he'd love to shoot, Verlin remembers Jordan telling him. He had no idea what he was getting into.
Verlin remembers the first fall event he went to, walking off Broad Street into Roman Catholic High. "I was wearing jeans and a long-sleeve white shirt,,'' Verlin said.
He was directed to an assistant coach, who immediately told him, "You're late!"
This was weird, a little intense.
"Study hall started 15 minutes ago,'' the coach said. Verlin looked around, saw all the white shirts and slacks on the Roman students. This was before he had a beard. He explained who he was. Oh, the coach apologized.
It was always the intention to cover high schools, Verlin said, and he also found a void covering local small colleges, that he often got more page views from doing all that than covering Big Five games since those games were fully covered by other outlets.
The only problem: It still didn't pay enough bills.
Verlin lives in an apartment on City Avenue just off the Schuylkill Expressway. You want to pick a spot closest to center among all the City Six schools, Verlin's apartment might be it. At a typical local Division I game, there might be a couple of City of Basketball writers there, one of Verlin's veterans getting paid a bit, then a newer high school or college student maybe working on a sidebar, learning from the older writer.
"You'd go home, share a Google doc,'' said Jeff Neiburg, a Temple graduate who was a star at City of Basketball Love, later the Flyers writer for the Daily News, now working for Gannett covering the Delaware and Maryland beach areas. As much as learning to write a game story, Neiburg said, the work gave him a platform to learn "how to do things on a job, being credentialed, meeting people, seeing what it was like to work in the real world before I entered the real world.''
Still, there was a limit to how long writers stuck around. Now, Verlin is able to pay an assistant editor a bit and his veteran writers a little bit, still not getting rich himself. He knows the writers will move on.
"The ads on the site are enough to pay me most of my amazing base salary,'' Verlin said. "The camps are probably 50 percent of our total revenue. We also sell merchandise, but we sell a lot of merchandise at the camps. Without the camps, we wouldn't be in business for sure."
As for not paying his new writers, Verlin said, "They're getting paid in literally hands-on tutoring."
The City of Basketball Love exposure camps are targeted for local Division II and III recruits. The camps do suggest potential conflicts with the journalistic end of the enterprise. Verlin, aware of that, does everything he can, he said, to separate the missions.
"Just because you send your kid to camp, it doesn't mean we are going to cover him,'' Verlin said. "We cover the camps, we just do standouts, same as anywhere else. My writers don't know who paid what, and when I'm watching a game, I'm only thinking who is standing out."
Besides, the drawing card he believes is not a mention on his site. "The college exposure is so clearly there, that's what people care about,'' Verlin said.
He does occasionally hear from parents, including the kind who give sports parents a bad name.
"Two nights ago, I had a parent demand that I write about his kid,'' Verlin said. "He didn't seem to understand that if your kid had a really good game and my writers weren't there, we're not going to write about it."
Maybe the guy just didn't understand that City of Basketball Love isn't everywhere. Although even when outsiders come into his view, Verlin covers them. He doesn't worry too much about geography. Like the big guy from North Jersey.
"Interesting story,'' Verlin said after a quick postgame conversation with the player. "He's from Nigeria, only played two years of basketball. He's waiting on his SAT, has interest from five different Ivies. He said he wants to be a diplomat.''
That guy would be a note, part of several notebooks from the day's events. A little breaking news went straight to Twitter.
"You want to say I broke some news while we were talking?'' Verlin said later over the phone.
No, that would be showing off.