Sitting in the bleachers, wearing his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame T-shirt, Norm Eavenson wasn't drawing any attention, or looking for any. Eavenson looks more or less like a retired seventh-grade social studies teacher — that was your guess? Nailed it — except the smart guys in the gym know him.
They may not even know Eavenson's name, just his role, his place in the local boys' hoops ecosystem. Penn State point guard Tony Carr, taking in a game at the Plymouth Whitemarsh summer league, shook Eavenson's hand walking by, as did Lower Merion High coach Gregg Downer. Just quick hellos, no small talk necessary.
"He wouldn't know my name from Adam," Eavenson said of Carr, the Roman Catholic High graduate. "But he knew I was on the scene."
Eavenson, 69, didn't need to get a roster of the players on the court for Plymouth Whitemarsh or La Salle High. He knew the ones he was there to see, those he considers prospects for a Division I scholarships.
Since the retired West Chester teacher's evaluations ended up in the hands of 65 Division I coaching staffs, including all the local schools, you can put Eavenson way, way up the list of important basketball figures in this region. Under the radar? Depends on your radar system.
Those 65 schools receive Eavenson's Middle Atlantic Recruiting Service. In this gym, those Eavenson already considers college prospects were on a binder page, names and numbers. He began adding notes to the nine names he had on that page. "If I'm not writing much, that says something to me, too," Eavenson said.
The notes Eavenson takes aren't harsh critiques, more of a survey of what a player can do. It's a mantra of Eavenson's since he began over three decades ago: If a player can do it, he can do it all the time. Once he grades somebody, he rarely drops the grade.
Eavenson's notes from La Salle vs. PW were basic: "Nice no-look pass … 2-hand jam .. above avg hops. … curl to right, directs traffic …. Excellent drop step."
Since the excellent drop step belonged to a 7-footer, Plymouth-Whitemarsh junior Naheem McLeod, colleges will read those words. Same for La Salle's multidimensional forwards in the same class already getting Division I interest and offers. (Eavenson notes: "The 65 or so that subscribe are all D-I schools that recruit the East. I don't expect Arkansas-Little Rock, South Dakota State, or Cal-Santa Barbara to subscribe.")
Call Eavenson a talent scout and he will offer a slight correction.
"In reality, my niche is talent evaluator," Eavenson said. "Scouts that are involved in the NBA, they're probably involved more in character analysis, looking at in-depth background information. I'm not going on and analyzing a kid's Twitter account, but an NBA scout will, and a college coach will."
His analysis, in other words, is generally confined to the court.
"I'm kind of out there looking for raw talent," Eavenson said. "I'm just giving insight on how good a kid's basketball talent is. It's up to the coaches and their staff to start to dig into character, grades, everything like that."
Traveling from New England to Virginia has put 273,000 miles on Eavenson's 2005 Mustang.
"Still runs like new," said Eavenson, noting he doesn't miss an oil change.
If Eavenson sounds like a smart guy, good luck finding an alternative opinion.
"I say this with all due respect, in order to be in the basketball game at any level, you have to have a healthy ego, there's no getting around it," said St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who figures he first ran into Eavenson 30 years ago when the Hawks were recruiting Rap Curry. "Norm is a guy who really has no ego and no agenda. The trust in him is absolute."
Ego is a tricky word. We all have one. Eavenson is just savvy enough to know it shouldn't factor into his work. And what Martelli is really getting at is that Eavenson keeps things simple. Here's his work, take it or leave it, like a point guard who knows how to make a simple pass.
"Some people like crossword puzzles," Eavenson said. "I just enjoy the analysis and see how close I come to basically what coaches see themselves. I don't take myself seriously in terms of the overall realm of basketball. I mean, what I try to do is [be] more of a travel guide than anything else — from the standpoint of, if these were players you went to see, you would not have a wasted trip. If I recommend a kid off my reports and you go see him and you start to recruit him, that's all I can do."
Meaning that Eavenson will talk to a Division III coach or low-major D-I assistant just as quickly as he'll talk to Jay Wright.
In recent years, the NCAA has put up strict requirements of what they expect from scouting services such as Eavenson's.
"You have to give analysis to every player that you put in print," Eavenson said. "Based on those requirements, you better be somebody who enjoyed doing term papers in college because that's what your report is going to be."
Eavenson has been around long enough to understand why a list of players isn't enough. He'd heard the rumor years ago about the high school that needed new uniforms "and basically created a scouting service to pay for the uniforms."
If that school has a player you wanted and suddenly announces they have a scouting service they want you to buy, if it's within your budget, you're not going to buy it?
Now NCAA rules also state "approvals are granted to services that do currently exist at the time of the open application period. Approval is based on how the service operates, not how the operator promises to operate the service."
Other rules: Charge the same rate for all subscribers. Publish information at least quarterly. (Eavenson does more often). Colleges also can't buy more than one annual subscription from a particular recruiting service.
Eavenson used to work for Bob Gibbons, who ran a respected national site out of North Carolina, grading players from 0 to 100. Now on his own, Eavenson has simplified his rankings. High-major, mid-major, low-major, with a plus or minus available for each group. He also sticks to Division I with his report.
"Division II and Division III subscriptions wouldn't generate enough money for me to do that report in NCAA fashion," Eavenson said
Another gym, another one-day tournament about to start. Eavenson had his trademark blue folding chair set up to the side of the stairs down into West Catholic's storied gym. Last Sunday, the Battle for Independence was about to tip off. Others had grabbed seats in the bleachers, Division I talent ready to play for a lot of the top local travel teams.
"If I'm going to be in a gym for eight, nine, 10 hours, I want to be comfortable," Eavenson said, noting how bringing his own chair means he always gets a seat. He was at the Boo Williams tournament in Virginia "six or seven years ago, easily" when his former chair needed a new screw. "Rather than run to the hardware store, I went to the Sports Authority. I sat in this nice chair and it was a floor model. They were selling it for like 15 bucks. I just grabbed it."
Maybe the top reason for the chair is, it "allows me to separate from the din in the gym," Eavenson said. "I'm the isolated guy in the corner and most people who know me respect the fact that I'm sitting there — my body language is telling you that I'd just like to watch the game. I'm not a real chit-chatty guy at the games. I'm surrounded by people who have their two cents all the time."
He's not looking to be a lone wolf. Other evaluators are sometimes there with him. It's the rest of us he's happy to create some distance from. The travel-team coaches all know him, and most give a quick handshake on the way by. Eavenson certainly doesn't mind that parents typically don't know the guy in the chair.
"The old adage is, parents overrate their kids by two levels and high school coaches overrate them by one level," Eavenson said. "Why engage? Probably not going to make them happy."
Most of all, the work has to be taken seriously.
"College coaches have the luxury of watching a particular game and only focusing on the one or two players that they might be evaluating or recruiting," Eavenson said. "Any time I watch a game, I have to try and figure out all the participants."
The Mustang made it to a little gym in North Jersey about seven years ago, and Eavenson noticed a guard from Bucks County who had just finished his freshman year of high school. Ask him to tell you about somebody he might have been ahead of the curve on, Eavenson thinks for a bit and comes up with Ryan Arcidiacono.
"I really liked Arch," Eavenson said. "I liked Arch a lot. I will give myself that one."
Now remember, Eavenson's job isn't to then call every coach he knows and tout the virtues of this kid he just saw. He just writes his report, gets it to all his clients.
That part of the process — he's not sure all the players understand it. They can go to an event in the summer open recruiting period, he said, and see a coach with, say, Rider on his shirt and realize as they're playing, "Rider's watching."
"Well, I'm watching too," Eavenson said. "And that's in the middle of March, when college coaches aren't allowed to be there. I'm not tooting my horn, but reality is, do those kids understand that if I'm in the gym, 65 (Division I) schools are in the gym? I just don't know how many kids grasp that. That's the purpose of me being there."
That's not ego talking, just a reality of hoops, and why the most important person in the gym often is the anonymous guy sitting in the corner in that folding chair he got for 15 bucks.