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September 17, 2014

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The Curious Case of Kevin Hart

Ron Kantowski on the prospect who faked an offer, and the twisted recruiting industry

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TIM DUNN / RENO GAZETTE JOURNAL

Fernley High School offensive lineman Kevin Hart, left, is congratulated by Fernley football coach Mark Hodges on Friday at a ceremony that drew nearly 1,000 people. They came to hear Hart announce he would attend UC Berkeley on a football scholarship. On Wednesday, Hart said in a statement that he had concocted the whole story, ending a Lyon County sheriff’s investigation.

Ivan Renko, meet Kevin Hart.

Ivan Renko was a figment of former Indiana coach Bob Knight’s imagination. But that didn’t preclude Knight from duping recruiting “experts” into adding Renko’s name to their lists of blue chips when the rascally ol’ General announced the Hoosiers had received a commitment from the bogus post man, who supposedly had been hooping it up in a remote corner of the former Yugoslavia.

Knight was trying to make a point — that recruiting stories and services and the people who follow them are about as useful as a gross of bottle rockets on July 5. Score one for The General. Maybe if Renko did exist, Knight still would be coaching.

Kevin Hart is a 6-foot-4, 305-pound offensive line prospect from Fernley, a small ranching and farming community about 30 miles east of Reno. Last week, he called a news conference to announce he had accepted a full scholarship to California. The event was attended by close to 1,000 people and covered by two TV crews from Reno, because it’s not every day that a kid from Fernley signs with a Pac-10 school.

Hart, unlike Renko, actually lives and breathes. In his case, it was the scholarship offer that was pure hogwash. If there’s something the farmers in Fernley can relate to, it’s hogwash, but not this kind.

On Wednesday, Hart admitted he made the whole thing up.

The kid from the small town dreamed of playing Division I football. “When I realized that wasn’t going to happen, I made up what I wanted to be reality,” he said in a statement read by a school official. Hart apologized to everyone — family, schoolmates, coaches, universities and the reporters who fell for his story.

Hart’s confession ended a Lyon County Sheriff’s Department investigation, but it shouldn’t have taken Joe Mannix or the cop with the short pants from “Reno 911” to deduce something wasn’t adding up. I mean, even coaches in small towns should know that Pac-10 schools do not extend scholarship offers to players without first bringing them in for a campus visit, during which they are wined and dined and escorted to toga parties by winsome coeds named Crystal.

Hart’s case smacks of the Curious Case of Sidd Finch, which is what Sports Illustrated called George Plimpton’s April Fools’ story about a New York Mets prospect who supposedly pitched wearing a hiking boot and could hit 168 mph on a radar gun.

Eddie Bonine, the executive director of the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association, said a reporter from Sports Illustrated even called his office Monday to inquire about Hart.

Before last weekend, Fernley’s biggest claim to fame was that Amazon.com ships out of a warehouse there. Too bad you can’t order the truth about recruiting and charge it online.

Imaginary basketball prospects and imaginary scholarship offers don’t happen every day. But that they do happen once in a blue chip moon is all the reason a person might need to detest recruiting, or, more specifically, the recruiting industry, and the people who benefit from it.

More common are tales of deceit and deception that result in bruised egos and hurt feelings. Maybe it was just a breakdown in communication that resulted in Sam Baptiste, a prospect out of Florida, being told on the eve of last year’s national signing day that he would not be receiving a scholarship offer from UNLV. But there was a news conference anyway, and after his teammates announced where they would be going to school, Baptiste sheepishly thanked his parents and coaches and said he would not be going anywhere for a while because UNLV had misled him.

That had to be embarrassing, getting up there in front of the student body like that and confessing you had been stood up for the prom because you weren’t good enough to dance for a 2-10 football team.

It’s also embarrassing that people in my business insist on regurgitating whatever rhetoric a coach feeds them on national signing day, which almost always includes the phrase “we filled our needs” but almost never includes the sentence “Disco Tech outrecruited us for every 2-star guy we had our eyes on.”

Then, the next year, when State U. goes 2-10 and gets whupped 49-7 by Disco Tech, fans want to know what kind of field turf the football beat guy was smoking when he ranked State’s recruiting class No. 4 in the Big Sham Conference.

I have these thoughts every year when I leaf through my complimentary copy (it’ll cost you $79) of Prep Star magazine, and the pages and pages of photographs of 2 1/2-star recruits and their 40-yard dash times, wondering how many of them have been lied to.

Or, in the curious case of Kevin Hart, felt the need to tell a lie, all because he didn’t get the chance to go to the toga party with a pretty girl on his arm.

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