WEST ORANGE, NJ – The Mountaintop League Basketball program is under scrutiny after some coaches claim basketball league trustees acted improperly in the placement of certain players on teams in the middle school boys division.

When the final buzzer went off at the Mountaintop League’s Championship Sunday, March 20, the Clippers had bested the Suns, 52-27, to win the In-House Middle School (6th-8th) Boys Championship.

But the battle over that game has continued behind the scenes, with allegations of improper procedures, questionable decisions and a lack of communication by the trustees of the MTL basketball program to coaches, players and parents.

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The problem arose when some registered players did not confirm their intent to play in time for the annual draft, in which coaches choose their teams for the season in a manner similar to what NFL and other league drafts do. One by one, each player was chosen on the basis of ability to join a team by that team’s coach.

Of the 12 boys who had not submitted their commitments, all but two boys were contacted and accounted for and added to the draft pool before the draft happened. The two in question, brothers, could not be reached to confirm they were playing, as they could not communicate on a Saturday due to religious reasons. Therefore they were not available to be “drafted” at the event and were not listed in the pool.

The day following the championship game, Nayan Lassiter, the Suns’ coach, wrote the overseeing board of the Mountaintop League to voice his concern that two of the players that saw action in the championship game for the Clippers were never part of the draft and should not have been playing all season, let alone in the playoffs. Lassiter said he was unaware of their addition to the roster until he was alerted to the situation by players from other teams at the championship game.

“When I got home, I checked my draft notes and original team rosters,” said Lassiter. “Sure enough, these two kids were not on the Clippers team in the beginning of the season. They were not on the final roster of teams sent out by MTL and they were not in the draft at all. I was livid.”

In addition to the extra players, Lassiter also questioned how two exceptional players ended up on the same team. MTL protocol is to have as even a playing field as possible, with all skill levels on a team. The Suns coach said the Clippers already had the number one player in the draft. He felt adding another very skilled player to the team was an unfair advantage.  

In an interview with TAP, Suns assistant coach David Haden agreed with Lassiter. “The added kid (one of the two) should have been a top-five player in the league -- he shouldn’t have been on the same team with other first-round draft pick,” said Haden. “He wasn’t on the final roster and shouldn’t have played at all.”

Haden added, “I’m disheartened that these things would go on and not come to light, that we had no idea that these decisions were made.”

Lassiter charged that one trustee overseeing the basketball program made decisions on his own to place the children, first on his own team, and then on the Clippers, and questioned how one person could unilaterally make that decision.

Mark Robertson, a long-time soccer and recreational basketball coach, has been a trustee in the basketball program for over four years. He said he takes full responsibility for adding the extra players to his team sharing that after all the teams were created, it became apparent that the two boys should have been eligible to play.

“I temporarily took them on my team (the Nets) as a stopgap measure so the boys could be part of the league,” said Robertson. “They attended two practices with the team.”

“We could have waitlisted them,” he said, “but that would have meant they would have missed the entire pre-season and practices and some early games.” Robertson said that option meant that parents who already paid $75 per child to have their children play basketball, would have had their child/children possibly miss out on playing.

Addressing Lassiter and Haden’s assertions that one of the boys would have been a first-round pick, he said statistics on the boy who had played the previous year showed that in that season he was an average player and wasn’t a standout or star player.

Robertson added that in December, all the trustees had a decision to make on what to do with the players – waitlist them, put them in a lottery where they could have gone to any team, keep them on his Nets, or place them with the Clippers, where one of the players had worked with the same coach the year before.

During that timeframe, Robertson claims the trustees exchanged emails and had conference calls, but did not physically meet to discuss the problem as it was the holiday break and many people had family commitments.

There, he said, he also takes responsibility for a second mistake in that he misunderstood what he thought the trustees wanted to do in all that communication. According to Robertson, he favored a player lottery, which he says was voted down. But he says he misunderstood a vote that the trustees wanted to keep the players on his Nets team, and instead he moved the players from his team to the Clippers.

According to Robertson, just as the season began, the trustees formally voted to keep the boys on the Clippers, where they had already been practicing and getting ready for the season. MTL says that was several weeks after the votes in December.

While that decision may have been made, one of the biggest complaints from the coaches is that the decision was never communicated to the league at all during the entire season.

James Winfrey, coach of the Hawks, questioned why the decision to place the two boys with any team wasn’t made clear to all of the coaches in the league. “As a coach, I believed we were all operating by the same set of rules, that we were all on a level playing field,”

Robertson admitted, “This is where the ball was dropped. It was a group sin of omission that the trustees did not notify the coaches.” But he added, “It wasn’t an active cover-up….it simply was a group sin of omission” that no one told the coaches.

Mountaintop League Board President Peter Scalora said an investigation into the matter is still on-going. The MTL Board oversees all the sports, which means that they were unaware of any day-to-day actions or problems with player placement until the issue was brought to them by Coach Lassiter.

In a communication to the coaches, Scalora said the situation was caused “by a series of unfortunate decisions made with the best of intentions for all kids involved,” primarily that all the boys get to be part of the league.

He added, “While in hindsight we can judge the process as messy and poorly communicated, there was absolutely no malice on anyone’s part, or a conspiracy, to win a middle school championship. Every action was taken with the best of intentions to ensure every West Orange child who wanted to play basketball was given an opportunity to do so.”

Lassiter said he feels that the way the entire incident was handled sends the wrong kind of message to kids who he feels saw how not playing by the rules might result in a championship. “I would like to see the Suns players given championship trophies as well for playing all season by the rules,” he said.

Robertson agreed that the incident was mishandled, and said he is “absolutely OK with issuing a formal apology to the coaches, players and parents who make up the league.” He added that poor communication among trustees and a lack of consistent process added to the problem.  

“This is not an excuse,” he added. “We apologize to the coaches and kids impacted by the chain of events. I’d ask that all please remember we are volunteers with families and work and we’re stretched thin.”  Robertson said he invites others who want to step up and be a volunteer trustee to consider it. The basketball program is allowed to have up to five trustees.

Robertson said that proposals in front of the trustees for consideration moving forward include a more consistent draft policy to address those who miss evaluations, regular trustees meetings, majority vote by the trustees regarding special circumstances, and notifying coaches and parents about any rule or team changes on the website and via e-blast, so this situation never happens again.

Scalora said the MTL Board will be meeting later in April. TAP will continue to follow the story and provide updates as they happen.