By Patrick Z. McGavin
Dozens of college coaches scan the three basketball courts inside the field house at Proviso West High, where some of the state's best high school basketball players are competing in a two-day tournament. Every move--the form of a jump shot, the smoothness of a crossover dribble, the positioning for rebounds--is carefully noted.
Dan Laffee can't sit still. He gets up from a folding chair on the baseline and walks down a corridor to a fourth court. A little later he materializes at a table set up for reporters at the end of one court, then moves behind the basket. Silvey Dominquez, an assistant coach at the University of Southern California, mentions that he's looking for wing shooters--off guards and small forwards--and Laffee tells him he probably won't have much luck. Dominquez looks skeptical and asks why. Laffee says that historically very few such players from the Chicago area have gone to Pac-10 teams, then pulls out one of his lists, this one of every Chicago high school player who's signed with a Division I program since 1990. Dominquez stares at the pages of data, then asks if Laffee has a list of underclassmen. Laffee hands him a copy of that list. Dominquez pores over the information, then drifts away to another court and starts asking about players on the list.
Laffee isn't a coach or a recruiter or a reporter, though until January he'd worked for two years as a freelancer for the Tribune. He says he quit because the paper kept letting mistakes creep into his reports and because he didn't feel sufficiently appreciated. Now he's a computer systems analyst with the Veterans Administration office in Maywood who also happens to be a self-confessed "basketball junkie." For the past several years he's been handing out his lists of high school players, free of charge, to anyone who wants them.
"I was always interested in what happened to kids," Laffee says, explaining why he started keeping his own data. "The Sun-Times and Tribune would give you a list of about 20 percent of the signings, usually just Division I. I'd be up in the stands at games, I'd see other basketball junkies or old-timers, and I wondered what happened to a player. I started keeping track of Division I kids so I could watch them at night on ESPN. I wanted to know how the Chicago kids, the ones I'd seen, played against other kids you hear about through the scouting services. I wanted to see how good these kids were compared to somebody else. I also wanted to gauge the guy that was doing the evaluation. What I discovered was it was just like reading a rock or a movie reviewer--if you read enough, you start to learn the biases of the reviewer. It's the same with basketball scouts. Some scouts are big on athleticism, or they'll make a comparison with somebody from five or ten years ago."
Laffee began putting together alphabetical lists of the players and their school, height, weight, and position. In 1988 he also began following players after high school, noting where they went to college or whether they got a job or went into the military. He also maintains lists of kids who signed with Division I schools. His lists of underclassmen--in the public, Catholic, parochial, and suburban leagues--track some 700 players and are 60 to 80 pages long.
Laffee has always followed all the players, listing the role player right next to the superstar--though underclassmen he thinks have Division I potential are listed in bold type. On the list of players who've graduated, Fenwick's Corey Maggette, who signed with Duke University, is listed alphabetically just above his former teammate Mike Shannon, a bruising, limited six-foot-seven post player who signed with Saint Francis College. "My selection criteria," Laffee says, "was if you played as a senior then I tried to find out what happened to you."
Laffee gets his information partly from studying the Chicago dailies and the suburban and downstate papers. He also made a deal with Peoria-based Royal Publishing, which follows a lot of the downstate tournaments, to trade program and roster information. But most of his information comes from attending games and tournaments. He guesses that during the two-and-a-half-year stretch that ended in March 1996, he watched in person some 1,200 games, over 95 percent of them high school contests. He talks to the coaches, and he talks to the players. He says Kevin Garnett, who played at Farragut in 1995, called him "Mr. Dan" and said Laffee was the only white man he'd ever met who never asked anything from him.
At first Laffee kept all the information in notebooks, on sheets of paper, in the margins of basketball programs. In 1990 he started maintaining his lists on spreadsheets. He didn't own a personal computer until last year; he would compile the data in his off-hours at his office, some weekends spending 12 to 14 hours there. Now he frequently spends four hours a night on the Internet, updating and refining his lists.
Laffee carried the lists around crammed into the trunk of his car and would turn up not just at regular season games but everywhere--holiday tournaments, the Board of Education Tournament, the city championship. And everywhere he handed out his lists, to coaches and scouts and reporters and fans.
Several other guys around Chicago have their own scouting services, and they print newsletters that they sell to schools. But they focus on the top players in the big schools. No one's lists are as comprehensive as Laffee's, which makes his lists particularly valuable to coaches and players in the public league, whose schools, unlike those in Catholic and suburban leagues, have neither the resources nor the time to prepare and update rosters, programs, and schedules. But coaches in all leagues use his lists. Thomas White, head coach at De La Salle, used the lists of players who'd graduated to help him in the fierce recruiting battle with other Catholic schools for top young players. It showed that of the eight seniors on White's 1997 team, all had gone on to college and four were playing basketball. Laffee says, "He wanted to be able to show it to parents, to prove that if they went [to De La Salle] the support was going to be there and there was a strong chance they'd go to college."
College coaches also use his lists of signings to determine who outrecruited them. And small Illinois colleges--Division III schools that can't offer scholarships and have limited recruiting budgets--use them to find good but unheralded players.
Laffee thinks his data could also be used to predict the paths players will take after high school. He wants to use it to see if there's a connection between when players sign with colleges and how well they do later on. He suspects that players who delay their decision until spring of their senior year play harder and may be more likely to have a choice of scholarships. He also wonders about the effect of the harder admissions standards the NCAA has imposed on incoming freshmen and about how many kids have been forced to attend junior colleges to improve their grades.
Laffee was born in 1948 and grew up in Pilsen, the oldest of four children. "I didn't start playing basketball until I was about 13," he says. "I was a good baseball player. I organized my first team when I was 12. We'd play all the time, at Harrison Park. It was a garbage dump, the field was lumpy, but we didn't care. I'd wear out a pair of Converse in about two weeks." He was on the football, baseball, and wrestling teams at Harrison High School, graduating in 1967. He was in a work-study program at Harris Bank his first semester at Loop Junior College, but didn't have enough credit hours to keep his student deferment. Realizing he would be drafted and hoping to get a noncombatant assignment, he took an entrance test at an air force recruitment center. He scored well.
The counterculture--outside of the music--held virtually no appeal for Laffee. He says he didn't drink and never even tried drugs. And he wasn't particularly interested in politics. "Do you remember the photos of that guy, he stuck his finger out at the cops?" he says, referring to the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention. "That guy lived across the street from me on Oakley Avenue. He wasn't a political animal. He didn't care about the war. He just wanted to be where the action was."
Trained as a photo interpreter, Laffee arrived in Vietnam in May 1970, during the controversial invasion of Cambodia. He'd been given the highest security clearance for his job collecting data that revealed the locations of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese regulars. "I would get the interrogation reports from captured [soldiers]," he says. "We'd try to match up [that information] with film, radio transmissions, patterns of movement based on radio signals. They'd be inside mountains and caves. Because there weren't many paved roads, you could follow the dirt tracks. But if you flew 20 minutes after dusk, they would rake it so you couldn't see the tracks."
After six months in Vietnam, Laffee's unit had suffered such high casualty rates that he was transferred to Cambodia. Once there, he was assigned to POW search-and-rescue operations because that unit had lost so many men. He vividly remembers the second mission he went out on, rescuing a pilot downed in Laos in January 1971. "I wasn't trained," he says. "I was an enlisted man. But we were short on people. He got shot down trying to bomb this cave. He went right into this little valley, probably 200 feet down." He remembers that it was the first time anyone had tried to rescue a pilot in an open field.
Laffee was lowered to the downed plane, grabbed the pilot in a bear hug, and attached cables so that the helicopter could pull him up. "We started getting ground fire," he says. "The helicopter pilot gave me a tug. I had the pilot. I got shot in the left knee." Laffee and the pilot were dangling 35 feet below the helicopter on a rope ladder as the helicopter flew out of the valley. "Nothing can describe a situation where you're just hanging there, people are shooting at you, and you're just hanging on. Once I got the belt buckle around the ladder, the helicopter was moving at a pretty good clip. We were in the air for an hour and 20 minutes before we got to the point where they let us down. To this day I don't know whether he lived. He was in pretty bad shape when I got to him. I didn't know his name. They took him one place, and I went another."
Laffee was sent home in November 1971 and hasn't been on an airplane since he landed in San Francisco. In fact, he rarely travels at all, though he does drive to South Bend for Notre Dame basketball games and he once went to the Super Bowl in New Orleans with his brother.
Laffee moved in with his parents in Oak Lawn, went to business college, and worked a succession of entry-level computer jobs, including stints at the Chicago Motor Club and Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "All the time I was working I'd go to a game at Leo or Saint Mel," he says. "I'd go to Catholic League games. I'd go to about 50 high school games a year, maybe 20 college games." In March 1984 he started working days for the first time. "Then I started going to games all the time."
Basketball still occupies most of Laffee's waking life, though he's also an avid reader who owns more than 100 books on the Kennedy assassination, and he's passionate about jazz, folk, and blues. His closest friends include Roy and Harv Schmidt, talent scouts who live in the western suburbs, Ronald "Chops" Billinger, a west-side coach and scout, and Bill "Flash" Flanagan, who runs the Peoria-based Flash's River City Hoops--all of whom put out newsletters assessing the state's best basketball players.
He cultivates his rapport with high school and college coaches, who often ask for his opinion. "A lot of coaches, they don't know my name, but they know my face," he says. But he's never been interested in trying to make money from his knowledge or his data. "If I took the next step, made this a business, I'd have to make a commitment to be available to college coaches on the phone," he says. "That would drive me nuts. The goodwill I've got with the high school coaches--" He pauses. "I've never called a high school coach to find out a signing. I never bother them at home." He says Sonny Cox, head coach at King High School, told him the same thing Kevin Garnett had: "You're the only white man who doesn't exploit these kids." He doesn't want to jeopardize that reputation.
Laffee does get tired of lugging his bulky lists with him all the time. More and more he's pushing college coaches to correspond with him electronically, and he's trying to get all of his coaches to start using the Internet. "These coaches, they're supposed to be college graduates, and I'm spending all of my time teaching them how to download files," he says, then smiles. "People gotta get smart on how to use E-mail."