In 1988, Charles Benson Jr. formed an AAU basketball team in Newport, Tenn., simply because there were no other options for his son. He had no idea that in a few years it would emerge as one of the state’s top travel teams, lure five future NBA players and become one of the nation’s first programs to secure a Nike sponsorship.
“I never dreamed of it becoming what it has become,” said Benson Jr., who relocated the Tenneseee Travelers program to Kentucky in 2013.
The Travelers’ story is an example of the pressures, perks and popularity that come from an association with an iconic shoe company. Before this partnership with Nike, the Travelers held car washes to raise travel money; now they receive $35,000 per year and are a member of the company’s exclusive Elite Youth Basketball League.
“With Nike, it’s about more than winning and losing,” said Andy Rines, who began assisting Benson with the Travelers in 1991. “They’re not gonna cut you loose if you have a bad year or two. But make no mistake, you’d better be competitive.”
In the late 1980s, the summer AAU circuit was in its relative infancy. There were fewer teams and less travel. High school basketball was the most effective route to securing a college scholarship.
The existing summer teams tended to be centralized in metropolitan areas. And in Tennessee, the summer was owned by Memphis. But after creating his son’s team, Benson realized there was a void in the eastern part of the state. In 1989, after his son had graduated, Benson formed a 15-and-under AAU team.
“Memphis is 400 miles in the other direction, so it wasn’t like we were in competition for players,” he said. “In Nashville, Chattanooga and east Tennessee, the really best players, we started to get them.”
The Travelers’ crown jewel in the early 1990s was Ron Mercer, the state’s two-time Mr. Basketball who later starred at Kentucky and spent eight years in the NBA.
The program was not sponsored then. Players bought their own sneakers and sold magazine subscriptions, washed cars and sought donations to cover basic costs.
“You name it, we did it,” Rines said. “We had to struggle to raise every dollar. And believe me, every penny was precious back then. But that’s all we knew.”
During road trips players often slept four or five to a room, and coaches organized carpools rather than renting team vans. They mostly played in state tournaments and did not fly to events.
But then the summer circuit began to mushroom. Sensing opportunity, Nike beefed up its youth basketball initiatives. In 1994, Benson was contacted by the company about forming a partnership. He drove to Asheville, N.C., where he met with a Nike rep at a Shoney’s restaurant.
“I told (the rep) that Mr. Mercer and that group were leaving, and that he probably wouldn’t need me then, but he insisted that he wanted to do it,” Benson said. “They said they’d been looking at our team for a couple years and liked how we ran it.”
Initially, perks included just sneakers and uniforms, but that was a novelty then. Rines said that when they handed out gear at the first practices, “it was like you’d won the lottery.”
In the early 2000s, Nike started encouraging its programs to play in more regional tournaments with other Nike teams, further establishing the footprint. Nike continued to add to the Travelers sponsorship. Rather than receiving one pair of sneakers per year, suddenly players were getting four or five. Nike also began providing warmup gear and covering travel costs.
In 2010, the Travelers became flagship members of the Elite Youth Basketball League, a powerhouse 40-team league made up solely of Nike-sponsored teams from across the nation. Each year, Nike even produces a one-of-a-kind shoe made exclusively for the league’s players.
Camron Justice, a Travelers guard from Knott County who has committed to Vanderbilt, said this past year Nike provided four pairs of sneakers, two jerseys, two sets of socks, compression shorts, compression tops, a warmup suit, several T-shirts and a hooded sweatshirt.
“The gear they give us, everything they do to take care of us,” Justice said, “it’s just crazy.”
Rines, who left the program in 2013 to pursue his doctorate, said the Travelers now receive $35,000 per year from Nike, paid in two installments. The first $25,000 comes in March, and the final $10,000 in June. Those figures are not publicly available, so it is unclear if that is a standard award for teams in the league. Carlton DeBose, the league’s commissioner, did not respond to calls or text messages seeking comment.
Given the NCAA’s strict eligibility standards for incoming student-athletes, some wonder if there are rules against future college players receiving these perks. But NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham said in an email that they are allowed.
“Generally speaking, it is permissible for basketball teams to be sponsored by companies and to provide prospective student-athletes with necessary expenses like travel, food, etc.,” Durham said.
Payments from Nike cover the Travelers’ league entry, flights to tournaments, van rentals, hotel stays and meals. The Travelers routinely run out of money, Benson said, usually calling on parents to help cover costs. The Nike sponsorship is essential to sustain the program, but it does not lead to a life of luxury. The Travelers constantly search for travel deals, as well as motels that offer free breakfasts.
“We don’t want our guys eating fast food all the time,” Rines said. “But we weren’t eating Ruth’s Chris, either.”
With the Nike sponsorship comes an acknowledged pressure to succeed. Contracts are typically renewed every two years, and Nike would probably not want to associate with a floundering program. So the Travelers have fought to stay ahead of the curve. Before the summer of 2013, as the talent pool in east Tennessee dissipated, the Travelers approached Nike with an idea.
“We said, ‘Look, the talent level in Tennessee outside of Memphis is nowhere near where it used to be, and we don’t see it getting any better in the foreseeable future,” Rines said. “What would you think about us making this move [to Kentucky]?’ And they trusted us.”
It’s quite clear what teams like the Travelers gain in these partnerships—apparel, money, cachet. But what about the shoe companies? What’s their motive?
They are certainly leaving imprints on impressionable consumers, and Rines said he has even been told that Nike is always looking for future employees. And then there is the most obvious, if unspoken reason.
“They may be looking for the next LeBron,” Rines said. “But, I mean, who isn’t?”