They had five players, no coach and little hope.
The Western New York Warriors eighth-grade squad was nearly three hours from home, at an Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournament in Grove City, Pa. The Warriors were blown out in their opening game, and a broken ankle reduced their lineup to the bare minimum.
The players and their chaperones slunk back to their hotel rooms, justifying their trip with rah-rah hopes they still could salvage something the next day. The coach, meanwhile, returned home to tend to personal business.
He didn't come back.
The Warriors, amid heavy breaths and burning legs, made a startling run to the championship game. They didn't win it all, but their reward was guaranteed. A second-place finish qualified them for the AAU national tournament in Orlando, Fla.
The tenacious quintet was going to Disney World.
Or so they thought.
Neither the parents nor the kids had any idea the Warriors -- a program encompassing six teams, ranging from sixth grade to 11th grade -- had begun to fall apart weeks earlier.
They had no clue Warriors co-founder Terrance McDuffie, also the coach of that eighth-grade squad, had lost the program's AAU accreditation and led it into insolvency.
The Warriors ground to a halt after McDuffie was accused of using ineligible players and dabbling in unethical financial practices. He let many of his best players suit up for free, while the others paid full price to be their teammates. He bounced a $2,400 check for tournament fees.
McDuffie pulled the plug and then shuttered himself from parents once they became aware of the problems. Many local families, who had paid $425 for Warriors uniforms and tournament entrance fees, were left holding the duffel bag. Travel plans to the prestigious AAU nationals were ruined.
"I hate to see some kids be used like that," said Denny Maisto, whose son played for the Warriors 10th-grade team. Mike Maisto was the ECIC I Co-Player of the Year for Jamestown High. "Those kids count on these guys, and to let them down like that, that's a shame."
Families gave up after nine months of trying to exact a refund from the slippery McDuffie, who refused to meet with parents or return phone calls.
But the grievances resurfaced after word circulated the 35-year-old East Amherst resident had been distributing fliers and had updated his Web site to announce the Warriors would be back and hosting their own tournament this spring.
Shortly after The Buffalo News contacted McDuffie about the controversy and his dubious financial background, he made partial restitution to three families -- seemingly chosen at random -- and announced he was disbanding the program.
But he didn't totally disband the program. He has merely reduced the Warriors to one team, and last weekend the Warriors hosted a tournament at D'Youville College to help fund their upcoming schedule of five tournaments.
Even though the Warriors are reconstituted, the program's evolvement provides a cautionary tale for parents and their sports-minded children.
"We're trying to restore the character of AAU basketball in the Buffalo region," said Rich Hill, the AAU Niagara district chairman. "What we ask parents and coaches to do when they are thinking about AAU basketball is to call the national office or the regional office and check if a certain team has a registration number or a coach is registered. That's a good start."
The problem is, McDuffie was registered and in fine AAU standing last year when the Warriors assembled their squads. Parents had no idea they would encounter myriad frustrations.
"If you want to check up on a contractor, you can go to the Better Business Bureau," said a Warriors mother who requested anonymity. "But there's no Better Person's Bureau. There's no Sports Bureau. There's nowhere to go."
McDuffie offers little apology. He claimed the backlash is the result of white parents with a racial agenda. McDuffie is an African-American.
"I know for a fact it was (racially motivated)," McDuffie said. "Somebody makes a couple mistakes last year from a financial standpoint and people want to turn this into a huge issue.
"Those parents are troublemakers, bottom line."
A look into which families paid in full, however, reveals the separation between those who were required to pay and those who weren't fell along racial lines.
McDuffie "gave a long speech about how most of the kids didn't have the money or the transportation and he was stretched because he was driving these kids back and forth," Maisto said. "Well, I could appreciate that, but I wasn't happy I had to foot the bill."
Said Gerri Kremer, the mother of Warriors ninth-grader Matthew Kremer: "We felt like a meal ticket after awhile."
Many of those players who didn't pay were never registered with the AAU office, placing the teams in further peril over eligibility issues.
"Race didn't have anything to do with the complaints," said Hill, an African-American. "It was all about a man not handling his program in the right manner."
A database search of public records shows McDuffie was sued by a collection agency in September 2000 and was ordered to pay more than $4,000. He and his wife soon filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, claiming assets of $96,328 and debts of $136,663.
He recently received a $45,000 out-of-court settlement after suing an elderly Buffalo woman for an August 2002 traffic accident in Amherst. He claimed injuries from the crash rendered him physically unable to continue his job as a homecare aid through People Inc., but he was well enough to serve as an assistant football coach at St. Joe's in 2003.
When The News originally contacted McDuffie for an interview, he said he couldn't talk because he was at work. When asked what he did for a living, he replied "I do a bunch of stuff. I can't necessarily talk about that because I have a case coming up, and I don't want to jeopardize that."
McDuffie's fast-and-loose financial style apparently wasn't limited to his personal finances.
In the summer of 2003 he staged a football camp to pay for a Warriors basketball trip to the AAU nationals. Warriors coach Demeris Johnson, formerly a receiver on the Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins practice squads who attended Buffalo Bills camp in 1997, helped McDuffie.
Suspicions were raised by the registration form, which asked participants to make their $99 checks payable to Johnson, but send them to McDuffie's home on Greengage Circle in East Amherst.
But it wasn't until last spring that the Warriors became economically overwhelming for McDuffie.
The Warriors trumpeted the start of their program with a news release in March 2003. McDuffie was listed as president, respected local AAU coach Russ Miller as vice president and Sara Kucharski as the club manager.
The Warriors were successful immediately, drawing some of the area's best talent, including Ray Blackburn (Lackawanna), Chris Gadley (Amherst), Jose Narvaez (Grover Cleveland), Jonathan Flynn (Niagara Falls) and University at Buffalo recruit Sean Smiley (Erie McDowell).
"The quality of the coaching, the support system of the parents and without question the ability of the players was absolutely top-rate in Western New York," Miller said.
Miller became Warriors co-president in 2003 and began to grow wary of McDuffie's overspending. Miller warned McDuffie he would walk away if the books weren't stabilized. Kucharski resigned her position.
The Warriors' finances didn't improve last year. In fact, they worsened despite multiple revenue sources.
The Warriors held a tryout camp in February 2004, charging $25 a player, with no guarantee of making one of the eight teams (one sixth-grade, one seventh-grade, one eighth-grade, two ninth-grade, two 10th-grade and one 11th-grade).
Those chosen to play were to pay $425 to cover all team and tournament expenses except food and travel. The schedule handed out during the preseason outlined six tournaments for the sixth-graders, seven apiece for the seventh- and eighth-graders, 11 apiece for the ninth- and 10th-graders and nine for the 11th-graders.
The program also padded its coffer with the Warriors Shootout Classic, a tournament held in April 2004 at Clearfield Recreation Center, Park School and Daemen College. The Warriors charged a per-team entry fee and sold T-shirts and concessions.
The Shootout Classic provided parents a disturbing introduction into the Warriors' slapdash accounting practices. Coaches demanded refunds because their teams didn't receive their guaranteed number of games. Referees were paid from the strongboxes used to make change at the concession stands.
"For two days I worked that tournament with a couple other parents," Kremer said. "We sold tickets and worked the concessions. There were a lot of dissatisfied customers."
On the court, the Warriors' infrastructure quickly started to crumble. Practices were patchwork. The extra ninth- and 10th-grade squads were eliminated because there weren't enough players. When the Warriors would travel for a tournament they would fill out their rosters by picking up mercenaries on site.
"When you go out to tournaments (coaches) are picking up players right there," Maisto said. "At the tournament in Detroit (the Motown Classic April 16-18), the 11th-grade team had this 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8 kid. I'd never seen him before. He said he was from Detroit, and he just played that day.
"That's not the type of environment I'm looking for. There's something wrong with a program that takes on some talented kid for one week and then a kid who has been there all along has to sit there and watch."
Three weeks after the Shootout Classic, McDuffie bounced a $2,400 check intended to pay entry fees for a tournament staged by Hill, the AAU Niagara district chairman, in Victor. At the tourney, the Warriors' sixth-, seventh-, 10th- and 11th-grade teams all qualified for their national tournaments, where a throng of college recruiters would watch them play.
But the bad check wiped out the Warriors' chances to play on the big stage. McDuffie also was accused of using an ineligible player from Canada on the eighth- and ninth-grade teams, disqualifying both from the tournament.
The News obtained a copy of the bounced check. It was drawn on a Charter One Bank account belonging to "Warriors AAU Basketball" at McDuffie's home address. McDuffie claimed his wife ordered a stop payment on the check, but a stamp clearly states "Returned For Insufficient Funds."
'Someone lost control'
Miller stepped down as Warriors co-president May 13 once McDuffie stopped returning his calls. Miller opted to finish out the season as the Warriors' 10th-grade coach. He now concentrates his efforts on Amherst Youth Basketball, a program that encompasses 900 boys and girls and 100 teams. Miller has been president of the organization for six years.
"I never saw an itemized financial record. That's one of the main things that led to my resignation," Miller said. "I was not comfortable with the issues being raised. I was in the dark."
Two weeks later, after the eighth-grade team's stunning success with only five players and minus McDuffie, a euphoric parent called Miller with the news they had qualified for the AAU nationals.
Miller was forced to break the news about the bounced check and the ramifications it wrought. No Warriors team could play in an AAU tournament because the program had lost its affiliation, and there was no money even to continue on with the remainder of the schedule.
Hill attended a parents meeting to help them cope after McDuffie failed to return repeated calls.
"It disappointed me because I genuinely don't think what happened was purposeful," Hill said. "It was a situation where someone lost control from an organizational standpoint and didn't have the skills to do everything he proclaimed he would do."
McDuffie never did speak to the parents or their sons face-to-face.
"I wasn't going to put a group of white parents who had paid in a meeting with a bunch of black parents who hadn't paid in the same meeting," McDuffie said. "Yes, maybe I should have had an open forum and let everybody know what was going on, but I wasn't going to put some of these kids on trial who weren't able to pay. I wasn't going to divide the program."
In a June 16 e-mail message to one parent, McDuffie claimed to have collected only $7,725 in player registration fees while spending $9,874.79 on uniforms and tournaments.
By dividing the $425 entry fee into the $7,725 in signup fees McDuffie claimed to have collected, the result accounts for 18.2 players. However, Miller estimated there were around 50 players in the program.
Out of business
After last year's fiasco, McDuffie intended to make major changes to the Warriors in 2005.
He said he was going to field only one team this spring, and none of his seven or eight handpicked players would have to pay. They would raise their capital with another Shootout Classic.
"I am finished trying to save the whole world," McDuffie said.
Then he informed the News in February he was dropping that team, too, only to comprise it again. The Shootout Classic took place over the weekend. It was a girls tournament -- four teams, including one representing the Warriors, played for a separate boys title -- to fund the Warriors' upcoming campaign.
"I'm not asking these kids to pay, so the only way to have a team is to hold a tournament and get them some money," McDuffie said last Wednesday.
"And it's also so I can pay back some of the people I had owed money from last year. I wasn't going to take that out of my own pocket."
Some parents have been encouraged by McDuffie's recent gesture of providing a partial refund to three families, although they were made in peculiar fashion.
McDuffie sent checks via registered mail to the players, not their parents. One rebate, sent to the wrong address but forwarded to the right place because it was delivered to a relative of the same name, was for $107.13. Another refund was for $118 and change.
"I hope his better side is coming forward to where he's saying 'I was wrong,' and he's trying to pay off his obligations," Hill said.
A partial refund, however, won't erase the sting of what happened last year, at least not for Matthew Kremer.
"I thought it was going to be a great experience, but that didn't happen," Kremer said. "If you want to play AAU basketball, I'd suggest you get all the information first. And I'd suggest finding another program to go to."
News Sports Reporter Keith McShea and News Researcher Andy Bailey contributed to this report.