Sneaker Wars and Basketball Development

Published previously as individual posts on an earlier version of my blog.

Part I: Shoe Companies and their influence on basketball

Nike, adidas and Reebok run the youth basketball development system in the United States, and the players and basketball suffer. “The players are better than ever,” says legendary hoops junkie Howard Garfinkel, watching from courtside. “But their fundamentals are so weak,” (Telander, Sun Times). The NCAA is in bed with the shoe companies, as the big three brands sponsor almost every important college program and coach; in exchange, the NCAA creates recruiting windows during the summer to ease the college coaches’ schedules and allow colleges to scout and evaluate when it is convenient to them, rather than during basketball season. The NBA refuses to get involved because its goal is to maximize the value of the franchises, which are a monopoly, and funding a minor league and youth development system siphons profits from the clubs and decreases franchise value; colleges act as a temporary stopover for talented teens, and everyone is blinded by the shoe companies’ green. USA Basketball appears to be the only entity losing, as it has been embarassed for the better part of four years in International competition.

The laissez-faire approach to basketball development undermines American basketball from the youth through the NBA as agents, recruiting gurus and shoe company execs are the power brokers while the influence of actual coaches, trainers and educators is diminished. As Steve Politi from the Star-Ledger in New Jersey wrote:

Make no mistake, the reason the U.S. settled for bronze in Athens two summers ago has less to do with Larry Brown’s coaching and more to do with the deterioration of skills that begins in places like Hackensack, in camps and tournaments that cater to every whim of the top prospects instead of teaching them the game. The summer basketball culture still rules in this country, and as long as it does, the U.S. won’t rule abroad.

These sneaker pimps are responsible for replacing youth coaches with recruiters and creating an entire system of expectations and recruiting.  Rather than develop programs to enhance player development, sneaker pimps and pseudo-coaches scramble far and wide to find already talented players. Rather than develop the now, they mine and exploit the next.

A representative of Adidas, [Scottie] Bowden had invested many weekends and about $20,000 of company money in Justin and his teams. Bowden had provided the boy and his teammates with sneakers and travel money to tournaments in an effort to build brand loyalty in a 10-year-old with distant NBA prospects. In Justin, had Bowden accurately identified a star? (Eli Saslow, Washington Post).

Search the Internet and dozens of sites chronicle the exploits of precocious preps and pre-teens, yet few discuss the substance of basketball. In a New York Magazine article covering the most influential figures in New York sports, Tom Konchalski, the Editor of High School Basketball Insider, a recruiting newsletter, appeared, whereas no coach, teacher or trainer who directly impacts players was deemed influential. Recruiting and exposure rule the basketball universe, as evidenced by Scoop Jackson’s 2005 espn.com proclamation that “Worldwide” Wesley Walker, a runner for agent Leon Rose and the one responsible for LeBron “King” James switching agents, was the most powerful man in sport.

Or, as espn.com’s Pat Forde wrote in a 2005 article about uber-prep OJ Mayo:

Teenagers have “inner circles,” national name recognition and their high school games televised on ESPN. AAU programs and shoe camps, rife with sketchy characters and influence peddlers, have outflanked high school programs and coaches for primacy and importance. Recruiting analysts and reporters — many of them thinly disguised fans working for Web sites — breathlessly report on kids from shortly after puberty. (Or, in some cases, before: Clark Francis of The Hoop Scoop will proudly tell you that he once ranked Sebastian Telfair the No. 1 fifth-grader in the country.)

This is the system savvy businessmen and shoe companies created, which the basketball public tolerates due to societal inertia and NBA draft classes like 2003 that rejuvenate interest, elevate excitement and prove nothing is amiss in youth basketball. With LeBron James, simply labeled “Next” during his junior year of high school, starring as Nike’s 90 million-dollar man, how can anyone question the success of the current youth development system?

Rather than pay coaches to teach kids the game, the big three shoe companies funnel cash to scouts to “discover” players.

Adidas pays Scottie Bowden to find impact players and get them into Adidas gear. That usually means 15- or 16-year-olds, but the company has no age minimums; it wants to procure the best players, said Darren Kalish, Adidas’s director of grass-roots basketball programs…Bowden gets about $100,000 worth of Adidas equipment and cash each year, he said. With that he has built the Baltimore Select AAU program, which has four teams in four age groups. Bowden pays for his team’s travel to top tournaments across the country; players dutifully wear only Adidas. The company has about 50 or 60 consultants in the United States who operate similarly, Kalish said.

With 50-60 “consultants” paid six figures per year, adidas alone drops five to six million dollars to discover talent and clothe it in adidas gear. Brand loyalty is now more important than basketball development. Just imagine what a great coach or trainer (Bob Hurley, Sr?) could do with a piece of $5-6 million!

“It’s about brand loyalty,” Bowden said. “If you’re in my uniform at 10 or 11, maybe you will stay with me later on. I’m not always happy we’re focusing on 9-, 10-, 11-year-old kids. That’s so early. But this is a business. And if that’s what I’ve got to do now, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

Bowden’s statement crystalizes the major philosophical issue; why is youth sports a business? Of course youth sports support a billion dollar industry, but shouldn’t youth sports be about more than profits or sneaker brands?

Brand loyalty trumps development because adidas must use its resources to procure the top talent and clothe it in three stripes, not swooshes. Free gear, travel and a consultant glorifying your game is much sexier and appealing to a young player and his star-glazed parents than a demanding coach making the player sweat and earn his reputation every time he takes the floor.

Bowden said he fully expects Justin to repay his loyalty by playing exclusively for Select next season. Coaches for D.C. Assault [Nike] have suggested Justin would get more personal attention if he left Baltimore and played for a Washington-based team. Carlton Carrington, coach of a Baltimore-based AAU program called Team Melo, said Nike sponsors his team and could help Justin pay for air travel. If that pitch fails to entice, Carrington said he will have Carmelo Anthony, the NBA star who also funds the team, call Justin to woo him.

I’ll throw everything at them but the kitchen sink to bring them over to me,” Carrington said. “I can give them like three trips a year on the bird. It’ll be my ace in the hole to have the big fella call them and say, ‘Shorty, this is where you’ve got to be.’ And once ‘Melo calls, it’s basically impossible to say no.”

What is all the free gear from adidas or Reebok but a non-verbal contract? After all, these players are expected to represent a brand and play only for teams sponsored by that brand. What is that but an endorsement? How is that different than adidas’ contract with KG or Reebok’s deal with AI? The difference is the magnitude of the contract, which has to do with the visibility KG or AI offers compared to Mayo or the 10-year-old prodigy so the professional player gets a lot more money and free stuff.

Loyalty? Exclusivity? Celebrity phone calls? These shoe brands sound like NBA General Managers acquiring expensive free agents, not an 11-year-old for an AAU team. When did they start giving out championship bonuses at the AAU National Championship? What happened to coaches who coach and teach the players in their neighborhood? It is like a professional league for 11-year-olds, complete with major league endorsements. For these coaches, it is like fantasy basketball!

Giving $20,000 to a local program is nothing compared to the all-out pursuit of “After Next,” OJ Mayo. Mayo is a Cincinnati-area teen prodigy and the focus of an intense battle between Reebok/Sonny Vacarro and Nike/George Raveling.

For three years, a shoe company helped determine O.J. Mayo’s basketball schedule and uniform color. Reebok, the world’s third-largest athletic shoe and apparel company, often controlled whom the North College Hill prep basketball standout played against, where he would play and for what team he would play. The shoe giant had invested tens of thousands of dollars annually since 2003 in the D-I Greyhounds, the locally based summer basketball team on which Mayo plays…Reebok grassroots director Sonny Vaccaro confirmed to The Enquirer last May that Reebok funded the D-I Greyhounds with about $100,000 annually (Dustin Dow, Cincinnati Enquier).

Why do talented players allow Sonny Vaccaro to run their lives? Even Vacarro admitted that Mayo’s growth had stagnated in the last year (Forde, espn.com). Last summer, Nike dismissed Kevin Love from its Los Angeles-based Nike team (he is from Portland, Oregon) because he attended Reebok’s ABCD Camp to challenge himself against Greg Oden, the consensus best player in the class of 2006. Of course, Nike recanted and is now, according to Internet reports, involved in aiding the University of North Carolina, the flagship school for Nike’s Jordan brand, in Love’s recruitment. When players relinquish control of their personal basketball schedule in exchange for gifts and gear, how do they retain amateur eligibility? With the exposure present at the high school ranks now, and the amount of media attention players like OJ Mayo receive, how can these preps not be seen as endorsers of their shoe brand?

And, much like Team Melo’s pursuit of the 10-year-old prodigy, Nike’s pursuit of Mayo increased when he appeared with the Miami Tropics, a Nike-affiliated team with a “coach” as passionate about the Swoosh as Bowden is loyal to the Three Stripes.

“It’s huge, because he’d never played for a Nike team before,” said Art Alvarez, the Miami Tropics’ coach. “We are an elite Nike team. People from Nike were there watching him. They came to me and said they want to get involved to the point where they could bring him over to a Nike team. My loyalty is with Nike, and I’ll do whatever I can do.”

This is one of the coaches developing the next generation of players. When the media questions why the United States lost in the 2002 World Championships and 2004 Olympics, point to Alvarez’s comment. Rather than develop and nurture his player’s innate talents, and guide these players on their path to college and the NBA, his focus is guiding them to Just Do It! Rather than care about the interests of his players, first and foremost, he pledges his allegiance to the Swoosh.

Sonny Vaccaro built this empire and created a personal fortune as a power broker between players and shoe companies. Now, the system is rife with agents, runners and Vaccaro’s competition, such as Nike’s George Raveling and adidas’ Pump Brothers. According to a Pat Forde column, Vaccaro said these brands are spending “millions. Nike and Adidas are both spending millions. You’re safe with that figure.” And, this money buys loyalty and power over player’s choice of summer teams, tournaments, camps, clothing and more.

Vaccaro proudly stated in a Forde column:

“The convergence of two power companies, Nike and Adidas, and the beginning of the media acceleration on the Internet, that started it,” Vaccaro said. “… No one ever paid AAU coaches before I did in ’91. I got Kobe [away from Nike]. I never should’ve gotten Kobe. Then Tracy [McGrady], then Jermaine [O’Neal]. Then the escalation, the paying money to AAU coaches, stepped up.” And, here we are, in a generation of players with an entitlement affliction, where “the game and its mentors are to be endured less than revered. For so many elite young players, basketball has been a money game and a fame game for years before they even get to the way station that is college,” (Forde, espn.com).

One simple way to distinguish the values of a country or organization is to view the power brokers or those recognized as having influence in their sphere or organization. As mentioned previously, New York Magazine recognized Konchalski, a recruiting insider, whereas nationally, sneaker pimps such as Vaccaro and the Pump Brothers, who were reportedly quite influential in the hirings of Ben Howland at UCLA, Vance Walberg at Pepperdine and Bruce Pearl at Tennessee through their coaching headhunter business, would top the list. In Europe, the most influential people are the National Team Head Coach or the Head Coach of a powerful domestic club or a legendary former player. In Europe, for instance, the La Ghirada Basketball Academy in Italy is one of the most powerful and influential entities.

Winning International competitions is not the issue. The issue is creating the best possible system to develop elite basketball players who matriculate to DI and DII programs and eventually populate professional leagues here and abroad. It is not a matter of beating Argentina or restoring national pride through International dominance, but constantly examining and improving our system to insure the United States has the best, most state of the art approach to youth basketball and athlete development.

However, now players are steered away from developmental programs through USA Basketball and herded into shoe camps where they perform for national rankings services, college coaches and NBA scouts. Rather than play in the USA Basketball camps for college coaches in an organization managed by C.M Newton, Jerry Colangelo, Coach K and other esteemed individuals, players choose sneaker camps where paid sneaker reps act as coaches and such luminaries as Sonny Vaccaro run the show.

As Rick Telander wrote in the Sun Times:

These teenagers have come here [Jordan Classic] because this is what the best young players do these days: play everywhere for any kind of exposure, for gaudy shoes, for postseason awards, for prestige, for coverage, for street cred and, of course, for the god of all things basketball, the Michael himself.

Or, as I wrote in 2002 (Letter to the Editor, Basketball Times):

America has an embarrassment of riches; however, the richness also causes many of the problems. The star system, the one-on-one games, the lack of real skill development, the AAU coaches who just role out the ball, they are all part of the problem, just as they pat each other on the back for the successes.

Unfortunately, little has changed in four years. Vaccaro and company still rule the basketball world and coaches watch their importance in the development process slip away year by year. Now, shoe companies covet 10-year-olds and spend millions influencing the prep careers of prodigies hoping to profit when thy reach the pros.

Vaccaro’s empire turned basketball up-side down. Players want millions and shoe deals before they produce as professionals. College coaches hire the best recruiters, not coaches. High school players enhance their recruitment not by improving their skills, but by being more exposed. Even youth coaches ignore skill development, focusing on attracting new players with better skills or athleticism. None of it makes sense, but it is consistent. From the top down and the bottom up, recruiting rules American basketball, ruining the game year by year. Maybe someday, hopefully in the near future, the NBA and its billions of dollars and influence can aid the fledgling USA Basketball organization and take back the American basketball system from the hands of Nike, adidas and Reebok.

Part II: The NBA, USA Basketball and NCAA Culpability

The NCAA recently announced its efforts to crack down on diploma mills where suspect students miraculously make up for lost time and complete required core courses to gain college eligibility. It’s a noble effort. However, why place players in this predicament? Not every high school graduate attends college.

“I just gotta go to college,” says Danny.

“This isn’t Russia. Danny is this Russia?” asks Ty Webb (Caddyshack).

Plenty of students complete high school (or get a GED) and enter the workforce, go to a technical school to learn a trade or craft or join the armed services. For some, it is a waste of potential; for others it is a necessity to take care of their families; for others, it is the best option available. While these are viable options for other “regular” students, why do we make such a big deal about forcing all prep basketball players into institutions of higher learning? Even more absurd, why does the NCAA limit a coach’s on-court time with these players who often enroll in college on the one-year plan?

In April, CBS Sportsline’s Greg Doyel wrote this about incoming USC-recruit Davon Jefferson:

But about Jefferson’s academics … They’re nonexistent. He skipped so much school at Lynwood (Calif.) High that he couldn’t get eligible this past season at UNLV. So he went to a prep school, Patterson in Lenoir, N.C., that is becoming known for producing great players with their Division I eligibility intact. Not Jefferson. He skipped so much school there — I got that information from a Patterson coach — that he was booted from the team. Understand, if you’re booted from a prep basketball program like Patterson, you’re not academically indifferent. You’re academically comatose. It’s not that Jefferson can’t do the work. It’s that he has never tried to do it. He now will try to graduate through correspondence courses — literally, he’s going to get his diploma in the mail — and then present himself as an academically viable student-athlete.

Who benefits from Jefferson’s college attendence? Jefferson? It would appear not, as one can only imagine the effort he will put forth in his academics during his pitstop at USC before entering the 2007 NBA Draft. USC? Possibly. What if Jefferson has a Carmelo Anthony-like effect on the Trojan basketball team? Think a heated UCLA vs. USC top 20 rivalry would be good for television ratings. The NBA? Of course. Now, an NBA team does not have to gamble a first round pick on an unknown entity; basically, the NBA age limit forcing players into college saves NBA General Managers from making colossal mistakes with their draft picks and watching teenagers like Ndubi Ebi or Robert Swift rot on the end of the pine for the duration of their three-year guaanteed contract.

What does it say about our educational system that is all too willing to invest in an acacemically indifferent basketball player, but cannot find a scholarship to fund the education of an aspiring doctor or researcher or teacher from a disadvantaged background?

I sat in the office of a DI Recruiting Coordinator and listened to him plead with a prep player mulling his pre-NBA age-limit options. The Assistant Coach told the player that he only had to show up for classes in the fall; he just had to enroll for the spring semester, but he could drop out once the season ended and devote himself to preparing for the NBA Draft. The player entered the draft out of high school and is no longer in the league.

In 2004, Al Jefferson had a similar experience, as college coaches tried to persuade him to spend a year in college. At the time, Al Jefferson said: “They told me to come for one year and get an education and improve my draft status like ‘Melo. But, I’m not going to get an education in one year. If I’m in the top 20, I’m declaring.”

When I was in college I knew guys on the five and even six-year plans. But the one year plan?  Unless the university offers classes in hiring an agent, avoiding groupie problems, managing your entourage and pimping your ride, I am not sure how an NBA player benefits from English 101, Colonial History and Rocks for Jocks (er, Beginning Earth Science).

College is not for everyone, and that includes precocious ballers. Many geniuses skipped or dropped out of college (Bill Gates), and other Americans do quite well despite lacking a college degree. A college education can open doors and lead to more options, but it is not a prerequisite for success, in or out of basketball.

For those such as Joakim Noah, Emeka Okafur, Tim Duncan, Jameer Nelson, and others who are actual student-athletes, attending class and doing homework, college is a worthwhile endeavor and they enhance the college experience for other students, while maturing, improving their games and broadening their minds by exposing themselves to new ideas, concepts and philosophies. However, those making a brief detour on their way to the League detract from the university’s mission and discredit the institution’s academic integrity.

Only the delusional (Dick Vitale) believe high major basketball and football players are student-athletes. Pampered and treated like professionals while preps, many benefit from special treatment for the better half of their life.

I understand the NBA’s desire for an age limit, as the college game currently serves as a free minor league system for the Association. However, there is no need for an apathetic student to masquerade as a student-athlete to further his basketball career. Universities should not serve as a minor league and abdicate its responsibilities to educate; the NBA, through the NBDL, should accept and train Jefferson and similar non-student athletes.

If an elite player skips college, enters the draft and gets released (or goes undrafted) before he plays a game, he has minor league options. If he is unable to sustain a career in the minor leagues, then he can take out a loan and go to college like any regular student or get a job that does not require a college education. At that point, stripped of his “elite baller” status, he is just like anyone else anyway. Why should we pity his decision-making or situation more than any hard-working college student working to pay for his or her college education?

Let Davon Jefferson enter the draft; heck, encourage him. If he is not good enough to play in the NBA next season, send him to the NBDL; after all, that’s what the NBDL is for: development. 

Part III: The Breakdown in Development

In a Greg Boeck USA Today article, former Penn State guard Joe Crispin, now with Navigo.it Teramo in Italy, marvels at team practices where big men are included in dribbling drills with the guards. “I’d love to tell every coach in America you need to learn how to coach like this,” he says. “It’s not the same mentality, but college and high school coaches have to learn how to develop guys. Frankly, they’re not.” How far has coaching fallen that coaches in the United States must take lessons from Italians?

 “The Euros and foreign players and coaches,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says, “are doing things in some ways we have forgotten about and used to do.”

These things include training, practicing, limiting number of games, and progressing gradually. Instead, in the United States, athletes want to be good today; they don’t want to progress slowly. Coaches have to win today or get criticized; a youth coach with a .500 record who prepares players for success three years down the road will not last long; nobody has patience to see the gradual, long term approach come to fruition.

To improve, a player must risk failure and get outside his or her comfort zone. Unfortunately, since basketball is played for exposure, whether to a scout, club coach, or college coach, players lack the opportunity to train and improve. The current year-round competitive system impedes the coaching Crispin advocates as little time is spent training due to the win-at-all costs, college scholarship-chase, sneaker-driven development system.

The irony of the American basketball player is that nowhere is the future (scholarship/NBA) so firmly in focus for every young player, yet nowhere is such little thought given to the path to the goal.

When I coached in Sweden in 2002-03, the younger players (9-12 years old) trailed their American peers in fundamental development and ability. However, my Swedish u-14 team compared favorably to a nationally rated u-14 American team. Between 13 and 15, Swedish players – and by my hypothesis European players – make significant fundamental progress compared to American players, while practicing and playing less than their American counterparts.

Players in the U.S. are better players: more athletic, bigger, stronger and more aggressive. However, American players fail to sustain the development of the fundamental skills (shooting, ball handling, player movement) and lag behind their European peers in some areas.

In Sweden, the best players benefit from (1) National Team try-out camps held throughout the year involving a region’s best players and coaches; (2) The potential to play with adult/professional clubs at an early age.

This experience is not always good, as some players play for an adult team, never play and fail to develop. However, for most players, the constant, gradual progression prevents the player from reaching a plateau. A precocious 17-year-old plays for a League (highest level) team or a DI (second highest) team, depending on her skills, size and hometown club. She also plays for her club’s u-18 team competing regionally to qualify for the u-18 Championships. She likely plays for a school team, which is less competitive and consists of a series of qualifying tournaments for the championship. She likely plays with the u-17 or u-18 National Team in International competitions throughout Europe during the summer. Even while playing for as many as five teams in five different competitions, she likely plays around 50 games in an entire year, similar to the number an average American teenager plays in a summer, and every game is meaningful and competitive.

An American teenager plays for a high school team and a high school club team often playing with and against the same players over and over with as many as seven games in a typical summer weekend. The European player benefits from playing against better players in practice and games and better training (comparable, at minimum, to mid-DI college preparation and coaching); International play, coaching and practice against the nation’s best, and significant game time in qualifying tournaments to build confidence and stay game-sharp, regardless of playing time with the professional team.

The European season is longer in duration, but features fewer games (20 regular season games in some countries/leagues), meaning a larger percentage of practice time is spent training skills, not drilling offensive or defensive schemes.

The current sneaker-driven system in the United States leaves precious little time to train and is dominated by a recruiting mindset, where acquiring talent trumps developing and nurturing players. Imagine if the best American teenagers (OJ Mayo, Bill Walker, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Kyle Singer) spent their summer training with and against college players and young professionals rather than auditioning all summer for college coaches in tournaments like the Big Time and Main Event.

The United States dominates basketball, as it exports far more players to foreign professional leagues than it imports for NCAA Division I basketball and the NBA. However, the gap decreases every year, as NBA teams draft more and more foreign players, citing their height, versatility, shooting and fundamental skill levels and college programs recruit foreign players to close the talent gap or fill a need, usually height or a shooter, they are unable to fill through domestic recruiting.

“NBA teams are realizing it’s less risky to draft internationals because they’re more coachable, more socialized, have no posses and have not been Americanized,” says former college coach George Raveling, Nike’s director of global basketball. Raveling’s prediction: International players will comprise 50% of the NBA by 2010.

The sneaker development system “Americanizes” precocious teens, creating a talent void that helped to make European players relevant in today’s NBA. While the Sonny Vaccaro’s of the world champion their grassroots programs, the United States maintains its basketball supremacy in spite of its development system, not because of it, and the lack of NBA and USA Basketball involvement has opened the door for other countries to win international competitions. Rather than develop players, our system recruits talent and substitutes “consultants” and “recruiting coordinators” for teachers, leaders and coaches.

Recruiting is prevalent from club teams which are often hand-picked all-star teams to the NBA. The golden caveat of the “Nationals” ruins youth basketball, as players skip from team to team to improve one’s chances to play at Nationals just as the lure of a scholarship pervades high school basketball. Once upon a time, youth basketball was played for fun and to teach young players basic fundamentals; now, the AAU crowns an U-9 National Champion.

Players are more sophisticated at an early age, but that does not mean they are better or that the system provides a better experience for players and parents. Young players peak early because of size or speed advantages, and they rarely learn necessary skills to continue progressing as a player once others catch up to their physical attributes. Kids are not developed because a slick-talking AAU coach can recruit a new player to fill a need during the next season.

Coaches use the lure of a trip to the Nationals to recruit new players, just as a college coach does. Parents hear nationals, think bragging rights and flip for the opportunity, especially when the new team is willing to foot some of the bill or is sponsored by a shoe company. This begins the families’ affair with the “Entitlement Affliction,” as parents and players believe people owe them something because their son had an early growth spurt, or is especially fast or maybe has better coordination or strength for his age.

Summers used to be the time for player development; now, summer is all about exposure, and not just to the sun. Players seek tournaments college coaches attend; they play year-round in club and AAU games. These club games begin the week after high school competition, resulting in fewer three-sport athletes, greater specialization and year-round basketball.

Despite this year-round basketball schedule, the search for the scholarship means games and more games, leaving little time for training. The best players’ suffer deeply from the Entitlement Affliction, as now parents believe they know enough to suggest new coaches for their high school, or they change AAU teams if their son is not getting enough shot attempts, and they buy into their own greatness because shoe companies pay for them to fly all over the country to tournaments and camps. These tournaments masquerade as competitive games, though they are merely showcase events for college coaches and scouts.

Talent wins games. Therefore, colleges hire assistant coaches with recruiting ability. Plenty of Division I assistant coaches cannot teach the game, but they can recruit. Coaches should be teachers first and accumulators of talent second. But, NCAA rules limit off-season practice time and players jump to the NBA after one or two seasons, so recruiting is the single greatest element of college basketball.

The best players enter college with the Entitlement Affliction. They have been “The Man” for so long, they do not know how not to be the man. They do not understand the team game and how to fit into a system. Instead, they believe they know their own greatness, greatly inflated by the hangers-on who buy into the idea of entitlement. Yet, they do not know how to defend or play without the ball because their coach never cared much about either.

The chosen few playing in the NBA are, with some exceptions, products of the entitlement affliction, who have been coddled since the first glimpse of their precocious ability. They do not know how to play team basketball as they have been stars for so long, teammates and coaches always adjusted to their game.

Consequently, players learn to play while already in the league, as opposed to developing their games at lower levels and entering the league needing only to refine an already developed repertoire of skills and basketball knowledge.

At every level, the game deteriorates from an aesthetic view, as fewer players understand the nuances of the game or possess the fundamental skills. Few players at any level are great shooters, yet every game consists of dozens of errant three-point attempts as players fall in love with shooting beyond the arc. Few coaches are motivated to develop players, as the players illustrate no commitment to anything other than the best deal, and leave a coach at the drop of the hat if offered something better, whether it is an 11 year old getting a better chance to qualify for nationals or a college player seeking more playing time to enhance his professional potential.

Basketball is backwards. Players want millions and shoe deals before they have ever produced at the professional level. Colleges hire recruiters, not teachers. High school players enhance their recruitment not by improving their skills, but by being seen more and more. And, even youth coaches ignore skill development, focusing on attracting new players with better skills or athleticism. None of it makes sense, but it is consistent. From the top down and the bottom up, recruiting rules American basketball, ruining the game year by year.

A similar situation ails soccer development in the United States, where the overstructured youth system prevents American players from developing world class ability. In an espn.com article about soccer’s ODP programs and its inability to attract Latino players and prepare professional players, instead opting to prepare white players for nice college careers, the parallels between the ODP and basketball’s AAU are unmistakable, although at least soccer has some regulation, as opposed to the absolute free-for-all which is American basketball.

The U.S. is a place where the parents of 12-year-olds are buying their kids $100-plus shoes and self-respecting teams are outfitting their preteen players in top-of-the-line sweats, jerseys and shorts from brand-name suppliers. These are not kids who will learn to juggle with “balls” made out of cloth or from grapefruits picked out of trees. These are kids who will attend expensive elite soccer camps rather than learning to play the game on the streets or in litter-strewn empty lots.

Substitute basketball for soccer and juggle with shoot and you get the idea. The protrayal is accurate on both accounts. In South Africa, I played soccer with some kids using a ball made of cloth; I also attended a youth basketball tournament played on the asphalt where teams shared a pair of flip-flops – players played barefoot and rotated the flip-flops every couple minutes. Basketball development was once dominated by the playgrounds, where players went to test their skills and enjoy the game. Now, few players have time for the playground, as they are too busy flying to AAU tournaments and playing for National Championships.

ODP is all about organized youth soccer. To receive exposure, kids have to play with visible traveling clubs that compete in high-profile tournaments. But it costs big money to play on one of the premier clubs. If your father and/or mother is a doctor, lawyer, businessperson or corporate middle manager, two or three grand a year is no big deal. It’s something you do for the kids. Like fitting them with braces or giving them ballet or tennis lessons. Kids who live in American ghettos, barrios or trailer parks are not fitted for braces, do not wear tutus and generally do not hit balls over nets.

Substitute AAU with ODP and you get the idea. Club basketball appears designed to prepare players for college scholarships; nine-year-olds are on the fast-track to the college scholarship with their entire lives based on the athletic goal. The entire high school club system is designed to promote players and increase exposure to colleges. But what about those who cannot afford the AAU fees?

The top soccer clubs recruit some of the top players by giving them scholarships. But this irritates the parents who can afford to pay their kids’ way. And why shouldn’t it? Your child sits while another player, whose fees you are helping subsidize, is on the field.

This happens in youth basketball too. The top teams recruit and scholarship players. This creates the “Entitlement Affliction” while alienating the “rich” parents and kids. This gives some players a chance, but when another team spies the player’s talent and offers a better deal or more free stuff, players jump like they are signing a free agent contract.

The really serious soccer players pursue ODP, designed to identify the top players at the state, regional and national levels. Conceptually, it’s a great idea that ultimately falls short of its intended goal because it doesn’t go far or deep enough, largely because it also costs big money to participate in those programs.

The AAU concept also is a great idea in theory, as the best players playing with and against the best players is a good concept. However, in reality, club programs fail because everything is about self-promotion, not development, and Nike players and teams do not play against adidas teams and players. This summer, arguably the top two summer club teams, the adidas Pump N’ Run and Nike Southern Califonia All Stars, managed never to meet, though each is based in Los Angeles.

It is a corrupt system that emphasizes exposure over training, recruiting over coaching. The best players stay at the top, and the others stay where they are because nobody has the time or is willing to train to improve. Everything is about immediacy and playing to win today, not preparing the 15-year-old to peak as a college player. And, “AAU” is now so ubiquitous that “AAU Tournaments” no longer showcase he best players playing against the best players. Everyone plays “AAU” today, so many “AAU Tournaments” have the look and feel of Parks and Recreation Leagues, complete with dads coaching. However, now the leagues are more expensive, games are played in private facilities and players wear fancier uniforms.

If the United States Soccer Federation is truly serious about identifying and developing elite soccer players, it must tweak the Olympic Development Program as we currently know it. It must adopt what baseball has done in places such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela by having the state associations and pro teams create subsidized soccer academies in the inner cities.

The future of American soccer does not reside in the leafy suburbs but, rather, in places where most soccer moms and talent scouts would never think of driving through, let alone visiting. Until those in charge of the process actively pursue the youngsters hungering for a better life through soccer, the United States will never become the soccer power that it can and should be.

USA Basketball is a power. However, its foundation was built on these playgrounds and its success is increasingly threatened by the current system’s structure. Manu Ginobili, an Argentinian, is hailed for his creativity – American players once dominated creativity, the feel and flare for the game. Now, as players progress through the structured system, not the old-fashioned playground, park and school system, creativity disappears (and not And1 creativity, but Ginobili-like creativity). The fashy uniforms and events and free shoes divert attention from the ills of the game, the loss of the street/playground element which nurtured the talents of the best and brightest basketball players.

The American basketball system must address the current system before “basketball mom” is synonymous with “soccer mom” and basketball becomes an entirely suburban, structured sport with a few kids plucked from the ghettos and scholarshipped.

Another soccer article chronicles the stifling of elite American soccer players and, again, mirrors the conditions in basketball. It’s not basketball, but the concepts are similar.

Our current method in the United States to develop better players mistakenly focuses almost exclusively on the extraordinary physical maturity and technical ability of players like Samba and Adu. This thinking ignores perhaps the most crucial element in the total development of a soccer player: the ability to read the game, the flow, and how to anticipate and adjust to individual opponents and teams. These are the intangible traits that make great players rise above others, and that players only develop over a long period of time with experience and experimentation.

We must focus on the long-term and intrinsic development of players, guiding them, but more importantly, allowing them, to think for themselves, to make their own decisions. This will enable them to have the tools to adjust and exploit a vast array of situations, in many cases, all in the same game. This is neither an easy nor a short-term learning process. The fact that we are dealing with pre-teens and teenagers further complicates the matter.

I remember when I was a freshman in college, playing varsity at a very successful Division 1 school. I was one of two Americans on the team. The rest were Brazilian, El Salvadoran, Israeli, and English. Some of the greatest learning experiences for me as a player that year did not occur in college training sessions. Instead, they occurred on Saturdays when many of us played small-sided pick-up games in a local park with Portuguese fishermen who were in port at the time. It is in this type of environment that players have the opportunity to truly learn how to play and adjust to many types of situations and players. Thinking and the ability to adjust take a long time to develop, with a lot of experimentation, and, yes, failure. But our culture won’t allow the failure required to learn at any age or stage. We must always have immediate success, (Gary R. Allen, Director of Coaching: Virginia Youth Soccer Association).

Basketball, too, is focused on athletic traits like height and jumping ability, ignroing technical and tactical skills. The system’s structure is not condusive to development, and the win-at-all-costs coaches fail to nurture these skills. Coaches yell and scream and dictate all action. They do not allow players to think and adjust and make decisions. Consequently, players develop with low basketball IQ’s. We blame the players, video games and laziness. However, how is one supposed to develop a basketball IQ when a coach strips his players of all decision-making and turns the players into robots?

The public mistakenly believes players have to enter into this syetm because it is the only way; if you don’t play in the big name tournaments, coaches will not recruit you. However, the elite and talented players have the power: college coaches need the most talented players. College coaches battle to attract the most talented players to their university to win or they will be replaced by someone who will. 75-percent of a college coach’s job is recruiting; if a player is good, they will find him. Every year, colleges manage to find a player in Senegal, Cameroon, Serbia, Australia, or elsewhere. If they can find players around the world, they can certainly find a talented player within miles of their campus.

For other players, those unlikely to play DI basketball or go pro, no amount of exposure is going to compensate for lack of skills, lack of size, lack of speed, or other deficiencies. The only way to catch up to the elite level players is not to travel with them and sit on the bench watching them play, but to out work them: get in the gym and shoot more shots, lift more weights, do more plyometrics. If you are not an elite, natural talent, hard work is the only chance to achieve the prized scholarship and that hard work needs to focus on attacking weaknesses and enhancing strengths, not seeking exposure.

Too many players seek exposure before they illustrate the potential or skills to play college basketball. The best way to catch the eye of a college scout is to possess the requisite grades, talent, potential, skills and size; otherwise, there is no need for exposure. And, if it takes all summer alone in a gym to acquire these attributes, and nobody saw the pay-off, market yourself to colleges where you have the size and skills to play. Have your coach call the school; send a tape and a schedule; invite them to watch you play.

Playing against the best players is important, especially for the elite players who possess the requisite combination of athletic, technical and tactical skill. However, the games need to matter and not just be a showcase for college coaches. The system needs to change to enhance these opportunities and maximize player development.

Part IV: One Man’s Solutions

The current youth basketball development systema hodge-podge of rec leagues, AAU programs and school teams working seperately without any guidance or forethought for an athlete’s future – needs change. It fails to nurture and develop elite players and loses many youth players because of its obsession with winning and exposure, not fun and learning.

Not every kid plays club basketball of his or her own voalition. Much has to do with parents keeping up with the Jones’. But whatever happened to the park or to informal pick-up games after school? A point Jay Coakley makes in Sport and Society is the erosion of free play and dominance of adult-centered activities. Interestingly, many youth sports specialists make similar points: they believe athletes’ multi-lateral development stalls from lack of free play and specialization in one sport.

When parents of 8-year-olds seek individual skills training, is it the child’s choice? Does the kid come home from school, stuff some graham crackers in his mouth and say, “Dad, I need a personal trainer so I can step up my game at recess?” Eight-year-olds should play soccer, learn to swim, do martial arts and/or gymnastics and try other sports informally to see which activities they enjoy.

Children join sports teams for social reasons and quit sports because they are no longer fun, they do not play enough or there is too much emphasis on winning. Kids like to play with other kids; unfortunately, because parents fear for the safety of their child, kids no longer play together in the streets or at the park. Everything is a structured activity. Once children sign up up for a league, and one of their friends joins another team, they want to join that team. Once a coach tells them that they need to join their team so they can get better and play more, they want to join the other team. At 10-years-old, they don’t understand that AAU basketball is like a semi-pro league, complete with a message board giving game descriptions, recruiting sites detailing the efforts of the best players and coaches who insist on winning every game.

The problem is three-fold: 1) Players are not allowed to play on their own, away from a coach and without restrictions where they are free to make mistakes and develop; 2) There is little thought to long term development of athletes and people; 3) The year-round nature of competitive basketbal places unnecessary stress on growing bodies and is, by many experts account, one reason for the sky-rocketing number of adolescent injuries, especially injuries of overuse like tendonitis and plantar fasciitis, but also ACL injuries, as players do not learn proper athletic development first and are placed on a court, making moves for which their bodies are unprepared. Furthermore, with a lack of rest and recovery, they are fatigued, which leads to a higher occurence of injury.

If we can reconcile these problems, and find a more compatible means for developing young players, I believe kids will have more fun, develop better skills and reduce injuries. However, more thought must be given to the entire athletic development process.

Put simply:

Fun, Learning, Development and Long Term Organization = Good

Current System = Bad

To develop more elite players and provide a better experience for all basketball players, we need:

1)Unstructured basketball for youth players. Let kids play.

2) A plan for long term development, not immediate gratification.

3) End to the Entitlement Affliction.

4) More emphasis on the high school season, not AAU season.

5) Coaches education.

6) Greater emphasis on sports conditioning.

7) Emphasis on skill training for high school playerst just touring the country with travel teams.

8) NBA involvement.

9) Leadership from USA Basketball.

In Peak Performance, the chapter about Bayern Munich talks about German soccer and the involvement of the German National program and the Bundesliga teams in youth development and the development of the elite players: the future.

Should the NBA assist in the development of the next generation of players? Should NBA teams make an investment (money, leadership, education) to basketball development in order to sustain a quality product?

Currently, the NBA has a minimal role, providing its name for some local programs and donating money to some youth organizations, while running one summer camp for elite players. But, do NBA teams have a responsibility to be more involved with the development of future players? And, if so, what role should NBA teams take?

My proposal would involve NBA teams and utilize AAU teams and an NBDL-type league to develop and instruct players, not merely audition players for college coaches or NBA contracts. This system will emphasize teaching young, elite players fundamental basketball skills, preparing players for the next level in a manner similar to the European club system.

The system would revolutionize American basketball and require a change in mentality, as players would play year-round for one club program, skipping high school basketball. High school basketball would be left to the average to good players, allowing for greater participation and more equitable competition. This would eliminate high school recruiting which is prevalent today, and place the proper role of a high school, education, at the forefront.

Elite players would play club basketball for well-coached, development-oriented teams funded in part by the NBA. Instead of a high school team recruiting and stockpiling talent to destroy other local high schools, club teams would discover and develop talent to face similarly competitive club programs.

This system would bridge the gap between high school, college and professional basketball. No longer would major DI basketball serve as a cheap minor league system, with players staying one year to enhance their draft status and ignoring their education. These players would enter the development league and focus on basketball, not wasting a university’s money, nor tarnishing the academic image. “Clubs and regional associations have a mutual interest in ensuring the talent gets better and better for the club and national squads.” The NCAA could adopt a similar rule for basketball as with college baseball, so any player attending college has to stay three-years, but players have the alternative of joining the development league straight from high school.

This would place the focus at every level on developing players, as college recruiting would change, and coaches would know they will have players for 3-4 years, so they can plan better, recruiting players with development, not immediate results, in mind.

This development league could also offer non-academic classes in personal finance, cooking, nutrition, and strength and conditioning to aid the players in their transition to independence and provide players a springboard to a new career or educational goal if their playing career ends abruptly.

America must harness its resources and create a cooperative community centered on players’ interests. Currently, everything is money driven in a capitalistic economy, and everyone views everyone else as a competitor or a threat. However, regardless of the money involved, the players’ interests need to be the center of any development program and a love for the game must be present. When these are combined, regardless of the system, change will happen.

The Elite Development League aims to maximize player development in an efficient manner through a partnership between the NBA/NBDL and USA Basketball. Each NBA team adopts or starts a local basketball academy, creating 39 academies throughout the United States. Additionally, cities without NBA teams could start similar academies and join the EDL if it meets the EDL requirements. Academies would enroll a minimum of one hundred high school-aged players each. Athletes would attend high school as normal, but the Academy would provide all necessary training services, from a licensed nutritionist to a strength coach to basketball coaches to academic tutors. Money to support these academies would come from NBA teams and a television deal with ESPN to televise several games and the annual national championship. The Academy model meets the needs of elite athletes who need a more efficient means to train and develop; colleges benefit because local coaches narrow the talent pool through selection to the academies.

As the next step, I proposed the EDL+ for sure-fire pro prospects, players like OJ Mayo and Derrick Rose. The EDL+ would enable players to train with the Academy, but play with an NBDL team during the NBDL season and in one NBA Summer League during the summer. The EDL+ would serve as the transition year or two between high school and the NBA for elite players only; players could apply for the EDL+, but NBA personnel would decide who was selected.

“Makes sense. The NBA already has a developmental league; now it must stretch the league to exceed the grasp of the street agents. Try this formula: Make all high school players eligible for a developmental draft. If a player elects to sign with a minor league team, he forfeits two years of college eligibility but is free to return to school if his pro aspirations do not work out,” (Dave D’Alessandro from the Sporting News).

The Elite Development League, where qualified high school or college-age players could forfeit their eligibility to sign minimum professional contracts. Players would benefit from the best coaches and competition; in addition to the regional league schedule and summer national tournaments, the EDL could chose an all-star team to train together for a month and then tour Europe, playing against the best teams in Europe; or, these teams could play college teams in pre-season games, much like the semi-professional and European teams that play now.

For OJ Mayo or Derrick Rose, the high school season is tedious. And, yes, when fourteen year olds are mini-celebrities with entourages and non-verbal contracts with shoe companies who manage their summers and tell them where and when they can play, there certainly is an exploitative nature to the “system.”

Of course, these problems arise because the NBA and USA Basketball abscond from their roles of responsibility and nobody governs summer basketball. Shoe companies and their “grassroots basketball sneaker pimps” exist outside anyone’s rules. And, they use this power to gain influence and corrupt youth basketball.

If the NBA is unwilling to get involved, what about the very sneaker companies that destroyed the American basketball development system in the first place. In a recent Boston Globe article, the mastermind himself, Sonny Vaccaro, called the current system a “cesspoll.” In a NY Times article, Vaccaro said: “These kids have to go through a tedious high school season, and then they’re going to pick a school and go to school. They’re two years away from any of them realizing what they set out to do, which is play in the NBA.” Players plateau because coaches cannot elevate their game and the high school competition is not stiff enough to challenge the elite players on a constant basis. This is the reason behind the EDL, as I invision it. And, because I believe David Stern, who recently said in a NY Times article, “Elite players get exploited and exposed all the way up the system.”

What if the powers that be at Nike, adidas and Reebok invested their grassroots money in the future, rather than spending lavishly on precocious pre-teens and “consultants?” What if the shoe companies developed the next generation of players rather than competing to discover the next LeBron or MJ? Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling and meaningful if the next Dwayne Wade started as an eleven year old in a Nike Development Center and spent his childhood practicing and training with elite, Nike-sponsored coaches playing with and against other elie players training with elite coaches?

What if Nike took the 90 million dollars (over 6 years) it gave LeBron James to wear its shoes and appear in its commercials and built 40-50 Performance Centers to develop the next generation of American basketball players?

Imagine 40 Nike (or adidas or Reebok) Performance Centers in 40 major American cities servicing 150-250 players each, creating an organized development system to nurture the elite talents.

Imagine a shoe company using its grassroots money to build safe places for players to play rather than lavishing money on “consultants” in the shoe company’s grassroots effort to reach the kids and clothe precocious players in their brand.

Imagine a plan, an organized, step-by-step program based on sound basketball and physiological principles created to guide players and coaches through the pre-puberty, puberty and post-puberty years and prepare players for college and professional basketball, as well as life beyond its.

Imagine the revolutionary effect such measures could have on a generation of players currently lost in a maze of misunderstanding.

Imagine.

It’s not just a dream; in Canada, it appears Nike is doing just that. The Canada Basketball Nike Centre for Performance-British Columbia (CP-BC) is an elite development program designed to teach players individual and team offensive fundamentals. It also introduces aspects of sports science that are necessary to the development of elite level players and coaches.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *