Nearly every day, especially during the season, someone criticizes United States basketball for a host of perceived problems. Kobe Bryant has his issues; Stan Van Gundy has his issues; nobody, it seems, is happy with basketball in the United States. Typically, AAU and too many games are the scourges, but others blame a lack of coach education, television, money, millennials, dunking, or the NBA, and in women’s basketball, many blame UConn. The answer is usually to be more like Europe or to follow the Canadian model or mandatory coach education.
Personally, I believe that many are reacting to the wrong question, and therefore proposing an ill-fitting solution. Van Gundy sums up a certain perception quite nicely:
“If you look around we’re failing pretty badly in this country as a whole in teaching people basketball skills…because there’s a huge difference in just the skill level of the players coming from Europe and what we have here….We’re not developing skills here.”
Now, I don’t know where he is looking, or to whom he is referring, but I wrote this in response to Kobe Bryant’s rant last year:
Here is the thing: When Kobe Bryant looks at the skill level of Europe, he looks at the .01%: The Gasol brothers, Dirk, Parker, Noah, etc. are among the best players in their countries’ histories. He compares these greats to his teammates who are borderline NBA players on one of the NBA’s worst teams. If you take the top 5 players from Spain and compare them to the 250th best player from the U.S., I hope Spain’s players are more skilled. Comparing Pau Gasol to Nick Young is an unfair comparison, but if you want to argue that Gasol is more skilled than Durant, I will take Durant thank you very much, even if he did play in the “horrible, terrible” AAU.
If you want to argue that NCAA men’s basketball is unwatchable, or NCAA women’s basketball has nobody to compete with UConn, I will not disagree. However, if the argument is that other countries develop better talent, or better fundamentals in elite players, by what metric? USA women’s basketball obliterated the rest of the world, and the WNBA MVP and Candace freaking Parker were not even selected. USA men’s basketball won another gold medal. The best shooters in the NBA – Curry, Durant, Redick, Korver, etc. – and the best shooters in the WNBA – Moore, Taurusi, Bird, Delle Donne, Tolliver, etc. – managed to develop decent fundamentals in the “horrible, terrible” AAU and the bankrupt basketball system in the U.S.
The problems with basketball in the United States are not, and never have been, about developing the elite talent. When I wrote Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, many thought it was a reaction to USA Basketball’s (men) losses in 2002 and 2004. It wasn’t. It never had to do with the elite. Instead, it was focused on everyone else, and the problems for the non-elite – those not destined to play in the NBA/WNBA – are growing.
First, and probably most worrying, I see giant decreases in participation rates of girls basketball. I have spoken to two high school ADs this week, both at 2000+ student public high schools, and one did not have enough interest to field a girls’ team last year, and the other may not have enough interest to field a team this year. One team! When I was in high school, girls programs had 3 teams and had to cut girls who tried out. This was before the WNBA!!! which was supposed to increase participation in girls basketball. Even 5 years ago, when I coached girls basketball at a large public school, we had 42 girls spread out on a freshman team, JV team, and varsity. 42 girls were involved in the basketball program at an academic-oriented, volleyball-dominated school. Now, large public schools struggle to draw 7-8 girls!
On the other side, I spoke to an athletic director who has 100 boys trying out for a junior varsity basketball team. No frosh-soph; no freshmen team. The 12-player varsity team has freshmen through seniors, and the junior varsity level is freshmen through juniors. 24-30 players make the teams; 70+ boys are cut.
This situation happened at my high school every year. Over 100 boys tried out for a freshmen team (in addition to 15 playing JV, and 15 playing varsity). My high school started a second freshmen team to allow for 30 of those 100 freshmen to make the team. I believe some similar high schools, and possibly my alma mater, later started a second JV team to include an additional 15 players for an extra season. We also had a lunchtime intramural league for those not playing on a basketball team, and there was open gym throughout the fall and spring (no organized high-school leagues or teams in the fall or spring, as it was against the rules). Of course, we had 4 days of P.E. too.
I offered to run a small program for the players who are cut who may have interest in paying to play in a recreation league to stay active and prepare for next season’s tryouts. There is gym time available on weekday evenings after 7:30 PM, and teams are prohibited from practicing on Sundays. There is available gym time. It would not be as extensive as the high school team, but it would allow the players to play. With 15 players making a freshmen through junior team, and a team where the AD emphasizes winning, how many freshmen and sophomores will make the team? Will it be the ones with the most potential? The ones who are bigger and stronger and able to compete against more physically mature juniors? How do you sustain a program by turning away so many players?
Why is running a league for these students at their own high school prohibited? According to the AD, the principal will not rent out the gym to outside groups, and because it is not school-affiliated, as it is not the school team, I would not be able to rent out the gym, even for a fee and even if I was on staff as a coach. Avoiding any inconvenience is more important to the principal than providing outside recreational opportunities to 70 boys who have shown an interest in playing basketball, despite numerous studies that have shown the positive benefits in terms of health, academics, future success, and staying out of trouble from participating in sports and being physically active.
This resistance is normal. Whether speaking to recreation directors in New Mexico or directors of Jr. NBA programs in Salt Lake City, few administrators appear willing to create new programs or change existing programs, even when the administrators admit that the current programs are run poorly and plagued with problems, including 30+% dropout from year to year. As long as the administrators meet their minimum revenue to appease their supervisors, nothing changes.
These are the major issues in youth basketball that go above and beyond skill development, fundamentals, or quality of play. Why are fewer girls playing basketball? Why are there not more (affordable, accessible, and positive) opportunities at developmental levels for those (boys and girls) who have shown an interest in playing?
Everything is a rush to cut athletes, make the system more competitive, and transition more of the coaching into the private sector, especially in terms of individual training. Training individually is viewed as the solution to the problems suggested by Van Gundy, Kobe, and others, but what about the expense? What about open gyms for players to play, even when they are not destined to be NBA players? What about accessibility to teams, courts, and opportunities? What about playing basketball for the sake of playing the game? What is the purpose of our educational institutions as it pertains to extracurricular activities? How should communities expect the facilities at local schools to be used? Who should have access to those facilities? Only the chosen few who make a team or any of the students in the school?
There is a limit to the possibilities, but we’re not even close to that limit (although in some areas, and with some athletes, we probably exceed the limit of what is necessary and beneficial). When gyms are locked at night or on weekends, who does that benefit? Why not encourage or even demand more access to facilities to increase opportunities for children and adolescents to increase physical activity, motor skill development, play, health, and fun?