AAU basketball...is there a hotter topic amongst basketball circles right now than AAU basketball? It seems as if every parent I talk to considers AAU as a necessary evil for their child if there is any hope of securing a college scholarship to play basketball.
When I tell folks that my 11-year old son plays AAU basketball, I get the funny, sideways glances as if it's hypocracy that my son would partake in such corruption! Then when I tell them that I coach his team, I get an even more puzzled look. How dare a former, upstanding, state championship winning high school coach eat from the forbidden fruit of AAU!
To say that there's a misconception around AAU basketball is an understatement. However, I get where these folks are coming from. They've heard and read the horror stories. In fact, Sports Illustrated writer George Dohrmann chronicled one such story in his book, Play Their Hearts Out. It is a cautionary tale of how one "coach" parlayed his connections with players into a nice gig with adidas. If you've read the book then you know how shady the AAU system can appear to be.
I have had my share of run-ins with the AAU system...some good and some bad. When I was coaching high school, many AAU coaches were lined up in the hallways after our games to try and get my players to play for them during the summer. I'm all for players getting maximum exposure if they hope to go on and play in college. I'm not all for coaches competing for my playes during state playoff and championship runs.
I'm also not on board with coaches using players to try to get college coaching jobs. I was accused of this myself. I was accused of using the point guard of the high school team I coached in hopes of getting a college job. Guess what? It never happened. I never tried to use her to get a foot in the door and even had to call one prominent AAU figure and put him on blast for even spreading the gossip! Truth be told, I could have easily have used my relationship with this young lady to profit but I declined.
One shoe company contacted me and asked me to start an elite AAU team with promised backing from them with just a few conditions. One, I had to attend all of this company's AAU exposure events. That was the easy part because most of it was on their dime. The second condition was that I must bring my point guard with me and use her to get other elite players in the state. After hearing this, I decline the opportunity...much to the shoe company rep's dismay. He gave me a piece of his mind and hung up. I never heard from him again.
I believe Kobe's issues with AAU stem from the lack of fundamentals being taught. I see both sides of this coin. I do see the higher level AAU teams doing a lot of organizing and just traveling to tournaments to play without a focus on developing a kid's game. However, I also see and know several top-notch AAU programs that do put the develop of the player first. Yes, I know these folks personally and I would have no issue sending my son to play for one of those programs. I believe there are people who are committed to doing things the right way and I commend those people.
On the flip side, there are people that are abusing the system and the kids that play. I've heard plenty of stories from coaching colleagues that have mentioned particular AAU coaches trying to use the shoe companies for jobs or the players they recruit to their respective AAU teams for jobs. I also have seen coaches that use any tactic possible to win an AAU game or tournament but disregard an overall lack of the common good for the game. These same people are more concerned about winning than teaching kids how to play the game properly.
I am fortunate enough to coach at the younger levels and I can tell you that my practices are geared toward the fundamentals of the game and teaching kids how to play the right way. The kids don't always like practice because they think practicing the fundamentals is boring. They just want to run up and down the court. Our team focuses on playing position-less basketball. Everyone needs to be a player, not a number. We focus on making sure they can all dribble, pass, pivot, shoot, defend, etc. Many people today would say we're using a European model of training. I disagree. I think we're using the original American model of training.
Before the game exploded in European and other foreign countries, there was a contingent of US coaches that traveled abroad and conducted skills clinics for coaches and players. The European coaches took the knowledge and ran with it. The expounded on it and made it their basketball gospel. Meanwhile, back in the States, we focused more on position based training as big guys worked more in the post and little guys more on the perimeter. In fact, at a recent Washington Wizards game, a coach for the Wizards took one look at my son and his size and told him to make sure that he has a ball in his hand at all times. He said that big men that can handle the ball in the NBA are a rare commodity.
This is where the disparity comes in...we are now seeing the product of the original basketball teaching concept as more skilled European "big" men (Dirk Nowitzki, Kristaps Porzingis) and European players are shooting up NBA draft boards. Our players in the US are focused more on shooting threes or dunking. There is no in between. Many of our players today are getting notoriety because of athleticism more so than skill. This is where I think Kobe's perspective is coming from. He grew up in Italy and saw the focus on the fundamentals. This is why he is one of the most fundamentally sound players in the game.
I'm an old school guy at heart but I also understand the new wave line of thinking when it comes to basketball. However, I firmly believe you can't play new school until you embrace the old school and put in the work on the fundamentals of the game. I think Kobe's comments have some merit but I would be careful to label the entire AAU system and coaches across the country as awful or failing. There are plenty of young men and women teaching the game the right way.
So, will AAU basketball be the death of all things right with the game? No, I don't necessarily believe that but I do believe that there are some people and programs that are deterimental to the better good of the game. I also think there are plenty of people that are using AAU basketball in the proper means.
For those kids hoping to play at the Division I level, AAU basketball has almost become a necessary evil. The chance for maximum exposure to college coaches is too much to pass up for a kid with a jump shot and a dream. I get it. I understand. I was once that kid. I also understand where Kobe is coming from. Many of the youth basketball organizations and programs aren't developing players the way they should and that is causing our game to be diluted somewhat.
The focus on the younger ages should be the fundamentals of the game, teaching them how to play, how to move without the ball, passing, cutting, dribbling, etc. I view teaching basketball the same way I taught Physical Education. You start with the basics at a young age and give them creative ways of practicing and using the fundamentals without necessarily making the game competitive. As the kids progress, you make the games more realistic and break the game down (2-on-2, 3-on-3) before stepping into a full fledged 5-on-5 game. Modify rules, make the game fun and give them ample time to practice their skills before throwing them to the wolves.
There does not appear to be any foolproof solution to the problem that players are facing today. My suggestion to players and parents is to have your son or daughter continue to focus on the fundamentals, even the most mundane of them. There are plenty of drills on YouTube and the web that you can access, many of them for free. Set goals to work on specific areas of your game and monitor their progress closely. Continue to refine and re-assess where you are as a player. If you need help or would like guidance, or even a film breakdown, shoot us an email. We'll be more than happy to provide assistance!