I recently read an interesting article which represents yet another attack on AAU basketball. This particular piece centered on Kobe Byrant’s recent condemnation of AAU. “I was lucky to grow up in Italy at a time when basketball in America was getting f***** up with AAU shuffling players through on strength and athleticism,” said Bryant. As most people know, AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) is a generic term often used to describe travel or select basketball. Although there are a number of teams that never actually compete in AAU-sanctioned events, teams at the elite level are often considered “AAU” teams, and the system of “summer basketball” is consistently lumped under this category by media and fans alike. The fact is, AAU actually accounts for a small percentage of the basketball events that are held every summer. When we refer to “AAU Basketball” we are really referring to “summer basketball.”
With that said, I thought I would join the debate by adding my own perspective as a parent, coach, talent evaluator, event organizer and general basketball fan. For some perspective and as a frame of reference, my 2 sons and I enjoyed the heck out of our travel basketball experience and we would not trade the experience for anything in the world. We loved the competition, travel, the time spent together as a family and the friendships we developed along the way. The experience was very expensive thou and we often sacrificed financially in order to put our kids in the best position to succeed. As is the case with most parents, we dreamed of high school fame and scholarship dollars. However, unlike some parents, the NBA was only a faint goal, and was more analogous to “buying a lottery ticket” than realistically thinking about the possibility of a professional career for either son. For the Taylors, our goals were achieved as both sons went on to earn scholarships to division I and division II schools. Our eldest recently graduated from a small college with a business degree and is currently working for a Fortune 500 company, while our youngest is still playing college basketball. The relevance of our experience you ask; we owe it to AAU basketball to a great extent. Also, I think our experience adds some context to my thoughts and experience with the game. In addition, as further disclosure, the Buckeye Prep Report is part of the summer basketball, which could be either good or bad depending on one’s perspective.
Now that I have made full disclosure, provided a foundation for my perspective and highlighted the positive aspects of AAU basketball; for many families, AAU has amounted to no more than a pipe dream that neither led to college scholarship money nor NBA riches. Despite some of the same sacrifices mentioned above, for whatever reason, there was not pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Other than for a lack of talent, there could be a number of other reasons why the system fails families, but said failure could be traced to the very nature of travel basketball and some of the decisions that were made along the way.
AAU Lacks Emphasis on Skill Development
Like many of the critics of AAU basketball, I have my own concerns about the current system. From my perspective, there is not nearly enough attention paid to skill development. In many cases, AAU teams rarely practice, and if they do, practices amount to little more than an hour or two of scrimmaging, with little or no attention being paid to developing a player’s overall skill set. Even if a team practices, the focus is often more toward executing a team’s offensive or defensive philosophy rather than preparing players to play fundamental basketball. In my opinion, and it was certainly my approach when I coached my sons’ teams, practices should be more geared toward developing the basic skills (i.e., dribbling, passing, shooting) necessary to excel in high school and college. As an example, when I coached, over the course of a 2 hour practice session, we spent 1.5 hours with skills and drills and a half hour of “controlled” scrimmages designed around our offensive and defensive sets. We didn't have the biggest or most athletic teams, but we won a lot of big tournaments (i.e., 2 AAU final 4s).
My suggestion to parents, go to your son’s practices and observe what’s happening. If you don’t see an emphasis on skill development, talk with the coach and request the same. Additionally, when choosing a team for your child, look for a team that practices 2-3 times per week, and actually works to develop your son’s individual game. Is your son’s coach teaching defensive fundamentals like help-side defense, defending the pick-and-role, and how to box? Is he/she teaching good shot mechanics and fundamentals? If not, that could be a real warning sign. With that said, and practically speaking, if your son’s team is full of talent, plays in the best events and the coach(s) are healthy individuals who have your son’s best interest in heart, it makes perfect sense why a parent might not want to change teams. In that case, I would suggest hiring a personal trainer who can provide your son with the skill development he needs, that way, you still get the best of both worlds. Trainers can be expensive (about $25 per hour on average), but these days, many kids are getting it, and if yours is not, he could be falling behind other kids, which is not a good situation depending on your goals. Bottom line; and I always tell parents; take responsibility for your child’s development. Don’t leave it up to your son’s coach; rather it’s a high school or AAU coach!
AAU Players are Pampered
In the article I alluded to earlier, San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich, when comparing basketball in the United States with basketball in other countries, suggested that our players are often “coddled.” I’ve seen this situation with my own two eyes, as coaches are so concerned about losing star players that they often allow poor play and poor behavior to go unchecked. Players routinely disrespect their coaches, officials, opponents and fans with virtually no fear of being disciplined. In fact, many coaches will not even sit a player on the bench for fear the player will leave or a parent will pull their child from the team. Quite often, a kid will play on multiple teams in one year because of issues they experienced on another team.
Unfortunately, players jump teams not just because of disciplinary issues, but because of a team’s lack of success, playing time issues, team schedule or personality issues with other players, coaches or parents. These days, parents are often quick to pull their child from Team A one weekend, have them playing for Team B the following weekend, and before the summer is over, they are with Team C or back with Team A. This practice sends a poor message to the player, which often carries over to high school and college. The result, every year in college basketball, a number of players transfer schools in search of better situations. Although there are a number of good reasons why kids transfer schools (i.e., coaching changes, poor fit, etc), it’s often a situation where a player is not accustom to being coached, pushed, and for the first time in his career being held accountable for poor play, substandard effort or poor attitude. Because they could just pick up and move in AAU, and high school for that matter, they seek out a perceived better opportunity with another school. As evidence, according to NCCA President Mark Emmert, over 40% men’s basketball players are not at their original school by the end of their sophomore season. This trend continues to increase at an alarming rate
Kids Play too Many AAU Games
Charles Barkley has been a big critic of AAU basketball for many years. His complaint, “…These kids aren’t getting good coaching. They’re playing too many games and not working on their game enough,” Barkley said. I’ve already touched on the poor coaching situation a bit, but the argument about the number of games kids play over the course of the summer is a real issue. In most cases, kids are playing every weekend starting in early March and not finishing up until late July or early August. And that’s just summer ball which does not include school ball or the fall showcases/camp circuit. Throw in training and it’s easy to see why Barkley and others like him are so concerned and why we see the problems in the game. Those problems include lazy play, indifference to losing (as they will still play another game in an hour or two win or lose) and overuse injuries. In reality, more and more events come on line every year, and parents and coaches believe that kids have to play in them to get better and to get exposure. My suggestions to parents and coaches; choose quality over quantity. Pick quality events where both the competition and exposure are high. Rather than going to tournaments every weekend, schedule skill sessions or academic-related activities. I can certainly relate to this issue, as I was guilty of doing the same thing myself, consequently, we have had multiple knee operations in the Taylor home!
AAU Breeds Bad Habits
Many of AAU’s cynics suggest that AAU makes it more difficult for high school coaches to coach. The primary concern involves the need for high schools coaches to have to break bad habits formed during AAU play. Although I can certainly see how this could be an issue, I also recognize that the level of play in most summer events help prepare players to contribute early to high school programs. In many cases, AAU has prepared kids to go directly to varsity and junior varsity teams and not on play a role, but start and sometimes become a program’s star player. Yes, a high school coach may have to correct some bad habits, both in terms of skill and attitude, but that coach inherits a player who has played against top competition, has performed on the big stage and under pressure for many years, and is already experienced and poised enough to step right in and contribute. As far as I’m concerned, as a high school coach, I would be willing to correct a few bad habits in exchange for a young player who can contribute to my program right away!
A Local High School Coach Weighs in
As part of this piece I wanted to get feedback from a local high school coach. Tony Stiab, a 12 year coaching veteran and current head coach for Gahanna Lincoln High School is an AAU proponent. “I may be in the minority [of high school coaches], but I’m an AAU supporter,” said Stiab. In Stiab’s opinion “the positives out weight the negatives,” in terms of AAU ball continued Stiab. As positives “it [AAU] gives high school players the chance to play against good competition,” Stiab said. When asked, about the “bad habits” kids tend to pick up from AAU, and the lack of structure and defense associated with summer ball Stiab indicated he is willing to deal with that. “Summer is the time for players to improve their offense game; time to work on their individual development. We tell our players that the high school season is about the team. We will reel them in on defense once we get them back in the gym,” continued Stiab. Stiab also acknowledged that many of his colleagues are “old school,” and are not fans of AAU. Not only does Stiab see AAU from a high school coach's perspective, he has 2 young boys who play AAU basketball, and he is careful where he places them. “Kids need to find the right team that will help them improve their game. As a father, you have to find the right program for your son. There are good organizations and there are bad. You have to put aside your ego [as a parent] and put your son on the right team, the right environment.” Staib said. “How many minutes are there? How many quality minutes will there be for my son,” questioned Stiab. There you have it, not all highs school coaches are AAU bashers!
Has AAU Surpassed High School Basketball in Importance
It is also argued that AAU has surpassed high basketball in terms of importance and relevance. Again, my experience suggests this may be true in some cases. I think in terms of exposure and recruitment, that’s very much the case. The fact remains, college coaches benefit greatly from AAU basketball, because the weekly events they flock to allow them to evaluate a large number or quality prospects at one time. Therefore, AAU basketball saves coaches money which is a must for smaller programs that lack the big recruiting budget. Moreover, AAU events provide coaches with the opportunity to see prospects play against a high level of competition, as opposed to seeing 1 or 2 prospects compete against inferior talent during the high school season. It’s also important to note that high school season and college season run simultaneously, making it difficult to get out and evaluate prospects.
In terms of the “high school experience,” I would not trade my son’s experience for anything. Although it’s great to travel the country with friends and family while competing against the best competition in the county, there is simply no substitution for the experience of playing in front of big crowds in your community and the pride a kid feels representing his/her high school!Also, at least in Ohio, AAU’s influence on high school programs is significant. In many cases, AAU coaches are increasingly taking over high school programs. When this happens, AAU programs often become “feeder programs” for high schools. Cincinnati seems to lead the way with this practice, but central Ohio has joined the trend as has northeast Ohio. Make no mistake; this is a national trend that will only increase as the pressure to win intensifies. Many fans of high school basketball point to the lack of competitive balance. When high school coaches bring a high number of players from their, or other, AAU teams, those teams are often stacked and can create artificially dominate highs school teams that compete against more “community-based” teams. Clearly, AAU’s influence on high school programs is significant, and not likely to decrease anytime soon.
I would be less than honest if I did not acknowledge the fact there is a lot of bad in AAU basketball (i.e., overzealous coaches and parents, greedy and dishonest program directors and coaches, adults who exploit players for their own gain, absentee parents, ect), however, even with its flaws, travel basketball can be a fantastic experience. Although I have highlighted some of my concerns about our system, I remain a great fan of travel basketball and the positive forces working within the game. Additionally, I have to acknowledge the fact that there are numerous hardworking and dedicated coaches and support persons who spend time away for their own families and spend money out of their own pockets to work with kids. Often times, coaches and teams are “painted with the same brush.” AAU is the same way; a few bad situations are allowed to define the entire system, when in fact, there is much more good about the game than bad. Although only a handful of coaches may run astray of the law, all AAU coaches are considered crooks and criminals. In my experience, that’s simply not the case. Many of AAU’s critics have not seen enough of the positive situations; consequently, they focus on the negative aspects of the game and ignore all of the good. In closing, I’m not sure this piece has “plowed any new ground,” or has offered anything of substance to the debate, but I simply felt the need to weigh in with my own observations and guidance for our Buckeye Prep Report followers. I welcome your comments (constructive) in the section provided below.