Youth basketball used to be about fun and learning, but that is no longer the case.
In today’s world of Amateur Athletic Union basketball, kids are expected to commit to the sport year-round from as young an age as possible. Practice is constant. The pressure to perform well is immense.
Looking at various AAU basketball programs, coaches and teams focus more on playing in high profile tournaments and showcasing individuals rather than developing fundamentals and skills as a team.
“The emphasis is not on winning, it’s on showcasing your own individual talent,” seven-time NBA all-star Grant Hill said on NBA TV’s Open Court. “There’s a lot of talent out – a lot of talent in the NBA, but not everybody necessarily knows how to win. I think that’s a flawed part of the whole AAU model right now.”
This focus on playing games to grow a player’s exposure and allow them to do well individually strips away one of the most cherished aspects of playing: learning the game of basketball.
“When they’re playing AAU, they just run up and down, no structure,” former ACC Player of the Year Dennis Scott said on Open Court. “When they get to their high school team, they’re not playing well.”
The result of playing more unstructured, run-and-gun AAU basketball is slowly taking away from the team aspect and fundamental focus driving high school basketball.
It is not only impacting players at this level, but even beyond well into a professional career where damage from the AAU mentality still lingers.
“Now we see a lot of our guys coming into the NBA today – they can score, they can run up and down,” Scott said. “But they can’t set a screen. They don’t know how to open to the ball the right way.”
Scott added that AAU coaches need to get their priorities straight.
“Today, some of the AAU coaches are looking for a handout,” he said. “They’re not really teaching them structure.”
A USA Today article from 2013 reported that former Jayhawks’ guard Ben McLemore was steered by his former AAU coach, Darius Cobb, to attend Kansas University. Cobb allegedly took bribes from a middle man with Kansas.
Of course, not every AAU coach crosses that line. Many, however, are different than the coaches of yesterday who mentored players like Scott and Hill. Their coaches incorporated a level of discipline coupled with life lessons, rather than a relationship more similar to a friendship.
“When we played, the people who were involved with us in AAU basketball – their hearts were pure. They wanted to just help the kids – teach the kids the right way,” Hill said. “I see now the AAU coach being an extension of their boys and that’s the problem because of the discipline and everything else.”
The best way to refresh and restructure the corruption and degradation of AAU basketball is to attack its leaders: the coaches of these young, impressionable players. The focus needs to be changed.
Two-time NBA champion Isiah Thomas phrased it perfectly when he said that AAU basketball had to return to its roots.
“The educators used to volunteer to be coaches and they would teach life lessons,” he explained to the Open Court panel. “It started with this, you play as you live: you live right, you play right.”
Kyle Kasharian is a business major from Green, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ItsKyleKash.