Last year, several high profile NBA and former NBA Stars stepped out and attacked “AAU” basketball as being bad for American kids. Kobe Bryant called AAU quote, “Stupid”, saying that, “Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It doesn’t teach our kids to play the game at all. So you wind up with players that are big and bring it up and do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post up. It’s stupid.”“
Lebron James expressed his disappointment in AAU ball as well saying, “I just don’t think the game is being taught the right way.”
WHAT IS AAU AND IS THAT ORGANIZATION WHAT KOBE AND LEBRON ARE TRULY TALKING ABOUT?
AAU stands for Amateur Athletic Union. From their website, “The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) is one of the largest, non-profit, volunteer, sports organizations in the United States. A multi-sport organization, the AAU is dedicated exclusively to the promotion and development of amateur sports and physical fitness programs.”
The confusion arises because people refer to almost all basketball that takes place outside the high school season as “AAU”. That’s a misnomer. It’s like calling a tissue a “kleenex”. Kleenex is a brand of tissue, a popular brand, and that brand has now become a substitute word for what it actually is, which is a tissue. Virtually all youth basketball gets labeled as AAU, and that is not the case.
So when guys like Kobe attack “AAU” they aren’t really indicting that particular organization per se, but making a blanket statement about all of youth basketball in general. If Kobe is saying NBA rookies show up not ready to play, he is indirectly going after his own employer Nike (as well as UnderArmour and Adidas), as they are the folks that are producing a high percentage of American college basketball players that make it to the NBA. So is there meat there? Is American youth basketball failing in general to produce players “who know how to play the game.”
On our recent podcast, we spoke with Jerry Meyer, Director of Basketball Scouting for 24/7 Sports. Jerry has been around the game for ever, as college basketball’s all-time assist leader and playing for his father, the late, great Don Meyer, a man John Wooden has called one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history. Jerry knows the game, and he felt Kobe was using sweeping generalizations and no real solutions.
- “Kobe lived overseas and is very proud of himself. To Be honest he can be called an arrogant person. He was just pissed off he lost. The player he is mad at probably played AAU.”
We discussed Jerry’s tweet about the quality of play in the Nike Peach Jam, an event that I was fortunate enough to coach in a couple years back. It’s an event Nike sponsored teams fight all season long in the EYBL to qualify and it brings together the top 24 Nike sponsored teams in the country.
“You can’t paint AAU with one broad paint brush. It is as good and competitive of basketball you will see on the amateur level. It has a March Madness feel to it. Pretty much all of them are going to play in March Madness and you will watch games where there will be 5 NBA players on the floor. I don’t think that is the problem, but certainly there are problems.”
It’s generally taken that Kobe and the NBA guys on the bash “AAU” basketball bandwagon are in fact talking about the leagues created by the big three shoe companies, Nike, Under Armour and Adidas, because these are the big 3 when it comes to producing the NBA players that they view as suspect when it comes to knowing how to play the game. If you are an NBA rookie, odds are very, very high that you played in one of the shoe company leagues. If Kobe says the current crop of youngsters don’t know how to play, he’s talking about the shoe company kids, not kids from the actual AAU organization itself. He’s calling a tissue a Kleenex.
Are there things that these leagues could improve upon? No doubt.
Youth basketball players in the United States spend way too many weekends playing in meaningless weekend tournaments. Wins and losses don’t matter as much when there is another game to play in a few hours. If a player gets disenfranchised with a coach or a lack of playing time, they can simply hop to another team or another league with no consequences. Instead, these players could be balancing their time working on skill development and trying to focus on weaknesses in individual or group workouts.”
In “the old days”, I think back to how important every game was in my high school career. It seemed like life or death at the time, and I competed accordingly! I “left it all out on the floor every game,” as they say. Kids today who play almost year round every weekend can lose a game, shrug their shoulders and start texting and tweeting like nothing happened, because they know the next game is in 2 hours, and there are 4 more of them coming that weekend. As a coach in that type of situation it can be frustrating trying to build a sense of urgency to play the right way and get kids to leave it all out on the floor. The shoe companies however have been smart enough to make the games matter. In the Nike EYBL, every game matters because only the top 24 teams are invited to the Peach Jam in the end.
In ancient times, when I played, because there weren’t tournaments every weekend we spent the summer working on our game. We sought out old guys to beat us up and teach us the “tricks of the game” on the court at the local YMCA. If a guy made up his mind to go to work in the summer, you could see dramatic improvement during the next high school season. You don’t see those huge jumps in players as often these days. I see guys that are “elite” as 15 year olds who don’t develop skill wise because they don’t find the balance between skill work and playing games. You don’t improve skill wise just playing in tournaments. You improve skills alone in a gym or working with a partner or small group of likeminded individuals.
The lack of structure and regulation dictates that every team and every league is going to be different. Some players are going to receive really good coaching, some are not. That’s the reality of the situation.
One thing we can control as Parents and Guardians are the amount of games we allow our children to play in a year. We can make sure they take some time off now and then and just be kids. We can do our due diligence and find a program where they like their teammates, feel respected by their coaches and have fun. We can also help them if those needs aren’t being met.
A friend of mine encouraged his high school son who had been playing for MOKAN to take a summer off, work on his skills and strength and play a few tournaments with his pals “just for fun”. It took some convincing, as the boy is a diehard and loves competing on a high level. In the end he trusted his Dad, and took big strides in terms of skill, strength and most importantly love of the game that summer. He came back bigger, stronger, more skilled and more fired up the next season for MOKAN and he had a nice summer in front of the college coaches. As your kids get older, their needs change in summer ball. Jerry pointed out that in early development, getting minutes and having fun are the priorities, but as kids enter their junior and senior years, exposure also plays a role. Some teams have a cadre of college coaches at every game, and sometimes being a role player on a high level team can pay dividends in terms of exposure that being a star on a less competitive team cannot offer.
SO HOW DO YOU PICK THE RIGHT TEAM FOR YOUR CHILD?
- Ask for background check of coaches/program.
- Ask around the area to get reviews of the coach/program- talk to former players and parents to get feedback. If in high school, get advice from your coach.
- Ask philosophy of team/coach/program.
- Are they teaching your child life skills through sports that will help them succeed in the future?
- If a college scholarship is important, ask what their track record is in assisting high school players to receive a scholarship
- As a parent know your child’s goals and outcomes – this will help you find the right team/program. Too many parents think they know their kids’ desires but usually their actions are driven by their own motives. The number one reason most kids play? They want to have fun with their friends. We would all be better served by knowing and remembering that sometimes.
We asked Jerry, how as the son of legendary coach, he picked coaches for his own children. “At young ages I want them to be pushed but not about the coach winning. I want them to be taught, have fun, learn to enjoy to compete (that is something we have to be aware with our children) there is no greater joy than working hard, improving and going to bed knowing that you are doing what you can do to max out on your talent. That is a deeper, richer fun. I think you can make it fun throughout the process but it is not all laughs and giggles. You are going to have to work one day so why not teach our kids to immerse themselves in a process of improving, working and find value and joy in it.”
Bottom line, if Kobe and Lebron truly want American youth basketball to improve they should offer solutions and get more involved. The opinions of the world’s best players carry weight. More importantly, their actions speak volumes. Kobe hasn’t been at the Nike Skills camps the last few years, and I’m not sure if he’s seen a Peach Jam. Maybe he should. A lot of great NBA players are still highly involved and working to make the game better at the youth level.
I recently began the “JIM HUBER SHOW” as an effort to give back and make the world a better place through sports. We’ve been talking to some of the great minds in the sport and outside of sports about solutions to problems and ways to improve the lives of the kids we coach. I hope you’ll become a part of that mission by subscribing and giving us a rating and review that will help the show grow and have a real impact for our wonderful game!