This week marks high tide for the summer evaluation period in college basketball, as thousands of grassroots youth teams descend on Las Vegas, Orlando and various points in between—the Adidas Super 64 tournament in Vegas, for example, boasts nearly 400 boys' teams across four age divisions. Every college basketball coach and his assistants will be somewhere watching the action. But in addition to the sounds of balls bouncing and sneakers squeaking, these games will also bring the plaintive cries of critics decrying the evils of an enterprise that is essentially ungoverned and unending: It's killing fundamentals! It's spoiling the kids! It's ruining the culture!
It is easy to point out the downsides of what has come to be called AAU basketball (even though many teams playing this summer are not affiliated with the Amateur Athletic Union), including the influence of money from sneaker companies and coaches co-opting star players for their own gain. But amid all the hand-wringing, the benefits get lost. Here are a few reasons why AAU basketball is worth all the trouble:
It makes the players better
Critics lament the decline of fundamental skills because of the proliferation of tournaments, but any player will tell you that the way to become the best is to compete against the best. At the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., earlier this month, the Mac Irvin Fire and Jahlil Okafor, a 6'10" senior center from Chicago's Whitney Young High, squared off against the Jackson (Miss.) Tigers and Malik Newman, a 6'3" junior shooting guard from Callaway High. Okafor scored 17 points and pulled down 16 rebounds, while Newman scored 25 points, in the Fire's 83--73 victory. Yet neither player would have gone through that kind of learning experience if they had stayed home all summer. "I've been playing AAU basketball since the third grade, and it definitely makes me better, playing against the top competition," says Okafor. "It gives you confidence when you do well."
It creates opportunities
Elite players enter the summer with their reputations established, but for the vast majority of kids competing this week, the tournaments offer a chance to be discovered by college coaches. And the opportunities travel both ways: Instead of having to crisscross the country to see a small handful of players at a time, coaches can alight in one place and scout hundreds of Division I prospects.
It promotes fellowship
Millions of basketball fans were moved last month by the sight of players from the Heat and the Spurs embracing after Miami's victory in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The seeds for such emotional displays are planted on the grassroots circuit. Instead of having scant familiarity with their peers, high school players from all over the country have a chance to get to know one another at summer tournaments. When they face off as college players, and perhaps as pros, they will do so not just as competitors but also as friends.
The same can also be said for college coaches, who spend countless hours every summer hanging out together in bleachers, restaurants, airports and hotel lobbies. The chance to expand their professional network is a boon for up-and-coming assistants. Recruiting can be a cutthroat business, but all that time spent together results in strong, lasting friendships.
It exposes kids to mentors
Sure, some grassroots coaches are bad guys. But the same can be said for some high school coaches. Contrary to popular belief, not every AAU coach is trying to ride his players to a big payday. Boo Williams, an insurance salesman, has been running his AAU program in Hampton, Va.—it goes from grade school through high school—since 1982. For a teenager who has no father at home, his AAU coach may be the most dominant, and positive, adult male influence in his life.
Playing high-level basketball year-round is a huge commitment, and it's understandable that some kids would feel as if they are missing out on a normal childhood. Still, most wouldn't do it if they didn't enjoy it. And there's a lot to like. They're hanging with friends, seeing the country and playing ball, all with the chance to get a scholarship.
There are lots of problems with college basketball recruiting, and grassroots hoops has plenty. But AAU basketball remains an enterprise worth savoring.
Any player knows that the way to become the best is to compete against the best.
TING SHEN/TRIPLE PLAY NEW MEDIA/AP