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Open Bar: AAU Basketball

Relax, and let the kids have fun.

Chances are if you’re a top-300 or so recruit in the country, you’ve likely spent your summer on the AAU circuit. Whether it be in the Nike EYBL, Adidas Gauntlet, the Under Armour Association, or an unsponsored team that just pops in and out of tournaments across the country, many of today’s bright young stars have participated.

But along with the rise of grassroots basketball there’s also been a lot of talk. Everyone from Steve Kerr to your local sports reporter have voiced their opinions. Does the game breed corruption? Are players benefitting from the summer tournaments? Is it too much on these kids? Is it luring the basketball community away from the game’s fundamentals? Well let’s talk about it.

Let’s start out with the distinction between ‘AAU’ and ‘grassroots’. The acronym ‘AAU’ stands for the Amateur Athletic Union, an organization founded way back in 1888 to establish a standard and uniformity of youth sports. AAU encompasses many different sports from jump rope to basketball to taekwondo with over one million memberships and 100,000 volunteers in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. But, the basketball portion of AAU is the largest of all sports and the biggest source of income with 50 percent of memberships falling under their umbrella. ‘Grassroots’ on the other hand refers specifically to basketball, but ‘AAU’ has become a sort of genericized trademark.

Some of the biggest concerns around AAU basketball are corruption and scandal. We’ve all heard about the FBI investigations that plagued the past college basketball season. A story from ESPN came out a couple days ago in reference to the FBI findings last fall. Thomas Gassnola, an AAU director from Massachusetts, pled guilty to wire fraud conspiracy after his dealings with guys like Silvio De Sousa, Dennis Smith Jr. and Billy Preston. There’s the story of Curtis Malone and his AAU team, D.C. Assault (a fantastic read) that talks about the issues off-the-court that swirled their coach/director and the choices he made to support his program which included drug dealing.

And then there’s guys like Kobe, who blamed “horrible, terrible AAU basketball” for the lack of fundamentals among the game’s up-and-comers. He declared that Europeans are more skilled than Americans and pointed to the Spurs’ roster as a prime example of the success diverse players can have in the league. “Teach players the game at an early age and stop treating them like cash cows for everyone to profit off of,” he told reporters after a loss to the Grizzlies back in 2015. “That’s how you do that. You have to teach them the game. Give them instruction.”

Steve Kerr went on to say that the culture is “counterproductive” and that grassroots has replaced high school ball as the dominant form of development. “I coached my son’s AAU team for three years; it’s a genuinely weird subculture,” Kerr wrote in a Grantland article from 2012. “Like everywhere else, you have good coaches and bad coaches, or strong programs and weak ones, but what troubled me was how much winning is devalued in the AAU structure.” Losing doesn’t quite resonate as much today as it did 20 to 30 years ago. If your team loses a game Saturday morning, never fear. You still have two to three more to play that day, and maybe one or two more again on Sunday. This can start all the way to the age of seven. AAU programs reach out to kids as early as second grade to start traveling the country, getting “exposure”, and posting their pre-pubescent highlights on YouTube.

But that’s not what grassroots basketball is about. Yes, I agree that seven-, eight-, nine-year-olds shouldn’t be driving across their country with their parents when most of them can’t even shoot correctly. THIS is when the fundamentals that Kobe talked about need to be coming into play. I guarantee that no college coach in the country is itching at the chance to watch a pre-teen play in a summer tournament. That’s just not how it works. But when high school starts to roll around, I think that’s when we start to see what AAU is meant for — pitting the best of the best up against each other.

Grassroots basketball wasn’t intended to teach kids how to throw a bounce pass, or run a pick-and-roll. It’s all about competition and seeing how one fares against his peers. It’s something that typical high school basketball just doesn’t offer. Rarely will you see multiple five-star players on the court during prep season, but during these summer tournaments it’s not uncommon at all. Gyms are flooding with potential talent, and what better way to evaluate them as a coach or a scout? And what better way to showcase your talents as a player than having an impressive performance in front of scores of collegiate coaches.

While this might piss off a lot of people, the kids get to have fun. I’ll give that one a second to settle with some of you.

I’m speaking as one of those kids who spent their summer in and out of gyms, riding across the country, meeting so many other players my age. Players and coaches spend countless hours together over these couple months, creating bonds that last lifetimes. It’s an opportunity to travel with your best friends, hanging out, playing the sport you love, all for the chance at earning a free college education. What’s better than that?

Grassroots basketball is a necessary evil, and like it or not, it’s here to stay. Despite corruption, lack of fundamentals and the odd atmosphere it might create for some, there just isn’t any way to get rid of it now. The shoe corporations invest millions of dollars into their respective leagues and tournaments every year. They go to great lengths to convince the next NBA All-Star to sign with their labels, pouncing on them in high school to run with one of their affiliated teams, sign with one of their schools in college, and then land a sponsorship deal after they get drafted.

I’m not saying the AAU scene is perfect because it could definitely be improved, but right now it’s good for the world’s future stars. The NCAA talked about administering its own NCAA-approved tournaments without the likes of the big three shoe companies, but there just wouldn’t be the same draw for talent like there is currently. There’s a brighter future in grassroots basketball if there was a tier system like there is for European soccer and coaches. Requiring adults to get certain certifications before one can be in charge of a program would likely cut down on these under-the-table dealings that all comes back to the conversation of paying players. But that’s a topic for another Open Bar.

At the end of the day, it boils down to doing what’s best for yourself as a player. I think the “AAU makes kids bad players” takes are out of touch. The guys in the top of the rankings are usually the same ones busting ass at practices, working with their trainers in the gym and the weight room, and soaking up as much knowledge as they possibly can. These events and tournaments are meant to be fun for them as well. Who wouldn’t want to fly down to Georgia with 10 of their best friends, get a bunch of free merch, and shoot baskets all weekend long? Give the athletes a break. There’s going to be bad apples in any industry/organization just like there is in grassroots, but the majority of these players are using the chance to capitalize on something special.