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Is AAU ruining basketball? How this generation of NBA stars is different

The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) has been around since 1888 and has been a pipeline for young and talented athletes to display their game, competing against elite talent in their region since the Union’s inception.

Players like Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, and LeBron James all came up in the program, which has been more than instrumental in providing a spotlight on players who, without the system would only be stars in their oftentimes humble neighborhoods.

AAU programs offer kids from 12-17 years old around the country an opportunity to be a part of a team, play in weekend basketball tournaments, participate in fundraisers and get exposure to coaches and recruiters.

However, the league has been under harsh criticism, even from its alumni, saying that the fast-paced style has taken the meaning out of winning and the importance of team ball.

One of the harshest critics of the league is current San Francisco Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr who is a former AAU coach himself.

“What troubled me was how much winning is devalued in the AAU structure,” Steve Kerr wrote back in 2012 for “Teams play game after game after game, sometimes winning or losing four times in one day.”

Kerr spoke on the lack of loyalty as well.

“Certain players play for one team in the morning and another one in the afternoon. If mom and dad aren’t happy with their son’s playing time, they switch club teams and stick him on a different one the following week. The process of growing as a team basketball player — learning how to become part of a whole, how to fit into something bigger than oneself — becomes completely lost within the AAU fabric.”

Earl Watson, NBA veteran and current head coach of the Phoenix Suns, differs. He has spent more than a decade giving back to the game, offering guidance to the younger generations, through his AAU program, Earl Watson Elite.

“For me,” Watson said to Bright Side, “it’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve done, outside of myself, in my entire life, is being involved in grassroots basketball.”

He contends that his AAU program has helped over 200 kids move on to college in just the last six years alone.

“We have three guys at Harvard, five or six guys in the Ivy League. We have banquets for those players with over 4.0 GPAs, and sometimes those guys will play on the Elite team and sometimes we play against other academic players. We kind of mix and match.”

In contrast to other under-18 feeder systems, like baseball, for example, basketball depends heavily on the player’s performance as a unit. The back-to-back weekend games playing tournament after tournament and switching teams all the time promotes a culture that lacks emphasis on winning and losing.

In baseball, it’s all about getting in front of the right coaches and scouts to see what you can do, whether that’s showing off your skills with the glove, throwing arm, or hitting one out of the park. Basketball, however, is heavily predicated on spacing, making the extra pass, cuts etc. The more the team knows one another, the better — but continuity can be hard to establish in the AAU system.

Then there’s the case for a lack of fundamentals. Many coaches and players have been on record heavily criticizing the AAU and how the league’s lack of emphasis on the core basics of the game has translated to the NBA. Kobe is one of these detractors.

Kobe’s first criticisms of the AAU came back in 2015 following a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies and their extremely versatile (European) center Marc Gasol saying:

“Teach players the game at an early age and stop treating them like cash cows for everyone to profit off of,” he said. “That’s how you do that. You have to teach them the game. Give them instruction.”

Then again in 2016, in his final season after a loss to the Portland Trailblazers, the Mamba blasted the under-18 league, saying:

“I hate it because it doesn’t teach our players how to play the right way, how to think the game, how to play in combinations of threes….. I think that is just by luck in the generation that I grew up in,” he said. “My generation is when AAU basketball really started becoming s—. I got lucky because I grew up in Europe and everything there was still fundamental, so I learned all the basics.”

Fast forward to 2017 and the retired five-time champion has taken matters into his own hands, coming up with what he is naming the Mamba League, a collaboration with Nike and the L.A. Boys and Girls Club, that aims to teach young athletes the value of fundamentals and playing good team basketball.

But one has to ask, how much blame can you put on AAU? High school basketball still exists, and by large players that participate in the summer tournament league still get their coaching from the same high school and college coaches they always have.

Basketball thought leaders have suggested that it’s the NBA’s age limit that has led to the game’s lack of fundamentals and not solely AAU. Coming into the league at the tender age of 19 with unqualified high school coaches and only one required year of college ball, or a league abroad may have had more of an effect on the league.

So maybe it’s a case of raising the NBA age limit and requiring more attention placed both on fundamentals and the understanding of the game, rather than solely playing AAU ball.

Clearly, something has to be done. When guys like Phil Jackson and Dr. J — pillars in the NBA game — are saying the game lacks fundamentals (see video below) there has to be a finger pointed somewhere. Whether it’s the NBA age limit or the lack of focus in AAU, the basics of the game have seemingly taken a hit.

With Kobe’s new league, which has a creed of centering on the fundamentals, is more established we’ll have a case study to see just how different the product will be.

Until then the “problem” that many NBA legends see exist will still exist. I guess only time will tell.

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