AAU Basketball: A Primer (Part 2): Massaging Summer Coaches
by Hoop Alliance, special to TechSideline.com, 7/18/04

AAU basketball and the shoe companies have taken on great power during the all-important summer months, and wrestling that power back from those two entities is a far greater challenge than recognizing the problem. The National Association of Basketball Coaches just recently met and developed some strategies for gaining more of a voice and influence in not only their own players, but prospective recruits; we know, however, that the NCAA's legislative process can be a lengthy and burdensome one.

In the interim, many coaches have decided to work the best way that they can with the shoe companies and myriad of AAU coaches, who hold influence over potential recruits. That cooperation starts with attending to personal relationships with the AAU programs that proliferate the summer scene. These relationships help foster, or at least pave the way, toward future player procurement. But they are also mine-filled in that a simple one-on-one relationship with an AAU coach or program is oft-times not enough to help facilitate a recruit coming into your program. The better recruits - the caliber of recruits that gravitate toward the power conferences, or the national top 50 type of recruits - will often need more than a college coach and AAU coach relationship. It will need a shoe company relationship as well.

The reason that the shoe companies will be needed in many cases is simple. There is fierce competition between Adidas, Nike and now Reebok for players and traveling teams. Nike, for instance, has a total of 38 traveling AAU teams that they fully fund. To fully fund means to take care of entry fees and travel expenses for the teams to travel to the AAU events that take place throughout the country. This does not even begin to tap into the discretionary funds that also are provided to the top traveling teams. There are, of course, many other teams that Nike gives partial funding to. At the July Nike All-America camp in Indianapolis, which is an NCAA sanctioned event for college coaches, there is usually a roster of approximately 180-200 campers. The vast majority of those campers come off Nike traveling teams, Nike-funded teams or individuals from teams that have a Nike relationship. Adidas operates in the same fashion, and now that Reebok has entered the fray it will mean three shoe companies grappling for teams and players.

The influential people in each of the hierarchies of the three shoe companies hold great influence and power over the whole summer basketball landscape. They go into the homes of prospects, just like college coaches do, and make home visits. They can contact these players anytime they desire and as often as they like, unlike college coaches, whose contact is restricted and legislated by the NCAA's recruiting rules. With the flow of apparel and such from the shoe companies to prospects, the loyalty starts early for many kids, who donít understand necessarily the recriminations of locking into a relationship at such an early age with a shoe company.

This influence on the part of the power brokers within the shoe companies doesnít stop with just the high school prospects and AAU programs. This influence goes beyond that and toward certain college programs. Not just any college program, but unsurprisingly, those college programs that wear the same Nike, or Adidas or Reebok apparel. Shoe companies, once they have high school prospects in the fold, and on their traveling teams, will very often look to channel these same prospects to a college that wears the same shoes. The reason for that is to protect their interest, in the event that the college prospect eventually signs a pro contract, and/or an apparel deal.

It was recently announced that the number one overall pick in the latest NBA Draft, 6-10 high school star Dwight Howard, had signed a contract for big money with Adidas, a fact that surprised absolutely no one within grassroots basketball. Howard had played his summer ball with the Atlanta Celtics, an Adidas traveling team, and everyone expected Howard to ink with Adidas when he turned pro. More and more large traveling teams want to procure players into their programs and then immediately academically re-classify these same kids. That seems to be the flavor of the month with some AAU programs. Some kids do need academic work, and holding them back a year will better position them for entrance into college, and ultimately academic success, which should be the focal point of interest for all parties concerned.

Reclassifying kids has become another avenue that some AAU programs are using to keep players in their fold longer, hoping to insure better summer success at the national events, which might attract a greater percentage of funds from the shoe companies, and perhaps the player will have another year to work on his game and develop his skills. There are even some AAU programs who will state very clearly that they are looking for a similar situation to that of NBA star Tracey McGrady. McGrady re-classified and attended Mt. Zion Christian Academy in Durham NC. He has also been a very generous contributor to his former school, Mt.Zion, thanking them with monetary assistance for the help he attained there in preparing him for the success he has achieved at the professional level. There are more than a few AAU teams and coaches that are hoping for a situation like McGradyís, hoping to strike lightning again.

When fans and followers look at college players and complain about certain attitude issues and behavioral issues that they see, everyone has to know that the skids are greased very early for this, due to the extreme pressure that some AAU programs place upon certain prospects to join their AAU program. This is especially true with those AAU programs that are looking to either become full-fledged traveling teams under a certain shoe company banner, or at least garner partial monetary support. One of the best and quickest ways to attract funds from a shoe company for an AAU program, is to be able to "deliver" certain prospects to that shoe companyís summer camp. These AAU coaches will put themselves in positions where they promise certain things, such as playing time, what position they play, a number of things designed to "showcase" that prospectís attributes. Their future standing within a shoe companyís family might be predicated on ensuring a certain player attends the camp during July, when coaches are in attendance. This puts some AAU coaches in positions where the player dictates things to the team, and keeping one certain player happy becomes the focus of the coach and program, who need to make sure that player doesnít become unhappy and switch AAU teams, for possible funding will go the same way the player goes, should he decide to find another AAU team.

For too many AAU teams, it is not about the entire roster of players and teaching the game or fundamentals, which are greatly lagging in so many of the contemporary high school and college players, but rather about maximizing power, gaining shoe funding - which helps gather power - and working your way up the hierarchy. Some shoe companies have been known to fly in the parents of certain high-level prospects to their July camps, where no one is allowed, other than college coaches, parents and media members. These enticements help keep the parents and the players happy and content within the shoe company family.

These enticements also constitute a conflict of interest, in the minds of many college coaches, frustrated by a pattern of seeing shoe companies and AAU programs constantly handing out gifts, apparel, inducements and such, gaining influence in the process, while they must stand by helplessly and watch the events unfold from afar. This happens long before college coaches are allowed to even manufacture relationships with the kids or parents, and well after the shoe companies and AAU programs have built a loyal relationship.

The relationship between coaches and players is the worst it has ever been, according to many college head coaches. Coaches have decided that they need to fight back to gain some leverage with high school prospects and parents. If coaches are going to be held accountable for graduation rates, off-court behavior issues and such, they want to be able to more fully know the players they are enticing to their university and more fully develop a relationship with the players and parents, prior to the decision of the prospect to attend that university. As current rules are written now, college coaches have to enter into relationships with some that they would rather not have to at an early stage - the AAU coaches - and are restricted from developing relationships with the people that they should be getting to know better - the high school prospect and his parents.

Coaches might be rightfully feeling they are taking too much of the heat for the transgressions of players who they havenít gotten to know well enough before they decided to recruit them, based on the limited contact that the NCAA mandates between players, parents and college coaches. Coaches are not allowed to make their first phone call or have contact with a high school prospect or his family until March of that prospectís junior season. The next phone call is not allowed to the prospect or his family until June 21, the summer between the prospectís junior and senior seasons. The first face-to-face meeting between the prospect and coaching staff cannot occur until April of the prospectís junior season, and that must occur at the high school of the prospect. As we see more and more high school prospects make a college decision in the spring or summer of their junior year, that is right after colleges have just made their first contact, placing them well behind the relationships that the AAU programs, coaches and shoe companies have developed.

This is the large area of concern with many college coaches and an area that was addressed in the recent proposal, unanimously passed by the 195 coaches in attendance at the National Association of Basketball Coaches annual meeting in Indianapolis IN, which coincidentally just happened to be the venue for the Nike All-America camp. College coaches want an earlier start on getting to know and develop relationships with the players that they ultimately will be held accountable for graduating and polishing into a fine prospect on the court, and solid citizen off the court.

In the third and final part of this installment, we will look at the various ways that shoe companies and AAU programs are further frustrating college programs, as they manipulate the summer scene and maximize profits, which come from the coffers of the athletics departments at the universities. We will also look at some of the measures that the NCAA might look at to rein in the shoe company and AAU influence, while bringing high school coaches back into the equation.

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