The Euro’s Are Coming! the Euros Are Coming!

As possibly the greatest first round in NBA history kicked-off, journalists across the country attacked the NBA and American players in a series of articles praising the unselfish International player. As Kobe Bryant willed the Lakers to a seventh game and LeBron James and Gilbert Arenas staged an epic battle for East Coast backcourt supremacy; while Vince Carter dispalyed his dazzling array of skills and Bonzi Wells dominated the San Antonio Spurs’ backcourt, journalists such as Rick Telander and Greg Boeck trumpeted the arrval of the “Next Dirk” Andrea Bargnani and a flock of followers from Europe bound to overrun the NBA and change the complexion of the game.

The writers even managed to quote a supposed authority on youth basketball, Nike’s own George Raveling. In the Boeck article, Raveling, Nike’s director of global basketball, says: “NBA teams are realizing it’s less risky to draft internationals because they’re more coachable, more socialized, have no posses and have not been Americanized.” Raveling’s prediction: International players will comprise 50% of the NBA by 2010.

I absolutely love the irony of this statement. Raveling, along with others like Sonny Vaccaro, who work in “grassroots development” for the major shoe companies (Reebok, Nike and adidas) are the ones responsible for United States teenagers being “Americanized” as Raveling says. These teenagers acquire entourages because shoe companies cothe them in free gear and fly them around the country to play in exposure events where “talent evaluators” and “journalists” write stories about fifteen year olds who are ready for the NBA to sell subscriptions to recruiting newsletters and ESPN Insider.

Now, I do not necessarily disagree with Raveling’s sentiments about the state of the American game, as my new book, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development criticizes the current system and outlines a stage-by-stage process to improve youth basketball development. Or, as I wrote in 2002 in a letter to the editor of Basketball Times magazine:

“America has an embarrassment of riches; however, the richness also causes many of the problems. The star system, the one-on-one games, the lack of real skill development, the AAU coaches who just role out the ball, they are all part of the problem, just as they pat each other on the back for the successes.”

Of course, Telander basically echoed my statements while writing about the Jordan Classic in the Sun Times:

“These teenagers have come here because this is what the best young players do these days: play everywhere for any kind of exposure, for gaudy shoes, for postseason awards, for prestige, for coverage, for street cred and, of course, for the god of all things basketball, the Michael himself.”

The problem is everyone from the media to coaches to the NBA easily identifies the problem (the current system dominated by shoe comanies, AAU basketball and exposure events), yet nobody is wiling to criticize the powerful people inside the system (Sonny Vaccaro, George Raveling and the legions of “grassroots” coaches like Joe Keller who are paid handsomely by shoe companies to find the best talents and get them in free gear) because they fear retribution; a college coach cannot criticize these “grassroots coaches” because they depend on their connections to these coaches to recruit players. So, while everyone talsk around the issue, nobody is willing to challenge the status quo because everyone is benefitting from the system; its like steroids and baseball, where baseball benefitted from the home run chases to increase interest so it closed its eyes to the steroids issues. Everyone from the NBA to the NCAA to the shoe companies benefits from the current system which exploits the players and impedes improvement, and then these same people turn around and criticize the players and glorify the International player who grows up in a system devoted to developing the athlete through a long term program to benefit the professional club and national team programs.

Instead of blaming the players, we need to create a more balanced approach to basketball development; one which is athlete-centered, based on science and which empasizes fun, learning, development, not just results and recruiting.

This means creating a schedule that is not year-round; returning the recruiting emphasis to the high school season, not the summertime; encouraging unstructured, child-centered play; coaches education programs and certifications; leadership from USA Basketball, the only entity with enough power to stand up to the shoe companies and the NCAA; greater emphasis on general athletic skills at a young age, not just basketball skills; and, finally, a greater emphasis on training for high school players, as opposed to touring the country to play in exposure events coupled with high school summer league games.

High school players are not professional; they do not need a professional schedule. The NBA takes 3-4 months off every year; high school players now only take a month, at most and many play more organized games each year than an NBA team. The hypocrisy needs to end and USA Basketball, the NCAA, the NBA and the shoe companies need to work together to improve the game and opportunities for American youth, not hurt the game, exploit the players and create a hodge-podge development system that is currently broken, by almost everyone’s estimation.

Vist Cross Over the New Model of Youth Basketball Development for more information.

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