Commentary: The AAU debate

There is a lot of talk in the media right now on the influence AAU coaches have. Here is a true assessment of the situation and where perception and reality are sometimes very far apart.

Wednesday night should have been a celebration for high school basketball. For the first time in a long time the top two prospects in the country, Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel, were making their decision on the same night, and at least to some extent for both there was some intrigue going in. Thankfully for the most part that was the case, but one thing people came away talking about was AAU basketball and the influence it has on the kids and their decisions.

A lot of youth basketball was on display for the world to see on Wednesday, and most watching didn't even know it, and all the intricacies that were being seen. That was until George Dorhmann was interviewed.

Let me make it clear, I don't know Dorhmann, have never spoken to him, and to my knowledge have never been in the same place at the same time as him. With that said like many others who follow and write about youth basketball, I have read the book he wrote, Play Their Hearts Out, and found it to be a great book and a must read for fans of college basketball.

However Dorhmann would go on to talk about how AAU coaches have more impact on a kid's decision than their parents, he spoke about the power that AAU coaches wield, and basically went on to state that the elite kids choose their school based on what their AAU coach tells them.

Later on in the night on his twitter account, Dorhmann would reiterate his statements on ESPN by stating it was in regards to the elite top 50 kids in the country. He didn't back down at all even when confronted by parents, and stayed true to his thoughts.

Now how does this get back to Noel and Muhammad, it is simple and complex all at the same time. With Muhammad you have a kid who comes from a two parent household, the son of two college graduates, attended a private school right by his house, and was coached by his father for years, including on the AAU circuit.

With Noel it was different. Noel comes from a single parent household, his mother is not from United States, and didn't have much to do with his basketball career and development.

Also it is worth noting that Muhammad for the longest time has played for Dream Vision on the AAU circuit. Dream Vision has been sponsored very strongly by adidas. Noel by contrast has played for BABC based out of Boston. BABC is one of the flagship programs for Nike.

There you have it, two kids from entirely different backgrounds, from different parts of the country, and have had their basketball careers funded in different ways were set on one night to make their decisions, and one thing kept coming back, AAU basketball and the impact it had on the two and where they chose.

Muhammad picked the UCLA Bruins and Noel selected the Kentucky Wildcats. UCLA is very important college program for adidas while Kentucky is one of the major Nike schools at the college level.

Muhammad selected UCLA
At first blush it would seem very logical to draw a direct shoe company/AAU conclusion in regards to their decision. It is completely naïve to think that adidas, which sponsored Dream Vision, didn't tell Ron Holmes, Muhammad's father, that they would prefer he go to an adidas sponsored school. Likewise one would say that Nike would prefer Noel selected a school that wears the Swoosh as opposed to one that doesn't.

That is of course true, and I don't think any executives from Nike, adidas, or Under Armour would try to deny that they would prefer the kids they sponsor to end up wearing their shoes at the college and professional level. I mean those are all companies that are for profit, so that should be obvious.

However the question then becomes exactly how much influence did the shoe companies and AAU coaches have.

With Muhammad at the end of the day things began and ended with his father and mother. His high school coach, Grant Rice, as well as head AAU coach Clayton Williams, all no doubt had their input and spoke to Muhammad and his father about the process, but there is no questioning that Holmes, his wife, and Muhammad alone were the ones making the decision at the end of the day. Now why they made their decision, no one but them can know for sure, but no outside influence was able to tell them what to do, that isn't the type of family they are.

Noel is slightly different. He doesn't have the same infrastructure in his life that Muhammad does. In fact, Noel's mother was out of the country at the time of his announcement. Still at the end of the day the decision with Noel was made between him and his mother.

All along the buzz was Noel liked Kentucky the best. In fact, the talk centered around the fact that his AAU coaches favored Syracuse where former BABC star Michael Carter-Williams resides. Now there is no way to verify that, but usually where there is smoke there is fire. Likewise the thought was his mother favored Georgetown. She liked the idea of a smaller private school as opposed to a big public school.

However at the end of the day it was Noel who won out after talking to his mom. Like most parents, Noel's mother wanted her son to be happy, and Kentucky is what her son wanted.

This would seem to contradict Dorhmann's assertion that AAU coaches control things, however to be fair two is not a sample size, so it has to be looked at on a much larger scale.

As a national analyst for, myself along with Evan Daniels and Josh Gershon are in a position to learn who helps kids make their decisions. It isn't hard to do, most kids directly will tell people, and the first question coaches ask a kid is who will help them make their choice.

In coaching circles that person is known as the "champion", the person "running the recruitment", or some variation of that. The question now becomes most often who is that person.

A look at the 2012 class would show Dorhmann was very off in his assertion of AAU coaches controlling things. For right now just disregard the process of how a person other than a parent gets into a position of power, and look at the class itself, specifically the top 50, which would be the players Dorhmann himself says he was speaking about.

Of the current top 50, 34 prospects had the decision made primarily with the influence of parents. In four instances you could point to a high school coach being the primary helper, eight leaned significantly on their AAU coach, and four others had a different party as the champion of the recruitment.

Since Dorhmann decided to speak specifically on the power of AAU coaches, let's look at some specific instances in this class of high profile kids. Anthony Bennett, Kaleb Tarczewski, Mitch McGary, and Hanner Perea are four well known situations in which the AAU coach was a guiding force in a kid's recruitment, and all are slightly different.

Tarczewski's AAU coach is John Carroll. Carroll coached the New England Playaz the past few summers and developed a strong relationship with the Tarczewski family. Now the question is why would a two parent household want a guy like Carroll handling a large part of the recruitment. The answer would be Carroll is former NBA and college head coach. He knew how to deal with coaches, and on top of that the family felt that Carroll would have a great idea as to where their son would fit in.

So in essence, Tarczewski and his parents trusted Carroll based on his resume. Still at the end of the day, Tarczewski himself had to be completely comfortable with his choice, which he was, and it was a school, Arizona, that Carroll absolutely approved of.

McGary is another case where an AAU coach played a large role in helping a decision be made. It was very obvious that SYF Players coach Wayne Brumm was helping McGary and his parents navigate a very hectic recruitment. Brumm has complete trust in Michigan and the coaching staff in place, and informed the McGary's that he felt it would be a good choice.

Perea liked Indiana most
It is important to note that Brumm is a very successful financial advisor and John Beilein is the head of the ethics committee. Anyone who feels foul play was or is involved in the building of that solid relationship between the two parties is sorely mistaken. Brumm has his own money and Beilein isn't even going near the gray area to recruit. Knowing that it is clear that Brumm's like of Michigan was born out of trust he has in the coaches and not some kind of sinister reason.

Still at the end of the day when McGary was seemingly winding down his recruitment, his parents told him to hold off and make extremely sure he wanted to go to Michigan. After another few weeks of thinking things through, McGary was sure and then made his commitment on national TV, obviously choosing Michigan.

The other two cases highlighted involved unique circumstances. Bennett and Perea are both not from the United States. Bennett is a native Canadian while Perea hails from Colombia. Both prospects leaned heavily on their AAU coach for help.

In the case of Perea his AAU coach, Mark Adams, also happens to be his legal guardian. Adams, who views Perea as a son, lives in Bloomington, Indiana. Obviously that is where Indiana University is located. Still the recruitment was no slam dunk for the Hoosiers. Perea's coaches back in Colombia heavily favored Baylor, however that is not where Perea wanted to go. Living with Adams and becoming comfortable with the area, Perea wanted to go with Indiana, and Adams more than agreed with the choice, seeing as how he liked the situation and it is close to his home where he can see Perea play.

Bennett hasn't even yet determined his school. Still he is leaning on his AAU coach, Mike George, for help through the process. Bennett doesn't come from a family with a ton of familiarity with college basketball and George has been through the battles before dealing with coaches in the recruiting process. Who knows where Bennett will choose, but there is no question that George will have a say in the process as Bennett and his family want him to do so.

As is obvious with only eight of the top 50 prospects relying heavily on the help of an AAU coach it would be a gross exaggeration to state that AAU coaches control things in the world of recruiting, and as those examples illustrate the process of an AAU coach helping isn't what Dorhmann described and isn't what many in the public think goes on.

That conclusion and data however doesn't tackle the bigger and arguably more pressing issue of how does someone other than a parent gain the control in the recruitment of a kid.

If there is one thing that is known quite well in this country, and this extends far beyond the bounds of basketball, it is that parents protect their kids. Parents want their kids to succeed and do great, and parents don't want people around their kids who they don't trust.

Trust, that is the key word. An AAU coach, high school coach, or third party can't simply walk into a kid's life and say "I am helping you make your college decision." It simply doesn't work like that.

First of all there has to be a level of trust between a parent and any other person to let their kid travel with them or help them make any life decision.

Knowing this, the question now becomes why do parents seem to trust AAU coaches. A lot of complaints from people in the mainstream media as well as from fans who might be on the outside looking in is that AAU coaches have more control over high profile basketball players than do high school coaches.

To me this is interesting. Kids are only with their AAU coach for three months out of a calendar year. They are with them during the months of April, May, and July. Now why in those three months are coaches able to build a level of trust not only with kids, many of which come from tough environments, but with their parents as well.

People who are around young people who have grown up in the inner city will tell you they are the best detectors of fake people that there is. With that in mind, consider why do AAU coaches gain the trust of kids and parents, and how. Maybe more pressing and interesting to consider is why do high school coaches, who are around the kids for roughly seven or eight months, not gain that trust from the kids and their parents.

Obviously there has to be some reason. Almost every single AAU coach has a "real job". From financial planners, to city employees, to lawyers, to teachers, to business owners, coaches, even the most high profile ones, don't make their living because of AAU basketball in nearly every single instance.

So it isn't like these AAU coaches are spending every minute of every day with kids. So why, why would parents let a person not in their family so much to help their kid make the biggest decision of their life.

Christon made own choice
That question has a different answer for different people, but the key word would be trust. Now make no mistake about it, some AAU coaches, like some high school coaches, and for that matter some parents, are bad people. Bad people exist in every aspect of life and every avenue of the world. However like in the real world, they are in the minority in AAU basketball.

Knowing this it is pretty clear that these coaches must be earning the trust of the kids and the parents by showing that they have their best interest at heart. They do it by paying for kids to take unofficial visits, driving them to colleges, helping the kid with tutors, assisting a kid in attending a private school, or things of that nature.

All of that doesn't seem to get reported, what does get reported is some evil AAU coach, or third party, making a kid's decision for him. That however when you look at it simply doesn't pass the common sense test.

A perfect illustration of this would be with Semaj Christon. Christon is a Cincinnati native who is now rated as the No. 24 prospect in the 2012 class. Unlike many prospects in the five-star range, Christon wasn't always a star, in fact far from it. As a junior he averaged very modest numbers in high school, 5.3 points and 6.4 assists per game and wasn't even viewed as a division I prospect.

However as a senior Christon made huge strides with his game. He went from those modest numbers to averaging 19.8 points and 5.2 assists per game while leading his team to a very successful season. Like that, seemingly overnight, Christon became a hot commodity on the recruiting trail.

Unfortunately for Christon he struggled in school when he was an underclassmen. Now he has no one to blame but himself for that, but the bottom line is it became clear he was going to have to do a year of prep school in order to qualify academically.

Just like that people in the city of Cincinnati who follow basketball saw a future star. They knew he was just scratching the surface of his potential, and college coaches were flocking in. Well a third party, not his AAU coach, became the champion for Christon. This is a well known person in the city and someone who earned the trust of Christon and his mother.

With this individual controlling Christon's recruitment, college coaches began to go through him, and he had Christon focusing on some colleges, some of which Christon didn't now a ton about. As time went on, Christon and his mother began to grow weary of the situation. They began to think that the man they thought had Christon's best interest at heart simply was looking out for his own well being.

Eventually in the month of July, Christon and his mother told the third party to take a hike and cut him out of the mix. Eventually Christon would decide to stay home and commit to Xavier, a decision his former advisor was upset with, but one his mother wanted.

This illustrates clearly that no matter what the circumstance parents are the ones who control things. There is no other way to get to a kid except through a parent. Now sometimes a parent will ask for the guidance of an AAU coach, a high school coach, an uncle, or family friend to help with the process, but at the end of the day it is the parent who decides who is allowed to advise and speak with their child.

So the next time some talking head on TV talks about AAU coaches controlling the decisions of kids, or shoe companies controlling the decisions of kids, take a look and ask is that really possible, and is it really a plausible explanation. Then ask yourself why do parents trust the people they do, and maybe most importantly why don't they trust the people that many in society think they should.

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