A growing appreciation for the AAU circuit

Boiler Sports Report publisher Chris Emma details how he grew to love AAU basketball.

MEQUON, Wis. -- I wasn't sure what to expect for my first AAU tournament. Before working with Scout, I followed basketball recruiting on a casual level, but had never seen its most important process in person. This would be something new for me.

It totally sucked. The gym was crowded and sweaty, I was drilled in the head by a loose ball, and a coach yelled at me for some silly reason I can't remember now. I at least gathered some important notes and key interviews, but that was about it. I got out of there pretty quickly.

This didn't bring out that romantic basketball feeling for me. I was missing it, and it was right in front of me.

That was three years ago and my perspective has changed considerably. I see the games differently now.

Walk into the main gym at the Under Armour Summer Jam event, or any other event around the country, and you'll see it too.

There are courts jammed side by side and games pressed against each other. It's basketball all day long for an entire weekend. You settle in and watch one game, and then two new teams take the court. You soon lose count of who's playing and how many games you've watched. But this is basketball, and it's special.

To appreciate this, I learned to tune out the shenanigans—the sometimes-crazy parents and sometimes-crazier coaches. I pretended like the gym didn't reek of an incredibly foul odor. I focused on the floor.

Each game is an opportunity. Wins bring recognition, brand-name ‘swag', and trophies. A good performance could bring scholarship offers and that dream of playing at the next level. It brings out the best in basketball.

The action is intense. This isn't just recreation, I later learned. It's so much more. That's what brings out the screaming, maniac parents and coaches.

For five-star center Myles Turner, one of the top prospects in the country for the 2015 class, a Friday afternoon game brought coaches from all over the country. Kentucky's John Calipari, UCLA's Steve Alford, Baylor's Scott Drew and many more filled the front row to watch him in action. The undersized, overmatched center he faced didn't have much of a chance to compete. The five shots Turner stuffed in his face would prove that.

But the little center kept fighting. He was in Turner's grill for each possession, giving it everything he could. He was the underdog and he knew it. Yet, he kept fighting.

These tournaments bring a will to win. Outside the gym, a coach led his team through warm-ups. "You can rest your bumps and bruises next week when this is all over," he barked to the players. "How badly do you want this? Give it all you've got!"

Now, I understand it. I see the pride that goes into each tournament, each game, each possession.

"It's just a blessing to be able to do it," said senior forward Mack Mercer, who has seen his recruitment rise during this July circuit. "This is my last summer doing it, so I'm trying to leave it all out on the floor."

Even for an elite prospect like five-star junior center Karl Towns—part of the bright basketball future at Kentucky—there's no holding back in these tournaments. He was hustling on each possession, he dove on the floor for a loose ball, was a leader for his talented team.

"At the end of the day," Towns said, "if I play the way I can play, I'll be very proud of my life and my accomplishments."

Each time I hear it from the game's participants, the feeling sinks in more. That's what I was missing for those first tournaments. That's what makes it so special.

This is basketball being played with heart and passion, and that's the way it should be. I've grown to love it.

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Northwestern Wildcats, and currently covers the Purdue Boilermakers. A Chicago native, he resides in West Lafayette.
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