Tis the season of AAU tournaments – where the top prep talent tries to wow college coaches in hopes of landing that treasured scholarship. Teams with names like "Pump & Run," "Midwest Ballers" and "Playerz Pride" compete in places like Las Vegas, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Houston. While a lot of kids are enjoying their summers at water parks or at monotonous summer jobs, there are clusters of 17-year-old college basketball hopefuls who are trying to prove that they belong on a college squad. It can be stressful for the players, who are playing for thousands of dollars of scholarship money, and for coaches whose careers are heavily dependent on the talent they can recruit. Then there are those of us that are just filling the rest of the AAU rosters and looking forward to the Golden Corral buffet after the game.
My AAU career began in fifth grade playing with some other Madison-area locals in tournaments against older competition at St. Bernard's church on the eastside of Madison. Over the course of eight summers, my AAU trips took me to gyms in places like Milwaukee, Menominee and Dubuque (IA) to Memphis, Albany (NY) and Las Vegas. I played against the best competition in the country and got experience in just about every game situation you can imagine.
In the National AAU Tournament in seventh grade, a player from Los Angeles got a technical for doing chin-ups on the rim. In another tournament, we were up 10 on a team from Indianapolis called "No Excuses" featuring Jeff Teague (currently of the Atlanta Hawks) when the opposing coach forfeited the last six minutes of the game to rest up for their next game. Later in my career, against a team from Detroit called "The Family" featuring non-relatives Tajuan Porter of Oregon, Ramar Smith of Tennessee and Deshawn Sims of Michigan, I was the third member of our team to foul out in double overtime, leaving us with four players left (we lost). In sixth grade, an opposing assistant coach had to be restrained from beating up a referee for making a bad call on his kid.
The AAU teams I played on were not ones that coaches went out of their way to watch. Most of the time they came to see other high profile teams try to whoop us and put on a dunk contest. We probably ruined a lot of these experiences with our gosh darn fundamental basketball. My path to Division I basketball was different than the typical player who wows coaches and earns a scholarship at AAU tournaments. I guess crisp chest passes and scrappy team defense don't ensure you a full ride.
Even through my junior year of high school, I wasn't on any kind of ranking list or college radar. I hadn't even thought about playing basketball in college until I started to get a few letters after my junior year. I actually only applied to Wisconsin because if I didn't play basketball, I'd get to go to an awesome school and get a great education. My skills, body and confidence grew in the spring and summer before my senior season. I played pretty well at a few camps and showcases and I went from not being in the top 100 ranked players in the state in certain publications (not that I read them) to being considered in the top 15. Being a walk-on, I wouldn't say I'm a direct example of success from AAU tournaments. I think my opportunity at Wisconsin was more about being a local kid who made it to the state tournament, getting in the WBCA All Star Game at the Kohl Center and winning a team championship at the Wisconsin Advanced Camp before my senior year in high school. But I definitely think the AAU competition helped me grow as a basketball player.
The AAU circuit isn't a flawless system in any way. It puts a lot of pressure on these kids when Coach K, Roy Williams and Bill Self are watching courtside. When you're 17 and nationally-acclaimed coaches are vying for your attention and telling you how great you are, you're bound to get a pretty inflated view of yourself. Even if they aren't watching you in person, your reputation as a player within coaching circles can fluctuate from certain performances. With so much being available online and everyone and their mother having a scouting blog, anyone on the planet can hear how you played in your 10 a.m. game against the Iowa Magic.
Recruiting services rank the top 500 players nationally. Do you think the scouts even know who all 500 are, or can keep straight if the 487th player is better than the 488th? And parents, who are either overeager or just want their kid to get exposure, eat this up and pay top dollar to get their kid in every showcase possible to put them on display. It's hard to tell some of these parents that their 5-9, 140-pound son isn't going to be a starting power forward at UCLA. And there are great AAU coaches who love the game and just want to teach young men how to play the right way – I had fantastic coaches. But there are loads of others who will tell a kid and his parents that the coach will make him a star, take the money, try to poach as many talented players as possible and then march and scream around on the sideline to put up a façade like they are saying something substantial and hopefully get connected to college coaches who may feel obligated to get them a job in their programs. Some AAU coaches make promises to kids so they will play on their team for one tournament, just so the coach can put on his website that a star college player was an alumni of his AAU program.
With all the issues, AAU was a greatly rewarding experience for me. I made a bunch of great friends and played on unselfish teams. It was fun to travel around, meet other basketball junkies my age and compete against tough competition. Part of what gave me confidence that I belonged in Big Ten games was the fact that I had been already competing against the best competition all over the country for years in AAU. For parents of prospective AAU players, I would say to be selective where you throw your money around – for camps, showcases, tournaments and teams.
There is definitely a natural feeling of losing ground on others when you're missing out on certain tournaments and showcases. But it's wise to be wary. If your kid is good enough, he will get noticed and get the notoriety and accomplishments he deserves. In this day and age, it's hard to be a diamond in the rough.