With this article, the Buckeye Prep Report & OPS has attempted to portray the "State of AAU Basketball," as seen from the perspectives of some of the key players in the business. What you will find in the following paragraphs represent a snapshot of the game from people who are closely involved on a day-to-day basis with making it all happen.
We have attempted to present a balanced perspective, both good and bad, of several aspects of summer basketball and the primary issues of the day. As is the case with any subject, AAU basketball has many facets, which are unique to the sport. We will examine the roles and practices of the elite summer basketball programs in the state, the men who run them, and how they influence the game of basketball.
Because players, coaches and parents are an important part of the game, we examine their roles and responsibilities for the successes and failure of the game. Finally, we talk to talent scouts, coaches, OHSAA officials, referees and parents in order to seek their unique perspective as role players on the summer stage.
The state of Ohio is fortunate to have several elite basketball programs including All-Ohio, Cleveland Basketball Club, Cincinnati AAU and the Dayton Airmen. The Buckeye Prep Report had an opportunity to sit down with several program directors to discuss AAU basketball in Ohio. Much to our surprise, most of the program directors we spoke with cited similar concerns about the state of the game.
Mike Duncan, program director for the Cleveland Basketball Club, has been involved in AAU basketball since 1985 and has seen drastic changes in the game just in the last three years. "LeBron James changed the whole game forever," says Duncan. "Now, everybody wants to find that one kid, another LeBron." Now everybody wants to be part of the game and wants to make money off of AAU. Nobody wants to help the kids anymore," Duncan says. "Everybody is throwing tournaments now and they want you to bring your own score keeper and clock watcher, that's a rip off. They are taking the joy out of the game," says Duncan.
Duncan points to other changes in the game including the proliferation of father coaches who he claims, build teams around their sons who are often inferior basketball players.
"Parents want to coach their own kids. Fathers don't always want the right thing, they are only looking out for their own kids," contends Duncan. "These father coaches are using other players because their kids would not make any other team. These father coaches are locking up other talented players who could be playing for me and Jerry," says Duncan.
As another weapon in the war to land talented players, the "race card" is often played. According to Duncan, some coaches will tell perspective players and parents that a kid should not play with a certain team because of the racial makeup of the team and or the style of basketball a particular team plays. "I'm not naming any names, but I know for a fact that race has been raised as an issue in the recruitment of kids," says Duncan.
One of the many concerns associated with AAU basketball in the state centers around Ohio's ability to field nationally competitive teams. Al Powell, program director for the Dayton Airmen, is concerned with Ohio's ability to field teams that can compete nationally at the highest levels. "Its not that Ohio does not produce quality players, we just can't compete with states like Indiana and Pennsylvania," says Powell. "People still fear Ohio teams but we just can't crack the top ten," says Powell. Powell blames several factors for Ohio's inability to field top 10 teams. "There's not enough talent in the state. To be competitive, we have to go statewide," Powell says.
According to Jerry Watson of All-Ohio, "Ohio teams are very competitive at grades 4-9, but fall off in grades 10-11, as the talent gets spread out and programs from other states start attracting Ohio kids," say Watson. As an example, several nationally ranked players with the Dayton Airmen program have defected to a team based out of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Although those kids are now playing with one of the top teams in the nation, the overall talent level in Ohio is diminished. We asked Al Powell about this situation and why his kids traveled across state lines. His response was straightforward.
"When we were in the 6th grade no cared about us. They thought they would get them in the 9th grade. When we were unknown we asked the larger programs for help and they turned their back on us. Now that we have several top players they want our kids," says Powell.
Most summer basketball fans are aware of the fierce competition for elite basketball players in Ohio, which often pits program against program and director against director. Although in the past there were clear-cut territorial boundaries separating the elite programs in the state, because of a dwindling pool of quality players and more pressure from shoe companies to produce winning teams, program directors are forced to recruit in their competitor's backyard. Currently, a battle is raging between Jerry Watson and Mike Duncan, program directors of All-Ohio and the Cleveland Basketball Club, respectively, over players. Both programs accuse the other of stealing players and other unscrupulous acts.
According to Watson, the relationship between he and other program directors is "decent," but can sometimes become strained when kids who are established in programs are recruited by other organizations. He acknowledges that programs must cast out a statewide net to attract a dwindling pool of talent, but "there should be a hands off policy for kids who are already in a program." In addition, Watson suggests, "it gets muddy when other programs throw mud to attract players." To make matters worse, there is pressure from shoe companies for programs to attract the best kids in the state regardless if the player is playing for another organization. Mike Duncan acknowledges the friction between he and Watson and attributes the friction to the fact that he and Watson are "both trying to get the best players." I know who I can get from Jerry and I know the kids I can't get," says Duncan.
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