Culture Clash: High School and AAU Basketball

(originally published in Women’s Basketball Magazine. A slightly revised version with an additional introduction appeared in CWB)

Sir Issac Newton’s third law of motion states: “that for every action (force) in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” One need only listen in on the debate generated by the recommendations of the WBCA Special Committee on Recruiting and Access (R.A.) to realize just how right Newton was. The committee was charged with reviewing the “Division I women’s basketball recruiting calendar, recruiting rules, access, and climate and develop a new plan for all aspects of recruiting and all aspects of access between coaches and prospective student-athletes and student athletes through their collegiate graduation.”

With such a far-reaching mission, the overall package of reforms they developed was bound to prompt discussion. But of all their recommendations, it could be argued that that two innocuously titled proposals concerning Division I recruiting have created the biggest stir. Proposal 2004-142: Tryout Exceptions – Scholastic and Non-scholastic Events reads:

In women’s basketball, to prohibit women’s basketball scholastic and non-scholastic events, practice and competition from being conducted on the campus of a Division I institution, except for high school state tournaments or competition related to the state tournament or official state games, under specified conditions.

Proposal 2004-146: Evaluations During Academic Year – Non-Scholastic Events reads:

In women’s basketball, to prohibit evaluations at non-scholastic events during the women’s basketball prospective student-athlete’s academic year.

Not surprisingly, considering the wide ranging impact the a would have on every participant in the recruiting process, the proposals have generated passionate responses from college, high school and club coaches, parents and players alike. You can read some of the reactions on the WBCA website at http://www.wbca.org/AAUresponse.asp. At http://www.wbca.org/Racommittee.asp there is also a follow-up memo addressing some of the concerns raised by the twp proposals, as well as the complete Recruiting and Access Final Report.

This is a difficult and complicated issue with many possible consequences, both anticipated and not. But it should be debated and discussed openly and with the enthusiasm that fuels our love of the game of basketball. Part of the WBCA’s mission is to “foster and promote the development of the game” in all of its aspects. In many ways, these two proposals cut to the heart of that statement. What do we mean by the “development of the game?” What are our individual visions of that future? What are our fears, our hopes, and our ambitions? How do we share these visions with others? Where is our common ground? Is Newton right? Will our equal and opposite reactions result in immobility and in action? Or can we find a way to move forward for the good of the game?

In the interest of providing further information on the issues that inspired the Committee’s recommendations, the following article is being reprinted. It originally appeared, in a slightly modified form, in the April, 2004 issue of Women’s Basketball Magazine and was written in reaction to perceived tensions between scholastic and non-scholastic coaches.

In 1973, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) held its first national basketball tournament for girls, featuring 16 teams of 15 and 18-and-under. This past July, 651 teams vied for National Championships in eight different age groups – 10-and-under up through 18-and-under.

Initially played exclusively in the summer, as AAU’s popularity and influence has grown it has begun to encroach on time and territory traditionally reserved for the high school coach. As questions about AAU’s role in college recruiting and general concerns for the student-athlete’s welfare have emerged, the relationship between school and non-school teams is becoming a more popular topic of discussion.

AAU has no teams but is a program that organizes events for its members at the local, state and national level. Athletes and coaches join for a nominal fee ($12-$15), which entitles them to participate in AAU events, and gives them extensive insurance. People can put together a club, and under that club have as many teams as they want. An enormous amount of freedom is afforded to its members, and while refreshingly democratic, the lack of direct supervision and accountability opens AAU up to criticism.

AAU is primarily made up of unpaid staff. “We have no salaried people except those at the national office,” explains the Carroll Graham, executive director of AAU Girls Basketball. “Disney (in Orlando, on whose property AAU’s national headquarters are located) says, there’s no way you can run a multi-million dollar organization with volunteers. But they found out we could.”

Over the years, the enormous growth of AAU has resulted in an organization that, says Eddie Clinton, the AAU girls’ sports director, “is like a 34 legged octopus and each little tentacle has 50-something additional tentacles. It’s really amazing, when it gets right down to it, that it works as well as it does. And, sometimes, it doesn’t work.” Of the 108,545 girls who participated in AAU basketball programs last year, only a small percentage play in the Nationals. Because the tournaments take place in the summer, and fall within the NCAA approved window of contact between college coaches and high school players, they have become a mecca for basketball scouts.

“Last year, in our 16-under tournament, we had over 600 college coaches,” says Graham. This also makes Nationals a priority for players hoping for college scholarships.

“It doesn’t matter if you go to a small high school or a big high school, if you don’t go out in the summer, you’re not going to be seen,” says Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. “An AAU team is like an all-star team. They’re picking the best kids in the area. Rather than going to a high school game where there’s maybe one good player, on an AAU team you could see three or four.”

What this often means is the college coach is seeing more of the AAU coaches and less of the scholastic coach. To many high school coaches, the AAU appears to have more of a voice in the recruiting process than they do.

“Why should I bust my butt for four years to get a kid to a certain level, and then all of a sudden, it’s time for that kid to go to college and now I’m out of the recruiting loop,” says Fred Thomann who both coaches at Plymouth Salem High School in Michigan and organizes a local AAU program.

Coaches across the country echo similar sentiments not simply born of the desire for recognition or ego-inflation, but of an understanding that it is a student-athlete that is being recruited.

“I’ve known some of these girls since the sixth grade,” explains Carlos Zaragoza, coach at California’s Bell Gardens High School. “I know the type of students they are, the type of individuals they are, and what they would bring to a university.”

Zaragoza says as both basketball a coach and full-time teacher, a high school coach is in a better position to help a student understand the atmosphere and environment of a potential college and gauge their ability to fit in.

There are no hard and fast AAU rules governing the interaction between the college and the AAU coach, and while many of the most established AAU programs have their own philosophies, they all are aware of the issues.

“Ninety-eight percent of the people ‘doing AAU,’ whatever their motivations are, have good hearts,” says Hal Pastner of Houston Hoops, an AAU club since 1984. “Most of them are spending money out of their own pockets to work with kids. Saying that, you always have the select few who want to own the kids.”

While the women’s game hasn’t reached the financial excess of the men’s, there is still plenty of room for those coaches who want an ego boost. “You hear these [AAU] coaches all the time say, ‘I got this girl a scholarship at XYZ University,’ ” says Marvin Morris, founder of the Houston Hotshots. “Well, I never got a girl a scholarship yet. Her talent got her a scholarship. I exposed her. The problem we have, is we all get painted with the same brush.”

Although Morris has fielded AAU teams for 22 years, he doesn’t get involved in the recruiting process. “It’s extremely presumptuous for us to recommend a school to a kid when we don’t know the ifs ands or buts of that kid,” he says.

Pat Diulus, who currently coaches at Cleveland High School and co-ran the Lake Erie AAU Association for eight years, agrees. “AAU has no business in the recruiting process, unless it also happens to be the high school coach or close to the high school coach,” he says. “But I understand why some AAU coaches do get involved because, quite frankly, some high school coaches don’t do their job.”

In Connecticut, the longevity of Joe Ticotsky’s CTStarters has increased his program’s role in the recruiting process.

“We’ve been around since 1988,” explains Ticotsky. “Probably 15 of our former coaches are now college coaches. A number of our coaches and directors can pretty much pick up the phone and get in touch with the college coach.”

The quality and reputation of his teams have also strengthened their role, especially at big tournaments. “No one’s going to hand a kid a scholarship just because they played with us,” he says. “But I do think when these college coaches go to these tournaments with 150 teams, they tend to go to the clubs they know are there every year.”

High school coaches can be quite dismissive of AAU coaches for the simple reason anyone can become a coach. “The coaching skills are so diverse it’s unbelievable,” says Steve Simmons of the Arkansas Mavericks.

Unlike a high school coach, an AAU coach can handpick their players. “They’re not coaching,” says Diulus. “They’re organizing who plays how many minutes.”

The actual recruiting of young players for club teams has been a source of friction.

“Most AAU coaches, if they want a player, they go see that player or talk to the parent and usually leave the high school coach out of it,” says Pastner. “Especially with so many private schools jumping in and grabbing players, I can see where you’re a teacher and you’re coaching, and you love the team and all of a sudden your kid is going off and playing with someone you know nothing about.”

In Arkansas, says Simmons, “The high school coaches, for the most part, really like us because we don’t mess with their kids during the season and we try to do things the right way. It’s their kid, I’m borrowing them.”

Maverick players come from all corners of the state, traveling long distances (one player drove 5 1/2 hours) so, as with many AAU teams, practices are few and far between. Only few plays with several options are taught, players are expected to study while away from the team, and a lot of the coaching is done during games. Simmons knows that his success is rooted in the work of the high school coach.

“We do some teaching, but [high school coaches] have to train,” explains Simmons. “They have to do the daily repetition break down drills. Those fundamental years, it has to be done daily. We can’t do that.”

Doubtless, high school players reap enormous benefits from playing AAU ball, especially at the elite level. In fact, says Carl Buggs, coach at Poly-Technic in Long Beach, California, “In order to have a good high school program, you almost have to have good AAU experience coming in, just because it’s so competitive. Seventy-five percent of my team plays.”

But there are drawbacks. With the increased importance of visibility during the summer, players are playing two to three times as many games in AUU as they are during a high school season.

“It’s way too much wear and tear on these kid’s bodies, and the program that suffers is the high school,” says Buggs. “If a kid is injured, they will play travel ball, because you have to sacrifice for your team. The more you win, the more you’ll be seen. High school is not as important. You’ve been seen, colleges know who you are. Those same injuries you had in travel ball, if the [high school] coach attempts to play you, then he’s being an evil guy. The high school has become secondary.”

There are also serious concerns about academics, since student must be academically eligible to participate on a high school team, but not so at the AAU level. One of Buggs players, for example, chose to travel with her club team as opposed to completing required summer courses, putting her high school eligibility at risk.

“The [AAU] coaches don’t say, ‘We’re going to make sure you’re going to go to class,’ or, ‘We’re going to get your GPA up so you can qualify,'” says Tom Hursey of the Michigan Basketball Coaches Association.

“We’re not in competition with the high school people,” assures the AAU’s Carroll. “We’re just picking up where they left off to make sure that youngster is still involved. We’re doing something constructive for the youngsters.”

The increased specialization of athletes has raised the possibility of shifting away from high school sports and moving to European style non-academic club teams, especially as more opportunities open up for the elite players. Unencumbered by state regulations on travel or expenses, it might seem a logical progression.

“We don’t want to become a club atmosphere like gymnastics or swimming,” says Beth Bass, executive director of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. “Find out the definition of club – it means ‘Not everyone’s invited.’ It’s discriminatory, because you can follow the money. It’s not going to be equitable and that’s not what this country is about.”

At the high school level, where each state can regulate a coach’s ability, or inability, to work with their players in the off-season, there’s a recognition that any attempt to limit or protect players can have unintended consequences. Rules that might seem right for the educational-athlete might instead push that athlete out of the regulated sphere.

National AAU is aware of these problems.

“We’ve has some bad situations – very few in the girl’s programs, but the same thing is potentially there for the girls as has gone on with the boys programs. We’re trying to head it off,” says Graham.

The Total Athlete Program focuses on educating the recruitable player to all the ins and outs necessary to prepare for college. AAU is also working with National Association of Girls and Women in Sports to come up with a certification program that effectively evaluates coaches, as well as a coaching training program.

“We’re trying to sell it by saying you’re going to learn X’s and O’s,” explains Graham. “But there’s also going to be other things that reflect the philosophy we want to reflect. It’s going to be how you handle these youngsters. How you get along with them. How you make citizens out of them.”

The ability of AAU to impose specific and significant regulations on its members is hampered by financial realities. “The organization of AAU is out competing with everyone else doing tournaments,” notes Pastner. “They don’t want to put so many constraints on people, to where they won’t come to their tournaments.”

For Bass, dialogue, information and education is the answer.

“How do we get a win-win situation?” says Bass. “Those are old cliches, but that’s exactly what we have to do on the women’s side. Have all the stake-holders sitting around the table – and we have to realize AAU is a stakeholder – talking. We’ve got to make sure we safeguard [and are] guardians of the game. Put better parameters in, put policies in, get legislation, and self-regulate ourselves, so that we don’t become the model that’s on the men’s side.”

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