Remembering Kobe Bryant’s Disdain for AAU – and the choices you have

With the high school season in full swing and post season right around the corner, the spring AAU season will quickly follow.  Many parents with young athletes are new to AAU and those that have played in the AAU system know there are many options out there.  To you help you decide what program is right for you and to provide an overview of what is out there, I thought it would be useful to resurrect an overview of AAU basketball that I posted a few years ago. The EYBL and other sponsored leagues will be left for another discussion as most of of the athletes in our community will be playing in the AAU system.

It was back in 2016 when Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant opened up about his disdain for AAU basketball and how basketball players are developed in the United States. Although he has since passed away, his views and comments are still worth taking a look at. Below are his comments:

“I just think European players are just way more skillful. They are just taught the game the right way at an early age. … They’re more skillful. It’s something we really have to fix. We really have to address that. We have to teach our kids to play the right way.”

“AAU basketball, horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”

“Teach players the game at an early age and stop treating them like cash cows for everyone to profit off of.”

“That’s how you do that. You have to teach them the game. Give them instruction.”

“That’s a deep well because then you start cutting into people’s pockets. People get really upset when you start cutting into their pockets because all they do is try to profit off these poor kids. There’s no quick answer.”

As someone that has been involved with teaching athletes for over 30 years, I have my own opinion on the topic of development of our young athletes. It’s a much broader topic than what Kobe touched on, but what he had to say is important, was necessary, and had some level of truth to it.

I’m going to share with you a summary of what I see in our own community. It is not my intent to be critical of specific organizations, clubs, trainers, or anyone else involved with our youth, so I am not going to talk about any of these by name. Rather, I am simply going to summarize what I see as what’s going on.

CYO – I once got into a bit of hot water years ago with many people in my community because I made a comment on a local sports television show how I thought that CYO was a “necessary evil” in the world of youth basketball. I talked about how CYO programs were, for the most part, using mom and dads volunteering their time to coach our kids and that they usually had little or no experience as to how or what to teach. Although it was a bad choice of words, my opinion of CYO is unchanged. The CYO programs in our community are great programs and provide countless athletes interested in basketball a structured place to be introduced to the game, practice, develop their skills, and play competitively. However, they do rely on volunteer parents to “coach” our kids. It’s a big time commitment for them and most of them do a great job. My comments were aimed strictly at the fact that some of the volunteers, although doing a great service in the community, lack the tools and experience necessary to actually teach the fundamentals of the game at a time that skill development is so desperately needed.  One thing is crystal clear though, CYO has been sorely missed since it was shut down in our community due to the pandemic.  It has left such a big void for all those younger athletes that have begun to fall in love with the game.

AAU – Kobe Bryant shared his disdain for AAU programs.  However, it may be a little unfair to the many organizations that do a great job. There are many clubs in our community. Here is how I would break them out.

  1.  “One Timers” – These teams or clubs are formed by a parent of an athlete that wants to play basketball in the off season. It’s usually comprised of local athletes in a particular school community (but not always), with team members being asked to play on the team rather than holding tryouts. These teams usually exist for the duration of time that the parent’s athlete wishes to play. It is usually dictated by how far their son or daughter is able to make it at their respective high schools. The motivation for these teams are pretty simple and they do not fall into Kobe’s generalization. They generally will only promise to provide an opportunity for kids to play basketball in the off-season. Their ability to teach fundamentals varies from team to team, but they are clearly not out to exploit athletes or profit off of them.
  2. “School Based” – These programs are usually run by the high school coaches in a particular school district.  They limit the team members to those kids who are likely to play for them during the upcoming school season. The coaching staff usually is made up of the varsity coach and his assistants, the jv coach, the freshmen coach, or the modified coach. All of whom are in the same school district. Volunteers are also sometimes used. The common objective of these teams are to keep the athletes in a particular school district playing together in the off-season. These clubs also do not fall into Kobe’s generalization. Their motives are to simply improve their high school programs by giving them a place, a structure, and high school level coaches, to practice and play in the off-season.
  3. “Community Based” – These are programs that serve a wider base of athletes. They are sometimes Not-For-Profit organizations, but not always. They generally will hold tryouts and are selective in nature. The staff can be made up of a variety of different ways including high school level coaches, parent volunteers, former college players, or others that have basketball coaching experience at some level. The structure of these organizations also varies. Some have one head person that provides structure to the rest of the organization. Some have organization boards to help guide the programs direction. And some have a head person, who only provides administrative structure to the organization. The teams under that structure are left to succeed or fail on their own.

    This is the most likely place where Kobe’s comments can apply.  Parents of athletes should really investigate how these organizations are run before becoming part of them. Here are some problems that typically surface:

  •  Some coaches that are involved in this type of organization clearly have questionable motivation. They sometimes try to live out their own past careers at the expense of young impressionable athletes.
  • Some organizations are out for self-promotion and recognition. They will over promise parents and athletes things that they simply cannot deliver. I often hear parents tell me that they were told “if you play for us, we will get your son or daughter a scholarship,” or some comment along those lines. Beware!
  • Some organizations are simply out to make a buck. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with anyone trying to make a living teaching our young athletes. But there are different ways to go about it.  For example, some organizations will take as many athletes on a team as want to pay and join. I have seen some teams with more than 16 athletes on one team. They all pay a fee and are promised a whole bunch of things that simply cannot occur with that many athletes. But the more athletes on the roster, the more money for the organization.
  • Some organizations try to accommodate more kids through A, B, and C, teams without having the ability to properly staff those teams with qualified coaches. That usually leaves those athletes in need of quality coaching with less than qualified coaching.
  • Some organizations believe that traveling all over the northeast, or all over the country, means that their program is a good one. Although some travel is required and is reasonable to expect, its not necessary. I often tell parents that we do not have to travel to Las Vegas to play a team that is good enough to beat us by 30 points. I can find very strong teams by just going down to New York City.
  • Some organizations believe that playing more games is the answer to becoming a great player. Although there is nothing that can replace game experience, there is a point of over saturation.

    I often hear parents tell me that they chose to play in an organization because they play in 10 tournaments or in more than 40 games in a single AAU season. Like I said, game experience is valuable. But think about this for a moment and look at a team that is participating in a fairly local tournament. In a typical weekend tournament, a team will play 3 games, perhaps two on Saturday and one on Sunday. That Sunday game is a 1pm game. The game location is fairly local, say an hour to get there. So you get up Sunday morning and prepare to go to your 1pm game. It takes an hour to get there, so there’s one hour. Coach wants you there a half hour early, so add another half hour to the hour game. Of course, you have to stop along the way to get some food, so tack on another half hour. Coach wants you to stay after the game for a post game talk. Tack on another half hour.  Then there’s the drive home…and the stop for a snack….another 90 minutes.

    Now, lets assume the team is fairly balanced and there are ten athletes on the roster. Everyone plays about the same amount of time. The game is two 20 minute halves (running time). So you play in half the game. In that 20 minutes, you take 5 shots (a lot of shots in 20 minutes for the average player to take in a half) and broke a fairly decent sweat (as good as you can get in 20 minutes).

    You do the math. You spent 4 1/2 hours to play 20 minutes of basketball and take 5 shots. Start multiplying that out every weekend and you can see where I’m going with this. As I said, game experience is necessary so that you can apply what you learn in practice and in training. But you need that time to practice and train. There are so many other things that basketball players need to be doing to improve their game. On that same Sunday, you could get up at the same time and start your morning by shooting in your driveway for an hour. Then hit your basement to lift weights. Then get to the park to work on your ball handling. Then how about two hours of pick-up at that same park? Seems like a better way to spend your time!

So there you have it. I could go on for hours on this topic. And may expand on some things in another post. But Kobe made some great points. They are just points that don’t have to apply to everyone and every organization.

Hope this helps as you sort through the many great programs in our community to find the best one for your athlete!

Coach Jim Santoro

About author