by Ken Reed

The Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant recently came out ripping AAU basketball while saying young players in Europe are much better prepared than their United States counterparts. (See “Kobe: Europe’s players more skillful”)

“AAU basketball,” Bryant said when asked what’s wrong with basketball in the United States. “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.”

Now, I’m not a Kobe Bryant fan but he’s right on with this assessment. AAU teams play too many games and don’t practice the game’s fundamentals enough. It’s a win-at-all-costs mentality vs. the player-development mentality across Europe. He also has nailed the reason youth basketball development in the USA in general and AAU ball in particular is falling short: Profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) values on the part of our country’s youth sports vultures (err, entrepreneurs). He says greed is the reason youth basketball will be hard to fix in this country.

“People get really upset when you start cutting into their pockets because all they do is try to profit off these poor kids,” said Bryant. “There’s no quick answer.”

But the solution is clear in his mind.

“Teach players the game at an early age and stop treating them like cash cows for everyone to profit off of,” said Bryant. “That’s how you do that. You have to teach them the game. Give them instruction.”

But too many AAU coaches are only interested in showcasing their athletes for college coaches in big AAU tournaments. Recruiting top athletes and winning lots of games gets you more tourney invites and exposure. That brings sponsorship dollars and puts more money in their pockets. Working on fundamentals like the proper footwork in numerous, long practice sessions doesn’t pay off for these opportunistic, short-term thinking coaches, club administrators and tournament organizers.

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

Yes, we do Kobe. And it will start with the development of a youth basketball infrastructure that certifies coaches, referees and tournaments. The driving question for this youth basketball organization needs to be “What’s best for the kids and their basketball development?” The NBA would be wise to provide some seed money to get this infrastructure going.

Youth soccer in the United States isn’t perfect but it’s a pretty decent model for what needs to happen in American youth basketball. It’s no surprise that youth soccer in this country is patterned after youth soccer in Europe, where player development is paramount.

“We have to teach our kids to play the right way,” concluded Bryant.

–Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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