Monday, July 31, 2006

The Business of Basketball, part 1

The state of college basketball recruiting has changed immensely in the last decade. With the advent of lightning-fast technology, it has become easier for players to be interested in a wider range of schools, and for schools to have more information on a wider range of players. However, the most important new factor in all levels of American basketball is the growing number of "recruiters" who use money from shoe companies to entice young players to let them be their "agent," so to speak.

Widely thrown into the pot of AAU basketball (in the same way that a soda is called a coke), these teams, leagues and recruiters are becoming the mainstream approach for a high school basketball player to get into college or the NBA. Players join regional teams for summer play where they travel around the country, play at shoe-sponsored tournaments and catch the eyes of college coaches and NBA scouts.

At first glance, the system seems helpful. Coaches at small colleges like Davidson are able to see hundreds of players play in one place at one time. Also, young athletes get to play against top competition and get to travel the country and widen their horizons.

After that, things begin to get iffy. With so much money pouring in from shoe companies to sponsor travel, expenses and gear the line between professional and amateur athlete begins to get skewed. In a recent Boston Globe article by Bob Hohler, he describes the "business" of amateur basketball and lays out the nasty truth of egomaniacal recruiters who claim to represent the interests of young athletes.

These recruiters have become important due to their "connections" and influence and so more and more athletes are committing their souls to summer basketball instead of winter basketball. They routinely skip high school games and practice to travel to winter tournaments with their teams. High school coaches, who used to be able to have so much positive influence on a poorer kid with bad schooling and parenting, are now being replaced by money-hungry recruiters who manipulate and con impressionable kids into making decisions that are ultimately not in their best interest.

These recruiters' financial well-being is directly tied to their ability to find the next LeBron James and convince him to give some money back to their leagues and tournaments. One such coach actually worked in operations for the Boston Celtics and had numerous kickbacks after several of his former players signed with the team. Although this stirred up many NCAA and AAU officials, nothing has been done about it.

Basketball has become a business, there is no doubt about it. However, within that business are organizations like the AAU and NCAA that are still trying to maintain high standards of amateur athletics. The question has become whether these organizations should try to exert more power on things that are ultimately out of their jurisdiction or shore up more isolation with what they can control. Come back for part 2.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Practice shouldn't be hell

I'd like to take a moment and retreat from my recent criticisms of the press and team organizations, as well as my mutterings on social ideologies and talk about a subject that has always been close to my heart: football. I read an article today about how summer camps in the NFL are universally cutting back on practice time and the strenuousness of practices.

Having played football all through high school, I can testify to the mental and physical toll of two-a-day practices. Two and a half weeks with 6 hours of football a day can really wear players down. Although I can only remember two or three season-ending injuries happening in training camp, there were certainly mental prices that were being paid in October and November.

While the NFL is justified in cutting back practice time to preserve player health, high schools should also realize the importance of player psyche. The NFL spends the entire year getting its players in shape and there isn't much difference between a six year vet and a 4 year vet in terms of football knowledge. Players really don't get that much better in those camps.

While high school is different in the improvement aspect, there is certainly more of a psyche factor for 15-18 year olds. After my team lost a heartbreaker in the first round of the playoffs, nearly half of my senior class rolled into the locker room proclaiming that they wouldn't ever have to run sprints anymore. How on earth can you justify having players that could possibly not want to win in the playoffs because they hate practice so much? Now certainly you might say that the team just is full of wimps who don't love the game. But if these guys are skilled and willing to play, there is some responsibility on the coach to get them to love the game. These guys aren't getting paid. They also aren't fully matured. But there has to be a finer line between getting players in shape and making them hate the game they are playing.

I think that a lot of that would emanate from the attitude that once camp begins in the summer, fitness has to be remarketed. Coaches and teams promulgate the sensibility that two-a-days are hell. Football is hell. Somehow in November it will all be worth it. Unfortunately, my teammates had had enough. They didn't care anymore. For that I blame the coach and his approach to the game. Practice has to be informative, skill-building, fit-building and fun. I know it sounds cliche, but watch every football movie on the planet. Practice always looks like hell, but then something happens and it's fun. When it's fun the players magically do better. Somehow that's always lost on people. Maybe because the football gods would curse them as being pussies.

I spent one week at basketball camp this summer and saw all of this play out in little microcosms. Every morning my league of 10-year olds had to go outside in the morning humidity to do basketball drills. The first couple of days involved a good bit of yelling, telling them not to do something, and pushing them to complete the drills. I will be honest and say that their performances were pitiful. By Wednesday, I was trying to be as positive with my group as I could. I made my drills competitive instead of draining. I repackaged the experience for them, while essentially making them do the same things. As a result, my group was throwing better passes, hitting more shots and running harder than any other group out there.

Don't come away from this opinion with the impression that here's another pussy who's sour over having a losing football team, probably being out of shape, and certainly is a lily-livered liberal (don't know why I threw that in there, maybe because of that picture of Kerry not being able to throw a football). Fitness can't always be fun, and yet it is integral to being able to play the game well. But in practice situations, fitness has to be re-packaged and re-integrated. Players shouldn't spend the entire practice scared at how many sprints they will have at the end. When that's the case, they will never practice loose and pick up the skills that the scrimmages and drills are meant to teach. When coaches can establish a different mental approach to training - especially with younger players - they will be able to reap better results from their guys.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

World Cup Final

The World Cup that supposedly changed everything is finally over. For the last month, Bono has come on commercials and previews and told us how much this mattered. On Sunday, over a billion people simultaneously watched the World Cup final. That is more viewers than any event in the history of the world. An excellent game that was marred by an outburst of anger by Zidane, the World Cup final crowned Italy in PK's and brought soccer to the US for good. With U2 ringing them in, the United States has finally joined the rest of the world. We needed it to be flashy, and we needed it to be self-important like everything that is American. And in many ways the World Cup was all that, and in many ways it wasn't. Somehow it was simply two lines of men that walked onto a field with shirt, shorts, cleats and one ball. We didn't need ESPN to have high-tech graphics to make these warriors into pseudo-men. Highlights of their bending shots and incredible moves did that for the editors. They didn't need for the stadium to blow up in smoke before the game, everyone knew how important it was. I just wish we didn't have to wait four more years.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Charleston should be ashamed

Unfortunately, the Post and Courier is making people purchase this story on the internet. It was on the front page of Saturday's Charleston paper. For those of you who can't tell by the preview, the article essentially takes every rip on Rock Hill and sardonically ask why anyone wouldn't want to come to Charleston. The Post and Courier did well to hide this behind a subscription price.

Very simply, because that city (where I grew up) is full of entitlement. They believe that they deserve the best arts, best food, and best basketball. Ever since they came to the SoCon, the Cougars have believed that they are the cream of the conference. The last several years were just a bump in the road. They believe that anyone and everyone would want to come coach there, because of their excellent basketball tradition.
I think that winy article two days after Marshall's snub is completely representative of the shamefulness of the College of Charleston. They need to wake up and realize that they need new facilities. They need a new President. They should have asked John Kresse who he wanted four years ago. They need to recruit disciplined athletes and not dunkers. And they need to stop publishing front-page articles that write off the rest of the state. I would take Winthrop over the College of Charleston any day. At least on the basketball court.
I just spent the last week at basketball camp at Davidson. When one asks why coaches don't take high-profile jobs at Seton Hall and CofC, all you need to do is watch Bob McKillop at basketball camp. I think that his experience is very comprable to Marshall's down the road. In the end, if you don't have a supportive community around you, you set yourself up to fail. Charleston might be posh, but it can be lonely if you aren't winning.
I think that it's going to take another several years of misery under Bobby Cremins before the College of Charleston goes and fixes the problems that have chased away the good coaches. Heck, John Kresse wouldn't want to coach at CofC now. And until there is an active investment in that program to support smart players, good facilities, and community interaction, there will never be another John Kresse. Or Gregg Marshall. Or Bob McKillop. They are staying put.