Grassroots basketball is under attack.
When the NCAA announced rule changes earlier this month, it stated one of its goals was to “minimize the leverage of harmful outside influences on high school recruits and college student-athletes.” This was a response to the FBI investigation that finally broke the levy on the widespread corruption throughout the sport and put a spotlight on its worst kept secret: the black market that exists to influence an athlete’s recruiting decisions.
Fair or not, “AAU” ball became a scapegoat. The NCAA took the 15 days college coaches were allowed to watch grassroots games in the summer and slashed them to four. Athletes will now be encouraged to play for their high school teams during the summer, not their club squads. In the process, leagues run by Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour that have produced the majority of the brightest young talents in the sport over the last decade will be forced to adapt.
The rule changes were accepted off the recommendation of the “Commission on College Basketball,” a group helmed by Condeleeza Rice that also included university presidents, athletic directors, and retired players like Grant Hill and David Robinson. Whether any of the people in the group have actually watched contemporary grassroots basketball didn’t matter. The rule changes were made and will now impact thousands of kids hoping to get a college scholarship through the sport.
During an April stop on Nike’s EYBL and Under Armour’s UAA circuit in Indianapolis, SB Nation reached out to the players, coaches, and recruiting analysts that the Commission didn’t to talk about the benefits of club basketball, and the popular misconceptions surrounding it.
This is their story.
For the players, it’s all about exposure
Scottie Lewis is probably going to be a millionaire two years from now. The 6’4 guard from New Jersey is ranked as the No. 13 overall player in the class of 2019 by ESPN. He has a claim as the best athlete in his class, an explosive leaper and potentially elite defender who staked his reputation by making plays above the rim on both ends of the court.
Lewis plays his high school ball at Ranney School alongside another five-star recruit, wing Bryan Antonie. Despite that, Lewis says nothing has boosted his profile like playing in the Under Armour Association.
“I think AAU basketball in general is the best thing that could have happened,” Lewis says. “How else would the coaches see you? I’ve probably had three coaches come to my high school games in the last three years. I get most of my exposure from playing in gyms like these and competition like this.
“You have a guy who’s from North Carolina or the West Coast that you’ve never played before, that’s supposed better than you, how do you face him in high school? You play in your state, you stay in your state. Grassroots basketball is a great place to have multiple locations and a chance to play against those guys.”
Lewis has been one of the UAA’s biggest attractions on Team Rio. Grassroots basketball has taken him all of the country. He has heard the criticisms of “AAU” from Hall of Famers like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett and believes they are misplaced.
“I think it’s wrong,” Lewis says. “There’s a wide range of players that went through grassroots that became great players. LeBron James played grassroots basketball. JR Smith played AAU basketball. Kobe even played so I don’t know what he’s talking about. I think it’s very beneficial.”
The AAU of today looks different than it did in Kobe’s day. Since the dawn of the decade, Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas have run leagues that feel professional in their approach. Nike’s EYBL featured four spring “sessions” all over the country this year leading up to Peach Jam in July, which is essentially the league playoffs. Adidas and Under Armour copied similar models, complete with advanced stats and scoutable video.
At its core, though, grassroots ball has always been about exposure.
David Roddy will never have the same profile as Lewis. As a three-star recruit from Minnesota playing on Nike’s EYBL circuit, Roddy has used grassroots ball to get the attention of college coaches. After a standout summer for club team Howard Pulley, he now holds offers from multiple Big Ten schools, including Nebraska, Northwestern and his hometown Golden Gophers.
“The EYBL has been the best thing for me,” Roddy says. “Definitely for recruiting. Every single coach is here. I see Coach K and Calipari and Coach Roy Williams basically every weekend. It’s definitely very beneficial for student-athletes.
Roddy describes the relationship between grassroots and high school ball as “the best of both worlds.” He can get exposure and measure up against the top players in the country on the EYBL. Then he can go back to his high school with a new list of things to practice.
Not everyone who plays grassroots ball is a future NBA player like Lewis. For those like Roddy, grassroots isn’t a source of corruption, it’s an opportunity to raise your profile and achieve your dream of getting a scholarship to play college basketball.
Grassroots coaches aren’t evil. Many do great work.
By day, Jim Hart is a senior vice president at Merrill Lynch. For the past 25 years, he’s spent his nights and weekends as the director and head coach of City Rocks, a New York-based team on the EYBL.
Where the NCAA sees grassroots ball as a source of corruption, Hart sees the massive investment the shoe companies put into these leagues, from supplying gear to funding travel to securing venues across the country large enough to house the scene.
“If this was charity or philanthropic work, they’d go straight to heaven,” Hart says. “If they did this in tennis or golf, everyone would praise it. Why is basketball different?”
In the wake of the FBI scandal, the NCAA essentially labeled grassroots coaches like Hart as piranhas, adults with agendas trying to make a buck off the kids they coach. That’s far from the truth for the vast majority. Coaches like Hart donate their free time because they want to help kids find an opportunity through basketball. These are real coaches, not just handlers.
Hart says he has personally seen the level of coaching in grassroots rise exponentially over the last decade.
“The coaching in the EYBL level used to be half the teams did just roll the ball out and go,” Hart says. “That was 10 years ago. Five years ago, maybe a third of the teams roll out the ball. You look here today, we’re four deep with high school coaches on the bench. So the head coach and the three assistants are all high school coaches. So you can’t blame it on the style of AAU basketball, because these coaches are high school coaches.”
To Hart and many other coaches on the shoe company circuit, the NCAA fails to see the big picture. Corruption isn’t the rule, it’s the exception. The most outspoken critics of grassroots ball are never in the gym. And taken as a whole, grassroots ball has done a great job developing talent.
“The USA is still producing the best basketball players,” Hart said.
“From their 10K-foot view, if you invite the NBA, the NCAA, USA Basketball, and high school basketball into a room with consultants to figure out what’s wrong, well, who’s not in the room? Grassroots basketball. So of course, we’re the bogey man for everybody. “
The NCAA believes high schools and high school coaches will be able to offer better, more virtuous advice to players trying to navigate the waters of recruiting. The truth is that most of the people on the high school side aren’t nearly as invested or familiar with that process.
Hart has helped Tobias Harris, Tyler Lydon, and many more kids find opportunities through his program. He’s seen grassroots ball grow over two decades into what it is today: professionally run and operated leagues with big budgets and great competition. These coaches shouldn’t be ostracized, according to Hart — they should be celebrated.
The industry of recruiting
“For the guy who is the seventh or eighth person on the Mac Irvin Fire, the shoe companies aren’t worrying about setting brand loyalty for him so he can be a pitchman for them down the road. But playing in the EYBL provides that seventh or eighth guy the chance to travel all around the country, generally at no cost to him, a chance to play against kids from all around the country, and most of the time in front of college coaches.”
This is Eric Bossi, the lead national recruiting analyst for Rivals. Bossi has been covering grassroots basketball since around 2000 and his opinion carries immense influence. He has a big say in Rivals’ rankings, which can affect the way a player is viewed for years.
For evaluators like him, leagues like the EYBL and UAA offer a chance to see the top kids in the nation compete against each other in the same place. There is an entire industry built around this: from subscription message boards, to private scouting services, to sites like Rivals and 247 Sports that have grown into authorities on recruiting.
Jerry Meyer has been around the game all his life. He is the son of legendary coach Don Meyer, who held the all-time wins record in college basketball at any level before he was passed by Mike Krzyzewski. As a player, Jerry Meyer was two-time Tennessee Mr. Basketball before choosing to play at Lipscomb for his father at the NAIA level. He still has the record for most assists in college basketball history at any school.
These days Meyer is the director of basketball scouting for 247Sports. He’s seen how summer basketball has changed from his days as a player to his time as a scout. He disagrees with the notion that grassroots ball is negatively affecting today’s players.
“I don’t even think basketball builds up, I think basketball trickles down,” Meyer says. “The style of the play is being dictated to these kids.
“I think football it works the opposite direction. The high school coaches are the innovators. That’s how you got the spread offense and all that. I think basketball works the other direction. The NBA drives the style of play without a doubt. Every college was running motion offense 30 years ago. It was all about movement and cutting and screening. There weren’t a ton of ball screens, it was all about screening away from the ball. The college game began to adapt and look more like the NBA game. We only have 24 seconds to shoot and we have a player who is world class, why would you not want to keep the ball in his hands the whole possession and let him make a decision?”
Is grassroots basketball failing to teach players the fundamentals of the game?
“What are fundamentals? Was Steve Nash fundamental? Steve Nash broke every rule you were taught at basketball camp in the 1990s,” Meyer says. “Players are way more skilled now. I prefer that term. What I see is pretty high level. Well played. It’s better than high school ball.
“I think a lot of people have it backwards,” Meyer adds. “No one cares about the kids. It’s what the coaches think, the poor coaches. The college coaches are driving all this stuff. What about the 17 and 16 year olds? I think it’s way better for them now because of the shoe companies.”
The grassroots system isn’t perfect, but it has helped more players than it has hurt
The complicated relationship between shoe companies and universities was always going to lead to problems on the grassroots circuit. The same shoe companies that run the leagues also have monster apparel agreements with universities. In a perfect world, yes, Adidas probably wants a top player in its league to play for a team it sponsors. That’s how the FBI scandal came to be.
But the truth is there’s simply too much money flowing through the sport for it to remain totally clean as long as the NCAA clings to an outdated model of amateurism. A black market will exist as long as the players are prohibited from earning a legal paycheck for their talent and hard work. The NCAA stiffened its penalties for cheating, but its new rule changes still fail to address amateurism, which is the real reason for corruption.
Grassroots basketball isn’t extinct yet, but the NCAA did everything in its power to damage it. The organization only saw a few bad actors who stole headlines, and not the good-natured coaches who invest so much of their time in helping kids find a better future through basketball.
If there’s a common complaint among the people involved with grassroots ball, it’s that so much of the criticism comes from people who have never seen it up close. If they did, they’d find an industry doing a lot more good than evil.