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LeBron James, Kentucky And The AAU Revolution

How LeBron and the 2011-12 Wildcats showed us how the new generation of AAU stars thinks about the sport.

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"M*****f***** think he can pimp me over a candy bar." -- The Wire

To understand what was going through LeBron James' mind on the night of July 8, 2010, you have to go back to the very beginning. Not his first game as a Cleveland Cavalier in 2003, but when his ability to put a ball through a 10-foot hoop first became a commodity.

By the time they reach puberty, the best American basketball players have developed a reputation based on their play in the AAU circuit, a haphazard collection of shoe company sponsored tournaments in the spring and summer. LeBron, like most of the elite players his age, had already played on teams with dozens of different players from around the country by the time he was 16.

Everything changed in an AAU game the summer before his junior year of high school, when he dominated Lenny Cooke, a rugged 6'6 wing from New York City who was considered the best high school player in the country. LeBron appeared on the covers of SLAM, Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine. His high school games were moved to the University of Akron. When St. Vincent-St. Mary faced Carmelo Anthony's Oak Hill Academy, the game was broadcast on national TV.

Yet when James's mother took out a loan of $5,000 to get him a Hummer for his 18th birthday, it prompted an investigation from the Ohio High School Athletic Association. And when a local clothing store gave him two throwback jerseys for appearing on a poster, he was stripped off his eligibility.

If he had been born in Europe, he would already have been a professional. If he had played a country club sport like tennis, he would have already been a millionaire.

When LeBron was finally allowed to earn money at 18, he couldn't choose where he wanted to work. His name was entered into a draft, and his fate was decided by a ping pong ball. Unlike most Americans, he wasn't given the chance to negotiate a salary with the team who wanted to employ him.

On the court, he lived up to every bit of the hype. In his first NBA game, he had 25 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 blocks on 60 percent shooting on the road against an elite Sacramento Kings club. In his second season, he was an All-Star; in his third, an MVP candidate.

But while he was becoming a world-class player, the same couldn't be said for the franchise that drafted him. In 2004, the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted Luke Jackson with the No. 10 overall pick; Jackson lasted only two years with the team. In 2005, they used their cap room to sign Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall; neither player would average more than 16 points a game in Cleveland.

The owner who had drafted him, Gordon Gund, cashed out. After buying the club in 1983 for $20 million, Gund sold it for the (at the time) astronomical price of $375 million in 2005. However, the man responsible for the groundswell of interest in a franchise that had made one Conference Finals appearance in 20 years didn't receive a penny.

LeBron wasn't even allowed to negotiate a salary commensurate with the revenue he generated; he was given a maximum salary of under $20 million, one he could only receive from the team that drafted him. In a free market, many analysts believe he could earn a salary of over $50 million.

Throughout, he was faced with conflicting pressures: if he decided to choose where he worked, he would be considered a traitor. But if he didn't win multiple championships as his team's primary offensive option, he would be considered a failure.

He carried a starting line-up of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic and Larry Hughes to the 2007 NBA Finals. In 2009, the Cavaliers, a team whose second best player was Mo Williams, won 66 regular season games. In 2010, when they lost to a Boston Celtics team with three future Hall of Famers and an All-Star PG, many observers were already ready to write off the 25-year-old LeBron as "not having what it takes to win."

Between July 1, when the NBA's free agency period began, and July 8, the night of "The Decision," every NBA team with the cap space to sign LeBron courted him.

The Cavaliers, who desperately wanted to re-sign their franchise player, had the first shot. In a high-stakes business meeting with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, they opened with ... a cartoon. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, "the central part of the Cavs pitch was that they knew [LeBron] the best."

With the last three titles going to the Celtics and Lakers, two big-market teams brimming with Hall of Famers and All-Stars, the Cavaliers were at least 2-3 years away from winning a championship. They were asking LeBron to sacrifice the prime of his career, and hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsements in the process, and they didn't respect him enough to treat him like an adult.


"The man who invented [the McNuggets] just some sad ass down at the basement of McDonald's. Thinking up some s*** to make some money for the real players."

"Nah, man that ain't right."

"F*** right. It ain't about right. It's about money. You think Ronald McDonald going to go down that basement and say, ‘Hey Mr. Nugget, you the bomb. We selling chicken faster than you can tear the bone out. So I'm going to write my clowny ass name on this fat ass check for you?' The n**** who invented them things is still working in the basement for a regular wage thinking of some s*** to make the fries taste better."

The NBA generates over $4 billion annually in revenue, primarily due to the popularity of players from poor inner-city areas. Yet five years after hanging up their sneakers, 60 percent of them are bankrupt.

In a globalized economy where the vast majority of blue-collar work has been shipped overseas, basketball is one of the few remaining industries that bother with America's inner cities. But instead of becoming a lever to drive economic development, the sport has become a sieve, with almost none of the money it generates captured by the communities ultimately responsible for its existence.

It's ultimately the players' responsibility to handle their money, but there's a reason 33 percent of lottery winners are bankrupt within five years. It's incredibly difficult psychologically to handle a sudden influx of wealth, especially if your social network doesn't have much financial savvy or experience.

However, basketball players are kept in the dark through most of their adolescence, prevented from using their talent to increase their social capital. In the name of amateurism, a concept invented to make it harder for lower-income kids to compete with the sons of privilege in the early 20th century, a firm barrier is ruthlessly enforced between the families of top players and people who could help them manage and handle money.

The collegiate career of Shabazz Muhammad, one of the top recruits in the class of 2012, was nearly short-circuited by eligibility concerns. His crime? A family friend, whom the Muhammad's met when Shabazz was in seventh grade, was a financial planner who helped pay for his AAU expenses and visits to college campuses.

The NBA certainly doesn't mind its players coming out of college with little understanding of the business side of the sport. There was never any doubt as to who would emerge victorious from the 2011 lockout, just as there wasn't in 1999, because everyone knew the majority of the NBPA couldn't miss a year's worth of paychecks. As a result, the owners were able to wring billions of dollars in concessions out of the players.

Economically, basketball has a lot in common with hip-hop, another entertainment industry whose labor pool has traditionally been exploited by the corporate power structure. And just as a rapper like Jay-Z saw his heroes slip into bankruptcy while making hundreds of millions of dollars for their labels, players like LeBron saw the first generation of AAU stars blow through the money that was supposed to set them and their families up for generations.

Ever since Michael Jordan's meteoric emergence on the international stage, Nike, Adidas and Reebok have spent fortunes developing a year-round youth basketball infrastructure in order to find the next transcendent player. Money was pouring in, but players and their families were supposed to look the other way and keep their hands "clean." Meanwhile, everyone else, from AAU coaches who got thousands to funnel their players to certain colleges, to college coaches who got millions to outfit them with certain shoes, to owners who extorted billions out of cities to construct palatial stadiums, was lining their own pockets.

And while this money attracted all sorts of shadowy figures, it also attracted a second wave of entrepreneurs as well. People who realized that your reputation was your most important asset -- and that the quickest way to make a fortune was to not ask for one. People like William Wesley.

The average fan doesn't know him by name or by sight, but Wesley is one of the most powerful people in basketball. Despite not having any type of formal job title within the industry, he was given access to the practices of the 2008 Redeem Team. LeBron, Carmelo and Chris Paul are all clients of his close friend Leon Rose, and he's helped steer many star players to another close friend, John Calipari.

He knows everyone and doesn't ask for anything, which is where his power comes from. The players know Wesley isn't trying to become a star, as he steadfastly refuses to do interviews or anything that would increase his media profile. He's looking out for their best interests, and in the process, he's looking out for his own as well.

If you look at how his players have handled their career choices, his M.O. is clear: the days of divide and conquer are over. The only real power the players can wield is through working together towards a greater goal, which is precisely why the NBA and the NCAA try so desperately to pit them against each other.

LeBron was blindsided by the public outrage over "The Decision" because he had been teaming up with his biggest competitors his whole life. The closest comparison to the Miami Heat, who have the best shooting guard, small forward and power forward from the draft class of 2003, comes not from the NBA's past but its future. It's John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats, who rode the best center and small forward from the class of 2011 and the best power forward from the class of 2010 to an NCAA championship in 2012.


"You best watch your ass. ‘Cause the slingers out here, they're like the crack babies' babies."

"Every year, everybody's like, ‘Yeah these kids out here, they're a new breed. I ain't never seen nothing like this before. This is the end of the world now.'"

Kentucky finished the season with a 38-2 record. One of their losses came on a Christian Watford buzzer-beater; the other came on the Sunday before the start of the NCAA Tournament. Only three of its wins were by fewer than 5 points; in the NCAA Tournament, the average margin of victory was 12.

The Wildcats started a McDonald's All-American at all five positions, with lottery picks at 6'11, 6'9 and 6'7 across their front-line. They had a 6'8, 230-pound senior forward who will be taken in the second round coming off their bench. Ninety-nine percent of college teams, including their two opponents in the Final Four, didn't have a single matchup advantage they could exploit against the Wildcats.

Losing five players to the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft and two more in 2011 didn't affect Calipari's program any more than losing four or five D-1 players in one season would affect a top-flight AAU program. Kentucky is essentially one of those writ large, with annual roster turnover and a pecking order based on talent, not experience.

But for all the talent, success wasn't guaranteed. Calipari had to convince kids who had been stars their entire lives to sacrifice their individual games for the good of the team. Even though most of the rotation will be in the NBA next season, none of the Kentucky players averaged more than 10 shots a game this year.

Anthony Davis, the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, was fourth in field goal attempts. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a likely top-five pick, was fifth. Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, stars on the 2011 Final Four team, had to accept being overshadowed by Davis and MKG. Darius Miller, who would be the best player on several of Kentucky's SEC competitors, had to back up players two and three years younger than him.

None of them had any real problem with this because they respected each other's talent, and they understood that winning would make them more money than individual success. It's the same in the NCAA Tournament as it is in the Big Time in Las Vegas: the fourth and fifth best players on the best team are going to get more attention than the second or third best players on an average team.

And while the Kentucky players had a handful of teammates who could pick them up if they were having an off night, the Wildcats tore through teams (Iowa State, Indiana, Baylor) in the Tournament that featured only one or two future first-round picks. Royce White, the Cyclones' 6'8, 270-pound point forward, was supposed to sign with Kentucky after transferring from Minnesota; he would have been a lock for the lottery if he had been throwing alley-oops to Davis and MKG all season.

The AAU game, rather than driving elite players apart, has been steadily bringing them closer together. When Kentucky played Baylor in the Elite Eight, where they faced Perry Jones III (No. 9 in the Class of 2009) and Quincy Miller (No. 7 in the Class of 2010), it was as much a rivalry for the players as when they faced Louisville. They had played against Miller and Jones a lot more in the past than Kyle Kuric, and they'll play against them a lot more in the future.

Their mindset is quite different from the first generation of post-Jordan players, who viewed individual stardom as the key to crossover appeal: Jason Kidd, Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn didn't last two seasons in Dallas. Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury didn't last in Minnesota, Penny Hardaway and Shaq couldn't make it work in Orlando.

Yet as it turns out, fans aren't that interested in stars on mediocre teams. Playing with other top players doesn't hurt your Q rating, it maximizes it. The high concentration of talent on Kentucky didn't turn fans off, it just made the challenge of trying to defeat them all the more exciting.

When Pat Riley pitched Wade, Bosh and LeBron in the summer of 2010, it wasn't all that different to how Calipari pitched Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. "The Decision" was LeBron's chance for the recruiting spectacle he never got to have, where he could be wooed by NBA teams and showered in adulation by whichever fanbase he choose to play for.

He didn't care about playing with another star like Dwyane Wade anymore than Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook care about sharing the spotlight in Oklahoma City.

For just as the Heat were building a potential dynasty around free agency, the Thunder were building one of their own through the draft. Fittingly enough, there's a good chance that the road to a championship for Miami, a team "of the players, by the players and for the players," will go through Oklahoma City, a franchise that represents everything wrong with professional sports.


"Marlo's flying his own colors. Westside about to be all Baghdad and s***."

The Oklahoma City Thunder used to be known as the Seattle SuperSonics. Since being established in 1967, the Sonics were one of the NBA's most successful franchises, winning the 1979 championship and making the playoffs 24 times. Seattle, in turn, developed a thriving basketball scene, with nine local players in the NBA in the 2010-2011 season.

However, after the city coughed up over $600 million for the construction of new stadiums for the Seahawks and Mariners, there wasn't much interest in giving the Sonics a state-of-the-art new building as well.

There's nothing owners of professional sports teams despise more than actually paying for their own stadiums. So in 2006, fresh off being rejected by the city of Seattle, Sonics owner Howard Schultz talked with ownership groups in Kansas City, St. Louis, Las Vegas, San Jose and Anaheim before eventually selling to Clay Bennett's Oklahoma City group.

By the start of the 2009 season, the Sonics became the Thunder. They play in Chesapeake Energy Arena, opened in 2002 and built almost exclusively with public funds.

From a business perspective, it makes very little sense for the NBA to leave Seattle, the 15th biggest metropolitan area in the United States with a proven history of supporting basketball, for Oklahoma City, the 44th biggest, a market more traditionally associated with college football. However, from the self-interested perspective of the owners, the move to Oklahoma City was a stunning success. The economic development that a generation of publicly financed stadiums was supposed to create never appeared, so instead of hope, the owners have been selling fear.

If Seattle can lose a team, no one is safe.

Even more egregiously, Bennett was appointed as the head of the league's relocation committee, a giant middle finger to Seattle as well as the other markets they have been trying to extort into building a new stadium.

Once Bennett took over in Seattle, meanwhile, the Sonics had no incentive to generate fan interest. Perversely, the worse they were, the better Bennett's position would be, as taxpayers would be less willing to take money out of schools and hospitals to make sure a bad team could better maximize its revenue streams with luxury boxes.

Removed from the need to build a competitive roster, the Sonics front office had the rare luxury of focusing solely on building for the long-term. They began systematically tearing down their roster, enabling themselves to get top-five picks in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Now that the Thunder have reaped the fruits of their draft position, their star, Durant, has been positioned as the anti-LeBron. It's the way the media works: LeBron (a team-first superstar) was originally the anti-Kobe, Kobe (a clean-cut young player) the anti-A.I..

While LeBron joined Miami in an over-the-top primetime spectacle, Durant announced that he re-signed with Oklahoma City on Twitter. Durant is a soft-spoken player who loves tattoos but doesn't have any on his arms; James has "The Chosen One" tattooed across his back and sleeves down both arms. The Thunder have already dealt one of Durant's good friends (Jeff Green); if they thought they had to deal Westbrook, they would. The Heat wouldn't deal Bosh or Wade without LeBron's explicit permission.

However, their on-court games don't coincide with their off-court personas. LeBron is the only one of the NBA's top scorers who doubles as his team's best passer; he has career averages of 6.9 assists and 3.3 turnovers a game. Durant, in contrast, is a fairly one-dimensional scorer, with career averages of 2.7 assists and 3.0 turnovers a game.

That's probably the greatest irony about the hysteria surrounding the success of the Heat and the Wildcats: they are two of the most unselfish teams in the sport. They play exactly the type of team-first basketball many of their biggest critics claim to want.

It shouldn't be a great surprise, as that's what happens when you empower your players. When someone chooses to do something, there's more on the line for them than when they are obligated to do it. They feel the need to justify their decision to themselves, making them more emotionally invested in that decision being proven successful.

And if the players buy into working as a team, basketball isn't all that complicated. It's 10 guys wearing tank-tops running around a hardwood floor trying to throw a ball through a cylinder raised 10 feet in the air. The coaches, the owners and even the franchises themselves can only add so much value to the on-court product.

Basketball is ultimately a players' game, and as the next generation of stars becomes NBA free agents, they will continue to flock towards each other. Franchises like Oklahoma City, which found four potential All-NBA players in the draft, will still be able to thrive, but it will always be easier for big market teams to hand over their rosters to the best free agents, as Miami and New York have done, and Dallas is trying to do in the summer of 2012.

At the core of the lockout was the owners' fear of how much power LeBron wielded in 2010, but the new CBA, while a huge victory for them financially, didn't really change anything. As long as a max salary exists, the NBA is a loss leader for its star players.

If LeBron can make $30 million in endorsements but only $15 million in the NBA, why not sacrifice a few on the front end (which he did to create room to sign Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller) to make more on the back (in terms of how much a title is worth to his brand)? The trend lines are even scarier: it may be in his best interests to take a deal worth far less than the max on his next contract in order to give Miami more cap flexibility.

In the last two years, Deron Williams has gone to New Jersey, Chris Paul has gone to L.A., Carmelo and Amare Stoudemire have gone to New York, and LeBron, Wade and Bosh have gone to Miami. This is more likely to increase than slow down over the next few years, which will, of course, be absolutely terrible for the league.

The NBA barely survived the 1980s, when the Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers played in several NBA Finals that small-market fans from around the country refused to watch as a matter of principle. Until it starts regularly churning out Utah vs. Charlotte Finals, it will never be as widely popular as the NFL.

Maybe "the Heatles" can't finish the job. Maybe it will be a possible troika of Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, or maybe it will be John Wall, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist down the road. Either way, the revolution has begun, and it was televised on July 8, 2010.