After July trips to South Carolina, California and Las Vegas for basketball tournaments, highly touted Park Tudor forward Trevon Bluiett looked like a guy in need of a break.
Just three days after returning from Las Vegas, he was off again in the first week of August, this time to Los Angeles for the prestigious Adidas Nations camp.
“Sometimes I think about (taking time off), but in reality I can’t stay away from the game of basketball,” he said. “It’s what I love to do. Physically I may want to take some time off, but mentally I can’t stay away.”
Playing multiple basketball games on a weekend may not sound like a grind, but it can be when the long weekends pile on top of one another. One of the biggest criticisms of grass-roots basketball is the number of games packed into a short amount of time.
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas wrote recently that the reason for this is that shoe companies such as Nike and Adidas operate events “designed to showcase players against the best competition, not improve their skills.”
“The same goes for AAU programs,” Bilas wrote. “Far too many AAU coaches are more interested in playing and winning games, rather than teaching young players the skills necessary to be successful players. While young players are traveling the country playing games, they are not able to practice or work on their games.”
Though events for elite players such as Adidas Nations, the LeBron James Skills Academy and the NBPA Top 100 Camp incorporate skill development as well as games, the overall summer structure of grass-roots basketball seems unlikely to change in the near future.
It can be a Catch-22 for parents, who want to give their kids the best opportunities possible but also wonder when enough is enough.
“Sometimes you know their bodies are worn down and they are just done,” said Steve Brennan, father of Guerin Catholic senior Aaron Brennan. “The best thing for them is to just shut it down and rest, but you’ve got 25 college coaches there so you feel like you need to play.”
While many players say they prefer travel basketball to high school, the majority prioritize winning more in the high school game. But there is competition by shoe companies such as Nike, Adidas and Under Armour to fill their programs with elite players to market their products with the possibility of developing long-term relationships.
Because of that competition and the lack of transfer rules like those for high school state associations, grass-roots basketball has become notorious for players bouncing from team to team. Some attribute that nomad mentality to the 40 percent transfer rate in men’s college basketball reported by the NCAA last year.
Steve Brennan said he was approached by other grass-roots programs but ultimately stuck with coach Scott Burton and a Fieldhouse Elite team that had been together for several years.
“After all is said and done, I’m in a 40-year business of raising a son, not four years,” Brennan said. “Other programs made some promises, but I think there’s some lessons about loyalty and character you have to teach, too. Aaron loves AAU. He wants to compete and win like most of these kids. It’s the darn parents screaming in the stands and pushing the kids so hard who ruin it for them.
“Instead of saying, ‘I hate you as a coach’ and moving to the next team, why not ask ‘Why is he sitting you?’ Some parents say, ‘Well, the coach is just screwing you over,’ and that’s the absolute wrong lesson. But it’s what you see in AAU a lot.”
In an attempt to carve out a different niche in July, the National High School Basketball Coaches Association hosted its first Rising Senior event this summer at Ben Davis. Indiana was one of six states to compete and every team was coached by a high school coach.
Steve Witty, the executive director of the Indiana Basketball Coaches Association, said the idea is to move the event to a time during the Division I evaluation period in July. This year only Division II coaches and below were allowed to attend.
“We’re not trying to compete with anybody or replace AAU,” Witty said. “We just want to make it beneficial to the kids, with a leadership and educational component added to it. There was some concern from the high school association to what was going on in the summer, and this is a way for us to get involved and help.”
Columbus East coach Brent Chitty coached the IndyStar Indiana Junior All-Stars in June and the Rising Seniors in July. He said even the worst summer basketball beats the alternative.
“You don’t want to just say, ‘We can’t have any more AAU’ because then what?” Chitty said. “Where are these kids going to be? The positive is that kids are playing basketball.”