On a broiling July afternoon, college basketball coaches dressed in team-colored polo shirts and shorts packed their roped-off section of the main gym at Northview Middle School for the Adidas Invitational.
It was the first evaluation period of the summer and many were there to see Stephen Zimmerman, a 7-foot junior phenom from Las Vegas who many recruiting insiders rank as the No. 1 player in his class. Indiana coach Tom Crean picked out a metal folding chair in the corner of the gym, Purdue coach Matt Painter a spot in the bleachers. More than two dozen other coaches were there, including men from Arizona, Michigan and Northwestern.
But it was Bryant McIntosh, a 6-3 guard from Greensburg, who stole the show. McIntosh dizzied Zimmerman and the Dream Vision team for 26 points, scoring on floaters, drives and 3-pointers. His Eric Gordon All-Stars team won 73-64.
McIntosh was the buzz of the gym. He’d won a state championship, been named an IndyStar Indiana Junior All-Star and was selected to the all-state team. But nothing he’d accomplished in high school came close to approaching the exposure he received that July afternoon.
“That’s what we work for,” said McIntosh, who rescinded his commitment to Indiana State the week of the tournament. “AAU allows you to be seen by these coaches so you can accomplish your dreams of playing college basketball.”
Grass-roots basketball — commonly called “AAU,” although the Amateur Athletic Union runs only a very small percentage of tournaments — has become an integral part of the youth basketball experience, for better or worse. For the players, it offers an opportunity to play the best of the best competition and, for certain periods in April and July, to gain exposure to college coaches. For the coaches, it’s a chance to see players against other elite competition and, maybe more importantly, to be noticed by the recruits and parents of recruits they are targeting.
But how much is too much? And how early is too early? In a Time magazine story released last month, reporter Sean Gregory detailed his experience at a second-grade AAU national tournament in Memphis, Tenn., where one parent expressed resignation at the whirlwind: “If your kid wants to play basketball, what can you do? It’s sort of the devil you walk with.”
The good, bad and ugly
Brandon Brantley looks out over the Adidas-sponsored teams outfitted in uniforms, shoes and workout gear to a scene unfamiliar to him growing up in Gary in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Back then, AAU basketball was just starting to gain traction as shoe companies began to sponsor teams.
Brantley, who went on to help Purdue to three consecutive Big Ten Conference titles in the mid-1990s and played professionally overseas for more than a decade, assisted veteran AAU coach Pat Mullin with the 16-and-under Eric Gordon All-Stars for the first time this summer.
“I was like everybody else saying, ‘AAU is killing these kids,’ ” Brantley said. “I was so far removed from it. I didn’t know guys like Pat and others out here doing good things, on and off the court.”
The Eric Gordon program started five years ago, sponsored by the former North Central High School and Indiana star who soon will enter his sixth NBA season. From the beginning, the Eric Gordon program has attempted to promote itself as more than “just” a basketball team, doing volunteer work at the Ronald McDonald House and conducting an educational workshop for players and parents on topics such as social media, recruiting and academics.
One of the speakers this year was Marcia Irvin, the mother of 2013 IndyStar Indiana Mr. Basketball winner Zak Irvin of Hamilton Southeastern. The Irvin family continued to stay involved with the program even after their son moved on to the University of Michigan.
“We’ve been trying to sell to people for years that it’s more than just going off and playing basketball,” said Matt Green, a coach with the Eric Gordon program since the beginning. “We’re trying to build a family atmosphere.”
The time spent on the road and in the gym for travel basketball engenders close relationships for both players and their parents. For a team like the locally based Spiece Indy Ice, the core of the team has played together since the second grade. Friendships blossom and solidify over a decadelong journey.
“This isn’t just a basketball team; this is family,” said Kendall Rollins, a Pike senior who plays for the Spiece Indy Ice. “They are my brothers.”
But it’s that same togetherness and rising importance given to the travel/AAU game that some believe is tearing away at high school basketball, sacred territory in Indiana. An informal player survey conducted recently by The Indianapolis Star showed nearly 80 percent preferred playing AAU over high school.
“You’re playing the best competition from all different states,” said Lawrence North senior Daeshon Francis, a member of the Spiece Indy Ice. “In high school, you play the same kids over and over. It’s a better setup for AAU. It’s a faster pace, not as fundamental. I like AAU better, pretty much.”
Exposure to college coaches, better competition and less structure are factors many players point to as reasons to prefer the travel basketball scene. For college coaches, under the current NCAA rules, elite tournaments in April (two weekends) and July (15 days) are must-stop shopping. Outside of showcase events, college coaches don’t have the same evaluation opportunities in terms of the quantity of prospects and number of games at high school events.
“AAU and high school are completely different,” said Indiana sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell, who won two Class 2A state championships at Park Tudor. “There really is no comparison, I’ll say. AAU you’re traveling, you’re playing three or four games a day. High school it’s just one game a day, really. It’s a different kind of level. I feel like AAU is a lot more competition, more all-stars on one team.”
The increased relevancy of travel basketball has at times created a divide with the high school game. Some worry that it could eventually eclipse high school altogether, similarly to golf and tennis, where the elite players compete for club teams rather than their high school.
As schools struggle financially and more districts implement a pay-for-play participation model, the gap between travel and high school seems to close.
“It would be a really sad day if it ever becomes all AAU,” said North Central coach Doug Mitchell. “But it does make you wonder if the day is coming when we’re the Jiffy Lube Panthers or Wal-Mart Panthers.”
Mitchell, a veteran coach with two state championships and 344 career wins, believes the large majority of summer travel coaches in the state are in it for the right reasons. But he worries that some aspects of AAU create a false sense of accomplishment for the players.
“I think kids can get built up so much in AAU with the rankings and everything that it creates a sense of entitlement,” Mitchell said. “What have you really done? That part of it can be frustrating.”
Another frustration for Mitchell is the devaluing of a game. Because teams play three games in a day sometimes and as many as eight or nine in a tournament, there can be a natural tendency to hold something back for the next game, or not languish too long after a loss because the next game is in three hours.
Brett Crist, a coach for Best Choice Elite 2016 and also an assistant at Hamilton Heights, just shook his head after his team slugged its way through a third-game-in-the-day win last week in Fort Wayne.
“That’s the bad side of it,” he said. “We won. But did we really gain anything by playing that game? Probably not.”
Nine years ago, Michael Blackwell was approached about coaching a group of fifth-graders in and around his hometown of Petersburg, Va. At the time, Blackwell was in his mid-20s, working part time as a high school basketball assistant and full time for a Wal-Mart distribution center.
Blackwell coached the group through high school, then stayed on with the Adidas-sponsored Team Loaded organization. He has seen both sides of grass-roots basketball, as a startup group grinding to raise money through car washes and candy sales to a fully funded team that gets its travel and gear paid for by Adidas.
“I’ve seen the good and bad of AAU basketball,” Blackwell said. “You most definitely have sharks out here. This is my third year coaching 17-and-under and it can get really ugly at this level. There are some (coaches) out here only looking for their own personal gain.
“But I think it also gets lost sometimes that there are some great stories out here. If you have talent, and do the right things, basketball can take you a long way. Like I tell my guys, I’m here to help them and at the end of July, I’m back to my 9-to-5 job. I have a wife and two boys and I’m away from them all of July and I don’t get paid anything. But for these guys to have the opportunity to play in front of college coaches and get a free education, that drives me to keep doing this.”
Blackwell was standing outside North Central High School as he talked, where his team competed in the Adidas Invitational last month. Across the sidewalk from him, Indiana Elite coach Barry Kroot addressed his team.
Kroot, a business owner, also started coaching when his son, Adam, was in fifth grade. He stayed with it for seven years, coaching his final tournament with Indiana Elite in Las Vegas at the end of July.
“I’ve got three kids on my team who had never been on an airplane until this experience,” he said. “Probably 70 percent of my team wouldn’t be able to go to college without basketball. Once they get there, it’s up to them. I haven’t seen a lot of negatives, to be honest. They get a chance to travel, see a lot of places they wouldn’t otherwise.”
Janell Tatum has seen it firsthand. Her son, Steve McElvene, is a 6-11 senior who plays for New Haven High School. Like Greensburg’s McIntosh, McElvene was recruited during the high school season but saw the interest explode in the spring and summer while playing with the Spiece Indy Heat.
Last summer, Tatum and McElvene moved back to Fort Wayne from Alabama, where he had played for a grass-roots team locally.
“For us, (travel basketball) has been a positive experience,” Tatum said. “They get to travel and go places I’d never been able to take him. A lot of coaches have been able to see what he can do and what he needs to work on.”
In retrospect, it’s difficult to argue with McIntosh’s decision to open up his recruitment. He has opportunities to play in the Big Ten or Atlantic Coast Conference, doors that have opened because of the summer travel basketball scene.
On the flip side, there is Greg Lansing. The Indiana State coach developed a strong relationship with McIntosh over several months and was the only college coach sitting in the front row when Greensburg defeated Fort Wayne Concordia to win the state title in March.
Now Lansing stands little chance.
“You don’t want to have to go through that,” McIntosh said of telling Lansing he was going to open up his recruitment. “It’s tougher than a lot of people would think.”
McIntosh then disappeared down the hallway at Ben Davis, off to play another game. An hour later, he was offered a scholarship by West Virginia.