Kenny Kallina caused a stir when the USA Basketball women’s under-16 team was announced on Monday, venting to his nearly 4,000 Twitter followers that the organization had an agenda with its final roster.
Notably missing, he said, were athletes from Southern states, including top prospects Rellah Boothe from Florida and Kasiyahna Kushkituah from Georgia, as well as Fort Myers High freshman Destanni Henderson.
Instead, our new U16 women’s team had players from just five states: California, Texas, Ohio, New Jersey and Missouri.
Whether Kallina, who coaches Southwest Florida athletes on his Jacksonville-based FGB girls AAU team, went about the issue the right or wrong way is another question. But there is a valid point to his argument: with only five states represented on the national team, is it a fair and accurate representation of our country’s talent?
“None of the kids from Florida or Georgia made it,” Kallina said. “They are equally as talented as Texas and California players. There was nobody on the selection committee, no coach from Florida or Georgia. So whether it was bias or not, only the people who voted know. But if you’re trying to find an equal representation, the South was left out.”
Did it really matter?
Carol Callan, director of the USA women’s national team and the non-voting chair of the five-person U16 selection committee, said the mission is to find players from every region.
“It’s truly based on ability,” she said. “We’re not trying to fill quotas from any particular area. If it’s an anomaly year and all 12 who performed the best were from Illinois, we would take them all from Illinois. It’s not an all-star team. We have to be able to look at positions and cover each position.”
Before we delve into rationals, you must also know specifics. USA Basketball invited 35 athletes, including Henderson, to try out for the team in Colorado Springs, Colo., all expenses paid — though one player was injured and wasn’t able to compete.
Another 115 athletes paid their own way, laying down $75 for court action and instruction and hundreds more for transportation, lodging and food. Total out-of-pocket expenses likely extended into the thousands.
Two players from this non-invited player pool, Jayda Adams from California and Lauryn Miller from Missouri, were selected to the team.
“I think it’s a testament to their ability but also to how hard they work,” Callan said. “Sometimes you put yourself in the role of the underdog and you work a little harder than somebody who came in as an invited athlete.”
But more than that, Callan said, it spoke to the unpredictability of the process. While USA Basketball carefully handed out each invitation to potential players, they knew they might not find everyone.
“At this age, it’s impossible to know who are the best overall athletes,” she said.
At the same time, to boil down four days of basketball into one swooping evaluation could also miss out on a big point: it should be important to develop different types of basketball players, from different states, into one cohesive system.
Systemically and culturally, players are different. Styles permeate through regions. Which is to say, perhaps, that players from California and Florida may handle on-court situations differently.
Success can depend on philosophy.
Even so, Callan’s comments are ironic. It’s true you can’t find the best overall athletes. Some had the means to pay their way through. Many more couldn’t.
“We have a high minority, high at-risk population,” Kallina said. “And these kids, a lot of them are coming from tough backgrounds, and it almost feels like them being overlooked is institutional, and they’re looking for certain kids.
“You can’t change the demographic and the culture of the state. But what you can do is work with these those kids early enough to make sure they get opportunities.”
One of Kallina’s main points dealt with players having a fair and accurate chance at proving themselves. Was everyone prepared? Did they handle situational aspects quickly enough?
These questions are two-sided in a lot of ways. If everyone was equal, how could you possibly pick one player over another?
But there’s a great point buried, too. Are we relying too much on system? If talent is, to a greater degree, equal, should regionalism play a factor in the selection of national teams? Really, why should it not?
“My best comparison is this,” Kallina said. “If you have an All-American U16 football team, is it possible to leave the entire south out? The answer is ‘No.’ The same athletes we have in football are the ones we have in basketball.”
Kallina uses the example of one of his former players, Courtney Williams, who was passed over by USA Basketball a number of times at the youth level.
She ended up at South Florida, a borderline top-25 program. She starred early and often and is currently rated as the fifth best prospect for the 2016 WNBA Draft by multiple mock drafts.
She was selected in May to join the USA Basketball Women’s World University Games roster. Finally, after all the years of missing the cut, her college experience proved otherwise.
“I wonder if USA Basketball worked with that kid earlier, would she be the best player in the country now?” Kallina said.