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Bigwigs Meet to Fix Basketball

A bunch of movers and shakers, including Myles Brand, David Stern, Val Ackerman, Boo Williams, Jim Delany, Bob Bowlsby, C. M. Newton, Dave Gavitt, Paul Hewitt, Jim Boeheim, George Raveling, and Martyn Brewer were in Indianapolis yesterday talking about, essentially, fixing American basketball development.

The great news is that these people are at last acknowledging the problem.

Now, what exactly is in the works here? My knee-jerk reaction is to expect some sort of band-aid fix, instead of fundamental change. My skepticisim is born of the reality that the current system is a cash cow for most of those who were around the table in Indianapolis. Tough to imagine they'll conspire behind closed doors to cut themselves smaller chunks of a smaller pie, which would probably be the reality of any serious fix I can imagine.

But I suppose we must be open-minded. Stern, for one, really does need the US to consistently produce the best basketball players in the world, because looking down the road a few years, as Europe becomes a more important NBA market, he needs his product to be a distinct cut above the Euroleague in the minds of players (several of whom are already leaving NBA offers on the table to play in Europe) and fans. He also needs a Team USA that wins world titles, lest is stop seeming like the NBA is not the best league in the world.

The Washington Post notes that "conspicuously absent" from the meeting was Sonny Vaccaro. (By the way, the Chicago Tribune's Brian Hamilton wrote an exceptional article about his plan the other day.) The statement from the NCAA's Myles Brand and the NBA's David Stern makes it sound like their working group will be inventing its own original solutions. But much of the media coverage takes the position that the main proposal on the table is Vaccaro's "academy" idea. Eric Sondheimer has some specifics on that idea in the Los Angeles Times.

"Hopefully, someone can broker a peace treaty because it has to be done," said Vaccaro, who envisions an academy similar to the successful IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy, which opened in 1978. He said Los Angeles could be a potential site because of the availability of top academic institutions to which players could be sent for schooling when they aren't training.

About 40 players from grades nine to 12 would be selected by a committee, Vaccaro said. Their scholarships for the academy could be taken away if they failed to meet academic standards. Retaining scholarships wouldn't be tied to performance. Two teams would play a national schedule, and no postgraduate players would be involved.

One thought I have about Vaccaro's plan--it funnels basically all of the best young players to Team USA in the summers. That's a Nike sponsored team. Just saying.

In the New York Times, an anonymous source who was at the meeting tells reporter Pete Thamel the academy discussion is on the table, but is only a part of the bigger picture.

Those at the meeting were asked not to speak with the news media so that the message would stay consistent. But one participant said the idea of a youth basketball academy for elite players, which was raised by Stern during his criticism of the state of the youth game at the N.B.A. finals, was discussed.

“The academy may be one arm or a small portion of it,” the person in attendance said. “But the focus was on how basketball can help kids’ academic and social development. What can this game do to reshape or refocus the thought process in terms of academic and social development?”

Stern’s comments in June were prompted by New York Times reports in November and February that showed how high school athletes were being given grades at fraudulent prep schools to obtain college scholarships.

The decline in USA Basketball’s performances at the international level includes a third-place showing at the world championship in Japan earlier this month.

The prevailing thought is that the United States’ struggles at the top levels of basketball can be traced to its lack of organization at the lower levels. It is the focus of this group to try to make youth basketball teams more cohesive on the court and to make basketball more of an entryway into a better life off the court.

Brand and Stern said the working group would report back next year with its recommendations.

OK, I read all of those articles, and wrote all of the above, before I happened across Dan Wetzel's column on Yahoo! Sports. Wth Don Yeager, Wetzel literally wrote the book (Sole Influence) on corruption in American basketball development. Wetzel reports a whopping piece of news that somehow eluded every other reporter: the summit was, says Wetzel, hosted by Nike's Phil Knight.

What? Really? How did no one else see fit to tell us that? Here are some highlights of Wetzel's column. You should really read the whole thing:

  • "Phil Knight should have a good grasp on the problems in basketball, since he and his company created about half of them."

  • "The high school game has been professionalized. Summer basketball is a breeding ground for corruption and unsavory characters. Pro sports agents – and shoe company representatives – routinely court budding superstars as young as 13 years old. College basketball contains rampant cheating, soaring coaching salaries and a facility construction boom – opulent arenas, locker rooms and lounges – that is bankrupting athletic departments to the point the NCAA had to expand the football season to pay for some of it."

  • "It is Nike, after all, which created the summer basketball scene, from All-America camps to traveling team tournaments, the things that all the basketball purists blame for the decrease in quality of play."

  • "It is Nike which funded some of the most notorious traveling of teams and coaches, including Myron Piggie who was sent to prison after he used the money Nike gave him to pay his players, who all wound up getting suspended by the NCAA."