Austin journalist Bruce Selcraig is a former Sports Illustrated investigative reporter and has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper's and The Atlantic. He has coached youth basketball in Washington DC and Austin for nearly two decades, and writes here about his experience at an unusual basketball camp in Switzerland.
Last summer my 18-season career of coaching AAU basketball in the oft-maligned world of "travel team" tournaments and summer camps had become a massive pain in the shorts.
My Austin, Texas, program, HoopNation, had attracted several teenage scholar-athletes of dubious character and for the first time in my coaching life I was almost hoping the crew would mutiny so I wouldn't have to jump ship first.
Kids started ditching practice. One stole a jersey. A voluble mom went berserk in the bleachers when her defense-loathing baby didn't start. At times the level of basic self-discipline and loyalty could be shocking.
We gave some talented hardened kids from Austin's east side -- cliche alert! -- a real alternative to drugs and gangs, and some of them learned how to play a less selfish, smarter brand of ball.
But the misery was outweighing the fun.
Looking for sympathy, I called a college coaching friend of mine, Rus Bradburd, who was an assistant at New Mexico State and UTEP for 14 years.
"I know what you need," said Bradburd, who treated his own burnout in 2002 by going to Ireland to fiddle (literally) and to coach the semi-pro Tralee Frosties Tigers. From that experience he later wrote "Paddy on the Hardwood," one of basketball's literary gems.
"There's this summer basketball camp in Switzerland run by two Yanks who played and coached in Europe," Bradburd told me. "It absolutely changed my life. I coached there seven summers. It convinced me to get out of coaching."
Now that is a testimonial.
A flurry of e-mail introductions ensued and by July, armed with Eurail passes and German phrase books, my son, Cole, and I were headed to the Wilson Swiss All-Star Basketball Camp in Zofingen, Switzerland, a hamlet of 11,500 about an hour west of Zurich.
Like an Alpine Mayberry, Zofingen has streets so clean you could eat strudel from them and awesome Swiss trains whose freaky punctuality is so culturally ingrained that folks pace and fidget if a train is two minutes late.
For two weeks in July, as many as a thousand hoopsters, ages 6 to 19, take over the campus of a vocational school and turn it into reputedly the largest youth basketball camp in Europe.
But the reason Bradburd and dozens of American coaches, both pro and college, have been drawn to this remarkable camp over the past 20 years has little to do with its size, the talent level of the kids or its celebrity NBA guests like Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Marvin Williams or Danny Granger. While the camp definitely has talented kids who go on to play for American colleges and Euro leagues, it's not designed to be a scouting meat market.
The camp's allure for coaches is that the founders have somehow attracted an international melting pot of kids -- last year's crowd came from 20 nations in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and U.S. -- who regardless of religion, race, wealth, age or mad skills manage to make lasting friendships, endear themselves to the tiny trusting town and play basketball without the toxic culture that has infected much of American hoops.
I never got tired of watching Egyptian girls in their hijabs (scarves) high-fiving tall blonde Austrians, nor the sight of our big Russian center hammering lesser foes into the bleachers with a smile, then helping them up. Amazingly, the kids played with real intensity, yet never dissolved into cursing and fights.
Where was all the made-for-TV taunting, the bored indifference to coaching?
"Hello, I am Petar Ristic from Serbia," said a 6-3, doe-eyed kid whose earnestness and solid D would have charmed Bobby Knight.
"I listen," Petar told me on day one. "I will do what is right."
What a team I had: Jonathan, the smooth two-guard from Paris who translated my X's and O's into French for guard Yannick, from the Portuguese-speaking Cabo Verde Islands; Tobias, our 6-8 Croatian living in Zurich who speaks five languages and went on to play at a Utah junior college; plus Pablo, Victor, Tony, Marvin, Skyler and Charles. Each could've started on a good U.S. high school team.
I tried to act all blase in front of my coaching peers from Germany, Italy and Spain, yet I didn't know quite what to make of this -- nine hip teenage boys, black, white, Mediterranean, comfortably middle-class and not so much, all looking me in the eye when I spoke, trying out their best English and genuinely wanting to be coached.
These were normal, ipod-addicted, urban kids who amazingly thought adults three times their age might have a clue. It was like the Pleasantville of coaching.
When Yannick, who spoke little English, pantomimed that he wanted help with his funky jumpshot, I thought I was gonna tear up.
Ask an American travel team coach the last time he heard, "Can you help me do this better?"
"You just couldn't holler, push and badger these kids," recalls Bradburd. "My first year, leaving a practice, I noticed a kid under a tree reading Camus' `The Stranger.' You could go to every camp in America and not see that."
And yet this was hardly Montessori Hoops. Each kid worked so hard I would have happily forfeited all our games if I could've started nine guys.
The camp's atmosphere of communal respect and friendly competition comes from the odd couple founders.
Jon Ferguson, full of gray curls and as lanky as Phil Jackson, coached in Switzerland's pro leagues for 26 years, when he wasn't painting modern art, writing novels ("Farley's Jewel" among others) or dissecting Nietzsche. A former Brigham Young student who quit the Mormon church in the 70s and protested the Vietnam War, Ferguson's late-night pizza sessions filled my notebook:
"Plato made a big mistake separating man from nature, which created intellectual havoc," he once told me. Then later: "In coaching I was able to survive so many bad situations with team owners because I thought they were like worms."
As the camp's omnip
resent master of ceremonies, Ferguson memorizes dozens of names within 24 hours and embraces the athletic stud and dweeb alike. He delights even the jaded older kids with a bawdy Mick Jagger impersonation during talent night and no doubt would've made a splendid white Globetrotter.
"Coaches who do nothing but coach," Ferguson likes to say, "go crazy in a couple of years."
Bald as a Martian and a practicing Mormon, Charlie McCormick is an extremely fit mid-50s fellow from Fredonia, Arizona who, along with his tireless wife, Maggie, quietly makes sure nothing goes wrong at the camp. He played eight years in Europe and coached for 12, and like Ferguson, lives in Switzerland year round. McCormick handles everything from contract negotiations with the NBA stars to the culturally sensitive shower arrangements for Muslim girls. He won me over with his trained herd of border collies and Australian sheepdogs who occasionally sprint through the gym.
"Word has gotten around the NBA about what we do here," says McCormick. "We've had guys like Jeff Hornacek [Utah Jazz, 1994-2000] work the camp and refuse to take any money. Steve Nash immediately bonded with kids. Dirk was fantastic. And then guys like [off the record he mentions an NBA star making more than $8 million] never showed, didn't return phone calls and we had to get $10,000 in damages."
Not unlike some other hip summer camps, the Swiss Camp offers Nintendo Wii video games, non-stop rap music (with DJ Jimmy C), a swimming pool, baseball batting cage and even a girls-only night at the gym. But the secret to the camp, McCormick says, is getting coaches, no matter what their level, who know how to engage kids and run great practices.
"We've brought in big name coaches who didn't know how to work with kids," he says. "They'd keep the kids in long lines doing all these drills, boxing out, pivoting, and kids would be checking the clock. I don't want that."
Yet, you'd be wrong to think that drills, especially with older kids, have been replaced by sack races. The kids get all the basketball they can stand and leave happily exhausted, but it's the attitude beneath all this that has captured the hearts of hardened American coaches.
Says Ferguson: "I think the heart of the camp is that we get the coaches to rise above winning and losing games, egos and bad calls. We like to see kids lose a game and five minutes later they're joking with some kid from the winning team. For me, sports is just a vehicle to get people together."
When my Euro team wondrously rose above their coaching and beat tough American AAU squads from L.A. and New York to win the 16-and-over camp championship, part of me wanted to run around like Jim Valvano looking for a hug. But on the other end of the gym were the American kids, predictably, inconsolable, with jerseys pulled over their heads to hide the tears. Some parents blamed the refs.
It won't be easy in America to undo a lifetime of images that tell our kids, especially boys, that anything less than winning makes them weak and pathetic, that humiliation is actually what they deserve for losing.
Unlearning that drill might take a thousand Swiss camps spread over a generation of young athletes.
But the effort is worth it, and now would be a good time to start.