Commentary

Youth basketball: A modest proposal

Updated: September 28, 2009, 12:44 PM ET
By Glenn Nelson | HoopGurlz

To the uninitiated masses, the term "youth basketball" tends to conjure images of wobbly but gleeful children chasing each other on a court with a steel pole, wooden backboard and bent rim with a chain-link net. To some it is honor and school colors, bands and cheerleaders. To others still, it is packs of teens being carted around the country in search of scholarships and glory.

Carmen Holcombe
Glenn NelsonPlayers and parents are listening for practical solutions to navigate youth basketball's complicated waters.

At the start, youth basketball for me was a way to give back to a sport that was the foundation of my professional career and to connect further with and protect my older daughter and her friends. We had a team composed mostly of little Asian girls who played hard, forged friendships and got written up in ethnic newspapers or were featured on TV for striving beyond what was considered the norm. We invited teams to our gym for socials, fed our competitors exotic foods, and conducted tournaments with our local WNBA and NBA teams so kids in the region could play in a cool, otherwise-inaccessible environment.

Then, while exiting the celebratory aftermath of a big tournament win that was a precursor to our playing at AAU Nationals, I was met by a mother, a scowl on her face and her daughter's playing time on her mind. The party was over -- and it never really resumed. Although I have a lot of great memories and relationships from that period in my life, the line behind that one mother, a line fueled by unhappiness, jealousy and sometimes greed, only has grown longer.

Even though we've all never really clearly defined "youth basketball" or determined its endgame, we have yet another queue developing -- of those wishing to shape its future. The sport's infrastructure is in disarray and finds itself faced with two seemingly opposite solutions.

First in line -- and the sound of their advancing footsteps have been heard for years -- was the NBA-NCAA brainchild, iHoops, with adidas and Nike also as founding partners. They naturally have spawned a for-profit venture, whose mission is widely seen as keeping guard over the 100 or so (per year) boys basketball players who stoke the whole March Madness, money-making machine for the NCAA before turning into golden geese for the NBA. It is in their best interests to supplement the And1, mix-tape-fueled carnival acts that draw young audiences with enough fundamental development to keep the purists happy and the Olympic medals from disappearing.

The sneaker companies have similar interests to protect and are just as dubious candidates for acting as guardians of youth basketball, especially since they've essentially segregated the summer circuit by logo affiliation and fueled further divisiveness by provoking tug-of-wars over players.

An iHoops spokesperson recently told ESPN HoopGurlz that the organization wants to focus on education and instruction but doesn't want to run events. However, iHoops CEO Kevin Weiberg has not ruled out that possibility when speaking to other media. That, plus a prolonged information vacuum, has been enough to spook event organizers and others involved in the club-basketball scene.

[+] EnlargeKevin Weiberg
AP Photo/Kevin WolfKevin Weiberg was recently named CEO of iHoops, the NCAA and NBA's joint youth basketball initiative.

So the organizers and others on both the girls' and boys' sides launched Youth Basketball 21 (YB21) last weekend in Las Vegas and are going the non-profit route. The strength of this group is that it is "on the ground," so to speak. Its leader, Mike Flynn of Blue Star and USJN, is one of the top event organizers in girls' basketball, as well as a scouting service operator and club program director. Others in YB21 also are capable organizers, scouting service operators and club-team directors or coaches. In other words, they have far more direct experience and expertise in the summer circuit than iHoops, which really only has Nike (and adidas on the boys' side) as successful operators of exposure events.

So far, YB21 is a self-selected group and seeks oversight over various aspects of summer basketball -- events, teams -- that some of its members have intertwined, along with scouting services, in a way that makes a lot of college coaches uncomfortable. Most critically, it seeks control or meaningful input that the NCAA won't very readily cede since, after all, it just staked an additional claim on the system through iHoops. YB21 first will try to negotiate with the NCAA and, failing that, will try legal avenues, so it's likely to get ugly.

While we all sit on the precipice of all this fussing and fighting, this moment, at least to me, seems ripe for cooperation. There are two groups and two tracts for players, if we can put aside all pretentions and admit what's sitting in front of our faces. There are the elite prospects, whose fate is the concern of the iHoops principals, and there is the vast majority of everyone else, including those striving for elite status, which need the direction that YB21 wants to provide. This, after all, is not much different than the system employed in much of the rest of the world that is catching up to America so quickly on the basketball court that we've flinched several times in international competition.

Much like Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo already have done on the men's side, let's create a pool for international play, but expand it. Part of that pool is the top 50-100 high-school players. The NBA and NCAA help fund training and housing by USA Basketball. Nike and adidas kick in for marketing rights. The price of organizing and protecting the multi-million-dollar men's and boys' pool is funding one for women and girls as well. To facilitate the massive training, USA Basketball certainly would have to expand the pool of competent coaches, providing trickle-down effect on the high-school and club levels.

The elite-tract players don't get to participate, at least fully, in a system devised by YB21 (maybe, similar to the Canadians, they'd play in geographic groups in elite brackets of big tournaments, offering college evaluation opportunities). If it wants to certify coaches, YB21 also will be charged with training them to be better. Maybe that happens via cooperation between iHoops, which provides the training because it has the resources, and YB21, which in exchange provides the expertise to identify prospects for the elite tract.

Parents, a difficult group to represent because of the transient nature of their participation in the system, must be represented because they will bring huge concerns over cost and safety (from injuries and, on the girls' side primarily, predation). YB21 also should be allowed to formally incorporate input from college coaches who, after all, are as important a clientele as the players to which the summer circuit connects them.

College programs would have evaluation and recruiting opportunities with the elite-tract training and, being centralized, it should be more cost-effective. If it were me, I'd negotiate a plan with YB21, making sure that its membership was broad enough and included input from college coaches and parents, and that sponsor segregation was ringed out of summer basketball. Then I'd give it near carte blanche for an agreed-upon period to implement the plan. If YB21 delivers, it gets a longer renewal; if it doesn't, we're back to where we are today.

Throwing in with the dual-tract system at least puts the right kids with the right infrastructure to service their needs. On the girls' side, mostly, the act of separating out the elite prospects also begins to eliminate some of the game's more destructive elements.

The NCAA simply should not get to come in and "fix" a system it had a major role in botching in the first place. Who, after all, certified every event with an organizer who had the filing fees and paperwork, without any concomitant oversight? The same goes for the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which once had the position and cache to provide some regulatory guidance to youth basketball, but defaulted and drifted into a glorified insurance provider. Maybe it earns a seat back at the table by lending its geographic infrastructure to restore some order to the summer circuit.

This isn't exactly an altruistic system with the whole of "youth basketball," and whatever idyllic images that term promotes, as the central interest. Nor is it exactly the way the rest of the world has advanced upon the U.S. in hoops. It is commerce-based, the American way, and we can only hope that the residual impact is a positive one.

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.