Twice as nice in June
Celebrate the merits of both club and high school basketball this month
June traditionally is a time when the tug of war between high school teams and club teams over top girls' basketball players is suspended, albeit temporarily. In a lot of states, this is a period when high school coaches can work with their players, so it's a time for tournaments and camps, team and skills building. With the July evaluation marathon looming, club coaches generally are willing to ease up and offer their players more time with their school teams.
It is a month, in other words, to celebrate the coexistence -- sometimes peaceful, sometimes uneasy -- of high school and club basketball.
"I like the fact that the girls have both opportunities," said Curtis Ekmark of St. Mary's (Phoenix), the consensus national high school coach of the year in 2012 who also coaches the Arizona Warriors club team. "The high school season is an opportunity for them to play in front of friends and family. There is only one game per week, so the intensity is higher. Club allows them to travel and play better players on a regular basis."
Celebrate because there have been times lately when one or the other has appeared to be targeted for extinction.
There is a proposal, already adopted by the NCAA Legislative Council, though not approved for implementation by the NCAA Board of Directors, to, among other things, shrink the summer evaluation period from 20 days to 14. This has been accompanied by sentiment that more recruiting focus should be placed on scholastic (high school) over non-scholastic (club) events. Opponents maintain that evaluating high school events is costlier than club, where higher numbers of elite prospects typically are congregated, and therefore recruiting advantages will stay with the bigger college programs.
Mostly there is fear that shrinking the number of non-scholastic evaluation days creates a slippery slope that could lead to, if not the elimination, at least the diminishing influence of club basketball.
Kevin Kiernan coaches one of the most powerful high school programs in the nation at Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), and therefore loses his top players to club teams, as well as national team programs, during the spring and summer. He's not only made peace with that, he's made it work.
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"With most of our players gone for the summer, this frees me up to work with our younger players and incoming freshmen and help develop them," Kiernan said. "It has worked out very well so far. The only drawbacks with club I have are the club coaches -- and there are great club coaches out there -- who are not looking to correct flaws or weaknesses in the player's game. They are pointing out the positive and displaying their strengths, which they should. I usually end up as the bad guy when we are critical and try to help eliminate, or at least work on, their flaws. I see that as my role to help them prepare for college.
"I think you have to give the kids freedom to go play club and developmental ball or they will resent you for trying to control them. I have learned to work with all the club coaches that work with the Mater Dei kids."
At the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. Soccer Federation recently decided to require players on its boys' Development Academy teams to participate in a nearly year-round season. The move will force most Development Academy players to skip their high school seasons. There already is a fairly strong movement of elite soccer players, both girls and boys, choosing club over high school teams.
A move to year-round development at the high school level is unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future. Carol Callan, the national women's team director for USA Basketball, counts herself a purist who treasures the community-based appeal of high school basketball. She also praises the influence of club basketball and the opportunities it presents for top players.
A year-round development program would not be financially feasible, Callan said. USA Basketball conducted such a program with its Olympic women's basketball team, which played 60 games leading up to the Atlanta Games in 1996. But that effort was backed mostly by the NBA, which wanted to test the feasibility of the women's game with regard to its investment in the WNBA. Also, there is some sentiment that the Stanford program suffered a setback when its coach, Tara VanDerveer, took a year off to guide that 1996 U.S. team.
Callan pointed out that top high school players already have such full basketball plates that additional requirements from a national team program could create a "tipping point," where players would not look forward to participating. Mostly, Callan says, there is no need to contemplate major changes. The U.S. women have won four straight Olympic gold medals, starting in 1996, and six of the last seven, plus they have dominated international competition at the younger age groups, which now start at U16.
In contrast, U.S. soccer, especially on the men's side, has been in catch-up mode for decades on the international level.
"I think we'd have to get to the point where we felt our competitive advantage was in jeopardy," Callan said.
High school basketball has its pomp and circumstance, while club ball has its evaluation economies of scale and measuring stick for elite prospects. Each continues to hold a valued place in youth basketball, as well as college recruiting. And, as such, their intersection in June is cause for, well, hoopla and not hand wringing.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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