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Wednesday, July 31
NBA players starting to support AAU teams

By Michael Kruse
Special to

LAS VEGAS -- Will Sheridan had no idea.

When coach Jimmy Salmon asked him to join the Paterson, N.J., AAU team, the power forward from Hockessin, Del., didn't know what to think.

Tim Thomas
Tim Thomas supports the Paterson, N.J. AAU team.
"When they told me it was the Tim Thomas Playaz, I thought it was just some guy," said Sheridan, a highly rated national recruit. "I didn't know it was the Tim Thomas."

But it was -- and it still is.

The Milwaukee Bucks star is one of the trailblazers on a growing list of NBA players who support AAU and summer basketball squads with their money and/or their name.

"When I was coming up, we had a lot of great players on Paterson AAU," said Thomas, who played for Salmon, his second cousin, alongside Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter back in the summer of 1994. "So I thought it'd be a great idea for me to help out with this."

But the program as a whole bears more than just Thomas' name. The two 17-and-under teams are known as the Tim Thomas Playaz. The 16-and-under group is the Vince Carter Playaz. The 15-year-olds are the Eddie Griffin Playaz.

And the Playaz aren't the only group -- here at the adidas Big Time or anywhere else on the circuit -- with an NBA affiliation.

The Nike-sponsored Gary Payton All-Stars, also known as Seattle Elite, played its way into the Sweet 16 last week in Southern Nevada.

The Syracuse-based Donyell Marshall Foundation had two teams in the Big Time field.

Chicago native and current Boston Celtics standout Antoine Walker bankrolled coach Ervin Bryant's Illinois Celtics' trip to Vegas and cheered for the Illinois Fire from the bench during their Round of 32 loss to the Atlanta Celtics.

And D.C's Assault traveled to Vegas thanks in part to program alum DerMarr Johnson's financial assistance.

"We have our adidas sponsorship, obviously, but DerMarr does give us funding," Assault coach Curtis Malone said before one of his squad's games in Vegas. "He does anything we need him to do."

With the separate levels of basketball continuing to blur together -- and with the NBA getting younger and younger -- look for similar relationships to get more and more pronounced in the coming years.

Take Sheridan.

He's a celebrated talent at home in Delaware -- the workmanlike forward was named the state's player of the year this past winter after leading the Sanford School to a state championship -- but he's known nationally because of his affiliation with the Playaz.

Or Olu Famutimi.

The 6-foot-5 Michigan shooting guard plays his high school ball at Flint Northwestern. But he's known throughout the hoops world because of his high-flying play during the summer with Chris Grier's Michigan Hurricanes.

And if and when these guys and others make it to the so-called League?

"It just makes sense for them to want to help out with a situation that helped them," said Grier, one of the bigwigs in adidas' grassroots hierarchy. "With guys going pro after one or two years now, the AAU coach isn't that far removed from some of their players in the NBA."

One of Grier's NBAers is the league's reigning slam dunk champ -- and don't be surprised if the 'Canes become the Jason Richardson All-Stars sooner rather than later.

I think it's a way for pros to return something to their community in a sport they love. I think 90 percent of AAU teams in the country will be sponsored by NBA players within the next five years."
Playaz assistant T.J. Gassnola
Atlanta Celtics boss Wallace Prather's roster of NBA players includes Dion Glover, Jumaine Jones and Donnell Harvey.

"It's something I've discussed with some of those guys," Prather said. "To be honest, that's something you should see more of. A lot of these cats wouldn't be where they are now if it wasn't for summer basketball and programs like my program."

Or Darren Matsubara's Fresno-based EA Sports Elite Basketball Organzation. EBO products include Utah Jazz guard DeShawn Stevenson and 2002 draftees Chris Jefferies and Carlos Boozer.

"I think that's an individual decision," Matsubara said of the potential for something like EBO Team DeShawn. "But I think the guys who come out of our program cherish and understand the type of vehicle we've provided for them."

Mark Komara certainly thinks so.

The coach of Southeast Pump 'N' Run -- a big-time adidas team based in Huntsville, Ala. -- claims 2002 Washington Wizards second-rounder Rod Grizzard. Current Louisville post player Marvin Stone is one of his guys as well.

"Marvin's already said to me that he's looking forward to doing that if he has the chance," Komara said when asked about any sponsorship from his former players. "So has Grizzard. So that'll probably happen at some point."

As well it should.

"I think it's a way for pros to return something to their community in a sport they love," Playaz assistant T.J. Gassnola said. "I think 90 percent of AAU teams in the country will be sponsored by NBA players within the next five years."

For now, though, consider teams like Payton's Seattle Elite, the Donyell Marshall Foundation squads and the Tim Thomas, Vince Carter and Eddie Griffin Playaz trend-setters in grassroots basketball.

"And it's not just here's-some-money-now-leave-me-alone," DMF coach Mickey Walker said. "Donyell is hands-on. He's around when he's got time off. He's involved. For a kid to sit on the bench with Donyell Marshall? That's a pretty big deal."

In addition to writing checks -- ranging anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 in a typical year, according to Seattle Elite coach Robert Lowden -- Payton sometimes works out with the players on his team.

The Seattle SuperSonics superstar also serves as a mentor of sorts for the touted Stewart twins, Lodrick and Rodrick, from the city's Rainier Beach High School.

As for Thomas?

"He likes to come play George Steinbrenner every now and then," said Salmon, 35, a former head coach at Paterson Catholic. "But it's something these guys should do. When they do make it -- if they get to the NBA -- they should try to give something back."

And this is one way Thomas and more and more of his fellow NBA players choose to do that.

"My thing is, it's all for the kids," Thomas said. "I do it to help better the program. These kids have opportunities to go to different cities and different states to play basketball.

"There are lots of kids who play basketball all over the world -- and they don't all have these opportunities. I can help with that."

Michael Kruse writes for Basketball America and

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