Chapter 13: The United States Basketball Academy

The following is the original Chapter 13, in its entirety, from Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, 2nd Edition, published in 2007.

Since publishing Cross Over’s First Edition in April 2006, youth basketball reform has transfixed the media and gained acceptance as a necessary course of action, spearheaded by NBA Commissioner David Stern, Sonny Vaccaro and Nike’s George Raveling. Their answer, according to published reports, is an academy serving 10-20 elite basketball players. Of course, according to Pete Thamel’s December article in the NY Times: “Location and format are the two biggest issues,” said Sonny Vaccaro, a sneaker company marketing representative who has met with Stern in New York about the concept. “Where are we going to put it, and how is it going to function?”

Despite several “summits” and 10 months of discussions among the basketball braintrust, no concrete plans exist. The rumors beyond the single elite academy of unknown location or format include a cessation of shoe-sponsored exposure camps in favor of position-specific instructional camps. This represents a cosmetic change, not a solution. It alters one week a year for the top 100-150 players, creates a new development program for 15 players (academy) and does nothing for any player beyond the elite. While these minor changes may propel the United States to victory in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, the United States should win international competitions, as the talent pool and financial resources are much deeper in the United States than elsewhere. The proposal fails to address the major issues with youth basketball and, therefore is not a true solution. If the power brokers are going to invest the time, money and energy to fix a broken system, the change should create the best possible solution, not a minor tweak to the status quo which barely affects enough players to cause but a ripple in the ocean of wasted time, money and opportunity.

In the last year, many have referenced the European system. And, while I agree that Stern and company should look at all systems, worldwide and in other sports, in their effort to deliver the best system to the United States, the “European system” is neither one homogenous system, nor completely replicable in the United States.

Economics and profit fuel player development systems and, currently, there is no incentive for the NBA to involve itself in the process. In European leagues, teams such as Bennetton Treviso, Maccabi Tel Aviv and CSKA Moscow sign players as young as 14 and place them within their club system or basketball academy. According to an article in FIBA’s Assist Magazine, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Academy “has 54 branches all over the country in which 2,600 boys and girls get familiar with the basics of basketball…The Youth Section consists of 14 teams, who play in the various age group leagues operated by the Israel Basketball Association, starting with Mini Basketball all the way up to the Juniors (under 18).” Beyond the club’s financial investment is the involvement of club personnel: “All coaches and instructors in the Academy are graduates of coaching courses and work according to the program developed at the Basketball Academy.”

However, each club is different, so there is no uniform policy to implement. For instance, according to a Michael Lee article in the Washington Post, “Italian power Benetton Treviso has about 600 players, some non-pros as young as 8, in its junior program.” In Russia, European power CSKA Moscow “signs players beginning at age 14 to contracts that usually last about five years. CSKA supplies them with room, board and a salary ranging from $300 to $2,000 a month, depending on their progress and play (the average Russian salary is $410 a month).” While these players are professionals, they complete secondary school during the day, attending class three days a week, and beyond secondary school, they can take correspondence courses.

While the bigger clubs develop players for their own professional squads, they also sign players from other clubs; CSKA’s top three players this year are two Americans and a Greek. Smaller clubs use player development to finance the club, which is the biggest departure from the current U.S. system occurs. While CSKA is backed by a billionaire who loves basketball, much like Paul Allen or Mark Cuban, and has a budget of $38 million (according to Lee’s article), other clubs survive by developing and selling players. “Serbia’s FMP Zeleznik states quite plainly that it is in the business of developing and eventually selling players to the highest bidders. Its 200 players receive scholarships, live in dormitories, attend classes and practice twice per day. They have access to a weight room, sauna and a medical center that is used by the Serbian national team. But if a player becomes a star, he won’t be around long. Five FMP players, including Mile Ilic, a 7-foot-1 reserve center for the New Jersey Nets, were sold for a reported $3.5 million over the summer. A spokesman said the money from the transactions is invested back into the program,” (Lee).

Imagine if the NBA eliminated the draft and, instead colleges sold the players’ contract rights to NBA teams. Do you think college programs would shift some or all of their emphasis from winning the national championship to developing better players? Do you think the NCAA would stop restricting the time coaches spend working with players if its biggest source of income was money from NBA teams buying player contracts? Imagine the financial impact developing a player like Kevin Martin or Ronnie Price could have on a non-BCS school like Western Carolina or Utah Valley State.

This will never happen in the United States. However, Lithuania’s basketball academies offer a realistic vision. According to Lee’s article, “these academies serve as before- and after-school programs, in which parents pay for their children to intensely learn fundamentals at an early age and engage in competitions when they reach 12.” In Lithuania, two of the best and most well-known academies are operated by Sarunas Marciulionis (Vilnius) and Arvydas Sabonis (Kaunas). “Marciulionis has 815 children in his program, ranging from ages 7 to 18. He has 11 certified coaches who are assigned to two age groups each. Sabonis has a similar setup, except the age groups for coaches differ by five years.” According to a FIBA Assist Magazine article, “Basketball coaches attend 40 to 50 hours of coaching seminars and lectures each year…The LPEA (Lithuanian Physical Education Academy) graduates 10-15 basketball coaches each year…Approximately 80% of Lithuanian basketball coaches have graduated from LPEA, where they have had 600 hours of basketball studies, while students work as coach assistants during training sessions, developing their first coaching skills.” According to another FIBA Assist Magazine article, players progress gradually, adding to the number of practices per week every two years as well as adding to the duration of practices. As Lee writes about one of Marciulionis’ coaches: “Linartis first began coaching them, he took them on the typical track, from having them running wild as neophytes, to gradually teaching them how to dribble, pass, shoot and defend.”

The other example beyond club or private academies is a government-sponsored development program. In the United States, U.S. Soccer created a plan and program (Project 40) to win the 2010 World Cup. One by-product is a residency program at the IMG Academy for U-17 National Team players. According to the U.S. Soccer web site, “the full-time Residency Program has doubled in the number of players from 20 to 40, adding 10 additional players in both the fall semester of 2002 and 2003. U.S. Soccer has been able to increase the number of players enrolled in the program to provide greater opportunities for young players and increase its investment in player development. With 40 players now in residency, the program is able to field two full teams who will train together during the week, and get the chance to compete against colleges, professional club teams and international youth teams on the weekends.”

In France, players such as Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Johan Petro matriculated through the Institute Nationale Sport and Education Physical (INSEP) in Paris. According to INSEP’s Lucien Legrand, “There are 48 young players, boys and girls split-up in two categories of teams, under-18 and under-16. In training camp, they improve their individual skills and their team chemistry. For the under-16, they play against others for the professional team in young class. When a 16-year-old kid plays against older players, like 30 years of age, he’s going to improve his game and intensity. They become more mature that way. It’s a learning process.”

From David Stern and company’s point of view, these systems are unrealistic. NBA owners have no motivation to use their resources to fuel a development program which currently provides players for free. NBA teams only spend money to acquire a player when they contribute to an international player’s contract buyout, and the NBA limits the money a team can contribute. Unless concessions are made, and territorial rights established, a player coming through a Los Angeles Lakers’ sponsored development program in Inglewood is fair game when he enters the draft, so the Lakers may invest and nurture the player’s talent, only to watch the Celtics draft him.

While the NBA takes a hands-off approach, the DFB (German Soccer Federation) and its clubs work together to improve the game for all German soccer players and fans and develop future professional players: “they are creating the future through investment in infrastructure, continuity and community…The DFB is committed to offering the best possible organization for everyone, from the very young to seniors and players in fun-friendly leagues” (Gibson). USA Basketball lacks a similar mission, as every team and organization is under its own auspices with no unifying organization to invest in infrastructure, continuity or community. “Creating the future through development is therefore a responsibility shared by the clubs and the DFB in a mutually dependent and symbiotic relationship…The best players become professional at 18, but often much younger players have training contracts with Budesliga clubs.”

The top teams, like FC Bayern Munich, one of the world’s most prominent teams, finance player development through its programs. “The revenue derived from sponsorships, merchandise and ticket sales enable FCB to fund the development of youth players and to play a role in the DFB’s commitment to social responsibility.” As an example, “We have a third-division team and about five players from the main team play in the third-division side with the rest made up with normal amateurs…We have an agreement for technical cooperation with a second division club in the suburbs of Munich. Our younger players will go there so they get good experience, and if the club has any very good players we have first option” (Gibson).

USA Basketball and the NBA need to provide the leadership and help finance the necessary infrastructure and philosophical changes so youth basketball programs are operated by basketball people, not businessmen. These changes will effect organizations currently involved with basketball development, most noticeably the NCAA, AAU and high school federations. The NCAA stands to lose millions from any major re-structuring, as March Madness is a billion-dollar cash cow. High school federations and AAU programs may capitalize on changes or suffer significant losses in their respective importance, depending on the changes. With so much at stake, immediate changes likely will be minimal. However, if a true solution is desired, the following chapter provides a proposal which would require people to shift their collective mindsets and focus on the good of basketball and the players, not just their own personal and business interests.

Any solution must aim to reach thousands of players, not just a select few. According to Thamel’s article, “Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, who attended the summit, said he was not sure an academy was an answer to youth basketball’s ills because it would accommodate only elite players.” Any solution must stretch beyond the few and reach the masses. There are three ways to reach the masses:

  1. Programs
  2. Coaching Education
  3. Research

Reinventing the entire youth development system for every player is not realistic in the short term. There is currently too much resistance to change everything built in the last 15 years. However, programs must reach beyond the top 100-150 players. And, change will occur only if programs attack the problem at the youngest ages where habits and skills form. Waiting until players reach 17-years-old and choosing the cream of the crop is not a development program; it’s a survival of the fittest all-star team comprised of players who four years ago would simply have entered the NBA draft.

Coaching education programs impact more youth players because each coach affects ten or more players. So, educating 100-150 coaches impacts 1000-1500 or more players, if the coach education program is sustainable, worthwhile and affordable. The true problem with the current system is not AAU, high school, too many games or not enough practice time. These are issues, but the most glaring deficiency is the coaches; many of the best and brightest players play on shoe-sponsored AAU teams who use marketing reps as coaches. Some are very good; Morgan State’s Head Coach Todd Bozeman coached with the DC Assault while serving his NCAA ban. However, some are more interested in promoting brand identity than developing players and recruit talented players from large geographical areas which prohibits team practice. In the 2006 World Championships, tactical skills – defensive rotations, help defense and offensive movement away from the ball – were more deficient than technical skills like shooting, passing or dribbling. The AAU system glorifies 1v1 play for exposure purposes and few teams spend enough time training together to incorporate good team concepts, so players progress with minimal understanding of playing off the ball.

If, as I propose in the following chapter, David Stern and company develop an Elite Development League and stipulate that all coaches in the EDL complete the EDL Coaching Education program, the EDL sponsors can reach hundreds more kids than by investing similar resources in a week-long camp for the elite.

Finally, any development program must encourage and incorporate research to improve and update the coaching education curriculum for all youth coaches to use with their players. This reaserch, theoretically, could trickle down to every player playing on any team or in any league in the United States. While not a direct impact, like the academy, the indirect impact and benefits reach a far larger percentage of players.

One European Academy Example: Basketball Academy Rhein Main

Chapter 14: The Elite Development League

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