Developing Basketball in the Developing World

When I wrote Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development in 2006 (and previous articles about the basketball system), I focused on basketball in the U.S., as I witnessed or heard about many of the events chronicled in George Dohrmann’s Play Their Hearts Out, but was interested more in solutions than recitations. I was not reacting to poor performances by the Senior Men’s National Team in 2002 and 2004, as I had ranted about problems with the development system since 1999. Despite the hiccups, I did not believe that the U.S. had to do much differently to remain the preeminent basketball nation: History, population, money, diversity, opportunity, etc. almost ensures international success.

Instead, I argued that our goal should be to create the best possible system for developing basketball players, not just one that was good enough. Unfortunately, good is the enemy of great, and the current system is good enough to prevent sweeping changes.

Among other things, I was taken aback when I attended the Pete Newell Big Man Camp (generally regarded as one of the two best camps for college/pro players in the U.S. along with Tim Grgurich’s) about a decade ago and saw high Division 1 post players who could not execute an inside pivot. Even worse, some of the instructors, former NBA players, could not demonstrate the moves without traveling. Regardless of international results, this was a red flag for me.

Elite athletes and former NBA players and now NBA coaches struggled to do simple movements that I would have expected a 10-year-old to be able to do. What were we doing that allowed players to reach an elite level without being able to make an inside pivot and how were coaches getting hired to coach at the highest levels who could not demonstrate very basic moves? Why were more people not worried about this? It’s not about winning games or providing enough NBA stars: It’s about the teaching of the game, our expectations for players, and our attitude toward coaching.

In a sense, the last six years advocating for changes in the U.S. have been wasted. In the end, it does not matter. Regardless of where players play, how much they play, whether high school or AAU is better, whether a one-year age limit for the NBA is good, etc., the system is good enough.

Sure, it emphasizes the early bloomer and encourages parents to holdback children to create size advantages and promotes transferring teams or high schools for more playing time, better coaching, or whatever. With a country this big, and the money involved, these problems are likely to persist in any system.

There are problems, like disappearing developmentally-oriented youth programs, but individual skills trainers have filled the void and created a market that helps to sustain the more competitive-driven programs. Of course it is ridiculous for an 8-year-old to need a personal trainer to practice basketball skills, but as problems go, that is fairly minor.

Instead of focusing on the U.S., I should have devoted my attention to the developing world. While football rules, there is interest in basketball, and developing basketball in the developing world, within its constraints, is a more interesting problem to solve.

When I speak to coaches from Africa or the Caribbean or Asia, I am quick to remind them that I do not know the specific constraints of their country. From afar, I cannot offer more than ideas which they have to manipulate to fit within their environment. Ideas that may have worked in South Africa may not work in Ghana or India. China has far different problems than Trinidad & Tobago. Solving these problems and actually seeing things develop is more interesting to me than watching the survival of the fittest develop into stars in the U.S. In a sense, I have always liked the building (of a player, a team, a program) more than the sustaining. Each has its own challenges, but the building and the developing appeal more to me, my personality, and my skills.

I enjoy the challenge of working with individuals in the U.S. to help them maximize their individual abilities, but examining complex issues and lack of resources to maximize a developing nation’s national team success is a more exciting problem and probably more in tuned with the way that my mind works.

Ghana starts the u18 African Championships today. Until yesterday, it was not a guarantee that the team would make the trip. There were many problems, and many frustrations for everyone involved, from the Technical Director to the current coach to the former coach to the players. Problems abound for basketball in Ghana where it is easier to find wireless 3G than running hot water, and people depend on an unorganized, yet highly efficient transportation system to navigate the sprawling city of Accra.

Despite these issues, there is plenty of hope for basketball. Firstly, the u18s managed to qualify for the African Championships, the first time that a team from Ghana has played at the continental level in men’s basketball. There are players with some size; Ghana is by no means Senegal or Nigeria or the southern Sudan in terms of size, but it’s not Japan either. There are young, energetic coaches with dreams for basketball in Ghana. There are courts and leagues and balls. There are many interested players.

The challenge is maximizing those positives: How to develop players with some height? How to nurture and develop coaches? How to maximize the use of the courts? How to create more leagues and competitions? How to provide more opportunities for more players? How to provide opportunities to younger players?

These are challenges worth solving. The challenges are interesting to me. With a smaller country (compared to the U.S.) can you create a true development program (as Canada is trying to do) that meets the needs of all participants, whether recreational or elite players, coaches, administrators, etc.? That’s an interesting goal. Can such a program enable a country to punch above its weight class in international competition, much like Lithuania has managed to do over the last 20 years? That’s an intriguing challenge.

If winning international competitions and sustaining the NBA is the end goal for basketball in the U.S., problem solved. That’s far less interesting than watching Canada attempt to remodel its entire offering of basketball programs to enable a relatively small country in terms of population to compete with much larger nations.

I still think Cross Over provides good information for coaches and parents, and a good template for youth organizations. However, I think it’s ideas are more adaptable and maybe more useful in countries where basketball has not yet developed fully, and there is time to shape its evolution from the federation and the grassroots levels.

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