Current, former NBA players aiming to improve AAU
DALLAS – Jason Terry has all sorts of fond memories from his AAU basketball days, like finishing fourth in the national tournament as an eighth grader and taking his first plane ride to get to other games.
So when his oldest daughter was ready to play organized basketball, he wanted her to have a great experience, too.
He just wasn’t sure AAU could provide it.
The Amateur Athletic Union was founded in 1888 to establish standards and uniformity in amateur sports. Once the driving force in U.S. Olympic efforts, its primary focus today is on youth sports and it claims more than 500,000 participants and 50,000 volunteers.
Its most high-profile efforts are in boys’ basketball, sanctioning teams, tournaments and camps that give top players a chance to show off their skills outside of their school programs – and, according to critics, also provide a fertile feeding ground for shadowy middle men to steer top young players to a particular agent, college program or athletic equipment company.
AAU basketball has changed since Terry’s days in the early 1990s. With NBA salaries skyrocketing from around $1 million then to more than $5 million, the organization is much more of a juicy target for people who want to latch onto kids in hopes of getting a piece of the action.
Terry knew about those problems and more – players jumping squads during a tournament, kids lying about their age, parents who encourage such things – because besides playing for the Dallas Mavericks, he helped train four players who recently came through the AAU system. So of course he was leery about signing up his daughter.
Then he had another idea. Why not start his own AAU program?
Terry is now among dozens, perhaps hundreds, of current and former NBA players with their own clubs, guys like LeBron James, Lamar Odom, Devin Harris and Mike Bibby.
Their motivation is simple: Giving back to the program that helped turn them into multimillionaires, while trying to improve things for the next generation – which, for guys like Terry and Bibby, includes their own children.
“We don’t want the kids to be exploited at such a young age,” Harris said. “We want … to do it the right way.”
Harris and James are among those who’ve taken over the program they came through. James – whose AAU career was documented in the movie “More Than A Game” – sponsors fifth-graders to 16-and-under.
“I wanted kids to have that same experience that me and my friends had,” he said. “If you don’t have the right support system, the right guidance running the program, then it can get really bad.”
Officials with the AAU at its headquarters in Orlando, Fla., did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment.
The NBA guys could be the perfect antidote for what ails the AAU.
With deep pockets and endless connections, they can provide quality coaches and snazzy gear, plus pay all the bills. Instead of washing cars to pay for a trip to nationals, the kids can have film sessions to work on their pick-and-roll defense.
“There’s a lot to be said about the influence we have,” said Jason Kidd, who also is getting involved. “We have all the resources.”
By providing everything kids and parents could ask for, troublemakers have nothing to use as bait.
“Once it gets to high school, it starts to get tainted – kids are trying to get scholarships and you’ve got agents and stuff involved,” Terry said. “By the time they get to ninth grade, we’ve already alerted them of what to expect.”
And by having their names on the line, they’d be foolish to let anyone get loose with the rules.
“I tell them from Day 1, ‘You are representing me,”‘ Terry said.
Kidd became hooked by talking to Terry and Robert Hackett, the Mavericks’ strength and conditioning coach and a dad-coach in Terry’s program.
Instead of starting a program, Kidd came up with a concept: Gathering every eighth-grade-and-under AAU team run by current and former NBA players for a weekend packed with tournaments for kids, seminars for parents and brainstorming sessions for the NBA guys.
With Hackett’s help, Kidd secured a Dallas-area facility in July, a few weeks after the national AAU tournament. During pregame warmups, Kidd, Terry and Hackett sidled up to friends on opposing teams and asked if they had an AAU team or knew who did.
Bibby, Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin and Brandon Bass were among the verbal commitments. Even if only a handful of local teams show up, it’s a start.
“As the years go on,” Kidd said, “we’ll get it bigger and bigger.”
Terry hopes his program becomes a model. He has four teams: sixth- and third-grade girls, fifth- and fourth-grade boys.
Terry coaches the sixth-graders whenever he can. Ditto for Hackett and his son’s team. Former NBA player Darvin Ham is another dad-coach.
The program has taken off this year.
The fifth-graders became the first tournament winners. Although Terry missed it, a picture of the kids and their trophy hangs in his Mavs locker. He was there a few weeks later when the sixth-graders won their first title, rallying from 18 points down against a team they’d lost to by 40.
“Jason sprinted around the court like he’d just won an NBA championship, he was just so proud of the girls,” said Christie Foy, whose oldest daughter has been involved from the start. “I get goose bumps thinking about it. To have a coach – whether he’s an NBA player or not – have that much faith in you and support for you and enthusiasm in what you’re doing, it’s gone a long way with them.”
Terry also took the kids to feed the homeless in December and is going to require two community service projects a year. He checks their report cards and hopes to add a regular study hall, with tutors.
“Not only are we teaching these kids basketball, but it’s more about life lessons, I guess you could say,” Terry said. “All the kids that come through my program, I want them to one day be role models for someone else.”
– AP sportswriters Tom Withers in Cleveland, Beth Harris in Los Angeles, Chris Jenkins in Milwaukee and freelancer Amy Jinkner-Lloyd in Atlanta contributed.
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