Georgia Basketball

The "AAU Underworld"

May 29, 2018
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ATHENS - It is important, the months following the dismissal of Mark Fox, to set the record straight on “the AAU underworld” that has been written about lately. 

That’s a term the AJC’s Jeff Shultz used to describe the summer basketball circuit that is critical to college basketball recruiting. He’s not the only one mischaracterizing AAU, but he’s the most recent in this market. 

There is a major misunderstanding about AAU in the UGA community - perhaps on purpose. Years of ignorance (and it was useful to be ignorant of something that you don’t understand, and that you are not successful at) have led to a misunderstanding about the basics of college basketball recruiting. 

The FBI bombshell earlier this year proves that there is a problem with shoe companies in college athletics - basketball specifically. And that probe also gives covers to those ready to throw all of college basketball under the bus. 

“Doing it the right way” was code for “we can’t recruit the way we need to because everyone else is cheating.”

Articles like the AJC's use words like “underworld”, and that only piles on and makes thinks more cloudy to the public. Lots of schools were mentioned in the FBI probe… even more were not. All schools recruit AAU basketball players - because college basketball players play AAU - that’s the only reason why. 

Mark Fox wasn’t the only one “keeping it clean”. He was just one of the ones doing as such and not succeeding. My guess is that the coaches at St. Bonaventure, Butler, Creighton, Nevada, Providence, Rhode Island, TCU, Virginia Tech and Wichita State are “keeping it clean” as well. They just got into the NCAAs, so no one is writing about the AAU-college basketball dichotomy in their situations. 

(I don’t even know what “St. Bonaventure” is, but they managed to get into the NCAAs as an at-large team, which proves that its not at all impossible to accomplish that task without the dreaded "AAU underworld”.)

AAU is the only pipeline of basketball in the country - the only game in town. If you “don’t play the AAU game” or are not willing to venture into “the AAU underworld” you won’t be successful as a college basketball coach. 

Its sort of like being in NASCAR and complaining about realities of dealing with the erratic nature of the energy markets thanks to political entanglements of OPEC. You race cars. You need gas. No complaints needed. Just win. 

AAU certainly has its own curiosities - like shoe companies forming their own spring/summer circuits, and there not being any crossover between the Nike schedule and the Adidas one. But that AAU is not the perfect or ideal way of developing teenagers for their future should be understood. 

From time to time Churches fail at teenage development, too. 

As I have written extensively, AAU is something every single college basketball prospect plays. 

Every. 

Single. 

One.

It is a necessary part of the sport. It is, for the majority of those involved, a good thing. Even Juwan Parker played AAU basketball in Oklahoma before escaping its seedy underworld to go on to be named the 2018 SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year. 

How many kids playing AAU are being truly mischievous? (Some, but not that many) How many kids are being taken advantage of? (Some, but not that many) Why don’t we use the same sort of phrasing when talking about college football recruiting? (Probably because “mostly” white high school coaches have the most influence over players rather than “mostly” black AAU coaches). 

Also: We have allow some around us to get carried away with the notion that AAU basketball can somehow be avoided in the recruitment of anyone headed to UGA. That is a ridiculous notion. That false narrative is so poisonous to understanding the reality that is basketball at this level.

This is the SEC - not the Rehoboth Baptist Church summer league… you need players. And players play AAU. 

I played for an excellent, yet dysfunctional AAU organization. We were no where near pure, but we didn’t make a habit of breaking NCAA rules, selling players to the highest bidder or having parties with drugs, alcohol or sex. 

We had a future NBA player on our team - Washington’s Jabari Smith. We had two players who eventually played in a Super Bowls - Grady’s Earthwind Moreland (yes, that was his real name) and Crim’s Larry Brown. We also had guys who went to to start for other colleges: Georgia Southern - Grady’s Fernando Daniel; Rhode Island - Douglass’ Antonio Reynolds-Dean. 

We also had me coming off the bench to provide comic relief after we were done blowing other teams out. I did virtually nothing of significance athletically in the five years with the Atlanta Celtics organization. But when I wasn’t defending myself from having my arm hair burned off by Fernando (true story), or buying another one of my teammates (he was known as Sleepy, who played at what is now Maynard Jackson) Zima in Columbus, OH, I gained an understanding about basketball, life in poor urban areas and that people have a hard time understanding something they know nothing about. 

That last one has stuck with me the most as an adult. 

We played future NBA players like Marist’s Matt Harping and Wheeler’s Shareef Abdur-Rahim. They participated in the “AAU underworld” while at those affluent high schools. I don’t recall much being written about the underworld Shareef and Matt were forced to slog through. Perhaps that’s because it was a different time. Folks mainly just marveled at the fact that Matt had grown six inches over the summer, and suddenly become impossible to stop in the post. They seemed obsessed with the fact that Shareef had no interest playing college basketball in the South. He eventually signed with Cal before a long career in the NBA. 

AAU wasn’t a good thing for all of the folks I mentioned - it was a great thing. It gave us exposure to a world outside of inner-city Atlanta and to allow us to showcase our talents to the top coaches of the day.

It still does those things now. 

I lived in the so-called AAU underworld every summer while I was a teenager. It wasn’t much different than the tennis underworld I also inhabited - except in tennis the girls were in skirts and pretty much everyone was white. Tennis still had hustlers - lots of them. Tennis still had bad actors. We 100% still had shoe companies (Nike, Reebok, Adidas) trying to influence young people. Tennis had more crazy parents and metal breakdowns than AAU, but it was the same basic principle - sports mattered, and this was a way to get where you wanted to go. 

Every player who mattered (and a ton who didn’t) in Georgia played AAU.

That Mark Fox “admirably avoided” the AAU game (and Shultz put it) is three things…

1. Negligent if Fox really used that as a recruiting strategy

2. Why he failed 

3. A false narrative

It is that simple. 

If Kirby Smart “admirably avoided” recruiting players who go to Nike’s The Opening he would not only be living in an alternant universe (featuring Bizarro Kirby), but would also be negligent for avoiding recruiting the top players in the country. He would eventually be terminated, too. Because he wouldn’t win without the top players. 

Just ask him. 

Recruiting success = wins. “Coaching them up” is way overrated. 

I will admit that it has been frustrating to me that people don’t understand why Fox didn’t succeed. That AAU, which is usually a dog whistle for “cheating”, is being blamed as the reason why he didn't succeed is a disservice to AAU and the public. It is critical for folks to understand the truth. It is a inaccurate to blame an “underworld” of AAU for Fox’s recruiting inadequacies. 

That AAU exists hasn’t and won’t change. If you don’t want to recruit AAU players to your program I would suggest that you coach another sport - or another level of this sport. 

Its a simplistic and inaccurate way of explaining that Mark Fox was an inadequate recruiter for the position he held. Period. That’s it. Not more. Not less. His approach very well could work well at other institutions when folks don’t expect so much in terms of recruiting a surrounding area. 

Horrible human being? No. Horrible basketball coach? No. Horrible recruiter? It was a major weakness of his, and that’s why his time at Georgia left much to be desired. He was the wrong fit for a place that is blessed with an abundance of basketball talent. He can, and probably should be a great fit elsewhere. 

Now its time for two things: 1. For Tom Crean to take advantage of the outstanding AAU being played in his new back yard (several major AAU events happen in Georgia each year); 2. For the narrative about AAU to change once and for all. 

AAU isn’t the hurdle its being made out to be. It is a tool, like a ladder, to get to the next level. Its time to start using it that way.

 
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