When people think of summer basketball, one of the first things to jump to mind is the AAU, or Amateur Athletic Union. AAU basketball is widely known for being a showcase for high competition and elite athletes, many of whom eventually star in college and the pros.
Still, said Patrick Penny, vice president of the Gainesville Kings Basketball Organization, there are many different summer leagues besides the best known one.
“There’s AAU, Youth Basketball of America, USSSA. They’re all spring/summer league basketball programs, and the city of Gainesville also has a summer basketball program. So it doesn’t all fall under just AAU,” Penny said.
Penny said playing in these summer leagues can be very beneficial for players.
“Colleges don’t have a lot of time to recruit during the college season, so with AAU basketball,” he said, “it gives kids the opportunity to get looked at when the college season isn’t going on.”
The travel season typically starts in the spring and continues through the end of July or the beginning of August, with as few as 30 and potentially as many as 140 games played by a team. But some within travel basketball circles, like Dave Stirt, founder and president of the Gainesville Stampede, have said with colleges putting so much emphasis on these summer games, players are almost compelled to play for fear of not being recruited.
“You’re now putting this intense pressure on kids and parents because they’re now saying ‘if I don’t get my kid started and get him playing year round, he’s going to miss out.’”
Stirt said the pressure to commit to one sport from an early age could even lead to physical problems down the road.
“I’m a big believer and I’ve talked to other coaches and trainers and even doctors about the idea of playing a sport year round and using the same muscles, putting the same amount of pressure on the same bones—eventually kids break down,” Stirt said.
He also said it can affect a player’s psyche too.
“Even mentally. I think the idea of having someone especially at a young age, I don’t care how much you love the sport, just spending so much time on one activity and not being more well rounded, I think that’s a real detriment,” he said.
Patrick Penny said he can see how focusing on one sport could potentially be helpful but knows it isn’t always necessary.
“They become better at one sport, but I feel like kids can play multiple sports and still earn a college scholarship,” Penny said.
Dave Stirt has seen the culture around the sport change firsthand as the summer basketball circuit exploded seemingly overnight.
“It’s exploded in this town. When we started the Stampede back in ’97, there were two or three organizations. Now, I would say this town has at least 15 or 18 travel teams.”
What happened in Gainesville was just a microcosm of the rapid expansion and popularity of youth basketball across the country. And while there is a vast number of opportunities for players, Stirt said he is concerned about the kind of instruction they’re getting.
“I think that the fact that more kids get to play—I like that idea. But at the same time, instead of kids just forming a team and going out and playing, I’d like to see kids getting on a team and being coached and learning something. If you’re going to make people pay to play, you ought to teach them something.”
Yet another source of pressure for the young athletes is the great number of companies that are potentially watching their every move. Dave Stirt said many of the big shoe companies will sponsor tournaments and events with the hopes of finding their next potential marketing gem.
“You have the Nikes and the Adidas and the Reeboks come in and what used to be just elite teams at the 16 and 17 year old level, they’re now sponsoring teams all the way down to the 7th and 8th grade because they’re trying to get the next great kid,” Stirt said.
And many of the large national tournaments are shown on TV or can be streamed on websites such as ESPN3.com. This isn’t always a bad thing because as Patrick Penny said, the elite players want and thrive under that kind of exposure.
“I think they do want to be seen. If they’re talented enough they’re able to be on those teams that are going to be televised. I think it’s a good thing because as we continue to move forward in the future, that’s just how technology is. Before we didn’t have social media or high school basketball being televised but that’s the day and age we live in.”
With so much at stake, some travel organizations partake in a virtual arms race for players to get maximum sponsor and collegiate interest. But that kind of mentality is exactly what Dave Stirt wanted to avoid when he founded the Stampede.
“Instead of just trying to find whatever kids I could or do whatever we could to win, this idea which has become embedded this ‘I’m going to win at all costs’ we tried to avoid that.”
While winning at all costs may be an issue, Patrick Penny said he disagrees with the notion that the hyper-competitiveness of travel basketball is a bad thing.
“There’s nothing too competitive. Sports is competitive in nature. I don’t see the difference between that [competing in AAU] and wanting to win a state championship in high school.”
And at the end of the day, Gainesville Stampede President Dave Stirt knows the summer leagues aren’t about exposure, but rather giving the young athletes the tools they need to succeed.
“When we got started playing, I made it very clear to our kids and our parents that our job was not to try to get them scholarships but it was to get them ready for high school. So they would be fundamentally sound when they went on and have a good shot at making their team.”
Penny also said he believes the benefits of playing AAU ball far outweigh any of the perceived negative aspects.
“Playing AAU basketball will help prepare you to play middle school and high school. It affords you the opportunity to play a lot of games. We’re living in a time when kids are sitting at home playing playstation and xbox when they could be active (in programs like this).”
This idea is shared by Mike Barnes, the Kings’ treasurer and one of the coaches in the program.
“We support kids who wouldn’t normally have this opportunity or go on trips or participate in an activity like this. Us as volunteers, we do this because we love basketball and we want to get the best out of kids here in Gainesville and surrounding areas.”
Barnes takes great pride in watching how the players that come through the program develop.
“It’s cool when you see them when they’re this tall and they just keep getting bigger and bigger and they progress. You see a kid who could steal the ball all day but then go down and miss a layup every time in 6th grade and now they can come out, steal it and just dunk it on somebody. They [players who have been through the program] stand out when they’re on a high school or middle school court.”
And while the youth summer basketball season has concluded, in just a few short months, the cycle will begin again and the next generation of basketball players will go through the system.