Sports fans have developed a number of favorite pastimes over the years. Tailgating in the stadium parking lot before the big game. Playing armchair quarterback on Monday morning. Filling out the bracket following Selection Sunday. Bragging about your knowledge of college basketball until your bracket is busted by the same time the following weekend.
Another venture in which many observers engage are comparisons between today’s version of sport and those teams and participants of yesteryear. Magic’s Lakers vs. Lebron’s Heat. 2015 Kentucky (oops) vs. ’84 Georgetown. Tiger vs. Nicklaus. The list goes on.
Maine high school basketball is no exception. No other scholastic sport statewide draws the attention of basketball. It’s not even close. Comparing players and teams from the past to the present is such a nebulous endeavor. It’s akin to grasping at straws in thin air. What criteria is used for making such distinctions? Is it the number of players in a given year who earn scholarships to play at the next level? Such a standard rings hollow as in a good year Maine produces few Division I and II level players. How do you begin to put into context the vastness of contests played over the course of decades?
Comparisons also become difficult because our lens changes. I obviously view the game differently as an adult in my forties than I did when I first started watching games as a middle school student. Finally, our memories are not always the most accurate recorders of information. Over time we tend to forget the mundane and only remember the best of an era. There is a reason we remember the great Old Town-Bangor tilts of the early nineties, the Cindy Blodgett led Lawrence teams, and the record setting run by Valley. They stood out for their greatness but in those eras there was plenty of mediocrity as there has been during any period. Yet, if we have a season, and I believe this past one was one of those, in which we don’t experience that level of greatness, many will say basketball is down. Basically, we tend to romanticize the past as if the best was the norm, when in most cases it wasn’t
So where has the game evolved over the years? The girls game, in particular, is as strong as it’s ever been. The overall quality and athleticism is off the charts from when I first started attending games thirty years ago. In the boys ranks, the elite players stack up well against those of past eras. Over the past twenty plus years, AAU, through the vision of people such as Carl Parker, has given these players an opportunity to compete with and against other elite players. Playing with and against the highest level of competition can only make for better players.
While the quality of the best players is as good as it’s been, I question whether or not the overall product, particularly in the boys game, is as solid as in years past. Now, I’m not a Chicken Little, proposing that the sky is falling. I promise not to sound like the old curmudgeon in the corner with his worn out stereotypes of the lazy, fat kid, who eats cheese doodles and plays video games all day. Every generation has had lazy kids with a wide array of distractive pursuits. The young people I generally come in contact with are just as hard working and want the same things as kids from the past. Nor will I dump on the many fine coaches who put in yeoman’s work each year.
Looking at the game objectively there are some factors which have diminished the sport over time. Most of these reasons involve simple demographics. There are simply not as many kids as there were, say when I graduated from Bangor High School in 1990. Most of the schools Bangor competed against in basketball during that time are now playing in class B. One school, Stearns, currently plays in class D. Not only have schools been hemorrhaging enrollments over the past thirty years, many have increased their athletic offerings during this same time. Basketball, while still the main attraction, does not hold the prominent place it once did.
While in earlier periods students would participate in multiple sports, specialization has taken root, further reducing the prospective talent pool, not just for basketball, but for all sports. Hence, while the top players compete at as high a level as ever, there seems to be a lack of depth among most rosters.
Finally, there has been a major paradigm shift in how we develop players at the youth level. It used to be youngsters were taught the fundamentals of the game through the local recreation department. Games would be quite informal, with the emphasis on learning the basics and participation. Elite level travel teams have taken over youth sports, often beginning as early as the third grade. There has become a keeping up with the Jones’ mentality, not pausing long enough to evaluate the long term effectiveness of such programs.
There is also such a disparity when it comes to body development at the younger age levels. This shift really leaves out kids who may be late bloomers in life, never to get them back as they often will pursue other interests. Often these kids in the past may go past the ‘elite’ third grader physically by the time they reach high school. Now, we may never now. While we want our young people to learn the value of competition, we also need to make sure what we are teaching and exposing them to is age appropriate.
Unfortunately, in many instances team concepts seem to have replaced individual fundamental work at the lower levels. One of the reasons that scoring is down, there are a number of factors at play, but the lack of overall skill development has played a key role. It does not take nearly as much skill to play defense as it does to be a proficient offensive player.
Not to mention the cost of some of these travel teams. When you factor in the costs, many parents have a significant amount of money invested in their young offspring before they even set foot in a high school basketball practice. This emphasis on travel basketball unfortunately leaves out a number of kids who might come from a lower socioeconomic status.
With such investments made in our youth at an early age the expectations often have become too unrealistic. Many parents cannot understand why their star prodigy is not playing a key role on the high school team. Must be the coach’s fault, right? After all, my kid played elite travel basketball for the past six years. We’ve got all this money and time invested. So the refrain goes.
So yes, I would have to conclude the game of basketball, boys basketball in particular, does not hold the prominent place it once held in our sports landscape. Despite some concerns, the game still is and will continue to be worthwhile to follow.